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Case Number: 5-20-cv-00361
Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Cheryl Sturm
Defendant's Attorney: Katherine R. Kurnas and Ronald Eisenberg
Description: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania civil rights lawyer represented Plaintiff seeking a writ of habeas corpus.
Lawrence Gaines was convicted in Pennsylvania state
court of first-degree murder under 18 PA. CONS. STAT. § 2502.
After pursuing direct and collateral proceedings in
Pennsylvania, Gaines petitioned for habeas relief pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2254. The District Court granted Gaines’s
petition. That court held that Gaines’s trial counsel was
ineffective for not objecting to the trial court’s omission of a
jury instruction that no adverse inference could be drawn from
Gaines’s election not to testify in his own defense.
Gaines served as the “muscle” in a house known locally
for drug dealing. Early on July 3, 2012, William Thompson,
also known as “Poncho,” knocked on the door of the house
looking to buy drugs. Tony Williams, a visitor in the house,
told Thompson that the house was “closed,” denied him entry,
and told him to leave. But Thompson kept knocking and
asking to come in, even after Williams told him to quiet down
so that neighbors would not complain to the police.
Eventually, Gaines walked outside to confront
Thompson and an argument ensued. Williams joined the two
other men and tried to calm them down. Suddenly, “[o]ut of
nowhere, [Gaines] hit Poncho.” App. at 378. Gaines
punched Thompson, knocking him to the ground, and he
continued to beat Thompson until Williams pulled him away.
After Thompson got up from the ground, he began to
walk down the street, but then paused to pick up a wooden post.
He ran towards Gaines, hitting him across the back with the
post. Both men fell, and when Gaines stood up, he grabbed a
knife from his pocket. Looking at Thompson, Gaines said
something to the effect of “oh, it’s like that? Yeah, it’s like
that.” App. at 384. Gaines then stabbed Thompson multiple
times. Once again, Williams pulled Gaines off of Thompson.
A forensic expert later testified that Gaines stabbed
Thompson five times: twice to the right buttock, once to the
right posterior thigh, once to the right bicep, and once to the
right groin. The wound to the right groin perforated
Thompson’s femoral artery, resulting in hemorrhaging that
caused his death.
When confronted by the police the next day, Gaines lied
by denying he had anything to do with Thompson’s death. The
detective who interviewed Gaines noted that he did not appear
to be injured; Gaines did not seek medical attention after the
fight. Roughly a week after this interview, a family who lived
near the scene of the fatal confrontation found a knife covered
in blood in their backyard. The police took custody of it, and
their forensic experts found Thompson’s DNA on the knife.
Outcome: We conclude that the District Court erred. Gaines’s trial
counsel made a reasonable tactical choice when he did not
object to the trial court’s failure to give the requested no-
adverse-inference instruction as part of its charge to the jury.
We will, therefore, reverse the District Court’s order granting
habeas relief and remand for further proceedings.