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Scesny v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 3, 2018

ALEX SCESNY, Petitioner,
KELLY RYAN, Respondent.



         This is a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). In October 1996, the body of Theresa Stone was discovered by the side of a road in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Sixteen years later, on March 29, 2012, petitioner Alex Scesny was convicted of murder and aggravated rape in Massachusetts state court. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On July 14, 2015, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) affirmed the murder conviction, although it reversed the rape conviction on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the verdict.

         Petitioner asserts seven grounds for habeas relief: (1) constitutional insufficiency of evidence; (2) improper admission of expert testimony by an unqualified witness; (3) improper admission of hearsay evidence in violation of the Sixth Amendment; (4) improper admission of photograph and eyewitness testimony occurring twelve years after the crime; (5) improper closing arguments by the prosecutor that damaged his ability to present a defense, misstated the law, and violated his constitutional rights; (6) improper refusal to give his proposed jury instruction on third-party culprit evidence; and (7) the totality of the errors resulted in insufficient evidence to support his conviction. Respondent's subsequent filings, and this Court's preliminary rulings, have treated grounds (1) and (7) as the same issue, and they will continue to be treated as such here.

         For the reasons set forth below, the petition will be denied.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The facts of the crimes for which petitioner was convicted are set out in detail in the decision by the SJC. See Commonwealth v. Scesny, 472 Mass. 185 (2015). Briefly, they are as follows:

The victim's daughter saw her leave home to buy groceries on the evening of October 23, 1996. Id. at 187. She stopped off at a bar for some drinks and talked for about an hour with the bartender before leaving alone. Id. When she returned to her apartment with groceries, she told her daughter that she had received a ride from a man in a black truck and that she did not want to go with him, but he was waiting for her. Id. Between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. she left her apartment. She was never seen by her daughter again. Id. On October 25, 1996, her body was discovered on the side of the road in Fitchburg. A post-mortem examination revealed, among other things, that she had been strangled and that she had had anal intercourse around the time of death. Id. at 187-88.

         The crime remained unsolved for twelve years. In 2008, the petitioner's DNA profile was entered into a database and found to match swabs taken from the victim's body. Id. at 188. Petitioner was indicted, and the case was brought to trial in March 2012.

         At the trial, the prosecution presented evidence that suggested the victim died during, or shortly after, intercourse. Id. at 192. Petitioner conceded that he had had intercourse with the victim, but maintained that it was consensual and unrelated to the murder. Id. at 190.

         Debra McKillop, a criminalist employed by the State Police crime laboratory, testified that after seminal fluid is deposited in an orifice and a piece of cloth is placed over that orifice, the fluid often drains and is transferred onto, or absorbed by, the cloth. Id. at 189 n.10. Because investigators found seminal fluid inside the victim's rectum, but did not find any on her underwear, that evidence suggested that the victim did not pull her pants and underwear back up after the semen was deposited in her rectum. Id. at 189. That evidence indicated that the petitioner had intercourse with victim just before her death, and that he was likely the person who strangled her. Id. at 192.

         The jury convicted petitioner of first-degree murder and aggravated rape on March 29, 2012. Id. at 191.

         B. Procedural History

         Petitioner was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, for aggravated rape and first-degree murder, to be served concurrently. He filed a timely appeal with SJC. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 278, § 33E. On July 14, 2015, the SJC affirmed the murder conviction but reversed the rape conviction on the grounds of insufficiency of the evidence. Scesny, 472 Mass. at 207.

         Petitioner then timely filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus on March 1, 2016. He simultaneously filed a motion asking the Court to stay the petition pursuant to Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509 (1982), so that he could return to state court and exhaust certain unexhausted claims. The Court denied that petition on August 4, 2016, on the ground that petitioner had not shown good cause for his failure to exhaust his state claims.

         On November 17, 2017, petitioner filed a second motion to stay, this time alleging “recently recognized” Brady violations and the contemplation of further post-conviction proceedings with the state court. On December 19, 2017, the Court denied the second motion to stay, again finding a failure to show good cause why the claims had not been exhausted, and further finding that petitioner had failed to make a showing that (1) his new claim was meritorious and (2) that the statute of limitations established by 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1) would allow amendment of the petition.

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

         Before the Court can evaluate the likelihood of success on the merits of a constitutional claim, it must evaluate whether the claim was fairly presented to and exhausted in the state courts. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). “This exhaustion requirement, which codified preexisting law, is born of the principle ‘that as a matter of comity, federal courts should not consider a claim in a habeas corpus petition until after the state courts have had an opportunity to act.'” Coningford v. Rhode Island, 640 F.3d 478, 482 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. at 515). The petitioner bears a “heavy burden” to show that he “fairly and recognizably presented to the state courts the factual and legal bases of [his] federal claim.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Adelson v. DiPaola, 131 F.3d 259 (1st Cir. 1997)).

         In addition, “federal habeas review is precluded, as a general proposition, when a state court has reached its decision on the basis of an adequate and independent state-law ground.” Burks v. DuBois, 55 F.3d 712, 716 (1st Cir. 1995) (citing Coleman v. Thompson,501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991)); see also Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 522-23 (1997). This rule extends to situations in which “a state court declined to address a prisoner's federal claims because the prisoner had failed to meet a state procedural requirement.” Coleman, 501 U.S. at 729-30. A state procedural rule is “adequate” if it is regularly or consistently applied by the state courts. Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578, 587 (1988) (quoting Hathorn v. Lovorn,457 U.S. 255, 262-263 (1982)). The rule is “independent” if it does not depend on a federal constitutional ruling. Foster v. ...

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