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Torres v. Roden

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 13, 2017

FELIX TORRES, Petitioner,
GARY RODEN, Respondent.


          Leo T. Sorokin United States District Judge

         Felix Torres, a prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Massachusetts, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He asserts two claims: one related to the alleged closure of the courtroom during jury selection at his trial, and one challenging the admission of “first complaint” evidence under Massachusetts evidentiary rules during his trial. The respondent has opposed the petition, arguing Torres's claims are meritless and non-cognizable, respectively. For the reasons that follow, Torres's petition is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In August 2008, a Worcester County Superior Court jury convicted Torres of multiple counts of rape and indecent assault and battery of a child. Commonwealth v. Torres, 15 N.E.3d 778, 781 (Mass. App. Ct. 2014); Doc. No. 1 at 2-3;[1] S.A. at 7-8.[2] He was sentenced to a term of nine-to-twelve years' incarceration, followed by a term of probation. Doc. No. 1 at 2; S.A. at 8. The charges stemmed from Torres's alleged sexual assaults of his daughter, Kim, and two of Kim's maternal aunts, Nina and Ann.[3] Torres, 15 N.E.3d at 781. The victims first disclosed the assaults after learning that Kim's stepsister had been sexually abused by Kim's maternal grandfather. Id. at 781-82. The disclosures occurred during a family meeting held to discuss the allegations against Kim's grandfather; the meeting included all three victims, Kim's mother, Kim's grandmother, and another of Kim's maternal aunts. Id. After the meeting, the family reported the allegations against Torres and Kim's grandfather to the police.[4] Id.

         At trial, the Commonwealth called all three victims to testify. Id. at 781. It also presented testimony from one “first-complaint witness” for each victim. Id. at 783. Ann testified about her own abuse, and as the first-complaint witness for Kim; Nina's sister testified as the first-complaint witness for Nina; and Kim's mother testified as the first-complaint witness for Ann. See Doc. No. 28 at 40-42 (summarizing the relevant testimony with citations to the trial transcript). Each victim and first-complaint witness testified, at least to some extent, about the family meeting and the revelations of abuse made during the course thereof. Id. The trial court gave a limiting instruction during the testimony of each of the three first-complaint witnesses. Torres, 15 N.E.3d at 783. The first-complaint doctrine will be described in more detail below.

         Torres filed a timely notice of appeal to the Massachusetts Appeals Court (“MAC”), then, with the assistance of new counsel, moved for a new trial in January 2011 based on an alleged violation of his right to a public trial. S.A. at 8-9; Torres, 15 N.E.3d at 782. After a two-day evidentiary hearing featuring testimony by Torres, two of his family members, his trial counsel, and two court officers, the trial court denied Torres's motion. Torres, 15 N.E.3d at 782; Doc. No. 1-1 at 8-15. The MAC affirmed in a published decision on September 10, 2014, rejecting Torres's public-trial claim, his attack on the admission of first-complaint evidence, and two other claims raised in his consolidated appeal which are not relevant here. See generally Torres, 15 N.E.3d at 782-86.

         The Supreme Judicial Court declined Torres's application for further review on November 26, 2014. S.A. at 447. Torres did not seek certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. He filed a timely federal habeas petition in this Court on October 19, 2015, raising the following claims:

1) Torres's constitutional right to a public trial was violated during jury selection when the public, including members of his family, were excluded from the courtroom, and the trial court's finding that the courtroom was open was an unreasonable determination of the facts; and
2) The trial court applied the Massachusetts “first complaint” doctrine in an arbitrary and capricious manner, violating Torres's due process rights.

Doc. No. 1 at 6, 8.[5] Torres's claims have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.


         Federal district courts may not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless they find that the state court's adjudication of the petitioner's claims “(1) 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[, ] 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). In other words, state court decisions merit substantial deference. As the Supreme Court repeatedly has emphasized, such deference results in a federal habeas corpus standard that is “difficult to meet, ” with the petitioner carrying a heavy burden of proof. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011); accord Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011); see Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 15-16 (2013) (emphasizing the “formidable barrier” faced by federal habeas petitioner where claims already were adjudicated in state court, and limiting relief to cases of “extreme malfunctions” by state criminal justice systems).

         If a state court's decision “was reasonable, it cannot be disturbed” on habeas review. Hardy v. Cross, 565 U.S. 65, 72 (2011) (per curiam); see Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 779 (2010) (admonishing federal habeas courts not to “second-guess the reasonable decisions of state courts”). When applying this strict standard, federal courts must presume that the state court's factual findings are correct, unless the petitioner has rebutted that presumption with clear and convincing evidence. § 2254(e)(1); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322');">537 U.S. 322, 340-41 (2003); accord Teti v. Bender, 507 F.3d 50, 57 (1st Cir. 2007); see Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam) (noting “federal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by overturning their decisions only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were wrong”); Pike v. Guarino, 492 F.3d 61, 68 (1st Cir. 2007) (discussing the “separate and exacting standard applicable to review of a state court's factual findings”).

         A state court ruling is “contrary to” clearly established Supreme Court precedent “if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases, ” or “if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [its] precedent.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). The state court is not required to cite, or even have an awareness of, governing Supreme Court precedents, “so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of [its] decision contradicts them.” Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002); cf. Richter, 562 U.S. at 100 (stating “§ 2254(d) does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been ‘adjudicated on the merits'” and entitled to deference).

         For a habeas petitioner to prevail under this exacting standard, the state court judgment must contradict clearly established holdings of the Supreme Court, not merely law articulated by a lower federal court, and not dicta of any court. Williams, 529 U.S. at 404-05; accord Donald, 135 S.Ct. at 1376; Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009). The Supreme Court has “repeatedly emphasized” that “circuit precedent does not constitute ‘clearly established Federal law'” for purposes of § 2254(d)(1). Glebe v. Frost, 135 S.Ct. 429, 431 (2014); see also, e.g., Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 64 (2013) (warning against using circuit precedent to “refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that th[e] [Supreme] Court has not announced”).

         A state court decision constitutes an “unreasonable application” of Supreme Court precedent if it identifies the correct governing legal rule, but “unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 407-08. When making the “unreasonable application” inquiry, federal habeas courts must determine “whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable.” Id. at 409. An unreasonable application of the correct rule can include the unreasonable extension of that rule to a new context where it should not apply, as well as an unreasonable failure to extend the rule to a new context where it should apply. Id. at 407. It cannot, however, include a decision by a state court not “to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely ...

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