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Annunziato v. Manson

decided: November 21, 1977.


The grant of a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner by the District Court for Connecticut, Blumenfeld, J., is affirmed. The Court of Appeals held that where the District Court found that one of two main prosecution witnesses had testified falsely that he had received no promise of leniency when, in truth, he had made a bargain to escape imprisonment on pending charges and the prosecutor knew, or should have known of that fact, the finding of the District Court would be respected, even though the Connecticut Supreme Court, while conceding that there had been error, had held the error to be harmless. The constitutional right to cross-examine for bias and interest about promises made in connection with pending indictments is not satisfied simply by allowing examination only concerning past favors to the witness by the authorities. Nor did the District Court err in finding that disclosure of the promise to the jury could have created, in the circumstances of the particular case, a reasonable doubt as to petitioner's guilt that did not otherwise exist.

Gurfein and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges, and Albert W. Coffrin, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Gurfein

GURFEIN, Circuit Judge:

Connecticut appeals from the granting by the District Court for Connecticut, Blumenfeld, J., of a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner, Salvatore Annunziato, unless the State retries him within sixty days. Judge Blumenfeld originally wrote an opinion granting the writ without an evidentiary hearing since neither party had requested one. United States ex rel. Annunziato v. Manson, 425 F. Supp. 1272 (D. Conn. 1977). We dismissed the State's appeal to permit it to move for an evidentiary hearing below. Thereafter an evidentiary hearing was held and the Judge reaffirmed his decision in an unreported supplemental memorandum. This appeal followed.

Annunziato is presently serving a nine-to-fourteen-year sentence in a Connecticut prison on a 1971 conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. His original appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court was denied on September 16, 1975, State v. Annunziato, 169 Conn. 517, 363 A.2d 1011 (1975). He then brought this petition for habeas corpus in the District Court, contending that the failure of the State to disclose exculpatory evidence concerning the interest and bias of a key witness was a denial of his constitutional right of confrontation, as well as a violation of the responsibilities of the prosecutor under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 10 L. Ed. 2d 215, 83 S. Ct. 1194 (1963). The district judge dismissed the petition on the ground that petitioner had failed to exhaust his remedies in the state court. Thereafter, petitioner sought a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Connecticut which was denied after a hearing. A Petition for Certification for Review to the Connecticut Supreme Court was denied on July 15, 1976. Petitioner, having exhausted his state remedies then renewed the writ in the federal court.

The facts leading to petitioner's conviction are stated in detail at 425 F. Supp. at 1274-75 and are set forth in the margin.*fn1 So far as the points now raised by petitioner are concerned, the significant testimony at his conspiracy trial was that of the State's witness, Bruce Pino. Pino testified that he overheard a conversation between petitioner and his son at a restaurant the day after the intended murder victim, Edward Gould, was shot by petitioner's son, Frank, and another man, Richard Biondi, who was given a ride by Gould. In this conversation, Pino overheard petitioner say to Frank "You can't do anything right." Pino also testified to a hearsay conversation preceding the attempted murder in which Biondi*fn2 asked Pino to "take Regina [his girl] home because I have some business to do for Midgie [petitioner Salvatore Annunziato]." Thus, Pino connected petitioner to the shooting by the declaration of an alleged co-conspirator before the shooting and with a circumstantial admission of petitioner after the shooting.

Edward Gould testified to being shot. He implicated petitioner only by reference to a colloquy between himself and Annunziato in March 1970 when he asked petitioner "Why did you try to kill me?" To which petitioner replied, "You killed my brother-in-law, Sonnie Gondak." On cross-examination, Gould conceded that the first statement implicating petitioner was given by him to the police at the same time that he pleaded to reduced charges of conspiracy to commit bank robbery.*fn3 The plea was made four months before his trial testimony against petitioner in state court, and Gould admitted that he had not been sentenced at the time of trial. Gould also acknowledged that the colloquy with Annunziato occurred in the context of a discussion about Annunziato's finding some alibi witnesses for Gould in his bank robbery trial.

Thus, the connection of petitioner to the attempted murder of Gould was based upon the testimony of Gould and Pino. The judge permitted cross-examination concerning Gould's possible desire for favorable treatment on charges still pending against him, but refused to allow cross-examination on Pino's pending charges in an effort to show bias and interest. Indeed, Pino testified that he had made no bargain on his current arrests and refrained from mentioning some serious charges against him which were pending while he testified. The State's Attorney made no effort to correct Pino's testimony that he had no agreement with the State.

The first claim, that there had been a denial of the constitutional right of confrontation, was argued on the appeal from the conviction to the Connecticut State Court. The second claim, that the State had permitted Pino to perjure himself on whether he had a deal concerning pending charges was not before the Supreme Court of Connecticut, because the existence of that bargain did not come to light until some time later.

As to the first claim, the Supreme Court of Connecticut held that it was error to prevent the defendant from eliciting evidence that charges were pending against him (and another witness, Judith Papero) to which they had not pleaded guilty, for the purpose of showing "an expectation or hope on the part of the witnesses for immunity or leniency in the disposition of their own cases," 169 Conn. 517, 363 A.2d 1011, 1016. The court conceded that "although there was independent evidence of the defendant's guilt other than the testimony of Pino, his testimony tended toward proof of the crime charged." 363 A.2d at 1017 (emphasis added). Nevertheless, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that, because Pino had admitted previous convictions, had acknowledged that when he talked to the police about the Gould incident "just prior to being tried for bank robbery . . . he was hoping for leniency", and had admitted that he subsequently received a suspended sentence, "the court's ruling to exclude the cross-examination of Pino's narcotic arrest was error, but it was harmless." Id.

Judge Blumenfeld agreed with the Connecticut Supreme Court that the exclusion of the evidence of bias was error, but disagreed that it was harmless error. Relying on Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 318, 39 L. Ed. 2d 347, 94 S. Ct. 1105 (1974), that the denial of the "right to effective cross-examination . . . would be constitutional error of the first magnitude and no amount of showing of want of prejudice would cure it" Brookhart v. Janis, 384 U.S. 1, 3, 16 L. Ed. 2d 314, 86 S. Ct. 1245 (1966); Smith v. Illinois, 390 U.S. 129, 131, 19 L. Ed. 2d 956, 88 S. Ct. 748 (1968), he noted that "Pino's observations plus Annunziato's statement to the victim two years after the shooting comprised the state's major evidence against the accused" 425 F. Supp. at 1276. As the district court also pointed out, Judge Martin, the state habeas judge, had conceded that "without [this testimony] a conviction might not have been obtained." Id.

Judge Blumenfeld found that "if petitioner had been allowed to inquire with respect to these arrests, he could have demonstrated Pino's present expectation of police and prosecutorial aid and protection in return for his testimony. . . . Here, the jury was left without any direct evidence as to what power the State could still exert over Pino's freedom," 425 F. Supp. at 1276-77.

We thus face the question with respect to the first claim whether the federal court should have honored the state court's ruling that, in the context of petitioner's trial, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The State concedes that it is difficult to determine whether the state court concluded that the error was harmless under state evidentiary law or federal constitutional standards.*fn4

In federal habeas proceedings, the federal court is not bound by a holding that constitutional error was "harmless." Cf. United States ex rel. Washington v. Vincent, 525 F.2d 262, 267 (2d Cir. 1975); Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 316, 9 L. Ed. 2d 770, 83 S. Ct. 745 (1963). The affirmance of a conviction by a state court on the ground of harmless error should not foreclose federal reconsideration in a habeas corpus proceeding of the degree of harm inflicted by an error of constitutional magnitude. See Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 318, 39 L. Ed. 2d 347, 94 S. Ct. 1105 (1974); Napue v. Illinois, ...

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