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Semedo v. Medeiros

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 9, 2019

ISAIAS SEMEDO, Petitioner,
SEAN MEDEIROS, Respondent.


          George A. O'Toole, Jr. United States District Judge

         Isaias Semedo has petitioned this court for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In 2004, following a jury trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court, Semedo was convicted of murder in the first degree on a theory of felony murder, with armed robbery as the predicate felony. Semedo was also convicted of armed robbery, but he was acquitted of unlawful possession of a firearm. Semedo appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), and that court affirmed Semedo's felony murder conviction. Commonwealth v. Semedo, 921 N.E.2d 57 (Mass. 2010).[1]

         Semedo moved for a new trial in Superior Court. He argued that he was denied his right to a public trial because the courtroom was closed to the public during jury selection, and he claimed that he had not received effective assistance of counsel at his trial. He also argued he had been denied due process because of impropriety by the prosecutor in his opening statement. After an evidentiary hearing on the public trial issue, the Superior Court judge denied the motion. Then, pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 278, Section 33E, Semedo filed a “gatekeeper” application with a single justice of the SJC for leave to appeal the denial of his motion for a new trial to the full panel of the SJC. A single justice of the SJC denied the application concluding “that it does not present ‘a new and substantial question which ought to be determined by the full court.'” (Pet., Ex. C (dkt. no. 1-4) (quoting Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 278, § 33E).)

         I. Standard of Review

         A federal court reviews a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus if the prisoner alleges his custody is “in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The petitioner must show that the state court's decision was either “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” Id. § 2254(d). In order to merit habeas relief, the state court's decision cannot merely be erroneous or incorrect; it must have been “objectively unreasonable.” Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 27 (2002). This standard is difficult to satisfy because it is “highly deferential” and “demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Id. at 24 (citation omitted).

         II. Discussion

         The present petition raises the following claims: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for first-degree murder on a joint venture theory in violation of Semedo's due process rights; (2) the prosecutor's closing argument was improper and violated due process; (3) the petitioner's due process rights were violated because an unconstitutional variance occurred in the proof at trial; (4) the trial court erroneously charged the jury on both principal and joint venture theories, violating due process; (5) the petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to be tried by an impartial jury was violated because two dissenting jurors were coerced by other jurors into agreeing to a guilty verdict; (6) court officers closed the courtroom for the entire jury selection process in violation of the petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; and (7) the petitioner was denied his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.

         A. Barred Claims

         Generally, a federal court is precluded from conducting habeas review where the state court resolved an issue not by resort to federal law but rather on the basis of an “independent and adequate state ground.” Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991). In particular, “[a] state court's invocation of a procedural rule to deny a prisoner's claims precludes federal review of the claims if, among other requisites, the state procedural rule is a nonfederal ground adequate to support the judgment and the rule is firmly established and consistently followed.” Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 9 (2012).

         i. Unobjected-to Portions of the Closing Argument

         The petitioner argues that some of the prosecutor's statements in his closing argument were improper. The petitioner did not object to any of the identified statements at trial.

         In the absence of objection, the SJC's review was “confined to determining whether these statements were improper, and, if so, whether they created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.” Semedo, 921 N.E.2d at 70 (citing Commonwealth v. Cosme, 575 N.E.2d 726 (Mass. 1991)). Failure to timely object constitutes a procedural default barring federal habeas relief if “the state court consistently applies its contemporaneous objection rule and has not waived it in the particular case by basing the decision on some other ground.” Horton v. Allen, 370 F.3d 75, 80- 81 (1st Cir. 2004). The First Circuit has recognized that Massachusetts state courts have consistently applied this rule. Janosky v. St. Amand, 594 F.3d 39, 44 (1st Cir. 2010) (“[T]he Massachusetts requirement for contemporaneous objections is an independent and adequate state procedural ground.”); see also Mass. R. Crim. P. 22. Although the SJC did review Semedo's challenges to determine if there was a miscarriage of justice, this “review does not amount to a waiver of the state's contemporaneous objection rule.” Janosky, 594 F.3d at 44 (collecting cases).

         In his reply brief, the petitioner's only response to the argument that this claim was waived is that it qualifies under the exception to waiver because the prosecutor's statements were “so fundamentally unfair as to deny him due process.” (Pet'r's Reply Mem. 10 (dkt. no. 56) (quoting Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 645 (1974)).) This argument is unpersuasive because, as the SJC found, the evidence, or reasonable inferences from it, provided support for each of the objected-to statements by the prosecutor at closing. See Semedo, 921 N.E.2d at 15-16. As a result, this procedural default is not excused.

         ii. Courtroom Closure and Ineffective Assistance of ...

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