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ADAMS v. GREINER

April 27, 2004.

NYEEM ADAMS, Petitioner, -v- CHARLES GREINER, Superintendent, Respondent


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GERARD E. LYNCH, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Nyeem Adams petitions for a writ of habeas corpus following his conviction in Bronx Supreme Court for murder. The jury found that Adams brutally beat to death one James Smith, rejecting defenses of justification (based on theories of self-defense and defense against burglary) and lack of causation (based on doubts Adams attempted to raise about the medical examiner's testimony and the claim that the blows Adams admitted to striking were not severe enough to cause Smith's death), and Adams was sentenced to imprisonment for 25 years to life. Adams raises a multitude of claims of constitutional error in the proceedings against him. None of them warrants overturning his conviction, and, accordingly, the petition will be denied.

  Adams's claims have been extensively litigated, and repeatedly rejected, in the state courts, through both direct appeal and post-trial motions. See, e.g., People v. Adams, 688 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dep't 1999); People v. Adams, No. 8439/94 (Bronx Cty. Sup. Ct., Sept. 17, 2003) (Bamberger, J.); People v. Adams, No. 8439/94 (Bronx Cty. Sup. Ct., Sept. 27, 2000) (Bamberger, J.). After filing this habeas petition and receiving the state's opposition questioning whether one part of one claim had been properly exhausted, Adams requested that the petition be held in abeyance to permit him to present that argument to the state courts. The Court granted this request in an Order dated April 14, 2003, and Adams then presented the arguably unexhausted argument along with a host of other claims in yet another state collateral attack. Adams's arguments were again rejected by the trial court, People v. Adams, No. 8439/94 (Bronx Cty. Sup. Ct., Sept. 17, 2003) (Bamberger, J.), and the Court was informed by both Adams and the Bronx County District Attorney's Office that leave to appeal was denied by the Appellate Division on March 15, 2004. Adams timely reported this result to this Court by letter dated March 29, 2004, and asked that his petition be restored to the calendar. The petition is now ripe for review.

  BACKGROUND

  In reviewing Adams's many claims for relief, it is important to recall the basic facts presented at his trial. The evidence establishes that on October 25, 1994, Adams brutally and repeatedly beat Smith about the head with a piece of wood, variously described as a bed slat or two-by-four. The prosecution produced two eyewitnesses to this attack, as well as the medical examiner's testimony, and Adams admitted as much in his own testimony, although he disputed the number of blows that were struck. The defense vigorously cross-examined the medical examiner, but the overwhelming evidence supported the conclusion that Smith's injuries were devastating, that his death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head and neck, and that he had no chance of surviving the beating Adams administered. Adams testified that he had encountered Smith in a corridor inside the building, in close proximity to the apartment where Adams lived with his mother, sister and nephew, near a window ledge that could be reached from the corridor, and that Smith attacked him with a knife when he challenged Smith's presence. The defense also presented evidence that Smith had been observed, more than two weeks before the killing, on a window ledge in proximity to the apartment where Adams lived with his mother, sister, and nephew.*fn1 Adams was permitted to argue that he struck Smith in self-defense and to prevent a burglary, but not that he acted in defense of another, specifically, to protect his three-year-old nephew from sexual assault by Smith. The trial judge concluded that the undisputed evidence showed that the attack took place on the street, and that Adams's nephew was throughout the attack inside the apartment and safe — indeed, remote — from any possible imminent attack. In any event, the jury rejected Adams's claims of justification and found him guilty of second-degree murder by killing Smith without intent, but with a high degree of recklessness amounting to depraved indifference to human life, in violation of N.Y.P.L. § 125.25(2).

  Adams's story was contradicted by a number of witnesses. Adams testified that the alleged fight in the hallway was observed by a security guard. But the security guard on duty in the building testified that he saw no altercation whatsoever in the hall that day, and that he called the police when he was advised of the beating of Smith outside the building. Adams testified that after the attack, he went to a class at Bronx Community College, and described the incident to his professor, who told him he'd done the right thing. But on rebuttal, the prosecution called the teacher, who flatly stated that Adams had no such conversation with her, and that she did not observe the eye injury that he testified he'd received from Smith's knife. Adams testified that he had only hit Smith four or five times, and that the victim had no marks on him. But the eyewitnesses testified to seeing far more blows, and both witnesses and the police officer who arrived on the scene immediately thereafter described devastating injuries to Smith.

  In this Court, Adams argues that his constitutional rights were violated in a number of respects. The Court has carefully considered these arguments and thoroughly reviewed the record. Such a review is necessitated because Adams sets forth a large number of claims in very compressed, and often misleading, statements that assume a detailed knowledge of the trial events. This opinion, however, can be relatively brief, because Adams's claims have been repeatedly reviewed in the state courts, and little purpose would be served by repeating yet again the extensive discussions of the facts contained in some of those decisions.

  Finally, before addressing Adams's specific claims, the Court pauses to note the limited nature of habeas corpus review. Habeas corpus is not an extension of the appeals process in the state court. Rather, it is a remedy for violations of a defendant's rights under the federal constitution, and a very narrow remedy at that. This Court may not grant the writ on the basis of a constitutional claim that was presented to and decided by the state courts unless the state adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of," Supreme Court precedent. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). Nor may the Court address arguments, subject to the narrowest exceptions, that were rejected by the state courts on the adequate and independent state grounds of procedural default. Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518 (1997); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991). With that background, the Court turns to Adams's specific arguments.

  DISCUSSION

 I. Defense of Justification

  Adams first argues that he was prevented from arguing to the jury his defense of justification by defense of a third party. The argument clearly states a claim of denial of a federal constitutional right, since, as the Supreme Court has recognized, the right to present a defense is one of the "minimum essentials of a fair trial" protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 294 (1965). But whether a particular belief or state of mind constitutes a defense depends on the definitions of the crime charged, and of various defenses, under state law. A defendant has no federal constitutional right to present a "defense" consisting of evidence that he acted with a mental state or for a purpose that is irrelevant to his guilt as a matter of substantive state law.

  Under N.Y.P.L. § 35.15(1), the defense of another person constitutes a justification for the use of force only where the accused "reasonably believes" that force is "necessary" to defend a third party "from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force." Justification for the use of deadly force is further limited by additional requirements, such as that the force being defended against is "deadly" or that the target is "committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, forcible rape, forcible sodomy, or robbery." N.Y.P.L. § 35.15(2). Adams sought to offer evidence that he believed Smith was a violent pedophile who presented a danger to Adams's young nephew. The trial court carefully held a lengthy hearing, outside the presence of the jury, to test the admissibility of this proffered defense. The evidence at the hearing established that Smith had been arrested for allegedly masturbating on the window ledge outside Adams's apartment on October 7, 1994. Taken in the light most favorable to the defendant, the evidence also indicated that Adams had been told (by a person who did not testify) that Smith had a record of arrests for sexual assaults against adults, that Smith was a pedophile, and that Smith had admitted to the informant that he had tried to enter the Adams apartment on October 7 and that on that occasion he had been masturbating while watching Adams's nephew. The court concluded that under New York law, Adams's asserted belief that he was defending his nephew against forcible sodomy was not a defense and could not be the subject of testimony at the trial, because at the time of Adams's attack on Smith, more than two weeks after the October 7 incident, Smith was nowhere near the child, and there was no basis for the jury to determine that Adams could have had a reasonable belief either that Smith was presently engaged in assaulting Adams's nephew or that such an assault was "imminent." This conclusion was affirmed by the Appellate Division, which held that
Even when examined in a light most favorable to defendant, there was no reasonable view of the evidence, including the evidence presented by defendant in his offer of proof, that defendant used deadly physical force in defense of his nephew, who was inside an apartment, far from the street where the deadly altercation occurred.
Adams, 688 N.Y.S.2d at 1.

  This determination, which appears to this Court to be entirely correct as a matter of state substantive criminal law, cannot be an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent. The applicable federal principle is that a defendant is denied due process if he is not permitted to offer evidence supporting an applicable defense. That principle does not supersede state substantive determinations of the conditions under which the use of force is justified, nor does it trump reasonable rules of evidence and procedure. See, e.g., Zarvela v. Artuz, ___ F.3d ___, 2004 WL 739845, at *3 (2d Cir. Apr. 7, 2004). Here, the state courts correctly concluded that the testimony Adams wished to offer did not permit a reasonable jury to find the kind of imminent threat of violence that state law requires to establish the justification of defense of others. Refusing to instruct the jury on that justification, or to permit Adams to testify to his alleged belief (which no reasonable jury could find to have been reasonable) that Smith was about to sodomize his nephew, deprived Adams of no federal constitutional right.

 II. Limitation of Cross-Examination

  Adams claims that he was denied a fair trial by the trial court's limitation of his attempted cross-examination of the prosecution's rebuttal witness. Adams had testified that he attacked Smith in self-defense after Smith had threatened and cut him with a knife, and that he had so stated on the day of the incident to a teacher of his. The teacher testified in rebuttal that Adams had not spoken to her about the incident, and that she did not observe any injuries when he attended class that day. Adams claims that the trial court erred by refusing to permit him to cross-examine the witness about the extent of her recollections of other events on that day.

  On direct appeal, the Appellate Division rejected this claim on the ground that Adams had failed to preserve the claim as a matter of state law, because, after the trial court had sustained objections to his questions, Adams "`simply proceeded to another subject, never calling to the trial court's attention the purpose of the question[s], or disputing the People's claim that [they were] irrelevant, or in any way attempting to call the court's attention to the nature of the alleged error.'" Adams, 688 N.Y.S.2d at 1, quoting People v. George. 67 N.Y.2d 817, 819 (1986). This independent state ground of procedural default precludes review by this Court absent a showing of cause and prejudice. Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72 (1977). Adams has not attempted to make such a showing.

  At any rate, the Appellate Division went on to hold that if it were to review this argument, "we would find that the court properly exercised its discretion in limiting collateral and cumulative questioning." Adams, 688 N.Y.S.2d at 1. Such a ruling would have been correct on the merits. While Adams does not spell out in the present petitions the questions he claims he should have been allowed to ask, in his brief on direct appeal he specified as error the court's sustaining objections to a few questions about whether the witness could recall the names of other students, or whether she had conversations with other students on that day. See Brief for Defendant-Appellant to the Appellate Division, at 27 (annexed as Exh. 1 to the Affidavit of Albert J. Ceva in Opposition to the Petition). A trial court has broad discretion over the length and scope of cross-examination. See, e.g., United States v. Wilkerson, 361 F.3d 717, 734 (2d Cir. 2004); United States v. Rivera, 971 F.2d 876, 886 (2d Cir. 1992). Here, the trial court permitted extensive questioning going to the witness' memory of the day in question, eliciting that she could ...


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