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ALLAWAY v. McGINNIS

January 30, 2004.

WAVERLY ALLAWAY, Petitioner -against- MICHAEL McGINNIS, Superintendent, Southport Correctional Facility, Respondent


The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR MARRERO, District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Pro se petitioner Waverly Allaway ("Allaway") was convicted of assault in the second degree after a jury trial in the New York State Supreme Court, Bronx County (the "Trial Court"). The trial judge found Allaway to be a persistent violent felony offender and sentenced him to an indeterminate prison term of twenty-five years to life. In this petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Allaway argues that an evidentiary ruling at his trial deprived him of his due process right to a fair trial under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that the length of his sentence is excessive. For the following reasons, the Court denies Allaway's petition.

I. FACTS AND PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

  On August 3, 1998, Allaway stabbed Gregory Pearce ("Pearce") in the chest inside the Franklin Avenue Men's Shelter (the "Shelter"), a homeless shelter where both men Page 2 resided.

  Allaway was prosecuted for attempted murder, assault in the first degree, and assault in the second degree, all stemming from the stabbing. At trial, Allaway admitted stabbing Pearce but maintained that he did so in self-defense.

  Over defense objections, the Trial Court allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence about an earlier incident on the day of the stabbing, in which Allaway hit a third resident of the Shelter with a bottle or pipe. The defense objected that the incident with this other resident was a prior bad act that was irrelevant and highly prejudicial, and should not be admitted. In explaining its decision to allow the prosecution to introduce some evidence regarding the incident, the Trial Court acknowledged that "specific allegations involving hitting someone with a bottle" would be more prejudicial than probative "when measured against the need for this evidence." (Trial Transcript of People v. Allaway, Ind. No. 6419-98, beginning Oct. 30, 2000, Supreme Court, Bronx County, Criminal Term: Part 52 ("Transcript"), at p. 89.) But the Trial Court concluded that some reference to the incident was necessary to complete the narrative of the day's events for the jury and to provide an explanation for the behavior of the Shelter's staff members towards Allaway. The Trial Court concluded that some reference to this incident would help the jurors understand Page 3 why staff members of the Shelter were focused on Allaway and were able to identify him easily.

  During the trial, Pearce testified that he had heard about an incident earlier on the day of the stabbing in which Allaway had hit another resident with a bottle or pipe. (See Transcript beginning Oct. 30, 2000, at 220-21.) The Trial Court then instructed the jury that Pearce's testimony "regarding his having heard about a separate incident is not offered for the truth of what this witness says he heard and you are not to consider it for its truth. Rather, the testimony regarding what the witness heard is offered as background and to explain the conduct of people other than the defendant." (Transcript beginning Oct. 30, 2000, at 225.) Later in the trial, Sam Scruggs, a security guard for the Shelter, testified that earlier on the evening of the stabbing, he had heard that someone had hit a resident of the Shelter with a pipe. (Transcript beginning Oct. 30, 2000, at 323.) But Scruggs also testified that he did not know until after the stabbing that Allaway was the person who had hit the resident in that earlier incident. (Transcript beginning Oct. 30, 2000, at 341.)

  At the conclusion of the trial, the jury acquitted Allaway of attempted murder and assault in the first degree, and convicted him of assault in the second degree. The Trial Page 4 Court sentenced Allaway as a persistent violent felony offender, and imposed the maximum authorized sentence of twenty-five years to life in prison.

  Allaway appealed his conviction and his sentence to the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department (the "Appellate Division"). He argued that the testimony regarding the incident between Allaway and a third resident at the Shelter was irrelevant to the crime charged and was so highly prejudicial to Allaway that it deprived him of his due process right to a fair trial under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Allaway also argued that his sentence was excessive given that he was convicted of only the least serious of the several charges against him.

  The Appellate Division affirmed his conviction. See People v. Allaway, 742 N.Y.S.2d 198 (App. Div. 1st Dept. 2002). That court stated that the testimony regarding the altercation between Allaway and another resident of the Shelter on the same day as the stabbing "was relevant to complete the narrative and to explain why shelter employees would have remembered this particular defendant from among the hundreds of residents at the shelter." Id. The court also determined that Allaway "was not unduly prejudiced by the uncharged crime evidence, particularly in view of the court's strong limiting instructions and its exclusion of the most Page 5 prejudicial aspects of the incident." Id. Finally, the Appellate Division found no reason to alter Allaway's sentence. See id. The New York Court of Appeals denied Allaway's application for leave to appeal. See People v. Allaway, 776 N.E.2d 1 (N.Y. 2002).

  In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus before this Court, Allaway raises the same claims he raised before the Appellate Division.

  II. DISCUSSION

 A. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR HABEAS PETITIONS

  A federal district court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a person who is in custody as a result of a state court conviction only if that custody violates the United States Constitution or federal laws or treaties. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). More specifically, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d)(1), this Court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner whose claims were decided on the merits by a state court only if the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by ...


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