JOHNSON v. RYAN
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE JOEL H. SLOMSKY ON 10/7/15. 10/7/15 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO SE PETITIONER AND E-MAILED. (jpd)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
PERCY THOMAS JOHNSON,
JOHN M. RY AN, et al.,
OCT -7 2015
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October 6, 2015
Before the Court are the Objections of pro se Petitioner Percy Thomas Johnson to
Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter's Report and Recommendation ("R&R") in the abovecaptioned matter. 1
The following facts are adopted from the R&R: 2
For purposes of this Opinion, the Court has considered the pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas
Corpus filed by Petitioner on March 12, 2014 (Doc. No. 32), Respondents' answer in response
to the Petition (Doc. No. 42), Petitioner's reply to the response (Doc. No. 44), and the pertinent
state court record. Petitioner also requested appointment of counsel (Docs. No. 36, 37), which
the Court has reviewed as well.
The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter on January 1, 2015 for an R&R.
(Doc. No. 40.) Magistrate Judge Rueter issued an R&R on March 30, 2015 (Doc. No. 45), to
which Petitioner filed objections on April 27, 2015 (Doc. No. 49).
The factual background taken from the R&R has been altered slightly to include additional and
modified citations to comply with this Court's citation format. Any additions to the factual
background are reflected by text contained in brackets.
In 1972, Petitioner was indicted on two separate bills charging him, on the first,
with murder in the first degree and related charges, and, on the second, with
burglary, armed robbery, larceny, receiving stolen goods and conspiracy. (Nos.
1163-6, 1163-10, 1972 Term (C.P. Bucks).) Both indictments arose from
Petitioner's participation in a bank robbery and the subsequent shooting death of a
Bristol Township police detective. On October 21, 1972, a jury sitting in the
Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, convicted Petitioner of
all charges except for first-degree murder. The jury was unable to reach a verdict
on that charge and a mistrial was declared. A second jury trial was held on the
first-degree murder charger alone and, on December 7, 1973, a jury found
Petitioner guilty of first-degree murder.
Petitioner was sentenced to life
imprisonment on the murder conviction, and a concurrent sentence of ten to
twenty years incarceration on the burglary conviction. See Johnson v. Ryan, 1990
WL 182153 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 1990) (Weiner, J.) Both convictions were affirmed
on direct appeal by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on March 18, 1975.
Commonwealth v. Johnson, 333 A.2d 881 (Pa. 1975). This case has undergone a
long procedural history to reach the proceeding presently before the undersigned
[Magistrate Judge Rueter].
In 1975, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States
District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The District Court denied
the petition for failure to exhaust state court remedies. Thereafter, Petitioner filed
a series of petitions seeking state post conviction relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's
Post Conviction Hearing Act ("PCHA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Sta. Ann. §§ 9541-9551,
and the later enacted Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat.
Ann.§§ 9541, et seq. Petitioner filed his first PCHApetition on August 23, 1977,
which was denied. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed and permitted
Petitioner to file post trial motions nunc pro tune on his robbery conviction.
Commonwealth v. Johnson, 421 A.2d 737 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1980). The trial court
denied Petitioner's post-trial motions.
In 1981, Petitioner filed a second PCHA petition, which was denied on October
26, 1981. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed and remanded on March
15, 1985 for counsel to be appointed. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 494 A.2d 480
(Pa. Super. Ct. 1985). In December of 1988, while the PCHA petition was
pending, Petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme
Court of Pennsylvania. This petition was denied on February 2, 1989, because of
the pending PCHA petition. Petitioner filed a second petition for a writ of habeas
corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
on May 1, 1989. This petition was denied and dismissed on June 14, 1989, for
failure to exhaust state court remedies.
On July 5, 1989, Petitioner filed a "Certificate of Probable Cause" with the Third
Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District
Court to determine whether Petitioner's assertions had been exhausted or excused
on the ground of delay. On November 21, 1990, the District Court determined
that Petitioner had adequately presented his claims to the Supreme Court of
Pennsylvania by way of a state court petition for writ of habeas corpus and that
his claims could be considered on the merits. Johnson v. Ryan, 1990 WL 182153,
at *l (E.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 1990). The court concluded that the claims were
meritless. However, the District Court also recognized that Petitioner's PCHA
petition remained pending in the Court of Common Pleas upon remand in 1985.
The District Court, therefore, denied the habeas petition on its merits with leave to
renew only that claim asserting due process violations from the delay in
adjudication of the PCHA petition. Id. at *8.
A hearing was held on the PCHA petition on November 6, 1992, at which
Petitioner was represented by counsel. The hearing was originally scheduled for
December 21, 1990, but Petitioner refused to appear. This initiated additional
federal litigation, but Petitioner withdrew this federal petition, which then was
dismissed without prejudice and the case remanded to the Court of Common
Pleas. (Civil Action NO. 89-2999 (E.D. Pa.).) On February 8, 1993, Petitioner's
PCHA petition was denied. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed on
November 29, 1993, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied Petitioner's
request for review on April 15, 1994.
On August 8, 2011, Petitioner filed a third post-conviction petition, this time
pursuant to the PCRA. On September 7, 2012, the petition was denied. The
Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed on October 4, , concluding that
the Petition was untimely. Petitioner's petition for allowance of appeal to the
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was returned as untimely.
On March 9, 2014, Petitioner executed the instant Petition for a Writ of Habeas
Corpus and filed it in this Court on March 12, 2014. 3 (Doc. No. 32.)
[Footnote 1 of the R&R states]:
Petitioner filed the instant Habeas Petition using the same docket number as his
previous habeas petition. As the District Court detailed in its November 21, 1990
opinion, Petitioner's original habeas petition was dismissed without prejudice
only with respect to Petitioner's claim that the delay in adjudication of his then
pending PCHA petition violated due process. See Johnson v. Ryan, 1990 WL
182153, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 1990). In the instant Petition, Petitioner claims
that his conviction violated the due process clause because the murder statute in
effect in Pennsylvania at the time of his 1972 conviction had been found
unconstitutional 'prior to trial and repealed while [P]etitioner was on direct
appeal.' (Doc. No. 32 at 4.) More specifically, Petitioner claims that, because
that portion of the homicide statute then in effect that permitted the death penalty
was declared unconstitutional, the entire statute was a nullity, and the trial court
lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this charge. Id. at 5-6. Respondents
contend that Petitioner erred in treating his current Petition as a continuation of
his prior habeas proceeding. (Doc. No. 42 at 4 n.3.) This Court agrees.
However, the instant habeas petition was docketed under the prior case number,
Respondents filed a Response to the Petition on February 20, 2015 (Doc. No. 42),
requesting that the Petition be dismissed because it is barred by the one-year
statute of limitations applicable to habeas corpus petitions. Petitioner filed a
Reply to the Response on March 13, 2015. (Doc. No. 44.)
(Doc. No. 45 at 1-4.)
On March 30, 2015, Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter issued an R&R concluding that
the Habeas Petition was filed untimely. (Doc. No. 45 at 5-11.)
Magistrate Judge Rueter also
recommended denying Petitioner's request for appointment of counsel in the present Habeas
litigation due to the untimeliness of the Petition. (Id. at 12.) On April 27, 2015, after the Court
granted Petitioner an extension to file his Objections, Petitioner filed Objections to the R&R.
(Doc. No. 49.) Respondents did not file a Response. For reasons that follow, the Court will
adopt the R&R and deny the Petition as untimely, and also will deny Petitioner's Motion for
Appointment of Counsel.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l)(B) and the local rules of this Court, a district judge is
permitted to designate a magistrate judge to make proposed findings and recommendations on
petitions for post-conviction relief. Any party may file objections in response to the magistrate
judge's Report and Recommendation. Id. § 636(b)(l)(C). Whether or not an objection is made,
a district judge "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or
recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The [district] judge may also receive further
evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with further instructions." Id. "[I]t must
be assumed that the normal practice of the district judge is to give some reasoned consideration
and the Court will continue to use the pnor case number for this habeas
proceeding as it has no impact on the recommendation of the court herein.
to the magistrate's report before adopting it as the decision of the court." Henderson v. Carlson,
812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b).
In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Local Rule 72.1.IV(b) governs a petitioner's
objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation. Under that rule, a petitioner must
"specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which
objection is made and the basis for such objections." Savior v. Superintendent of Huntingdon
SCI, No. 11-5639, 2012 WL 4206566, at* 1 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 20, 2012). Upon review, "[a district
judge] shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed
findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l)(C).
De novo review is non-deferential and generally permits the district court to conduct an
"independent review" of the entire matter. Salve Regina College v. Russell, 499 U.S. 225, 238
(1991). "Although [the] review is de novo, [a district judge] [is] permitted, by statute, to rely
upon the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations to the extent [the judge], in
the exercise of sound discretion, deem[s] proper." Owens v. Beard, 829 F. Supp. 736, 738 (M.D.
Pa. 1993) (citing United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980)).
Petitioner's Habeas Petition Will Be Denied
In his habeas Petition, Petitioner contends that his conviction for murder violated his due
process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because the statute under which he was
convicted of, and sentenced for, first degree murder, 18 P.S. § 4701, 4 was found unconstitutional
"prior to trial and repealed while [P]etitioner was on direct appeal." (Doc. No. 32 at 4.) Thus,
Section 4701 was replaced by 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 2502 following a determination that the former
statute was unconstitutional only as it related to death penalty provisions. Commonwealth v.
Bradley, 449 Pa. 19, 295 A.2d 842 (1972).
Petitioner alleges that the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County did not have subject matter
jurisdiction to enter a "void" judgment against him. (Id.)
In recommending that Petitioner's Petition be denied, Magistrate Judge Rueter found that
the Petition was untimely under the one-year statute of limitations imposed in habeas cases, and
also that statutory and equitable tolling does not apply here. (Doc. No. 45 at 1.) For reasons that
follow, the Court will overruJe the objections to the R&R and will adopt Magistrate Judge
Rueter's Report and Recommerdation.
Objections to the R&R
Petitioner has made two objections to the R&R. First, he argues that his Petition is not
untimely because it was held in stay and abeyance. Second, if the Petition is untimely, equitable
tolling should apply. (Doc. No. 48 at 3-4.) Specifically, Petitioner agues that "the Magistrate
fails to appreciate the constitutional significance of the claim presented. This alone justifies
equitable tolling on the claim." (Id. at 4.)
Petitioner than reargues the merits of his underlying
habeas petition, alleging that under the Pennsylvania statute, his conviction was a legal nullity
because the portion of the statute addressing the death penalty was determined to be
unconstitutional. The Court need not decide the merits of Petitioner's habeas claim because it is
clear that his Petition is untimely, and the Magistrate Judge correctly determined that equitable
tolling does not apply in this case.
Timeliness of the Habeas Petition
Pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), a
one-year statute of limitations applies to habeas cases. 28 U.S.C. 2244(d). The limitation period
runs from the latest of:
the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or
the expiration of the time for seeking review;
the date on which the impediment to filing an application created by State action
in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, ifthe
applicant was prevented from filing by such State Action;
the date on which the constitutional right asserted was initially recognized by the
Supreme Court, ifthe right has be~n newly recognized by the Supreme Court and
made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or
the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could
have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.
(Id.) It is well settled that the time during which a properly filed application for State postconviction or collateral review is pending "shall not be counted toward any period of limitation."
(Id.) However, a PCRA petition that is untimely filed is not "properly filed" to suspend the
running of the limitations period. Pace v. DiGugliemo, 544 U.S. 408, 414 (2005). The Third
Circuit has held that prisoners whose convictions were final prior to the enactment of the AEDPA
on April 24, 1996, have one year from the date of enactment to file a petition. Bums v. Morton,
134 F.3d 109, 1999 (3d Cir. 1998).
For purposes of calculating the timeliness of Petitioner's Petition, the Supreme Court of
Pennsylvania affirmed Petitioner's conviction on March 18, 1975. Under Bums v. Morton,
accordingly, Petitioner had until April 24, 1997-one year after the enactment of the AEDPA-to
file a timely application for federal habeas relief. Petitioner filed his Habeas Petition in this case
on March 9, 2014, which was nearly seventeen years after the statute of limitations had expired. 5
The fact that Petitioner filed the instant Habeas Petition, which was untimely, does not toll the
Magistrate Judge Rueter explains in his Report and Recommendation why the AEDPA statute
of limitations will be tolled while a Petitioner is pursuing his state collateral review remedies.
Judge Rueter also explains that Petitioner's third PCRA petition was filed over thirteen years
after the AEDPA statute of limitations had expired. Accordingly, any subsequent PCRA
petition would not act to toll the statute of limitations because a PCRA petition cannot toll an
already expired statute of limitations. See Leafey v. Kerestes, 2014 WL 5823067, at *5 (E.D.
Pa. Nov. 7, 2014).
AEDPA statute of limitations. Thus, the Petition is untimely filed and must be dismissed unless
subject to equitable tolling.
Equitable Tolling Does Not Apply
Although Petitioner does not concede that his Petition is untimely, he nevertheless argues
that the doctrine of equitable tolling should apply. AEDPA's statute of limitations is subject to
equitable tolling, but this equitable remedy should be used sparingly. Lacava v. Kyler, 398 F.3d
271, 275 (3d Cir. 2005). Accordingly, equitable tolling should apply "only in the rare situation
where [it] is demanded by sound legal principles as well as the interests of justice, and where a
rigid application of the limitations period would be unfair." United States v. Midgley, 142 F.3d
174, 179 (3d Cir. 1998); Miller v. New Jersey State Dep't of Corr., 145 F.3d 616, 617 (3d Cir.
1998). Mere excusable neglect is not sufficient. Rather, a petitioner must allege (1) that he
pursued his rights diligently; and (2) some extraordinary circumstance that prevented him from
timely filing. Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631, 649 (2010).
Petitioner argues that equitable tolling should excuse his failure to timely file the present
habeas Petition because:
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that equitable
tolling may be applied where the principles of equity would make rigid
application of the statute of limitations unfair. Generally this will occur when the
appellant has been prevented from asserting his rights in some extraordinary way.
Where the rigid application of the statute would result in upholding a sentence for
a crime that, in fact, is not a crime, such a result would be manifestly unjust, and
so equitable tolling of the statute of limitations is appropriate.
(Doc. No. 49 at 7.) This explanation, however, fails to acknowledge the two circumstances
outlined in Holland v. Florida that are required to warrant equitable tolling-that Petitioner
diligently pursued his federal habeas claim of a due process violation, and that an extraordinary
circumstance prevented him from timely pursuing his claim.
The record belies the fact that any extraordinary circumstance prevented Petitioner from
timely filing his present habeas claim. As noted by Magistrate Judge Rueter, "[P]etitioner has
been pursuing his rights in state court and federal court for almost three decades. Petitioner filed
counseled post-trial motions and a direct appeal, three petitions for state collateral relief (two of
them counseled), two federal petitions for a writ of habeas corpus (prior to the instant petition), a
petition for relief in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and numerous other state and federal
pleadings." (Doc. No. 45 at 8-9.) Clearly, as evidenced by Petitioner's active filing history in
both state and federal court, he was perfectly equipped in 1997 to assert in a timely manner the
claims made in the current Habeas Petition under the AEDPA. Applying Holland v. Florida,
Petitioner has not explained how an extraordinary circumstance prevented him from asserting
such claims until March 2014.
Accordingly, this Court will not apply equitable tolling to
Petitioner's Motion for Appointment of Counsel
Along with his Habeas Petition, Petitioner filed a request for appointment of counsel in
these proceedings. (Doc. Nos. 36, 37.) There is no constitutional right to counsel in habeas
corpus proceedings, and counsel is mandatory only if the district court determines that: (1) an
evidentiary hearing is required; and (2) petitioner qualifies to have counsel appointed under 18
U.S.C. § 3006A. Although Petitioner is not requesting an evidentiary hearing, he stated in his
Motion for Counsel that the case "may warrant an evidentiary hearing." However, because this
Court agrees with Magistrate Rueter's findings that the Petition should be dismissed as untimely,
an evidentiary hearing is not warranted under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2).
Where the appointment of counsel is not mandatory, a court may still appoint counsel to a
habeas petitioner if the court "determines that the interests of justice so require." 18 U.S.C. §
3006(a)(2). This statute is intended to cover a petitioner with a colorable claim who lacks the
financial means to adequately investigate, prepare, and present the claim. Because the Court has
determined that Petitioner's Petition is untimely and should be denied, appointment of counsel
will be of no assistance to advancing Petitioner's claim. Consequently, Petitioner's Motion for
Appointment of Counsel will be denied.
Thus, for the foregoing reasons, the Court will adopt the Magistrate Judge's Report and
Recommendation, will deny Petitioner's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, and will deny
Petitioner's request for appointment of counsel. An appropriate Order follows.
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