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COX v. DONNELLY

June 12, 2003

RODNEY COX (95-A-0751), PETITIONER,
v.
EDWARD R. DONNELLY, SUPERINTENDENT OF WENDE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; AND ELIOT SPITZER, NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL, RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jack Weinstein, Senior District Judge.

JUDGMENT & ORDER

A hearing was held in this matter. Petitioner's counsel was present in person and petitioner was present by telephone. The petition for a writ of habeas corpus is granted.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The following recitation of the facts of the case is based primarily upon the opinion of the New York Court of Appeals affirming petitioner's conviction for second degree murder.

On October 13, 1993, petitioner was visiting Tanisha Brewster when her boyfriend, Eric Copeland, forced his way into her apartment. Once inside, Copeland, nicknamed "Bear" because of his size, told petitioner to leave. When petitioner refused, Copeland punched petitioner twice, knocking him to the floor. Petitioner left the apartment. Then Copeland left.

Later that day, petitioner telephoned Brewster and arranged to stop by her apartment to retrieve the Walkman he had left behind. Petitioner — now armed with a nine-millimeter automatic handgun — entered Brewster's bedroom. Minutes after petitioner's arrival, Copeland also returned to the apartment, forcing his way inside when Brewster opened the door to admit a friend. Repeatedly told to leave, Copeland refused, demanding to know who else was in the apartment. Copeland and Brewster then went into her mother's bedroom, shouting. While Copeland and Brewster argued, petitioner, still alone in Brewster's bedroom, loaded his handgun.

Copeland began walking toward Brewster's bedroom. Brewster attempted to hold Copeland back. He kicked and shoved her, forcing his way into her room. There, petitioner was standing in the corner holding his gun. At first the men talked calmly. The conversation deteriorated into angry argument. After fifteen minutes, Copeland said, "What are you going to do, shoot me?" In response, petitioner fired one fatal bullet into Copeland's head.

The dissenting judges on the Court of Appeals noted that several months earlier, petitioner's friend told him about a prior incident in which Copeland had attacked the friend in a jealous rage over another girl, wielding a beer bottle as a weapon and persisting in the assault despite receiving multiple defensive stabbings until the police intervened.

Petitioner was charged with murder in the second degree and criminal weapons possession. At his jury trial, the Supreme Court refused to charge the defense of justification to terminate a burglary. During deliberations, the jury sent out a note asking for the "legal definition of intent to kill." The next day the jury wrote that it was "hopelessly deadlocked." Ultimately the jury found petitioner guilty of second degree murder.

On appeal, petitioner argued (1) that the trial court erred in failing to give a justification charge; (2) that the court's instruction on intent to kill was erroneous; (3) that the trial court deprived petitioner of a his right to present a defense by precluding evidence that the victim had previously chased a man with a gun; and (4) that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the court's charge on intent to kill. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction. Leave to appeal was granted by the New York Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed, discussing at length whether the trial court properly declined to issue a justification instruction to the jury. Two dissenting judges insisted that a justification instruction should have been given. The Court of Appeals also summarily denied on the merits the remainder of petitioner's claims, including his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to object to an improper intent instruction.

In the present petition for a writ of habeas corpus, petitioner claims only that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the court's instructions concerning intent to kill. The claim has been exhausted and has not been procedurally defaulted.

II. AEDPA

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), a federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner on a claim that was "adjudicated on the merits" in state court only if it concludes that the adjudication of the claim "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

An "adjudication on the merits" is a "substantive, rather than a procedural, resolution of a federal claim." Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 313 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Aycox v. Lytle, 196 F.3d 1174, 1178 (10th Cir. 1999)). Under the "contrary to" clause, "a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than this Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000) (O'Connor, J., concurring and writing for the majority in this part). Under the "unreasonable application" clause, "a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 413, 120 S.Ct. 1495. ...


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