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JAMES v. EBERT

March 3, 2004.

NATHANIEL JAMES, Petitioner, -against- ROBERT EBERT, Respondent


The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDERIC BLOCK, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Petitioner Nathaniel James ("James") seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 following his June 18, 1999 conviction on one count each of assault in the first degree, assault in the second degree, criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and reckless endangerment in the first degree. James alleges that testimony presented at his trial violated his constitutional rights under the Confrontation Page 2 Clause, and that the resulting error was not harmless. For the reasons that follow, his petition is denied.

  I.

  James' conviction arose out of an altercation between himself and an acquaintance, Erik Gamble ("Gamble"), on November 10, 1997. This altercation took place outside of the Hammels housing project in Far Rockaway, Queens, where both James and Gamble then resided. It was uncontested at trial that James shot and wounded Gamble. See Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 492. However, while Gamble testified that James had been the aggressor, "running out of [his] building shooting his gun," Tr. at 311, James testified that it had been Gamble who had initially drawn the gun, which James had then wrestled away and fired. See Tr. at 492.

  James' father, Nathaniel James, Sr. ("James, Sr."), was also charged for his role in the altercation; the two cases were severed before trial, apparently because of an inculpatory statement James, Sr. had given the police. The parties agreed that no reference should be made to his father's statement at James' trial. See Tr. at 22, 290-91.

  During the prosecution's case, Detective Dennis Gustaferri ("Detective Gustaferri") described the early steps leading to the James' arrest. Detective Gustaferri testified that he went to the James' apartment after an initial neighborhood canvass had uncovered information suggesting the perpetrator resided there. See Tr. at 372, 393. At the apartment, Detective Gustaferri had a conversation with James, Sr., see Tr. at 372, the substance of which was not disclosed at trial. After this conversation, Detective Gustaferri Page 3 interviewed Gamble at Jamaica hospital. See Tr. at 373. Gamble told Gustaferri that James was his assailant. See Tr. at 394-96.

  Following his conversation with Gamble, Detective Gustaferri returned to the James' residence. See Tr. at 373. In response to the prosecutor's questioning, the detective described what occurred as follows:
Q: And what did you do when you got to [the apartment]?
A: I had a conversation with Nathaniel James, Sr.
Q: Again, don't tell me the substance of that conversation. After you had this conversation with Nathaniel James, Sr., what did you do?
A: I went back to the 100 Precinct Squad with Nathaniel James, Sr.
Q: And what did you do with him there? Again, don't tell me the substance of any conversations. What did you do with him there?
A: I issued Miranda warnings.
Tr. at 374-75.
  Defense counsel asked to approach, to which the Court replied: "Sustained. No, you may not." Id. The following exchange then took place:
Q: Did there come a time when you placed Nathaniel James, Sr. under arrest?
A: Yes.
Q: Now, did there come a time when you had another suspect in this incident?
A: Yes.
  Q: And the name of that suspect? Page 4
 
A: Nathaniel James, also known as Nat or also known as Nate — Nathaniel James, Jr.
Tr. at 375.

  Defense counsel unsuccessfully moved for a mistrial "based on the fact that [the prosecutor] violated [an] in limine order by eliciting from the detective that Miranda warnings were given to Nathaniel James, Sr., therefore raising the inference that a statement was given." Tr. at 378.

  On direct appeal, James argued that Detective Gustaferri's testimony violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause as delineated by the Supreme Court in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). See Brief for Defendant-Appellant, at 13. In affirming his conviction, the Appellate Division noted that the above line of questioning "was improper, as it was designed to create the impression in the jurors' minds that the codefendant had implicated the defendant." People v. James, 735 N.Y.S.2d 180, 181 (2d Dep't 2001). The Appellate Division determined, however, that, "in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt," the error was harmless because "there is no reasonable possibility that the erroneously admitted evidence contributed to the conviction." Id.

  Petitioner seeks habeas relief on the sole ground that the Appellate Division's harmless error determination was an unreasonable application of the Supreme Court's decision in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). Respondent counters that the Appellate Division's determination that the questioning was improper was an unreasonable application of the Supreme Court's holding in Bruton. Because the Court Page 5 determines that the Appellate Division's harmless error holding was not an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent, it need not determine whether Bruton was violated.

  II.

  Pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), habeas relief may not be granted for claims that were adjudicated on their merits by the state court unless the state court decision (1) 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) 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). "A state-court decision is `contrary to' [the Supreme Court's] clearly established precedents if it `applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases' or if it `confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [Supreme Court] precedent.'" Early v. Packer, 123 U.S. 362, 365 (2002) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 ...


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