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STEELE v. DUNCAN

October 13, 2004.

WILLIAM STEELE, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGE DUNCAN, SUPERINTENDENT, GREAT MEADOW CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HAROLD BAER, JR., District Judge[fn1] [fn1] Moriah Adamo, a summer 2004 intern in my Chambers, and currently a second-year law student at Touro Law Center, and Howard Zakai, a fall 2004 intern, and a third-year law student at New York Law School provided substantial assistance in the research and drafting of this Opinion.

OPINION & ORDER

William Steele ("Steele") petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (d)(2) (1996). First, Steele claims that the handling and destruction of "palm-print" evidence resulted in a due process violation and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in contravention of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Second, Steele claims that the evidence was insufficient to find guilt beyond reasonable doubt and that the circumstantial evidence presented at trial was not supported by direct evidence. For the following reasons, Steele's habeas corpus petition is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

  A. Factual Background

  On March 20, 1995, a jury in New York State Supreme Court, Bronx County convicted Steele of one count of murder in the second degree, pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(3), and one count of burglary in the first degree, pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 140.30(2), for the murder of Ernest Botteon ("Botteon") and the burglary of Botteon's apartment.

  The underlying facts in this case are undisputed and the Court assumes familiarity with the discussion of the background facts as set forth in Magistrate Judge Douglas F. Eaton's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), dated March 30, 2004. They do not need to be repeated but for those that bear specifically on the petitioner's objections.

  On September 29, 1992, Botteon was murdered in the bedroom of his Bronx apartment. At trial, the prosecution demonstrated that officers arriving on the scene discovered Botteon's body obstructing access to the bedroom door. The police noticed that blood was spattered on the wall, the bedroom windows had been bolted shut, and the mattress was covered in blood. (Tr. at 62:13-62:25). The detective found a bloody ski near the body and a stack of two Carlo Rossi wine boxes near the bedroom door (Tr. at 138:23), on top of which he saw "[w]hat appeared to be a blood impression. Possible palm print [sic]." (Id. at 176:7-12). Ultimately, lab reports revealed Steele's prints matched the "bloody" palm-print found on the wine box.

  The defense presented no evidence. Through cross-examination and summation, however, the defense attempted to discredit the prosecution's case by suggesting that the prosecution had failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Steele had left the print during the commission of the crime or that the print was left in blood. Specifically, the defense noted, "[w]hat they fail to prove is when, how, where, under what circumstances and, most of all, what is the print of or in [i.e., was the substance blood]?" (Tr. at 421:12-14).

  In summation, the prosecution argued that after beating Botteon to death, Steele was trapped in the bedroom by bolted windows and Botteon's 210-pound body, and had to escape the scene through the top half of the door, just as the officers had entered. The prosecution argued that during his exit, Steele placed his bloodied hand on the wine box for leverage, whereby leaving the print.

  B. Procedural History

  On March 20, 1995, a Bronx County jury found Steele guilty of one count of murder in the second degree and one count of burglary in the first degree. Judge Marcus sentenced Steele, who had a prior violent felony conviction, to prison terms of 25 years to life and 12-1/2 to 25 years, to run concurrently.

  Steele appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, First Department, asserting essentially the same claims raised herein. The Appellate Division affirmed Steele's conviction, finding: (1) "the inference is inescapable that the substance in which the defendant's palm-print was impressed on the cardboard box was made from the victim's blood"; (2) the claim for suppression of the palm-print evidence as a sanction for the destruction of potential exculpatory evidence was unpreserved; and, (3) Steele had received effective assistance of counsel. People v. Steele, 731 N.Y.S.2d 685, 686-87 (1st Dep't 2001), appeal denied, 97 N.Y.2d 688 (2001), motion for reconsideration denied, 97 N.Y.2d 734 (2002).

  Steele filed the instant habeas corpus petition on December 9, 2002. On February 1, 2003, this Court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Douglas F. Eaton ("Magistrate Judge Eaton") for a R&R. On March 30, 2004, Magistrate Judge Eaton issued the R&R, advising denial of Steele's petition in its entirety. Magistrate Judge Eaton found: (1) there was sufficient direct evidence to support the circumstantial evidence relied upon by the jury; (2) "[t]he Brady claim is utterly lacking in merit"; and, (3) the destruction of the ...


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