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Nicola Christopher Bucci v. Timothy E. Busby

March 12, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge


I. Introduction

Petitioner is a state prisoner, proceeding through counsel, with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his 2009 conviction for two counts of second degree murder. He is serving a sentence of twenty-three years to life.

On February 16, 2012, a hearing was held regarding petitioner's motion to stay this action pending exhaustion of additional claims. William L. Schmidt appeared on petitioner's behalf. Dorian C. Jung appeared on respondent's behalf. For the following reasons, petitioner's motion should be granted.

II. Factual Background

Knowledge of the factual background of petitioner's offenses is helpful in evaluating the pending motion. For that reason, the factual summary contained in the opinion of the California Court of Appeal is set forth herein:

A. Prosecution Case

1. Eye-witnesses Johnson and Fender

Witness Kim Johnson testified that around 6:30 p.m. on November 17, 2006, she was driving eastbound on Highway 12, a two-lane highway. Traffic was heavy in both the eastbound and westbound lanes. Johnson was driving at the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. She looked in her rear view mirror and saw a silver SUV pass her vehicle in the westbound lane, then pull in front of her vehicle in the eastbound lane. The silver SUV was "driving really fast." Johnson estimated its speed at 65 to 70 miles per hour.

Passing was prohibited in this section of Highway 12. Nevertheless, the silver SUV pulled back into the westbound lane and accelerated up a hill, attempting to pass more vehicles. At the crest of the hill, the SUV collided head-on with a small red car in the westbound lane. The SUV flipped in the air and landed in a field. The small car was severely damaged and burning in the westbound lane.

Johnson pulled over and ran to the small red car. The driver was screaming, and Johnson said she would get her out of the vehicle. A man (whom Johnson identified at trial as Bucci) also approached the small vehicle, and Johnson asked him "to go check the SUV to see if anybody was in the SUV was okay [ sic ]." Bucci responded, "It was me, I was driving." Johnson asked Bucci to help her extract the driver from the burning vehicle. Bucci threw up his hands and said, "Oh, my God. What I have done [ sic ]?" When Johnson again asked Bucci to help her, Bucci responded, "I can't," and walked away. Another person at the scene (Jerry Fender) helped Johnson remove the driver from the burning red car.

Jerry Fender testified that he was driving eastbound on Highway 12 around 6:30 p.m. on November 17, 2006. He confirmed that Highway 12 is a two lane highway with one eastbound lane and one westbound lane, with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Fender was travelling about 50 miles per hour behind two "semi tractor trail[e]rs." An SUV passed his vehicle at about 70-80 miles per hour, even though there was "a solid yellow line on the east bound lane indicating no passing." FN2 The SUV did not veer or move erratically, but proceeded in a "straight-ahead, aggressive passing maneuver like you would normally do on a flat stretch of road." The SUV accelerated eastbound in the westbound lane, passing one of the semi-trailers and attempting to pass the second. When the SUV reached the crest of a hill, it collided head-on with a red Toyota.

FN2. On the night of the accident, Fender told the police he believed that Bucci's vehicle was traveling 65 to 70 miles per hour. By either account, it was at least 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

After passing the collision, Fender made a U-turn, stopped his vehicle, and turned on his hazard lights to prevent other vehicles from colliding with the wrecked Toyota, which had come to a stop in the westbound lane. The SUV ended up in a field. When Fender saw that the Toyota was on fire, he retrieved a fire extinguisher from his vehicle and approached the Toyota, where he saw a woman and three young children inside.

2. Victim Jackson

Victim Regina Jackson testified that, around 6:30 p.m. on November 17, 2006, she was returning home to Fairfield from Rio Vista in her red Toyota Corolla. In the car with her were three passengers: her children Jordan and Immanuel; and Demari H., the child of a friend.

As Jackson drove westbound on Highway 12, she suddenly saw a "car coming head-on into us passing two diesel trucks-trying to pass two diesel trucks coming over a hill." Jackson testified, "I tried to go over to the right, but I couldn't. There was nowhere I could go." There was a head-on collision just as she crested the hill.

As a result of the collision, Jackson suffered debilitating injuries, including a broken femur, knee, hip, and foot, with additional injuries to her forehead, eye, and mouth. She remained in the hospital for over two months. Imannuel and Demari H. died as the result of the injuries they suffered in the accident; Jordan became paralyzed from the waist down.

3. Investigation

Jason Bryant, an emergency medical technician, responded to the scene. Bryant contacted Bucci and found him to be uninjured except for pain in his elbow and back. Bucci stated he was the driver of one of the vehicles in the collision. He told Bryant that he believed he "fell asleep at the wheel." Bucci appeared emotionally upset and in tears, but was "cogent and responsive" to questions and gave "logical, reasonable answers."

California Highway Patrol Officer Patricia Rodriguez conducted an accident investigation at the scene. She confirmed there was a solid yellow line indicating a no-passing zone for eastbound traffic going up the hill where the collision occurred. She concluded that the red Toyota was going westbound and was struck head-on by the SUV that was travelling eastbound in the westbound lane.

California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Ervin also responded to the scene. Ervin contacted Bucci, who was cogent and lucid and admitted he was the owner and driver of the SUV. According to the officer's report, Bucci told the officer: He "momentarily fell asleep, dozed off, realized he was traveling in the wrong lane. Tried to speed up to pass a truck that was alongside of him. Saw the victim vehicle coming towards him. And swerved to the left, and the impact took place."

Officer Ervin asked Bucci if he had any health problems that might have contributed to the accident. Bucci replied that he had sleep apnea, but he denied being tired at the time of the accident. He did not claim to have been exposed to any substance that could cause him to lose consciousness.

Based upon witness interviews and investigation of the scene, Officer Ervin concluded that Bucci had violated the Vehicle Code by crossing over a solid yellow roadway line that prohibited passing and by attempting to pass while going up a hill. In short, Ervin asserted, Bucci was "attempting to pass a passenger vehicle and two semi-trucks uphill going the wrong way." The officer acknowledged that it was highly dangerous to drive well in excess of the posted speed limit in order to pass multiple vehicles approaching the crest of the hill.

It was stipulated that testing found no drugs or alcohol in Bucci's system. There were no skid marks on the road indicating that Bucci tried to apply his brakes before the collision.

4. Bucci's Prior Fatal Collision in 1994

The prosecutor introduced evidence that Bucci was involved in a head-on collision on Highway 80 in January 1994. Travelling westbound, Bucci's pickup truck proceeded on the right shoulder for over one thousand feet, then veered across the two westbound lanes and the dirt center median before colliding head-on with a Cadillac sedan in the eastbound lane. The occupants of the Cadillac died as a result of the collision. At the scene, Bucci told California Highway Patrol Officer Ty Brown that he had been up all night gambling at casinos in Reno. He also admitted drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Bucci stated that he apparently fell asleep or blacked out while driving and awoke just before the collision. Officer Brown concluded that the circumstances of the accident were consistent with Bucci's claim.

B. Defense ...

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