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WILLIAMS v. SPITZER

February 28, 2003

TRUMONT WILLIAMS, PETITION
V.
ELLIOT SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERAL, STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles S. Haight, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Petitioner Trumont Williams, serving a sentence imposed by a New York state court, seeks by this federal habeas corpus action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to enforce the state's alleged oral promise that if Williams cooperated with federal and state prosecutors following his guilty plea to murder charges in the state court, the state prosecutors would allow Williams to withdraw that guilty plea and plead instead to the lesser charge of manslaughter, thereby significantly reducing his sentence. After Williams rendered valuable assistance in a federal prosecution of others, the state took the position that, assuming without conceding that such a promise was given, it is unenforceable because not recorded. The state trial court agreed and sentenced Williams on his plea to murder charges. That ruling was upheld on appeal. Having exhausted his right to direct appeal in the state courts, Williams brings this federal habeas petition.

Respondent Elliot L. Spitzer, the Attorney General of the State of New York, opposing Williams' petition, contends that federal habeas relief is not available to Williams as a matter of law because (1) federal habeas review is foreclosed when a state court expressly relies on a state procedural default as an adequate and independent ground for denying petitioner relief, circumstances respondent avers exist in the case at bar; and (2) in any event, Williams' petition is barred by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") since Williams cannot show, as the statute requires, that the state court judgment is "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d)(1).

Respondent's second contention, based on the AEDPA, poses the question whether the Supreme Court's decision in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971), which considered the constitutional due process implications of a prosecutor's promise given to induce an individual to plead guilty, should be extended to the breach of a prosecutor's promise given to induce an individual to cooperate with law enforcement after having pleaded guilty. On that point this appears to be a case of first impression.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1993 petitioner Trumont Williams belonged to the C & C criminal organization, a violent group that operated in the Williamsburg area of the Bronx. C & C assigned street locations to drug dealers and charged the dealers for "rent" and protection services, which included the murder of rival dealers who did not deal with C & C. A summary of the C & C organization's activities may be found in United States v. Padilla, 203 F.3d 156 (2d Cir. 2000). Petitioner was a member of C & C's "security" forces and participated in several organization-related murders.

Initially the C & C organization and its members were investigated and charged by the Bronx District Attorney. Petitioner was indicted in the New York State Supreme Court, Bronx County, for a number of murders and attempted murders. Plea negotiations ensued. Eventually petitioner entered into a plea agreement with the state prosecutors. Petitioner promised to provide information and testimony with respect to C & C. In return, the state prosecutors agreed to accept petitioner's plea of guilty to two separate murder charges, to recommend to the state trial court an agreed-upon sentencing range with respect to those two murders, and to forego prosecution of three other murders and two attempted murders for which petitioner had been indicted. Resp. Aff. at 3; Pet. Mem. at 5, A. 1-22.*fn1

Consistent with that agreement, petitioner appeared before the state trial court (Martin Marcus, J.) on September 29, 1993 and pleaded guilty to two counts of murder in the second degree. The plea agreement is set forth in the sentencing minutes:

This promised sentence is in exchange for Mr. Williams' full cooperation in the prosecution of any and all matters under investigation now or in the future. Mr. Williams will hold himself available to testify at any stage, in any forum where the prosecution deems it necessary to call him as a witness. Mr. Williams will testify in a truthful, forthright and candid manner whenever he is called to testify.

Pet. Mem. at A. 6. In return for that cooperation, the state prosecutors agreed to recommend two concurrent sentences with minimum terms between 15 and 25 years and a maximum of life imprisonment.*fn2 The prosecutors further agreed to make known to the sentencing court the extent of petitioner's cooperation pursuant to the agreement. A. 7, 17-19. Petitioner was retained in state custody.

Eventually the depredations of the C & C organization became the subject of a joint federal-state law enforcement task force investigation. A federal indictment charging petitioner and numerous other C & C members under, inter alia, the criminal RICO statute was filed in this Court bearing docket number 94 Cr. 313 and assigned to me for trial and related proceedings. In January 1994 petitioner was transferred from state custody to the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center. Federal prosecutors, who were working with state prosecutors designated as special federal assistants in preparing the case for trial, advised petitioner of their desire to obtain his cooperation as well.

In support of the present petition. Williams asserts that in the spring of 1994 he learned that he was HIV positive. The shortened life expectancy resulting from this diagnosis caused petitioner to become concerned that he would derive no benefit from his plea agreement with the state, which subjected him to a minimum sentence of 15 years. Petitioner says in an affidavit that "I understood that my life expectancy was reduced substantially," and that "I knew that if I was sentenced to a period of time of somewhere between 15 years and life that I would probably die in prison," A. 33, 34-35, a fate that would come to pass if petitioner pleaded to a federal charge (as the federal prosecutors were insisting that he do) and then had to serve the 15 years to life state sentence to which he had agreed as part of the 1993 state plea bargain. It had also become clear to petitioner by this time that his state case would not be transferred to federal court and folded into a new federal indictment.

In these circumstances, petitioner avers, further discussions took place between petitioner, his federal attorney, federal prosecutors, state prosecutors, and city detectives. Petitioner says in his affidavit:

Before pleading guilty in federal court to racketeering charges, including murder, I talked with the detectives and prosecutors what would happen me [sic] and to my state case. In front of federal and state prosecutors and my attorney, I was told by New York City detectives that I should not worry about my Bronx case because it would be taken care of. It was obvious to me that all these people at these discussions were aware that I was being told that I would not get a greater penalty in the Bronx case should I continue my cooperation with the joint federal and state prosecution. . . .
I was told that the way for me to receive less than 15 years to life in the Bronx County would be for my pleas to murder in the second degree to be vacated and for me to be allowed to plea [sic] to manslaughter in the first degree. I was explained to this by Mr. Barocas and some of the prosecutors. Since this was the only way not to get a 15 to life sentence, I assumed that the promises made that I would be taken care of and not "fucked" meant that I would be allowed to withdraw my plea to the murder charges and be sentenced after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the first degree.

A. 33-35. These assurances and reassurances were oral. They were neither memorialized nor mentioned in any writing. Petitioner does not contend otherwise.*fn3

Petitioner continued his cooperation with the federal prosecutors and the state prosecutors assisting them. On November 23, 1994, petitioner pleaded guilty to a superseding criminal information in this Court, S6 94 Cr. 313. While petitioner did not testify at the trials generated by the federal C & C indictment, he gave valuable cooperation to the prosecutors. Assistant United States Attorney Margery Feinzig submitted a 5K1.1 letter to me before I sentenced petitioner on his federal plea.*fn4 She stated that with his inside knowledge of how the organization operated, petitioner had "played an essential role in the Government's investigation and prosecution of the members of C & C"; she credited petitioner's cooperation with leading to the conviction of twenty defendants in all. AUSA Feinzig added that petitioner had provided "valuable information that led to the prosecution of numerous extremely dangerous individuals," and that by doing so, had placed himself "at grave risk." Having come to know members of the C & C organization, I have no trouble believing that assertion.*fn5

On January 29, 1997, I sentenced petitioner to a three-year term of imprisonment, followed by five years of supervised release. During the sentencing hearing I recommended (having no power to make an order) that when the state court imposed the state sentence on petitioner, it be made to run concurrently with the federal sentence.*fn6

Petitioner was again brought before the state court for sentencing on his initial 1993 plea to the two state murder charges. The state prosecutors refused to consent to petitioner withdrawing his plea to the murder charges and substituting a plea of guilty to manslaughter, stating that they would continue to recommend that the state court impose the minimum 15 year term of imprisonment contemplated by the 1993 plea agreement. Dissatisfied with that response, petitioner moved unsuccessfully in the state trial court for an order permitting him to withdraw his original plea or, in the alternative, for specific enforcement of the state prosecutors' "new promises." Pet. Main Brief at 12. On August 5, 1999 Justice Marcus, accepting the recommendation of the prosecutors, sentenced petitioner to two terms of 15 years to life, to run concurrently with each other and with the previously imposed federal sentence.

The state courts have denied petitioner any post-sentencing relief, in rulings further described in Part II.A., infra. This federal habeas petition followed. Petitioner's constitutional claim is that his due process rights were violated when the state trial court refused either to enforce the promise the state prosecutors made to him to induce his continued cooperation with the federal prosecutors, or to permit him to withdraw his state guilty plea. As for relief, petitioner asks this Court to direct the state court "to either (i) specifically enforce the promise by permitting petitioner to withdraw his current plea and to re-plead to first-degree manslaughter with a minimum sentence of no more than 10 years' incarceration; (ii) permit petitioner to withdraw his guilty plea; or (iii) immediately release petitioner from custody." Main Brief at 29-30.

II. DISCUSSION

Respondent raises a threshold procedural bar to this habeas petition. He argues that the state courts rested their judgments on an adequate and independent state ground, thereby precluding this ...


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