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Alfredo Companonio v. Steven O'brien

March 5, 2012

ALFREDO COMPANONIO, PETITIONER, APPELLANT,
v.
STEVEN O'BRIEN, RESPONDENT, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. F. Dennis Saylor, U.S. District Judge]

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Howard, Circuit Judge.

Before Boudin, Lipez and Howard, Circuit Judges.

Alfredo Companioni appeals the district court's denial of his request for habeas corpus relief from a life sentence imposed after his 1987 Massachusetts conviction for first degree murder. 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The crux of the petition is Companioni's claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in his murder trial because his attorney failed to pursue a defense based on his mental illness. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") rejected the ineffective assistance claim, finding both that Companioni had been competent to stand trial and assist in his defense, and that he had instructed his attorney not to present a mental impairment defense. See Commonwealth v. Companonio, 833 N.E.2d 136 (Mass. 2005).*fn1 We affirm.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

We recount the facts as recited by the SJC, supplementing them with other record facts that are consistent. Yeboah-Sefah v. Ficco, 556 F.3d 53, 62 (1st Cir. 2009); Healy v. Spencer, 453 F.3d 21, 22 (1st Cir. 2006).

During the evening of May 19, 1986, Companioni and Santos Lopez arrived at the apartment of Gilbert Nohoya in Brockton, Massachusetts. The three were friends, and Companioni had been living in Nohoya's apartment for several months. Shortly after arrival, Companioni got into a brief argument with Nohoya, who brandished a knife. Tempers cooled; the knife was put away; and the altercation apparently concluded without further incident. A short time later, Nohoya mentioned that the following day was his birthday. To celebrate, each of the men drank a bottle of champagne, and Companioni and Lopez snorted several lines of cocaine. The trio then went for a drive in Companioni's car, and took turns firing Companioni's .22 caliber automatic pistol into the air. Afterwards, they returned to Nohoya's apartment.

Later in the evening, Companioni's cousin, Celia Vasquez, stopped by Nohoya's apartment. The three men were drinking at the time, and Vasquez later testified that all three appeared to be drunk. Vasquez went into a bedroom with Nohoya and Companioni, where Nohoya apparently touched Vasquez, causing Companioni to become "a little bit upset." Vasquez left shortly thereafter, and the men continued to drink.

Several hours later, Companioni announced that he was going to go out and get "the pistol" so that they could "try out the .38." Within five minutes after leaving the apartment, he returned with a .38 caliber handgun. Upon his return, Companioni said "Let's go for a ride," and then without warning fired once at Nohoya and once at Lopez. Nohoya was hit in the chest, and Lopez was hit on the finger. Nohoya died within a minute of being shot. Lopez escaped out a back door and called the police from a nearby payphone, as Companioni drove away. The police found Companioni the following morning, sleeping at a friend's nearby apartment. He was arrested and charged with killing Nohoya.

At his trial on a single count indictment charging him with first degree murder, Companioni unsuccessfully urged the jury to find that someone else could have shot Nohoya, that the killing had been accidental, or that he had been too impaired by alcohol or drugs to form the specific intent to kill.*fn2 Upon conviction, he was sentenced to life without parole.

II. POST-CONVICTION PROCEEDINGS

A. Motion For New Trial

Almost five years after his conviction, Companioni filed a motion for a new trial in which he advanced an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on trial counsel's failure to present a mental impairment or illness defense. The Superior Court granted the motion, but on appeal the SJC directed the Superior Court to conduct an evidentiary hearing and, specifically, to take testimony from trial counsel about the nature and the extent of the defendant's instructions to him concerning trial strategy. Commonwealth v. Companonio, 650 N.E.2d 351, 351 (Mass. 1995).

At the evidentiary hearing, held before the same judge who had presided over Companioni's trial, the court heard not only from trial counsel but also from four doctors, three of whom had evaluated Companioni before his trial. Defense counsel testified that because he had become aware of mental health issues affecting Companioni, he had retained an expert, Dr. Robert Moore, to examine him. Dr. Moore concluded that Companioni was not suffering from any major mental disorder and was competent to stand trial and to assist in his defense. Companonio, 833 N.E.2d at 141; see also Commonwealth v. Companioni, Crim. No. 82617, Order on Defendant's Motion For New Trial at 4 n.3 (Mass. Super. Sept. 6, 2000) ("New Trial Order"). He also found "no substantial evidence" that Companioni "lacked the capacity to appreciate the nature of his actions or that he was unable to conform his behavior to the . . . law at the time of the offense," and concluded that Companioni was responsible for his behavior at the time of the killing. New Trial Order at 4 n.3.

As a result of Dr. Moore's findings, trial counsel testified, a "classic insanity defense" did not appear viable. Companonio, 833 N.E.2d at 141. Counsel further testified that despite Dr. Moore's report, he continued to press Companioni, through an interpreter, about the possibility of pursuing a defense based on mental disease or defect. Companioni appeared to understand what was being discussed, and rejected counsel's entreaties, both denying that he committed the crime and saying that "crazy people go to hell." Id. at 142. Counsel further testified that on the first day of trial, he met with Companioni, his brother and an interpreter provided by the court and again suggested presenting a mental impairment defense. Companioni, however, remained steadfast in his opposition. Counsel testified that he concluded at that point that Companioni understood the options that had been presented and had made a decision. Although defense counsel disagreed with Companioni's decision, he abided by it. Companioni and his brother both testified that these meetings and conversations never took place, and that counsel never suggested the possibility of pursuing a defense based on mental illness or impairment.

In addition to being examined at counsel's request by Dr. Moore, Companioni had also been transferred three times prior to trial to Bridgewater State Hospital to address mental health concerns. The first hospitalization, in June 1986, followed Companioni's complaints of hearing voices at night. (It was this transfer that triggered defense counsel's consultation with Dr. Moore.) He was examined by Dr. Jorge Veliz, the hospital's director of clinical services, to determine both his competency to stand trial, see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 123, § 15(b),*fn3 and his fitness to await trial in jail, see id. § 18(a)*fn4 . Dr. Veliz diagnosed Companioni with schizo-affective and personality disorders, as well as cocaine dependency, but also concluded that he was competent to stand ...


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