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Lavoie v. Mendonsa

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 20, 2016

MATTHEW G. LAVOIE, Petitioner,


          INDIRA TALWANI, District Judge.

         Petitioner Matthew Lavoie ("Lavoie" or "Petitioner") has filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus [#1]. Lavoie contends that his conviction and incarceration for murder violate federal law because (1) he was denied his right to a public trial under the Sixth Amendment when his trial counsel decided not to object to the closure of the courtroom for two days during jury voir dire proceedings without Lavoie's knowing assent, and (2) he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel when his trial counsel did not object to the courtroom closure. For the following reason, the petition is DENIED.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In May 2001, Lavoie was indicted by a Middlesex County grand jury for the murder of Westley Vaanen and for the unlawful possession of a firearm. Suppl. Answer ("S.A.") 70, 72 [#15]. Vaanen was shot three times and died on March 7, 2001. Id. at 23. At the time of his death, Vaanen lived with Kevin Fuller and Fuller's girlfriend, Samantha Litalien. Id . In the weeks prior to Vaanen's death, Lavoie stayed at the residence for roughly four nights each week. Id . After Vaanen's death, Fuller took money and cocaine from Vaanen's pockets and split it with Litalien and Lavoie. Id . Fuller, Litalien, and Lavoie disposed of Vaanen's body and evidence of the murder. Id . After his arrest, Lavoie first maintained to police that he did not kill Vaanen but assisted Fuller in disposing of the body and evidence. Id. at 23-24. After a break in the interview with police, Lavoie admitted that Fuller had given him the gun and that he had shot Vaanen. Id. at 24.

         The jury voir dire process in Lavoie's murder trial took place on November 20, 2003, and November 24, 2003. S.A. 216-17. On both days court officers told Lavoie's family members to leave the courtroom when the potential jury members entered and informed Lavoie's family that they could reenter when the jury had been chosen. Id. at 216, 219. The trial court had not ordered the courtroom closed, had not received a request that the courtroom be closed, and was not aware that the courtroom had in fact been closed to Lavoie's family. Id. at 219.

         On December 16, 2003, the jury found Lavoie guilty of second-degree murder. Id. at 215.[1] On November 9, 2006, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts denied his appeal and also upheld the denial of his motion for a new trial. Id .; Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 856 N.E.2d 917 (Mass.App.Ct. 2006) (table). The Supreme Judicial Court denied further review on February 1, 2007. S.A. 215; Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 861 N.E.2d 28 (Mass. 2007) (table).

         On December 31, 2007, Lavoie filed a second motion for a new trial on the grounds that his right to a public trial under the Sixth Amendment had been violated when the courtroom was closed to the public during jury voir dire, his counsel did not object, and Lavoie did not give his knowing waiver. S.A. 215. The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing on August 28, 2008 and September 11, 2008, after which the trial judge found it "likely" that Lavoie's trial attorney knew about Lavoie's right to a public trial and that he did not discuss that right with Lavoie. Id. at 219.[2] Although Lavoie's trial attorney did not specifically remember Lavoie's family being excluded, he testified that "as a matter of practice" he did not object to family members being asked to leave the courtroom and in fact preferred that family members not be in the courtroom during jury selection so they might not comingle with jurors. Id. at 220. Furthermore, although Lavoie's trial attorney did not recall the specific exclusion in this case, he did remember his belief that Lavoie's mother was an "emotional individual" who may have been a "distraction." Id . The trial judge concluded that Lavoie's trial attorney had "consciously decided" to not object to the removal of Lavoie's family during jury selection. Id.

         The trial court denied Lavoie's petition on April 2, 2009. Id . The trial court found that the courtroom had been closed to the public in violation of Lavoie's Sixth Amendment right and also held that Lavoie had not waived his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Id. at 225-26. However, the trial court also held that Lavoie's trial counsel's decision not to object was "not an unreasonable tactical decision" and that the courtroom closure "did not materially impact the defendant's case or materially influence the verdict, " and concluded that therefore Lavoie was not entitled to a new trial. Id. at 229. Lavoie appealed the trial court's decision on April 14, 2009. Id. at 21.

         On October 3, 2011, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reversed the trial court and remanded the case to the Superior Court. Id. at 282; Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 954 N.E.2d 547 (Mass.App.Ct. 2011). The Appeals Court noted the trial court's determinations that the courtroom was closed and that Lavoie did not knowingly waive his Sixth Amendment rights. S.A. 284-87; Lavoie, 954 N.E.2d at 550-55. Based on Appeals Court precedent, including Commonwealth v. Edward, 912 N.E.2d 515 (Mass.App.Ct. 2009), which post-dated the trial court decision, the Appeals Court held that the right to a public trial can only be waived with the defendant's "personal, knowing assent." S.A. 287, 290; Lavoie, 954 N.E.2d at 554-55 & nn.10-12. The Commonwealth applied to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ("SJC") for leave to obtain further appellate review and the SJC granted the application on November 30, 2011. S.A. 320; Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 958 N.E.2d 529 (Mass. 2011) (table).

         The SJC affirmed the trial court's order denying a new trial on January 11, 2013. S.A. 578; Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 981 N.E.2d 192 (Mass. 2013). The SJC explained that, although the Appeals Court had previously held that a knowing waiver from the defendant was required to waive a Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, that issue had never been before the SJC. S.A. 582; Lavoie, 981 N.E.2d at 197-98. The SJC then held that Lavoie had waived his right to a public trial through his counsel's failure to object and deemed his counsel's decision to be "tactical." S.A. 582; Lavoie, 981 N.E.2d at 198. Furthermore, the SJC agreed with the trial court that the decision by Lavoie's trial counsel not to object was "not manifestly unreasonable when made" and therefore Lavoie's ineffective assistance of counsel claim failed as well. S.A. 582-83; Lavoie, 981 N.E.2d at 198-99.

         Lavoie filed the instant Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus [#1] on April 18, 2013.

         II. Standard of Review

         The court's review of the habeas petition is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). Under AEDPA, if a state court has adjudicated a claim on the merits, the federal habeas court must defer to that adjudication unless it (1) "resulted in a decision contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " or (2) "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A federal court must review de novo any federal claim not reviewed by the state court on the merits. See Clements v. Clarke, 592 F.3d 45, 52 (1st Cir. 2010).

         A claim is "adjudicated on the merits" if there is a "decision finally resolving the parties' claims, with res judicata effect, that is based on the substance of the claim advanced, rather than on a procedural, or other, ground." Teti v. Bender, 507 F.3d 50, 56 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 311 (2d Cir. 2001)). A state court need not explain the disposition or necessarily provide citations to federal law in order to adjudicate a federal constitutional claim "on the merits." See Zuluaga v. Spencer, 585 F.3d 27, 29-32 (1st Cir. 2009); see also Clements, 592 F.3d at 53-54 (a state court's reference to state court decisions that themselves deal with federal constitutional issues may be sufficient to trigger deferential review under AEDPA). Indeed, if a petitioner presents a federal claim to a state court and the state court denies relief, it is "presumed that the state court ...

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