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Watkins v. Medeiros

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 7, 2020

KYLE WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
SEAN MEDEIROS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         On June 2, 2005, following a jury trial in the Bristol County Superior Court, Petitioner Kyle Watkins (“Petitioner”) was convicted of murder in the first degree in violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 1 and unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269, § 10(b). Petitioner was sentenced to life in prison for the murder conviction with a concurrent term of four to five years on the firearm conviction.

         Before the Court is Petitioner's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (“the Petition”). [ECF No. 1]. Petitioner raises a number of constitutional arguments in support of the Petition and alleges that the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) affirming his conviction was unreasonable and contrary to clearly established federal law and based on unreasonable determinations of facts. For the reasons stated herein, the Petition, [ECF No. 1], is DENIED.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In Commonwealth v. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d 10 (Mass. 2015), the SJC described the facts of this case, which are summarized in relevant part below and “supplemented with other record facts consistent with the SJC's findings.” Yeboah-Sefah v. Ficco, 556 F.3d 53, 62 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Healy v. Spencer, 453 F.3d 21, 22 (1st Cir. 2006)).[1]

         Petitioner spent the evening of April 25, 2003, at the New Bedford Elks Lodge, a private club located on Mill Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. [Respondent's Supplemental Answer (“S.A.”) Vol. I at 121]. Vernon Rudolph (“Rudolph”), a long-time friend of both Petitioner and Paul Coombs (“the victim”), was also present at the club that night. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 15. According to Rudolph, Petitioner spent a portion of the evening arguing loudly with the victim over the phone. [S.A. Vol. I at 121]. After Petitioner ended the call, Rudolph looked out of a window in the club and noticed that the victim was standing on the sidewalk outside of the club “frisking” people who attempted to enter. [Id.]; Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 15. Rudolph suggested to Petitioner that he should go outside and fight the victim, but Petitioner refused and stayed at the club until after the victim had left. [S.A. Vol. I at 121]; Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 15. The next morning, the victim told his girlfriend that he wanted to fight Petitioner, saying he would like to “whoop” him. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 15.

         On April 26, 2003, the day of the shooting, Petitioner was seen at the Elks Lodge at least twice, first by the club's bartender and then by Rudolph. The bartender spotted Petitioner in the bathroom between 2:30 and 3:30 PM and testified that he looked upset and said he was “tired of people [messing] with him.” Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 15 (alteration in original). Rudolph saw Petitioner after he returned to the club sometime after 8:30 p.m. [S.A. Vol. I at 121]. At the time Rudolph saw him, Petitioner was wearing a black hoodie, black jeans, white and black sneakers, and batting gloves. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. Rudolph reported that Petitioner's attitude was noticeably changed from his dejected appearance the day before, that he was acting “tough” and was overheard saying, “things are going to change around here.” Id. at 15; [S.A. Vol. I at 121]. Petitioner left the club sometime around 9:30 p.m. [S.A. Vol I. at 143]. At about 9:50 p.m., the victim abruptly ended a phone call with his girlfriend after calling out, “Why don't you fight me now?” to an unidentified individual. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. He was shot shortly thereafter.

         Mill Street, on which the victim was standing at the time of the shooting, runs perpendicular to Cedar Street, which is a one-way street. [ECF No. 24-3 at 42-43, 75-76]. There is a stop sign on Cedar Street at the intersection of the two streets. See [id.; id. at 20, 108]. Four witnesses-Ernestina Soares (“Ernestina”), Beatriz Soares (“Beatriz”), Michael Couture (“Couture”), and Rudolph-testified that they drove through this intersection at around 9:50 p.m. on April 26, 2003, and either heard the incident or saw a young African-American man shoot the victim.[2] Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16-17. All four witnesses also said that when they approached the intersection, they noticed a blue Lincoln Mark VIII automobile stopped on Mill Street. Id. This car was later connected to Petitioner when police learned that he had asked a friend to register the car in the friend's name but paid for the costs of registering and insuring the car himself. Id. at 17 n.5.

         Ernestina and Beatriz reported that after they turned left onto Mill Street, they drove past the victim and saw him standing on the left side of the street, next to a parked Honda Accord with its driver's side door open. [S.A. Vol. I at 149]. The victim appeared to be involved in a verbal altercation with a man who was standing on the opposite side of the street. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. Both Ernestina and Beatriz described this second man as African American, approximately six feet tall, well-built, and wearing dark clothing including a hooded sweatshirt.[3]Id. at 16 n.4. Ernestina and Beatriz reported that the victim cried out to this man, “Don't [mess] with me. I'm not the one to be [messed] with.” Id. at 16 (alteration in original). After they drove past the men and the Honda, Ernestina saw the second man walk towards the Honda and raise his hand. Id. Moments later, both sisters heard gunshots. Id. The pair drove away from the scene and called 911. Id.

         At about the same time, Couture, who was driving on Cedar Street, crossed through the intersection of Cedar and Mill Streets. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. While in the middle of the intersection, he heard a loud noise to his left and saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. [S.A. Vol. I at 144]. He reported that the entire event lasted only a few seconds, but that he saw an African-American man between six feet and six feet two inches tall with a slim to medium build, dressed in dark clothing, wearing either a mask, hat, or hood, fire multiple shots into the parked Honda Accord. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. Couture saw the shooter flee the scene, [S.A. Vol. I at 144], and then reversed his car down Cedar and turned left onto Mill Street in order to pull up alongside the Honda Accord that had been parked on Mill Street, [id.]. Upon seeing the victim inside the car, he called 911. [Id.].

         Also at about this same time, Rudolph approached the intersection of Cedar Street and Mill Street while driving down Mill Street and had to swerve to avoid the parked Lincoln Mark VIII. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 16. He noticed Petitioner standing next to a parked vehicle on the opposite side of the intersection with Cedar Street, wearing the same clothing he had seen him wearing earlier that evening. Id. Rudolph indicated that he was able to identify Petitioner from afar based on his clothing, his mannerisms, and a glimpse he caught of Petitioner's face when his hood slipped backwards as he fired seven to eight shots at the parked vehicle.[4] Id. at 16-17. Rudolph drove directly from the crime scene to his mother's house, where he told her that he had just witnessed a shooting, although he did not immediately share the shooter's identity with her. Id. at 17.

         Officer Bryan Safioleas of the New Bedford Police Department was the first to arrive at the crime scene. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 17. Just before the shooting, he had been stationed in the area and had noticed a Lincoln Mark VIII, possibly the one connected to Petitioner, drive around the block “a ‘couple' of times.” Id. Officer Safioleas found the victim seated in the Honda Accord, unconscious and bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. Id. Emergency medical technicians arrived and transported the victim to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead. Id. Police identified Petitioner as a suspect in the days after the shooting but were unable to locate him for several months. Id. It was during this time that police discovered that Petitioner had paid to register and insure the Lincoln Mark VIII car but had asked a friend to register it in her name. Id. at 17 n.5. Two sources, including Petitioner's girlfriend, indicated that they had seen Petitioner in the car in the past, and one had a photo of the vehicle parked in the driveway of Petitioner's girlfriend. Id.

         State troopers located and arrested Petitioner nearly three months after the shooting, on August 3, 2003, when they spotted him entering a restaurant in Lynn, Massachusetts. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 17. When approached by the state troopers, Petitioner initially gave them a fake name and fake driver's license. Id. A New Bedford police officer who knew Petitioner transported him back to New Bedford and observed that Petitioner was “unshaven and sweating, wearing a dirty white t-shirt and baggy jeans, and appeared to have lost a lot of weight.” [S.A. Vol. I at 220]. A state trooper who was also in the car during Petitioner's transport back to New Bedford remarked to Petitioner that he looked “bad, ” to which Petitioner replied that he was under a lot of stress. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 17. Petitioner told the trooper that he was enjoying the car ride because it was “going to be the last ride he was going to have for a long time.” Id.

         Petitioner was charged with murder and a firearm violation in September 2003, [S.A. Vol. I at 30], and tried in front of a jury from May 24 to June 2, 2005, [id. at 3; ECF No. 38 at 4]. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Petitioner was sentenced to a term of natural life for homicide and a concurrent term of four to five years for unlawful possession of a firearm. [S.A. Vol. I at 6; ECF No. 24-8 at 7]. Petitioner then moved for entry of a verdict of not guilty pursuant to Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure 25(b)(2), or in the alternative, a new trial pursuant to Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure 30(b) (“MNT”). [S.A. Vol. II at 313]. In August 2012, the Superior Court held a four-day evidentiary hearing on the MNT, during which most of the Commonwealth's trial witnesses and a number of additional witnesses that had not been part of the original trial testified. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 18 n.6; [S.A. Vol. I at 12]. The MNT was denied, [S.A. Vol. I at 105], and Petitioner appealed the denial and his conviction to the SJC, [S.A. Vol. I at 19]. The SJC affirmed both, Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 28, and on May 16, 2016, Petitioner filed the instant Petition, [ECF No. 1].

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), when a claim has previously been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, a petitioner may only obtain habeas relief if that adjudication:

(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 state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established Supreme Court precedent if: “(1) the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law”; or (2) the state court decides a case differently from a decision of the Supreme Court on a materially indistinguishable set of facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405, 413 (2000). A state court unreasonably applies federal law when it “correctly identifies the governing legal principles, but (i) applies those principles to the facts of the case in an objectively unreasonable manner; (ii) unreasonably extends clearly established legal principles to a new context where they should not apply; or (iii) unreasonably refuses to extend established principles to a new context where they should apply.” Gomes v. Brady, 564 F.3d 532, 537 (1st Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). An unreasonable application requires “some increment of incorrectness beyond error.” Norton v. Spencer, 351 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). A petitioner must show that the state court decision applied clearly established law in a way that was “objectively unreasonable.” Sanchez v. Roden, 753 F.3d 279, 299 (1st Cir. 2014) (citation omitted).

         Thus, to obtain habeas relief, “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 fair minded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). “The petitioner carries the burden of proof.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). “In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991). Furthermore, “[e]rrors based on violations of state law are not within the reach of federal habeas petitions unless there is a federal constitutional claim raised.” Kater v. Maloney, 459 F.3d 56, 61 (1st Cir. 2006) (citing Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68). “‘[T]he gap between erroneous state court decisions and unreasonable ones is narrow,' and ‘it will be the rare case that will fall into this gap.'” O'Laughlin v. O'Brien, 568 F.3d 287, 299 (1st Cir. 2009) (first quoting Evans v. Thompson, 518 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2008), then quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 388).

         A federal court cannot grant habeas relief to a state prisoner unless the prisoner has first exhausted his federal constitutional claims in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). “[T]he state prisoner must give the state courts an opportunity to act on his claims before he presents those claims to a federal court in a habeas petition.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999). A claim for habeas relief is exhausted if it has been “fairly and recognizably” presented in state court. Sanchez, 753 F.3d at 294 (quoting Casella v. Clemons, 207 F.3d 18, 20 (1st Cir. 2000)). In other words, “a petitioner must have tendered his federal claim [in state court] in such a way as to make it probable that a reasonable jurist would have been alerted to the existence of the federal question.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Petitioner raises seven bases for relief, which are consolidated into four grounds in his memorandum in support of the Petition. [ECF No. 28]. Petitioner argues that decisions of the SJC and the findings of the MNT judge were based on objectively unreasonable applications of Supreme Court law and unreasonable determinations of fact with respect to (1) evidence withheld by the Commonwealth before trial (“Ground One”), (2) alleged instances of prosecutorial misconduct (“Ground Two”), (3) alleged instances of ineffective assistance of counsel (“Ground Three”), and (4) the sufficiency of the evidence against Petitioner (“Ground Four”). [ECF No. 1 at 12-20]. In support of these claims, Petitioner raises many of the same arguments he presented to the state courts and argues that decisions contrary to his legal arguments were unreasonable given the strength of these arguments. Respondent Sean Medeiros (“Respondent”) opposes the Petition and asserts that habeas relief should be denied because each of Petitioner's claims were properly decided by the SJC. [ECF No. 38 at 4].

         A. Ground One: Brady Violations

         In Ground One of the Petition, Petitioner claims that the SJC's “decision with respect to the Petitioner's Brady issues was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law, and it was based on multiple unreasonable determinations of facts in light of the evidence presented.” [ECF No. 28 at 18]. In support of this claim, Petitioner alleges that the Commonwealth withheld evidence of Rudolph's prior contacts with the police and current cooperation with the government, a crime scene diagram, and notes taken by the police during their interrogation of Rudolph in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). [ECF No. 28 at 19, 32, 35, 39]. While the SJC agreed with Petitioner that this evidence had likely been withheld, it declined to conclude that there had been any Brady violation because Petitioner did not prove prejudice. Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 20-23. Petitioner contends that this conclusion was improper because the individual and cumulative value of the suppressed evidence was sufficiently prejudicial to rise to the level of a Brady violation. [ECF No. 28 at 43].

         1. Legal Standard

         Under Brady, “the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” 373 U.S. at 87. The government has an affirmative duty to disclose such evidence even if the defense does not request it. Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 433 (1995). To prevail on a Brady claim in a habeas petition, a petitioner must demonstrate: “(1) the evidence at issue is favorable to him because it is exculpatory or impeaching; (2) the Government suppressed the evidence; and (3) prejudice ensued from the suppression (i.e. the suppressed evidence was material to guilt or punishment).” Conley v. United States, 415 F.3d 183, 188 (1st Cir. 2005). “[E]vidence is ‘material' when a reasonable probability exists ‘that the result of the trial would have been different if the suppressed documents had been disclosed to the defense.'” Id. (citing Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 289 (2006)).

         2. Rudolph's Prior Contacts with the Police

         Petitioner's defense team filed a number of pre-trial motions requesting exculpatory information from the Commonwealth regarding Rudolph's history of contacts or cooperation with the police or the government. [ECF No. 28 at 19]; see [S.A. Vol. I at 4-5]. Petitioner argues that at least two such reports were withheld to his detriment, including (a) a report from Rudolph's dangerousness hearing for unrelated charges that indicates that Rudolph had requested special treatment in that matter in exchange for his testimony against Petitioner and (b) a police report from an incident where Rudolph had accidentally shot himself with an illegal firearm but was not charged with a crime. [ECF No. 28 at 25, 28]. Petitioner claims that the SJC unreasonably applied Brady in concluding that no prejudice resulted from the withholding of this evidence because, without access to these reports, he could not fully cross-examine Rudolph about his potential bias. [ECF No. 28 at 28].

         a. Dangerousness Hearing

         At the relevant dangerousness hearing for an unrelated drug and firearm charge, Rudolph called out to the court, “So what happens when the murder case comes up? Am I to come to court bright eyed and bushy tailed and testify against somebody else after this? That's not fair, your Honor, it's not fair.” [S.A. Vol. II at 989]. Petitioner argued to the SJC that the report from this hearing is evidence that Rudolph had requested a benefit in exchange for testifying against him. [S.A. Vol. I at 44-45]. The SJC agreed, but found that Petitioner did not suffer any prejudice from the non-disclosure of this report because “the agreement that Rudolph eventually reached with the prosecutor, provided to [Petitioner], clearly informed [Petitioner] that Rudolph had been seeking an incentive in return for his testimony.” Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 21-22; see [S.A. Vol. II at 510-11]. Given that Petitioner admits elsewhere in his brief that he received the details of Rudolph's cooperation with the Commonwealth via fax two days before trial, [ECF No. 28 at 39], his argument that the withholding of this report deprived him of this line of cross-examination and caused him prejudice fails to meet the Brady standard.

         b. Police Report of Accidental Shooting

         In October 2003, Rudolph was hospitalized after accidentally shooting himself with what Petitioner believes was an illegal firearm. [S.A. Vol. II at 507]; see [ECF No. 28 at 28-31]. “The motion judge found that, ‘while the evidence is far from conclusive,' the Commonwealth most likely failed to provide the Petitioner with” the police report about this incident, but that there was “no evidence that investigating officers were aware that Rudolph was a Commonwealth witness . . . .” Watkins, 41 N.E.3d at 22. The SJC held that the record supported the MNT judge's findings. Id.

         Both parties agree that Rudolph informed the officers that he was a Commonwealth witness but disagree about the effect of the failure to provide Petitioner with the police report on a Brady calculus. See [ECF No. 28 at 29-31; ECF No. 38 at 16; S.A. Vol. I at 229-30]. Petitioner believes the report is material because it evidences a pattern of Rudolph seeking rewards for his testimony and that withholding the report was tantamount to depriving him of a powerful impeachment tool. [ECF No. 28 at 29-31]. Respondent supports the SJC's conclusion that Petitioner was not prejudiced by the suppression of the report “where Petitioner failed to show that Rudolph's anticipated testimony had any bearing on the decision not to prosecute him for shooting himself.” [ECF No. 38 at 16].

         The AEDPA provides that a state court's determinations of fact “shall be presumed to be correct” unless rebutted by a habeas petitioner by “clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). According to the report in question, Rudolph immediately disclosed his role as a witness against Petitioner to the responding officers:

RUDOLPH stated that he had been receiving threats on his life since he became a witness in the murder investigation of one PAUL COOMBS. RUDOLPH witnessed the murder by firearm and gave statements to the police implicating one KYLE WATKINS. WATKINS was later apprehended and incarcerated.
RUDOLPH originally stated that he parked his vehicle outside of the Elks Club at Cottage St. and Mill St. and was going to enter the club. He claimed that he saw a male wearing dark clothing approach and he became nervous. He tried to retreat to his car when this male produced a gun and pointed it at him. A brief struggle then ensued and the gun fired once striking him in the finger. Rudolph ...

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