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Trower v. Dematteis

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 26, 2019

CLAIRE DEMATTEIS, Commissioner, Delaware Department of Corrections, ALAN GRINSTEAD, Bureau Chief, and ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE, Respondents.[1]

          James B. O'Neill, Office of Defense Services for the State of Delaware, Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for Petitioner.

          Brian L. Arban, Deputy Attorney General, Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware. Counsel for Respondents.



         Pending before the Court is an Application For A Writ Of Habeas Corpus Pursuant To 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ("Petition") filed by Petitioner Elliott Owens. (D.I. 2) The State filed an Answer in opposition, to which Petitioner filed a Reply. (D.I. 9; D.I. 13) For the reasons discussed, the Court will dismiss the Petition and deny the relief requested.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 14, 2014, Petitioner pled guilty to drug dealing and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony ("PFDCF"). (D.I. 9 at 1) The Superior Court immediately sentenced Petitioner on the drug dealing charge to eight years at Level V, suspended after six months for six months at Level IV, followed by one year at Level III probation. Petitioner was sentenced on the PFDCF charge to three years at Level V. (D.I. 9 at 2) He did not file a direct appeal.

         On March 5, 2014, Petitioner filed a pro se motion to clarify and reduce his sentence, which the Superior Court denied on March 20, 2014. (D.I. 9 at 2)

         On April 30, 2014, Delaware's Office of Defense Services ("OPD") filed a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 ("Rule 61 motion") on Petitioner's behalf. The Superior Court denied the motion on April 20, 2015, and denied his motion for reargument on June 17, 2015. (D.I. 8 at 2); see State v. Anderson et al, 2015 WL 2067158 (Del. Super. Ct. Apr. 20, 2015); State v. Banks, 2015 WL 4400130 (Del. Super. Ct. June 17, 2015). The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed that decision on December 9, 2015. (D.I. 8 at 2); see Banks v. State, 129 A.3d 881 (Table), 2015 WL 8481972 (Del. Dec. 9, 2015).

         On September 21, 2016, the OPD filed a § 2254 Petition on Petitioner's behalf, asserting that Petitioner's lack of knowledge of an evidence scandal at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ("OCME") was material to his decision to plead guilty and, therefore, his guilty plea was involuntary pursuant to Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970). (D.I. 2) Petitioner also argues that the Delaware Supreme Court made unreasonable findings of fact during his post-conviction appeal regarding OCME misconduct. The State filed an Answer asserting that the Petition should be dismissed as meritless. (D.I. 9) Petitioner filed a Reply arguing that the Petition warrants habeas relief. (D.I. 13)


         The relevant information regarding the OCME evidence mishandling is set forth below:

In February 2014, the Delaware State Police ("DSP") and the Department of Justice ("DO J") began an investigation into criminal misconduct occurring in the Controlled Substances Unit of the OCME.
The investigation revealed that some drug evidence sent to the OCME for testing had been stolen by OCME employees in some cases and was unaccounted for in other cases. Oversight of the lab had been lacking, and security procedures had not been followed. One employee was accused of "dry labbing" (or declaring a test result without actually conducting a test of the evidence) in several cases. Although the investigation remains ongoing, to date, three OCME employees have been suspended (two of those employees have been criminally indicted), and the Chief Medical Examiner has been fired.
There is no evidence to suggest that OCME employees tampered with drug evidence by adding known controlled substances to the evidence they received for testing in order to achieve positive results and secure convictions. That is, there is no evidence that the OCME staff "planted" evidence to wrongly obtain convictions. Rather, the employees who stole the evidence did so because it in fact consisted of illegal narcotics that they could resell or take for personal use.

Brown v. State, 108 A.3d 1201, 1204-05 (Del. 2015).


         When a state's highest court has adjudicated a federal habeas claim on the merits, the federal court must review the claim under the deferential standard contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A claim has been "adjudicated on the merits" for the purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) if the state court decision finally resolves the claim on the basis of its substance, rather than on a procedural or some other ground. See Thomas v. Horn, 570 F.3d 105, 115 (3d Cir. 2009). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), federal habeas relief may only be granted if the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " or the state court's decision was an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence adduced in the trial. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) & (2); see also Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). This deferential standard of § 2254(d) applies even "when a state court order is unaccompanied by an opinion explaining the reasons relief has been denied." As recently explained by the Supreme Court, "it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98-100 (2011).

         Finally, a federal court must presume that the state court's determinations of factual issues are correct. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Appel, 250 F.3d at 210. This presumption of correctness applies to both explicit and implicit findings of fact, and is only rebutted by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Campbell v. Vaughn, 209 F.3d 280, 286 (3d Cir. 2000); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 341 (2003) (stating that the clear and convincing standard in § 2254(e)(1) applies to factual issues, whereas the unreasonable application standard of § 2254(d)(2) applies to factual decisions).


         A. Claim One: Unreasonable Application of Brady v. United States.

         In his introduction to Claim One, Petitioner asserts that:

The Delaware Supreme Court unreasonably failed to identify and/or apply the overarching federal law governing the voluntariness of a guilty plea. Nowhere in its decision did the court even cite to any federal law - constitutional or otherwise. Accordingly, it made no findings of fact specific to [Petitioner's] case and conducted no voluntariness analysis. Instead, the court simply cited to its prior decisions, notably Aricidiacono v. State, and concluded that [Petitioner] was not entitled to relief because he did not plead any basis to avoid the effect of his voluntary and knowing plea of guilty and he has not suffered an unjust conviction. To the extent the court's decision could be construed as incorporating the law and facts from Aricidiacono by reference, it incorporated an unreasonable application of well-established Federal law.

(D.I. 7 at 7)

         The Court rejects Petitioner's argument that the Delaware Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law by citing to Aricidiacono v. State, 125 A.3d 677 (Del. 2015) rather than directly to Brady v. United States. The Delaware Supreme Court's Aricidiacono decision properly cites and articulates Brady v. United States' standard for determining the voluntariness of guilty pleas. See Aricidiacono, 125 A.3d at 679. By citing and applying Aricidiacono when denying Petitioner's Brady v. United States argument, the Delaware Supreme Court appropriately relied on Delaware caselaw articulating the proper federal standard applicable to Petitioner's claim. See Fahy v. Horn, 516 F.3d 169, 196 (3d Cir. 2008) (finding that Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decision was not "contrary to" clearly established federal law because it appropriately relied on its own state court cases which articulated the proper standard derived from Supreme Court precedent). Thus, the issue as to whether the Delaware Supreme Court unreasonably applied Brady v. United States in holding that Petitioner's plea was not rendered involuntary by his lack of knowledge about, and the State's late disclosure of, the OCME misconduct is properly before the Court.

         In Claim One, Petitioner contends that the Delaware Supreme Court did not comply with Brady v. State's requirement that "all of the relevant circumstances surrounding" the plea must be considered when assessing if his plea was voluntary. (D.I. 7 at 20) He asserts that the Delaware Supreme Court erred by focusing on Petitioner's admission of guilt during the plea colloquy, contending that a "defendant's recitals on the record at the time he entered his guilty plea do not foreclose proof at a later time that those themselves were involuntary, " and "the assessment of such proof does not involve any question of guilt or innocence." (D.I. 7 at 20) Specifically, he alleges that:

In addition to the OCME misconduct itself, the State's failure to disclose that misconduct can render an otherwise voluntary plea involuntary. Each individual prosecutor has a duty to learn of any favorable evidence known to others acting on the government's behalf in the case, including police. This duty extends beyond police to any investigating agency. The state court previously found and the State conceded that evidence of the misconduct at [the] OCME was Brady v. Maryland material[2] in that it was relevant to impeachment. [Petitioner] pled on the day scheduled for jury trial, the day by which the State was required to be prepared to prove its case against [Petitioner] and to produce any Brady material. Yet, [Petitioner] was not provided with any evidence regarding the OCME misconduct. Thus, even if he had not seen a report before he entered his plea, he was misled to believe he had no basis to seriously challenge the veracity of a State chemist and his/her lab report. This, in turn, misled [Petitioner] to believe that the State's case was strong.

(D.I. 7 at 30)

         Citing to the First Circuit's decision in Ferrara v. United States,456 F.3d 278 (1st Cir. 2006), Petitioner asserts that the OCME misconduct rendered his guilty plea involuntary because it was egregious, antedated Petitioner's plea, is imputed to the State, and was material to Petitioner's choice to plead guilty.[3] (D.I. 7 at 28-34) In Ferrara, the First Circuit held that a defendant may "collaterally attack his sentence on the ground that his guilty plea was not knowing or voluntary if his claim is based on evidence not available to him at the time of the plea, " without distinguishing between evidence that is newly discovered and evidence that was withheld as a result of a Brady v. Maryland violation. Ferrara, 456 F.3d at 289. The Ferrara Court established a two-pronged test for determining if a defendant has a right to rescind his guilty plea because of newly discovered government misconduct: (1) egregious ...

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