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SANTORELLI v. COWHEY

December 8, 2000

ANTHONY SANTORELLI, PETITIONER,
V.
JAMES R. COWHEY, JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, ROCCO A. POZZI, COMMISSIONER, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NEW YORK, AND ELIOT L. SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERAL, NEW YORK, RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parker, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Anthony Santorelli filed this Petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging his 1998 conviction on charges of tampering with physical evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the Petition is denied.

BACKGROUND

Petitioner was tried in Supreme Court, Westchester County on four counts of tampering with physical evidence, namely, the bloody clothing worn by the killers of Louis Balancio — a knifing victim — on February 4, 1994. An FBI agent witnessed the Petitioner disposing of bloody clothes in two plastic trash bags behind a fast food restaurant in the Bronx hours after Balancio was murdered. The results of tests conducted in the FBI laboratory revealed that petitioner's fingerprints were found both on the inside and the outside of one of the bags. Tests further confirmed that the blood on the clothing was that of Balancio.

On March 19, 1998, Petitioner was found guilty on all four counts, and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 1 and 1/3 to 4 years. The judgment of conviction was stayed pending appeal by order of the New York Appellate Division upon $350,000 bail. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on December 6, 1999, and the New York Court of Appeals followed by affirming on October 26, 2000. Petitioner was ordered to surrender on November 1, 2000.

Petitioner filed an emergency petition in federal court for a stay of his sentence pending a determination of his federal habeas claim. Following a hearing before Part I Judge Lewis Kaplan on October 31, 2000, Petitioner was granted a temporary stay from the execution of judgment pending a further hearing on his stay application. The application was granted by this Court on November 15, 2000, staying the execution of his sentence pending an expedited determination of this habeas Petition on the merits.

Mr. Santorelli sets forth a single exhausted claim as the basis of his habeas Petition — namely, that the state trial judge, Justice James Cowhey, incorrectly instructed the jury on the meaning of "reasonable doubt," depriving him of his federal constitutional rights to due process. In his charge, Justice Cowhey instructed the jury, in relevant part, that:

You do not have to believe that he is guilty to such a degree that there can be no possibility of doubt about it. The law does not require that because nothing in this life is so absolutely certain that it can be proven that completely; but you do [sic], if you're going to convict the defendant after being satisfied of his guilt in a way that leaves you without any reasonable doubt of it. Those words "reasonable doubt" means nothing more or less than the two words themselves mean.
You know perfectly well what is doubt. It's something that makes you unsure or uncertain. If your doubt is simply of the fleeting or minimal type, it's not a basis for avoiding the conclusion or for avoiding the determination of the facts in this matter. A reasonable doubt goes a good deal further. A reasonable doubt is a doubt for which you have what appears important to be a reason based upon the evidence in the case or lack of evidence in the case. It refers to a good deal more than a mere possibility. If such reasonable doubt remains after all of the proof has been given, then the People have not established guilt under our law. If you do not have a reason — something that a reasonable person would recognize as making sense for that doubt — you should disregard that doubt if you have [sic] otherwise convinced of guilt. But if you have a reasonable doubt, one based upon the testimony in this case, one that seems to make sense, not just some kind of mere whim or impulsive idea or some kind of emotional gut reaction, because that would not be a reasonable doubt, or if you have a reason based upon the lack of evidence in the case, on one of the essential elements of the crime charged and thereby they are being considered by you [sic], then you have come up with a reasoning for voting not guilty.
Now in order to understand this term "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," I am going to approach its definition both from the positive as well as from the negative point of view.
Firstly, from the negative point of view, I will tell you what the term is not. The term does not refer to just any kind of a doubt, such as a mere whim, a guess, a surmise or even a feeling that the accused may not be guilty. . . . It is not a requirement of proof beyond all doubt. It is not a requirement of proof to some kind of mathematical or scientific certainty. On the other hand, it's not proof that the defendant is guilty by a mere preponderance of the weight of credible evidence.
Now having indicated to you what that term is not, we shall now approach the definition from the positive point of new. And I will tell you what reasonable doubt is. A reasonable doubt is a doubt which you conscientiously have at the use of your power of reasoning which arising [sic] out of the credible evidence or lack of credible evidence. It is a doubt for which you have a reason. And when you're convinced that you have no doubt in reason of the defendant's guilt then that is sufficient and you must render a verdict accordingly.

Transcript of Proceedings, at 1016-19 (emphasis added).

In particular, Petitioner contends that because of the underlined portions of the charge above — that a reasonable doubt "goes a good deal further" than a fleeting or minimal doubt, and is "a good deal more than a mere possibility" — the jury was ...


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