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Gonzalez v. Russo

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 18, 2019

LOIS RUSSO, Respondent.



         Before the court is Steven Gonzalez’s Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 [#9]. In 2012, Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder on the theory of deliberate premeditation and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He argues that his imprisonment is in violation of federal law based on ineffective assistance of counsel and improper instructions given to the jury. The court finds that Petitioner is not entitled to habeas review of his jury instruction claims because the claims were procedurally defaulted in state court and waived by Petitioner’s failure to brief them here. The court does reach the merits of Petitioner’s ineffective-assistance claim and finds that the state courts reasonably concluded that any errors by trial counsel did not violate Petitioner’s rights under federal law. Accordingly, the petition is DENIED.

         I. Brief Factual and Procedural History

         Petitioner was arrested, tried, and convicted for the 2008 murder of Alexander Gautier. A complete accounting of the facts supported by the evidence presented at the trial is provided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in its opinion denying Petitioner’s appeal.

         The following parts of this account are relevant here:

The victim [Alexander Gautier] had controlled the sale of narcotics in the low-rise apartment buildings in the area of 244–266 Locust Street in Springfield, but left for Puerto Rico when a warrant issued for his arrest. In the victim’s absence, Sammy Ramos (Sammy), a friend who operated an automobile dealership on Locust Street, took over the drug business on the block, and permitted others to sell drugs there, including two brothers, both named Jose Rodriguez. Also during the victim’s absence, Jasson Gonzalez (Jasson) began selling drugs on the block without Sammy’s permission and had other individuals, including Miguel Angel Nieves (known as Mikey), selling drugs for him. . . .
. . . .
The defendant was a heroin addict who supported his drug habit by theft, begging, and occasionally washing and detailing vehicles for Sammy at the dealership. He lived with his girl friend, Daneris Rivera (Daneris), in an apartment at 258 Locust Street. . . .
. . . .
Julia Rojas (Julia) is the former girl friend of Sammy’s brother, and Sammy describes her as “like a daughter” to him.

Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, 473 Mass. 415, 416-17 (2015) (footnotes omitted).

On October 17, 2008, the victim returned to Springfield and made clear his intent to regain control of his drug territory. At approximately noon, the victim met with Sammy at the dealership and stated his interest in meeting with the people who had been selling drugs in his territory without permission.
. . . . While the victim was still at Sammy’s dealership in the early afternoon, the victim spoke to the defendant in Sammy’s presence. The victim told the defendant that he had to “stop stealing from the neighbors” or leave.


At approximately 5 p.m. on October 17, 2008, a man approached the victim, Alexander Gautier, and shot him in the face at close range with a sawed-off shotgun, killing him. . . .
. . . .
After the shooting, both Sammy and Julia gave statements to the police. Julia described what had occurred, identified the defendant as the shooter, and provided a description of the shotgun used in the attack.

Id. From their reports, the jury could find the following:

At approximately 4:30 p.m., Julia saw the defendant, whom she knew, speaking with Jasson and Mikey on the rear porch of the apartment building at 258 Locust Street. Shortly before 5 p.m., the victim and Sammy walked from the dealership to the area behind 258 Locust Street, accompanied by the two Rodriguez brothers. Once they arrived, Sammy told Mikey to get Jasson so they could talk. The six men-the victim, Sammy, the two Rodriguez brothers, Jasson, and Mikey- began talking while standing in a semicircle on the pavement behind 258 Locust Street.
Julia was on the third-floor porch overlooking the back of 258 Locust Street, saw Sammy on the pavement with the others, and walked down the back stairs towards him. As she approached, she saw the defendant walk behind her wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and a mask. Sammy, who was standing next to the victim, also saw the defendant walk behind Julia and approach the group. As the defendant approached, Sammy saw him pull up a handkerchief from around his neck to cover his face. Once he reached the group, he pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and fired a single shot at the victim’s face at close range, killing him. After the shotgun blast, Jasson, Mikey, and the Rodriguez brothers ...

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