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Merida v. Wall

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

August 20, 2015

JAVIER MERIDA, Petitioner,


William E. Smith, Chief Judge

Petitioner Javier Merida has filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 1). The Attorney General of the State of Rhode Island (the “State”) responded on behalf of Respondent (ECF No. 3), seeking denial of Merida’s Petition. For the reasons set forth below, the State’s request is GRANTED, and the Petition is DENIED and DISMISSED.

I. Background

Merida was convicted by a jury in Rhode Island Superior Court of two counts of first-degree child molestation and one count of second-degree child molestation, in violation of R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-37-8.1 and 11-37-8.3, respectively. He was sentenced to two forty-year terms on the first two counts, and one thirty-year term on the third, all to run concurrently. See State v. Merida (“Merida I”), 960 A.2d 228, 230 (R.I. 2008). Merida appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by improperly limiting the scope of cross-examination of two key State witnesses, and by allowing the State to introduce testimony involving uncharged sexual misconduct prior to testimony directly involving the charged sexual misconduct. See id. After Merida’s appeal was denied and his convictions affirmed by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, id., Merida filed an application for postconviction relief.

Merida raised a series of claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in his postconviction relief application, asserting that his trial attorney was deficient for: (1) failing to investigate or pursue at trial theories undermining the credibility of the complaining witness, “Betsy” (a pseudonym used by the state superior court); (2) failing to present a defense expert; (3) failing to request a continuance to review an article mentioned by the State’s expert in support of her testimony; (4) preventing Merida from testifying on his own behalf; and (5) failing to object to the order of presentation of witnesses.

Both Merida and his trial attorney testified at a subsequent evidentiary hearing before the superior court, which issued a detailed decision denying postconviction relief. See Merida v. State (“Merida II”), 93 A.3d 545, 547-48 (R.I. 2014). This decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island. Id. Merida timely filed the § 2254 petition now before this Court.

II. Discussion

Section 2254 provides a petitioner with habeas corpus relief where a “state court’s decision, on any issue it actually decided, ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal Law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.’” Epsom v. Hall, 330 F.3d 49, 52 (1st Cir. 2003) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)) (internal citation omitted).[1] Where a state court has found that a petitioner’s claim is meritless, federal courts cannot grant habeas relief so long as “fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court’s decision” as to that claim. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A. Procedurally Defaulted Claims

Three of Merida’s asserted grounds for habeas relief reiterate claims he made on direct appeal. The Rhode Island Superior Court deemed these claims procedurally waived. A federal court may not address a state prisoner’s habeas claim when the state court has declined to address the claim on procedural grounds, if that decision is based on “independent and adequate state grounds.” Glacken v. Dickhaut, 585 F.3d 547, 550 (1st Cir. 2009). “One such ground is a state court’s finding that a claim is forfeited due to a failure to object at trial, ” so long as the contemporaneous objection rule is consistently applied, and was the basis for the state court decision. Id. at 551.

Merida first claims that the trial court erred in allowing the State to present Lisa’s testimony at trial about allegations of uncharged sexual misconduct before the complaining witness, Betsy, was called. Merida claims that because Lisa’s testimony was propensity evidence under R.I. Rule of Evidence 404(b), it should not have been allowed without first laying a proper evidentiary foundation. Merida argued on direct appeal that the order of witnesses constituted error, and the state supreme court found that under Rhode Island’s “raise-or-waive” rule, Merida had waived the claim by failing to object to the witnesses’ order at trial.[2] Merida I, 960 A.2d at 238.

Merida’s second claim is that the superior court infringed upon his confrontation rights by unconstitutionally limiting cross-examination of the State’s two key witnesses, Lisa and Betsy. The state supreme court held on direct appeal that, as with his claim involving the order in which Lisa and Betsy testified, under Rhode Island’s “raise-or-waive” rule, Merida had waived this argument. Id. at 234-36.

Because the state supreme court found that both of these claims were waived under Rhode Island’s consistently-applied “raise-or-waive” rule, federal habeas review of these claims is precluded. See Glacken, 585 F.3d at 550 (petitioner’s claim was procedurally defaulted due to the state court’s finding that petitioner had forfeited the claim by failing to object at trial). The Court sees no reason not to apply the procedural-default doctrine in Merida’s case, and thus will not reach the merits of Merida’s claims involving the order of witnesses and Confrontation Clause violations.

Merida additionally alleges that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing propensity evidence to come in against him at trial prior to the complainant’s testimony, and that the prosecutor was likewise at fault for presenting witnesses in this order. As noted by the state supreme court, Merida did not develop these claims or present any evidence to support them. Merida II, 93 A.3d at 552. This failure constituted a waiver of these claims, see, e.g., Kaveny v. Town of Cumberland Zoning Bd. of Review, 875 A.2d 1, 10 (R.I. 2005), and thus Merida‚Äôs claim on the issue was procedurally barred. As with the raise-or-waive rule, this consistently applied procedural rule ...

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