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Bebo v. Medeiros

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 3, 2018

JOSEPH A. BEBO, Petitioner, Appellant,
SEAN MEDEIROS, Acting Superintendent, Respondent, Appellee.


          Elizabeth Prevett, with whom Federal Defender Office was on brief, for petitioner.

          Thomas E. Bocian, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Bureau, with whom Maura Healey, Attorney General of Massachusetts, was on brief, for respondent.

          Before Lynch, Selya, and Lipez, Circuit Judges.


         With respect to federal habeas review of state criminal convictions, Congress has ordained an especially deferential standard of review, which compels us to look only at federal constitutional law as clearly established by the Supreme Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). This deferential standard sometimes results in situations in which a state court ruling may be deemed to pass constitutional muster on habeas review even though an identical federal court ruling might be deemed reversible error on direct review under circuit precedent. Thus, the question of what our circuit's case law would suggest is not before us in this habeas case. Based on Supreme Court case law, we conclude that the challenged state court ruling was neither contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Consequently, we affirm the district court's dismissal of the habeas petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         We briefly rehearse the facts and travel of the case. On November 14, 2005, petitioner-appellant Joseph A. Bebo took part in a street fight in Brockton, Massachusetts. The fight, which stemmed from a dispute over the price of marijuana, involved two groups: one from Brockton and the other from nearby Stoughton. The petitioner was a member of the Stoughton group, as was Raymond Muse. During the melee, Carl Schirmer (a member of the Brockton group) was stabbed in the chest. Schirmer later died from his wound and the police charged the petitioner with the murder.

         During the petitioner's trial in the state superior court, Muse testified that the petitioner had said that "he might have stabbed somebody and it might have went through." On later questioning, Muse agreed that the petitioner's statement was "to the effect that [he] felt the knife go in." The petitioner did not take the stand. The defense argued, though, that the police had failed to conduct a thorough investigation, and he suggested that Muse was the person responsible for Schirmer's murder. In his summation, the prosecutor cautioned the jury not to get "fooled with [the defense's] classic strategy" of playing "the blame game." The jury accepted the prosecution's version of the incident and found the petitioner guilty of murder in the second degree. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 1. As required by state law, see id. § 2(c), the trial justice sentenced him to life imprisonment.

         The day after the jury returned its verdict, the petitioner's attorney went into the jury deliberation room to retrieve a television set. Upon entering the room, he discovered a book on the window ledge. The book, written by Ann Coulter, bore the title Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America (Guilty). Inside the book was a piece of paper containing the handwritten names of the petitioner's attorney, the prosecutor, and the trial justice.

         The "About the Author" page describes Coulter as "[a] graduate of Cornell University and University of Michigan Law School," who "clerked for the Honorable Pasco Bowman II of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and served as a litigator with the Center for Individual Rights." Broadly, the book argues that liberals use false claims of victimhood - both on behalf of themselves and groups such as minorities, the poor, and single mothers - to try to gain the upper hand over conservatives. For example, in a chapter entitled "Victim of a Crime? Thank a Single Mother," Coulter asserts that "derelicts and liberals" both "see themselves as the passive victims of circumstances, with no control over their own lives." She quotes an English doctor writing under the pen name "Theodore Dalrymple" describing how three murderers in a prison used the same passive-voice phrase to attempt to separate themselves from responsibility for their crimes: "the knife went in." In Dalrymple's words, "[t]hat the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome." Coulter adds, "[i]t's the same thing with battered women who act as if they could not possibly have foreseen the violent tendencies in their boyfriends."

         The book also contains a passage disparaging defense attorneys who, according to Coulter, "lie remorselessly on behalf of child murderers, self-righteously informing us that this is 'part of the process.'" At another point, the book discusses the trial of O.J. Simpson, who Coulter declares "got[] away with two heinous murders."

         Promptly after finding the book in the jury room, the petitioner's counsel filed a motion in which he asked the court to conduct a jury inquiry on the basis that the book constituted "extraneous" material that could have improperly influenced the jurors' deliberations. After a non-evidentiary hearing, the trial justice denied the motion even though he found that the petitioner had made a "showing . . . that the book did belong to a juror, [and] was brought [to court] by a juror." He grounded his ruling on a conclusion that the book was not "extraneous" material requiring a jury inquiry, and stated that he "fail[ed] to see how the Book related to [the petitioner's] case, the parties involved in [the petitioner's] case, or the issues presented at trial." The trial justice added that the book was a "general political and social commentary from an author who may well be seen by some, or even many, as a provocative right-wing conservative," which was not even arguably relevant, save for "a few isolated passages containing general commentary about defense attorneys that 'lie,' 'violence against women,' . . . references to 'stabbings,' and the O.J. Simpson case."

         As an anchor to windward, the trial justice further found that, even if the book could be regarded as "extraneous" material, the petitioner had failed to show that it was considered during the jury deliberations, as jurors are presumed to follow the court's instructions. And the trial justice went on to find that, in all events, there was no prejudice to the ...

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