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Piantedosi v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 7, 2019



          Leo T. Sorokin United States District Judge.

         Christopher Piantedosi, a prisoner at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, has filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He challenges limitations the state trial court imposed on the testimony of a defense expert witness. The respondent has opposed the petition. As explained below, Piantedosi's federal claim does not warrant habeas relief.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Piantedosi was convicted of first-degree murder on September 23, 2013, following a jury trial in Middlesex County Superior Court. Commonwealth v. Piantedosi, 87 N.E.3d 549 (Mass. 2017); Doc. No. 1 at 1-2.[1] He was sentenced to life in prison. Doc. No. 1 at 1; App. at 8.[2]

         The murder victim was Piantedosi's longtime girlfriend, with whom he shared a teenage daughter. Piantedosi, 87 N.E.3d at 550-51. On May 3, 2012, days after his release from a psychiatric hospitalization, Piantedosi visited the victim's home to see their daughter. Id. at 551-52. What began as a verbal argument between Piantedosi and the victim escalated, and ultimately ended with Piantedosi grabbing a butcher knife and chasing the victim from the kitchen to their daughter's bedroom, where he stabbed her to death. Id. at 551. The killing was witnessed by Piantedosi's daughter, as well as one of her friends with whom she had been video chatting on a computer in her room. Id. After his daughter fled and called police from a food delivery person's car, Piantedosi left the house. Id. The next day, Piantedosi drove to a state police barracks in Weston, Massachusetts, parked his car, laid down on the ground in front of his car, and remained there until officers recognized and arrested him. Id.

         In his defense at trial, Piantedosi sought to establish that he lacked criminal responsibility for the killing due to involuntary intoxication from newly prescribed antidepressant medications. Id. at 550. Piantedosi presented testimony by his father and a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Wade C. Meyers, medical records from his past psychiatric treatment and hospitalizations, and a competency evaluation conducted after his arrest. Id. at 552. The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) described this portion of the evidence, which is the focus of Piantedosi's federal claim, as follows:

[Piantedosi]'s father . . . testified to [Piantedosi]'s psychiatric hospitalizations a few days before the May 3, 2012 incident. On April 29, 2012, the father visited [Piantedosi] at the Holy Family Hospital emergency room and observed that he was quiet and nontalkative. According to medical records, [Piantedosi] had been admitted to the hospital for self-inflicted injuries to his arms. He was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Prozac . . . and Trazodone . . . .
Upon [Piantedosi]'s discharge on May 2, 2012, his father picked him up from the hospital and drove him to a pharmacy to fill his prescriptions.[3] [Piantedosi] was scheduled to attend an outpatient program beginning on May 3, 2012. He spent the afternoon [of May 2nd] in his room but left to attend classes at a professional school that evening; several of the students in his class noticed that he seemed tired and unwell. The next morning, [Piantedosi] did not come downstairs from his bedroom until approximately 11:30 A.M.; he was pale and dehydrated. [Piantedosi] left the house shortly thereafter, telling his father that he was planning to pick [his daughter] up at school . . . and take her out for ice cream.
Meyers evaluated [Piantedosi] to determine his mental state at the time of the crime. Based on interviews with [Piantedosi], Meyers's review of past psychiatric records, neuropsychological testing, and other information, Meyers concluded that on May 3, 2012, [Piantedosi] did not have the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and was not able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Meyers opined that [Piantedosi] suffered from involuntary intoxication from the antidepressants Prozac and Trazodone. He explained that possible side effects of those medications included “irritability, rage reactions, hostility, mania, insomnia, racing thoughts, a disinhibition of . . . behavior, impulsivity and trouble concentrating.” Meyers opined further that [Piantedosi] suffered from bipolar disorder, and therefore that he was more vulnerable to the toxic effects of Prozac and Trazodone. He noted that Prozac and Trazodone contain warnings to screen for bipolar disorder because “taking those medications has a significant risk of swinging you into a manic episode.” He stated that people with bipolar disorder who are treated with antidepressants generally are also treated with mood stabilizers to prevent possible manic episodes.
In rebuttal, the Commonwealth called Dr. Alison Fife, a forensic psychiatrist. Fife also had interviewed [Piantedosi] and reviewed the relevant treatment records and police reports. She disagreed with the conclusion that [Piantedosi] was intoxicated by therapeutic doses of Prozac and Trazodone. She also did not agree with Meyers's diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Fife testified that a mental disease or defect did not “drive” [Piantedosi] to kill the victim. When asked, in her opinion, what did “drive” [Piantedosi] to do so, she responded that feelings of anger, sadness, and rage “drove” [his] behavior.

Piantedosi, 87 N.E.3d at 552-53.

         Piantedosi filed a timely appeal. App. at 9. In his brief to the SJC, his counsel raised four issues, including whether precluding the defense expert from testifying about Piantedosi's statements to him violated the Constitution. App. at 20. In his reply brief, Piantedosi identified three additional issues pursuant to Commonwealth v. Moffett, 418 N.E.2d 585 (Mass. 1981). App. at 133, 137-38.

         The SJC affirmed on December 18, 2017. In its decision, the SJC discussed at length and rejected each of the issues raised in Piantedosi's opening brief, and also summarily acknowledged and found “unavailing” the Moffett claims. Piantedosi, 87 N.E.3d at 553-60 & n.11. Piantedosi did not seek certiorari in the United States Supreme Court.

         In November 2018, Piantedosi filed a timely federal habeas petition, claiming he was “prevented . . . [from] hav[ing] a complete and full defense” because “[t]he trial court erroneously precluded crucial expert testimony concerning [his] symptoms and past medical history.” Doc. No. 1 at 6.[4] Piantedosi's claim has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

         II. LE ...

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