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Caruso v. Gaffney

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 6, 2019

STEVEN CARUSO, Petitioner,
ERIN GAFFNEY, Respondent.



         I. Introduction

         Petitioner Steven Caruso (“Caruso”), acting pro se, has filed a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus (“Petition”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 2254. D. 21. Erin Gaffney (“Gaffney”), the Superintendent of Old Colony Correctional Center (“OCCC”), opposes the Petition on the basis that Caruso's grounds for habeas relief are procedurally defaulted or fail on the merits. For the foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES the Petition, D. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), this 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” or “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)(1). “AEDPA erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court.” Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. 12, 19 (2013).

         A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law “if the state court either ‘applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases,' or ‘confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from'” a Supreme Court precedent and arrives at an opposite conclusion. Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). A state court decision is an “unreasonable application” of clearly established federal law “if it correctly identifies the governing legal rule but applies that rule unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case.” White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 426 (2014). In sum, “a state prisoner must show that 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 v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).

         III. Relevant Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Police Investigation and Charge

         Unless otherwise noted, this factual background is drawn from the Supreme Judicial Court's decision affirming Caruso's conviction. S.A. 1295; Commonwealth v. Caruso, 476 Mass. 275 (2017). For the purposes of § 2254(d)(2), any factual determinations made by a state court are “presumed to be correct” unless rebutted by “clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). To the extent that Caruso objects to certain findings made by the state court, see D. 23 at 3-7, he failed to rebut same with clear and convincing evidence and, accordingly this Court presumes these factual findings to be correct.

         On August 15, 2003, Caruso was convicted after a jury trial in Middlesex Superior Court of the first-degree murder of Sandra Berfield (“Berfield”). S. A. 116-141.[1] These charges arose out of the events leading up to and culminating on January 20, 2000. Prior to that day, Caruso had been a long-time, regular customer of Bickford's Restaurant in Medford, where Berfield worked as a server. S.A. 1303. At Caruso's request, Berfield became his regular server. Caruso eventually asked Berfield on a date, which Berfield declined. S.A. 1303. Caruso's behavior towards Berfield changed thereafter. S.A. 1303. Caruso began to stare at Berfield in a “hateful manner, ” repeatedly attempted to contact Berfield outside of her workplace and vandalized Berfield's car, including by slashing her tires and pouring battery acid into the gas tank. S.A. 1303. On May 12, 1999, Caruso was convicted of malicious destruction of Berfield's property. S.A. 248, 333. Caruso was also charged with, but not convicted of, slashing Berfield's tires. S.A. 1303. Berfield obtained a restraining order against Caruso, which Caruso repeatedly violated. Id. On January 20, 2000, Caruso left a package containing a pipe bomb on Berfield's porch. Id. A neighbor examined the package containing the bomb, which was addressed to “Passanisi” and included a Malden return address. S.A. 1303-04. Another neighbor later heard Berfield walk downstairs to retrieve the package, which exploded, killing Berfield. S.A. 1304.

         During an interview with police, Caruso provided two inconsistent explanations of his whereabouts earlier that morning and told the police, among other statements, that Berfield had “caused him a lot of problems” and he did not “like” her anymore. Id. In executing a search warrant at Caruso's residence, the police discovered, among other things, battery parts, pieces of pipes, metal fragments with human tissue or blood on them, pieces of copper, wires and gun powder. Id. These items were consistent with similar materials found at the scene of the explosion. Id. A search of Caruso's computer revealed detailed information about Berfield, her family and past boyfriends. Id. Police also found a document containing a postal service code concerning the mail route to Berfield's home and a mailing label containing the name “Passanisi, ” i.e., the last name of Berfield's sister, with a Malden address, consistent with the return address on the package containing the bomb. Id. Shortly after the search, Caruso's sister told the police that she had found a booklet titled, “High-Low Boom Explosives, ” in Caruso's bedroom. Id. In addition, after officers conducted a search of the scene of the explosion, a professional cleaning service, Aftermath, Inc. Cleaning Services (“Aftermath”), cleaned the premises and delivered additional items to the fire marshal. Id.

         Once incarcerated awaiting trial, Caruso interacted with a fellow inmate named Michael Dubis (“Dubis”), to whom Caruso made inculpatory statements. S.A. 721, 1305. Dubis recognized Caruso's name and face from the newspaper and asked him questions about Berfield's death. S.A. 1305. Dubis talked to Caruso for one and a half hours with the intention of finding out what happened in Caruso's case. S.A. 769, 1305. Dubis tried to win Caruso's trust during the conversation and deliberately asked questions to be able to pass information on to law enforcement. S.A. 1305. Caruso made incriminating statements to Dubis, including that he had learned to make a bomb from the internet and a friend, he used batteries and a pipe to make the same and he explained the package that killed Berfield would only explode when it was opened due to a “basic separation device.” Id. Caruso also told Dubis that he knew “[the bomb] would kill anybody that would open it.” S.A. 750, 1305. Dubis told Massachusetts State Police (“MSP”) Sergeant James Plath (“Plath”), to whom he had previously provided information in other matters, about his conversation with Caruso. S.A. 721, 1305. Plath notified law enforcement officials involved in Caruso's case. S.A. 1305. The trial court later denied Caruso's motion to suppress his statements to Dubis, which was denied and Dubis testified to Caruso's statements at trial. S.A. 1305.

         In March 2000, two months after Berfield was killed, Caruso was indicted for first-degree murder.[2] S.A. 7.

         B. Relevant State Court Proceedings

         Caruso's trial began in July of 2003. S.A. 7-14. On August 15, 2003, the jury returned a guilty verdict of murder in the first degree based upon theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. S.A. 13, 148, 1303. The trial court sentenced Caruso to a term of life imprisonment. S.A. 13. Caruso filed a timely notice of appeal. S.A. 14.[3]

         In his direct appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, Caruso raised six claims: actual innocence as to Berfield's murder (“Ground 1”); violation of his Sixth Amendment rights due to the admission of Dubis's testimony at trial (“Ground 2”); violation of his right to confrontation based on the trial court's admission of Berfield's prior recorded testimony from another proceeding as read by one of the prosecutors (“Ground 3”); violation of his right to confrontation when the trial court denied Caruso's requests to rebut the prosecution's hostile intent claim and to cross-examine testimony and physical evidence from Captain John Busa and Aftermath (which has been divided into three parts) (“Ground 4, ” which has been further divided into subsections);[4] violation of Caruso's Sixth Amendment rights based on the trial court's admission of the testimony of the Commonwealth's wire expert (“Ground 5”); and deprivation of his right to a fair trial based on the admission of evidence derived from searches of Caruso's computer (“Ground 6”). S.A. 23.

         On January 13, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court denied Caruso's appeal and affirmed Caruso's murder conviction. S.A. 1296, 1314.

         C. This Petition

         Caruso has filed this Petition, raising claims that were addressed in his direct appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, D. 21, that the ...

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