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Lang v. Superintendent, MCI-Cedar Junction

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 6, 2020

FRANCIS LANG, Petitioner,
v.
SUPERINTENDENT, MCI-CEDAR JUNCTION Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Hon. Patti B. Saris, United States District Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Petitioner Francis Lang was convicted of first-degree murder based on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty in connection with the 2005 fatal stabbing of Richard T. Dever. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) unanimously denied post-conviction relief, rejecting Lang's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Commonwealth v. Lang, 38 N.E.3d 262, 264 (Mass. 2015). Lang now petitions for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He argues that his trial counsel was ineffective by failing to investigate Lang's mental health history although counsel was put on notice that Lang suffered from several mental health conditions. Lang's medical history reflects diagnoses for bipolar disorder, anxiety, a seizure disorder, and learning disabilities.

         The Court assumes familiarity with Magistrate Judge Dein's thorough Report & Recommendation [Dkt. No. 43] and does not repeat the facts of the case or each argument raised by the parties here. After hearing, the Court DENIES Lang's petition for habeas corpus relief [Dkt. No. 1].

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), federal habeas corpus relief “shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings” unless the state court's adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) 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). A reviewing court “must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported[] the state court's decision” and then the court must decide whether “fairminded jurists could disagree” that those arguments are consistent with prior Supreme Court decisions. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011).

         Lang's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is analyzed under the familiar two-prong test from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The first prong, deficient performance, asks “whether an attorney's representation amounted to incompetence under ‘prevailing professional norms.'” Richter, 562 U.S. at 105 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). The second prong, prejudice, requires the petitioner to show “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. While a petitioner “must prove both prongs to prevail . . . ‘a reviewing court need not address both requirements if the evidence as to either is lacking.'” Malone v. Clarke, 536 F.3d 54, 64 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Sleeper v. Spencer, 510 F.3d 32, 39 (1st Cir. 2007)).

         DISCUSSION

         The SJC issued a unanimous decision denying Lang's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel but the five justices were split on their reasoning. Lang, 38 N.E.3d at 264-65. This Court begins with the opinion authored by Justice Lenk, which commanded a majority of justices, as the decision of the SJC.

         The SJC held that the failure of Lang's trial attorney to investigate Lang's mental health history constituted deficient performance but concluded Lang did not suffer prejudice as a result. Id. at 277-78. Assuming without deciding that counsel's failure to investigate constitutes deficient performance, this Court concludes that it was reasonable for the SJC to decide “the result of the proceeding” would not have been different absent that “unprofessional error[].” See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. After review of the arguments that “supported or . . . could have supported[] the state court's decision, ” the Court holds that the SJC's decision passes muster under AEDPA's deferential standard. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

         Lang's trial counsel testified in post-conviction proceedings that, even if he had investigated Lang's mental health history, he would still have chosen not to present any mental health defense. Lang, 38 N.E.3d at 272 n.15. Counsel, who had extensive experience in homicide cases, believed that a mental health defense would undermine or at least dilute the viable complete defense of self-defense. Id. at 270, 272. The minority opinion of the SJC, authored by Justice Hines, agreed that it was reasonable for counsel to forgo a mental health defense in favor of self-defense, relying on Massachusetts cases that upheld similar tactical decisions. Id. at 274 (citing Commonwealth v. Spray, 5 N.E.3d 891, 905 (Mass. 2014); Commonwealth v. ...


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