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May 12, 1972

UNITED STATES of America ex rel. Gustavo LOPEZ, Petitioner,
Hon. John L. ZELKER, etc., Respondent

Frankel, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: FRANKEL

FRANKEL, District Judge.

On June 16, 1967, petitioner shot and killed Michael Descartes. The next day he left for California (and then Mexico), and he did not return to New York until some months later.

 On July 24, 1967, petitioner was indicted by a New York County grand jury for first-degree murder. A federal arrest warrant was issued for him on December 1, 1967, for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murder.

 On April 18, 1968, in Queens County, New York, petitioner was arrested by FBI Agent Donald E. Bullard pursuant to the federal warrant. He was warned of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), and was taken to FBI headquarters in Manhattan. At FBI headquarters, he was given a form enumerating the Miranda rights and announcing a waiver of them. He read it, said he understood, and signed it. He agreed then to give an oral account of the killing, and he did so, but he refused thereafter to sign a written statement.

 Lopez did not know at the time that he had already been indicted. He evidently assumed, or hoped, that he would be charged with no more than manslaughter. Agent Bullard, knowing of the outstanding indictment for first-degree murder, did not report this information to petitioner. *fn1"

 Lopez agreed to give a statement to the federal agents. He stated that he had been going with Nancy Soba but they had fought and parted. On the night of the shooting, Lopez went to an "after hours" club at the Shelton Towers Hotel. He stated that he knew that Nancy Soba often went there but that he did not know she would be there that night. Miss Soba was there, and Lopez was conversing with her when Descartes came up to them and started an argument. Fearing that Descartes was going to attack him, Lopez drew his gun and hit Descartes on the head with it. Lopez stated that Descartes then reached for his pocket and, thinking he was going for his gun, Lopez shot him. He then ran downstairs and went to his apartment, where he took the gun apart. The next day, according to the statement reported by Agent Bullard, Lopez drove to the Triborough Bridge and threw pieces of the gun into the water. Later that morning, Lopez said, he left for California accompanied by Carmen Virruet, with whom he had been living for some months.

 Lopez was then brought to this courthouse and taken before a commissioner. The commissioner dismissed the federal charge and turned him over to the state authorities. He was brought to the office of an assistant district attorney, who informed him that he had been indicted for first-degree murder. Lopez exhibited shock upon hearing this, saying he had thought the charge would be manslaughter. He was then given his Miranda warnings once more, and he again said that he would make an oral statement but not a written one.

 Following a pretrial evidentiary hearing on the admissibility of petitioner's statements, Supreme Court Justice Joseph A. Martinis held that the statement to FBI Agent Bullard was admissible because "the defendant intelligently understood the warnings and knowingly expressed this waiver of his constitutional rights." He held inadmissible the statement made to the assistant district attorney, ruling that "defendant intelligently understood the warnings but did not meaningfully and expressly waive his rights."

 At petitioner's trial, the main prosecution witness -- the only eyewitness -- was Nancy Soba, who stated that she had lived with petitioner intermittently from April 1964 to September 1966; that on the night of the killing, she (with others, including Descartes) first encountered petitioner at a bar, where he threatened to kill her if she did not love him any longer; that petitioner had then left, vowing to return soon. Shortly after 3:30 a.m., she continued, she and Descartes, with others, were having a drink at the Shelton Towers club when petitioner reappeared. Petitioner ordered her out; Descartes intervened; Lopez drew a pistol and struck Descartes with it. As Descartes reached for his bloodied head, she continued, petitioner shot him in the chest, and then, as she tried to hold the victim, petitioner shot him again, in the head. Miss Soba recounted other details after the shooting, including petitioner's threat to kill her, that further buttressed the case for the prosecution.

 Lena Gaytan, a member of the party with Nancy Soba, testified that she had been in the ladies' room when she heard two shots fired and that she encountered Nancy upon emerging, then saw petitioner backing down a hallway and waving a gun. Her testimony partly corroborated, partly differed from, Miss Soba's.

 Carmen Virruet reported petitioner's return home in the early morning hours of June 16. She testified he told her then he had shot a man who had been with Nancy Soba when petitioner ordered her to leave the club. According to her, petitioner said the victim had started to protest or threaten, had been hit on the head by petitioner, had made motions petitioner construed as reaching for a gun, and had then been shot by petitioner.

 The prosecution also proved that parts of a dismantled gun taken from petitioner's apartment were from the murder weapon, contrary to petitioner's statement to Agent Bullard about throwing it off a bridge. The evidence for the state concluded with Agent Bullard's account of that statement in full.

 Except for one other witness whose testimony was not of great consequence, the petitioner's testimony for himself was the defense. Petitioner admitted the shooting, but claimed self-defense. He swore that Descartes had been with another man that night in a bar; that both of them had threatened him on prior occasions; that he had known Descartes as a seller of drugs, who carried a gun. He reported that in the minutes preceding the shooting it was Nancy who had approached him, entreating him to take her home with him; that Descartes came over, intervened, threatened and struck petitioner. Then, petitioner swore, he had drawn his gun and struck Descartes, whereupon another man, summoned to help by Descartes, came toward them. Nancy shrieked for Descartes to kill petitioner. Descartes reached inside his coat. Then, petitioner said, he fired. Other details further contradicted the account given by Nancy Soba as well as his reported statements to Carmen Virruet and Agent Bullard.

 The jury, on January 23, 1969, found petitioner guilty of murder in the second degree, and he was sentenced to a term of from 25 years to life in prison. The Appellate Division affirmed ...

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