United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS
CORPUS (DOC. NO. 1)
Sorokin United States District Judge
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.
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
S.A. at 7-8. 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
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. Id.
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.
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.
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. Torres's claims have been fully
briefed and are ripe for disposition.
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).
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
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).
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”).
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