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Riva v. Ficco

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

September 29, 2015

JAMES P. RIVA, II, Petitioner-Appellant,
EDWARD FICCO, Respondent-Appellee


Rachel T. Rose, with whom Elizabeth Billowitz was on brief, for appellant.

Annette C. Benedetto, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Maura Healey, Attorney General, was on brief, for appellee.

Before Thompson, Kayatta, and Barron, Circuit Judges.


Page 78

BARRON, Circuit Judge.

James Riva II has filed a habeas petition in federal court that challenges his three-decades-old state murder conviction. The principal issue on appeal is whether the District Court erred in ruling that Riva had filed that petition too late, given the one-year limitations period that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) establishes for filing federal habeas petitions that challenge state convictions. We conclude that the District Court did not err, and so we affirm the petition's denial.


Riva's crime is an especially horrifying one. At about 3:00 p.m. on April 10, 1980, Riva drove to his grandmother's house in Marshfield, Massachusetts and found her lying on a couch.[1] She asked him to do some washing for her, and he did. He then retrieved from the cellar a gun and gold-painted bullets, which he had hidden in a gray-metal box. When Riva's grandmother saw the gun, she threw a glass at him. Riva shot her at least twice, stabbed her, carried her into her bedroom, poured dry gas over her, and set her on fire. Riva then left the house and drove to a nearby town to pick up his father.

The police later recovered Riva's gray-metal box from Riva's grandmother's house. Riva made repeated efforts to retrieve the box from the police. At one point, Riva even struck a police officer while trying to recover the box. Police then arrested Riva and charged him with murder, arson, and assault and battery of a police officer.

At trial, Riva argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. His mother testified at trial in support of that defense. She testified that when she visited Riva two months after the murder, he told her that " his brain was on fire, that he was sick, his stomach hurt," " that he had to

Page 79

talk to somebody," and " that the voices were really bad in his head." See Commonwealth v. Riva, 18 Mass.App.Ct. 713, 469 N.E.2d 1307, 1308 (Mass.App.Ct. 1984) (" Riva I" ). The Massachusetts Appeals Court described other aspects of the mother's testimony about what Riva had said about why he had committed the crime as follows:

[Riva] told her also that he had meditated suicide but the voice dissuaded him. Riva explained that the bullets " had to be painted gold because, if they weren't gold, they wouldn't find their mark." He went on to say, " I didn't stab her and didn't hit her on the head like they said I did, but I then drank her blood because, you know, I have to because that's what vampires do," and then, after an interval, " I didn't want it to happen, and I kept telling the voice all day that I couldn't do it."

Id. at 1309 n.4.

In further support of Riva's insanity defense, the mother also testified about distressing behavior that Riva had exhibited over the course of his life. The Massachusetts Appeals Court described this portion of the mother's testimony as follows:

At four, he had an altercation with his father and tried to call the police and, when that was prevented, attempted to injure his father. When hospitalized with pneumonia and later in kindergarten, he drew pictures of bleeding human anatomies and of people being shot. At thirteen he started drawing pictures of vampires and of women with puncture wounds dripping blood. He periodically began eating food with the appearance of blood (mixtures of oil, ketchup, parts of animals). He would go long periods without sleep and would run away. His school attendance suffered and he became involved with the police. In 1974 he was committed to McLean Hospital (a psychiatric hospital) for six months. After release, he continued out-patient treatment and also his earlier strange conduct. He was committed to a Westwood hospital because of threats to kill his father. He engaged in strange conversations with his mother and referred to " voices from outer space . . . [that] would be directing his body." He left an apartment to which he had moved, and disappeared for four months. He turned up in Florida. After his return, he killed a cat, cut off its head, and took out its brain, in an effort to learn how to " fix his own" brain. He told his mother that he had drunk the cat's blood.

Id. at 1309 n.5.

To rebut the insanity defense, the Commonwealth put on a psychiatrist who testified that, at the time of the killing, Riva was capable of conforming his behavior to the law. The Commonwealth's expert based that conclusion on his assessment of Riva's conduct on the day of the murder and on his review of ...

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