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Cabrera v. Medeiros

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 8, 2017

JOSE CABRERA, Petitioner,
SEAN MEDEIROS, Respondent.


          Denise J. Casper United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Petitioner Jose Cabrera (“Cabrera”) has filed a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus (“Petition”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging various constitutional violations in connection with his 2011 conviction for second-degree murder. D. 1. Respondent Sean Medeiros (“Medeiros”), the Superintendent of MCI-Norfolk, opposes the Petition on the bases that Cabrera's grounds for habeas relief either have been waived or fail on the merits. D. 23 at 3. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Cabrera's Petition, D. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), a federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus if the state-court adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). “A state court decision is contrary to clearly established federal law only if the state court ‘arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.'” Restucci v. Spencer, 249 F.Supp.2d 33, 42 (D. Mass. 2003) (alternations in original) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000)). As the Supreme Court has clarified, this does not requires that a state court “cite or even be aware of [the Supreme Court's] cases.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98 (2011) (citing Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002) (per curiam)). Rather, a state-court decision is not susceptible to a habeas challenge “so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts [Supreme Court precedent].” Early, 537 U.S. at 8.

         A state court decision is an “unreasonable application” of federal law “if the state court identifie[d] the correct governing legal rule from [the Supreme] Court's cases but unreasonably applie[d] it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 407. Accordingly, a federal court may only grant habeas relief if “the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103. In sum, the AEDPA “erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court.” Burt v. Titlow, __ U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 10, 16 (2013).

         III. Factual and Procedural Background

         On November 1, 2008, Tony Pich (“Pich”) was killed in a gang-related shooting in Lynn, Massachusetts. S.A. at 124-29.[1] Two days after the shooting, on November 3, 2008, the Lynn Police interviewed eleven-year-old Randy Seang (“Seang”) who had been at the same house as Pich at the time of the shooting. D. 2-1 at 2. During the interview, Seang identified Cabrera as Pich's shooter to Detective Stephen Withrow (“Detective Withrow”). Id. Seang told Detective Withrow that he was “100 percent sure” that Cabrera had been the shooter and that he had also heard from other individuals that Cabrera had been the shooter. Id. at 2-3. Three days later, on November 6, 2008, Lynn Police interviewed Cabrera at the Lynn Police Department. S.A. at 65-69. At the end of the interview, Lynn Police arrested Cabrera for the murder of Pich. Id. On January 2, 2009, an Essex County grand jury indicted Cabrera for first-degree murder. S.A. 89.

         Prior to trial, Cabrera moved to suppress certain evidence, including the statements he had made to Lynn Police during the November 6, 2008 interview. Id. at 101-05. After a hearing that spanned several days in July and August 2010, the Essex Superior Court (“trial court”) denied Cabrera's motion to suppress his statements to Lynn Police. Id. at 84, 118. His jury trial commenced on January 4, 2011. S.A. at 93. At trial, Seang disavowed his prior identification of Cabrera as Pich's shooter. D. 2-1 at 2. Seang not only provided a different account of his whereabouts at the time of the shooting, but he claimed that he did not remember the interview he gave to Lynn Police on November 3, 2008. Id. Over the objection of Cabrera's trial counsel, Detective Withrow subsequently testified to Seang's prior identification of Cabrera as the shooter, including Seang's claim that he was “100 percent sure” it had been Cabrera. Id. Detective Withrow also testified to Seang's prior claim that he had heard from other individuals in the community that Cabrera had been Pich's shooter. Id. at 3. Cabrera's trial counsel objected to this particular statement as inadmissible hearsay and simultaneously moved for a mistrial. Id. The trial court sustained the objection and instructed the jury to disregard that piece of testimony, but ultimately denied Cabrera's motion for a mistrial. Id. On February 11, 2011, the jury found Cabrera guilty of the lesser included charge of second-degree murder and the trial court sentenced Cabrera to life imprisonment. D. 1 at 1; S.A. at 99.

         Cabrera filed a timely notice of appeal of his conviction with the Massachusetts Appeals Court (“Appeals Court”). S.A. at 9, 11. On March 18, 2014, the Appeals Court upheld Cabrera's conviction. D. 1 at 2. Cabrera then filed an application for further appellate review with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but that court denied his application on July 30, 2014. Id. Cabrera filed the instant Petition, challenging the state court conviction with this Court on October 26, 2015.[2] D. 1. Medeiros opposes the Petition. D. 15, 23.

         IV. Discussion

         A. The Trial Court Did Not Violate Cabrera's Right to Confrontation

         Cabrera first asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the trial court violated his right to confrontation by allowing Detective Withrow to testify as to Seang's out-of-court identification of Cabrera as Pich's shooter. The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” U.S. Const. amend. VI. The Confrontation Clause requires that criminal defendants be provided “an adequate opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses.” United States v. Owens, 484 U.S. 554, 557 (1988). In the instant case, Cabrera objects to Detective Withrow's testimony that Seang claimed to be “100 percent sure” that Cabrera was the shooter. D. 1 at 5. Although Cabrera concedes that Seang testified at trial-and so was available to be cross-examined-Cabrera argues that Seang's conduct on the witness stand effectively precluded his trial counsel from cross-examining Seang as to the identification, such that Detective Withrow's testimony should have been excluded because Seang was essentially “unavailable” for cross-examination. D. 2 at 6 (citing Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 68 (2004)).

         The Appeals Court nevertheless affirmed the trial court's decision to admit Detective Withrow's testimony, resting its decision on Commonwealth v. Cong Duc Le, 444 Mass. 431 (2005). Cong Duc Le presented a similar set of facts and the Supreme Judicial Court in that case held that a prior identification is admissible even when the identifying witness subsequently denies the prior identification. Id. at 438. Accordingly, the Appeals Court concluded that the Confrontation Clause requires only an opportunity for a criminal defendant to cross-examine a witness regarding his extrajudicial statement. D. 2-1 at 3. Because the trial court “did not limit the scope of [Cabrera's] cross-examination of Seang, nor was it impeded by the assertion of a privilege, ” Cabrera's confrontation right was not violated. Id. Indeed, as the Appeals Court observed, “the most successful cross-examination at the time the prior statement was made could hardly hope to accomplish more than ha[d] already been accomplished by the fact that the witness is now telling a different, inconsistent story.” Id. (alteration in ...

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