United States District Court, S.D. New York
October 13, 2004.
WILLIAM STEELE, Plaintiff,
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.
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
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 palm-print did not amount to bad faith.
Magistrate Judge Eaton opined that Steele's innocence was
"preposterously unlikely." (Id. at 20.)
On May 4, 2004, Steele filed objections to Magistrate Judge
Eaton's R&R in its entirety.
Steele challenges his conviction on two grounds. First,
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), Steele claims that the
government acted in bad faith and violated due process in
treating and destroying potentially exculpatory evidence, and
that his counsel's ineffectiveness violated his Sixth Amendment
right to counsel. Second, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2),
Steele claims that the jury convicted him without sufficient
evidence, and the circumstantial evidence presented at trial was
not supported by direct evidence, thus creating a reasonable
doubt as to his guilt.
A. Standard of Review
Federal courts have limited power to review criminal
convictions from state courts. Section 2254(d) of Title 28, as
amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of
1996 ("AEDPA"), provides:
An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf
of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a
State court shall not be granted with respect to any
claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State
court proceedings unless 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); see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693
(2002). Further, "it is not the province of a federal habeas
court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law
questions." Ponnapula v. Spitzer, 297 F.3d 172
, 182 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting
Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991)). In conducting a
habeas review, federal courts are limited to deciding whether a
conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the
United States. Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68. A federal court
deciding a habeas claim must presume a state court's factual
findings to be correct, unless the petitioner rebuts the factual
findings by clear and convincing evidence.*fn2
28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).*fn3
The R&R is objected to virtually in its entirety, therefore I
will review Steele's claims de novo.
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c).*fn4
B. Ability to Assert §§ 2254(d)(1) and (d)(2) Claims
Steele argues, correctly, that it is proper to assert both §§
2254(d)(1) and (d)(2) claims in a habeas petition.*fn5
First, the language of the statute does not foreclose a
petitioner's right to assert claims under both sections. Second,
the Second Circuit has previously analyzed claims asserted
concurrently under both subsections. See Davis v. Strack,
270 F.3d 111, 133 (2d Cir. 2000). Therefore, it is proper for
petitioner to bring claims under both subsections.
C. Claims Asserted Pursuant to § 2254(d)(2)
1. Sufficiency of Fingerprint Evidence
While it is undisputed that the jury based its verdict on
circumstantial evidence alone, which is permissible, See Maldonado v. Scully, 86 F.3d 32, 35 (2d
Cir. 1996), Steele also argues that the circumstantial evidence
presented was insufficient to establish his guilt because the
prosecution failed to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that
Steele left his bloody palm-print during the commission of the
murder. Steele contends that by failing to offer direct evidence,
the jury was left to deliberate based solely on inference placed
upon inference. Pet'r Reply Mem. at 2-5.
Steele does not claim that the judge gave an improper
circumstantial evidence charge. In fact, the charge construes New
York law on circumstantial evidence more favorably to the
petitioner than other New York courts have required.*fn6
After hearing this charge, it is not "reasonably likely" that the
"jury understood the instructions to allow conviction based on
insufficient proof." Millan v. Keane, 97 Civ. 3874, 1999 WL
178790, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 1999) (citing United States v.
Birbal, 62 F.3d 456, 462 (2d Cir. 1995)).
Steele does claim, however, that it was unreasonable for the
jury to conclude, on the basis of the circumstantial evidence
presented, and after applying the evidence to the law, that
Steele was guilty of burglary and murder. On collateral review,
the habeas court must construe all findings of fact in the
light most favorable to the prosecution. Jackson v. Virginia,
443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). The petitioner is entitled to habeas
relief "only if no rational trier of fact could find proof of
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence adduced at
trial." Ponnapula v. Spitzer, 297 F.3d 172, 179 (2d Cir.
2002).*fn7 He bears a "very heavy burden" in a case grounded
in an insufficiency of the evidence claim. Ponnapula,
297 F.3d at 179.
Pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(3), a person is guilty of
murder in the second degree when "in the course of and in
furtherance of [burglary] or immediate flight therefrom, he or
another participant . . . causes the death of a person other than
one of the participants." Thomas v. Fischer, 03 Civ. 5388, 2004
WL 725636, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 2, 2004). "A person is guilty of
burglary in the first degree when he knowingly enters or remains
unlawfully in a dwelling with intent to commit a crime therein, and when, in effecting entry or while in the
dwelling or in immediate flight therefrom, he or another
participant in the crime . . . causes physical injury to any
person who is not a participant in the crime." N.Y. Penal Law §
140.30(2). The "defendant's intent to commit a crime may be
inferred from the circumstances of the entry." People v.
Gaines, 74 N.Y.2d 358, 362 n. 1 (1989).
The evidence presented, taken together, points conclusively and
exclusively to Steele's guilt. First, Cotters testified that he
"noticed that there was a broken window" next to the fire escape
(Tr. at 75:23-24), "multi locks on the door" (Id. at 60:12),
and "bolted" bedroom windows. (Id. at 63:18). He also "observed
blood splattered on [the bedroom] wall," and noted that the "bed
[was] in disarray" with "a lot of blood on the mattress itself."
(Id. at 62:15-17). Further, Steele's prints matched the
palm-print found on the wine box, near the bedroom door, whereby
placing Steele in Botteon's apartment. (Id. at 382: 24-25; 391:
8-10). Although the cardboard wine box was portable, it was found
in an area generally inaccessible to the public Botteon's
bedroom. See People v. Urquidez, 773 N.Y.S.2d 567, 567 (2d
Dep't 2004) (evidence sufficient to establish guilt where
defendant's print found on box kept in area inaccessible to
public); Torres v. Fischer, 03 Civ. 3862, 2004 WL 50871, at *6
(S.D.N.Y. Jan. 12, 2004) (evidence sufficient to establish guilt
where defendant's prints were found on objects that held stolen
jewelry, as victim had recently cleaned objects and defendant was
never allowed access into victim's home).
Notwithstanding the interesting facts this case presents, the
jury's decision was not unreasonable. While it is true that the
defendant lived in the victim's neighborhood, there was no direct
evidence suggesting the defendant was an acquaintance of the
victim so as to have a reason to have access to the apartment.
See, e.g., Parsad v. Greiner, 337 F.3d 175, 183 (2d Cir. 2003)
(state court's determination that the defendant was not in
custody was unreasonable in light of failure to consider the
admitted evidence that the defendant's pants were seized by
police). Although it is theoretically possible that the defendant
had contact with the wine box before its entry into the victim's
apartment, the fact remains that the defendant's print was found
in a private dwelling, completely inaccessible to the public.
Objectively, it was not unreasonable for the jury to have
dismissed these alternative explanations or to have excluded to a
moral certainty "every reasonable hypothesis of innocence." See Urquidez, 773 N.Y.S.2d at 167.
This conclusion is significantly buttressed by the fact that
Steele's print was left in a red substance, which was heavily
laden with protein and amino acids the characteristic elements
of blood (Tr. at 360:8-13) and which was perceived by expert
witnesses to be that of blood. (Id. at 176). The wine box
bearing this print was found in a bedroom full of blood, near
Botteon's blood-soaked body. Finally, the wine box was placed
near the bedroom door, exactly where the murderer, trapped by
bolted windows and Botteon's corpse, would have placed his hand
while shimmying out of the bedroom. On this evidence, it was
reasonable for the jury to conclude that Steele burglarized
Botteon's apartment and murdered him.
For the same reasons that the state court's decision was not
unreasonable under § 2254(d)(2), Steele also fails to rebut the
state court's factual findings or determinations of factual
issues by clear and convincing evidence. 22 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1);
Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 341-42. The petitioner's explanations
that Steele had an opportunity to come into contact with the wine
box on the street or that the substance was grease are inadequate
to form a rebuttal amounting to clear and convincing evidence.
See, e.g., Bhuiyan v. Burge, 04 Civ. 744, 2004 WL 1895235, at
*5 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2004) (failure of claim under § 2254(e)(1)
where defendant offered "no evidence, much less `clear and
convincing evidence,' to rebut the presumption of correctness
afforded [the] findings"). There is a significant difference
between a jury considering the inference from direct evidence and
what we have here. It was thus the province of the jury to
disregard the petitioner's explanations and treat them as
inadequate to rebut the finding that the defendant left his print
during the commission of the crime. Steele thus failed to
establish that the state court's decision relied on an
"unreasonable determination of the facts," as required for relief
pursuant to § 2254(d)(2), and failed to rebut the state court's
determination of facts by clear and convincing evidence, as
required by § 2254(e)(1).
2. Successive Inferences
Steele also argues that the evidence presented by the
prosecution at trial required the jury to make successive
inferences (1) the red substance in which Steele's print was
found was blood, and (2) Steele left the print in the blood
during the commission of the crime. In cases such as this, "the
facts upon which inferences must be drawn must themselves be
satisfactorily established and must be of such a character as, if true, to exclude to a moral
certainty every other hypothesis but that of the guilt of the
accused, and that the ultimate fact may not be based on inference
upon inference." People v. Lewis, 275 N.Y. 33, 39 (1937).
Therefore, Steele is correct that "[c]ivil liberties are too dear
to permit conviction for crimes which are only implied and which
can be spelled out only by adding inference to inference."
United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 332 (1941). He is also
right that "[a]n inference must be based, not upon other
inferences, but upon proven fact." People v. Rende,
33 N.Y.S.2d 791, 792 (Westchester Co. Ct. 1942). The prohibition against an
"inference upon inference" simply means that the jury cannot
"make inferences which are based not on the evidence presented,
but rather on unsupported assumptions drawn from evidence
equivocal at best." People v. Seifert, 548 N.Y.S.2d 971, 975-76
(4th Dep't 1989) (citation omitted). In circumstantial evidence
cases, the goal is to ensure that the jury does not "leap logical
gaps in the proof offered and draw unwarranted conclusions based
on probabilities of low degree." People v. Kennedy,
47 N.Y.2d 196, 202 (1979). The petitioner's argument is thus unavailing.
D. Claims Asserted Pursuant to § 2254(d)(1)
1. Pre-trial Alteration of the Palm-Print
Steele asserts that the destruction of the palm-print for blood
type testing, by the application of the chemical agent
ninihydrin, violated his due process rights. Assuming arguendo
that petitioner's destruction of evidence claim is preserved for
habeas corpus review, this Court finds the claim wholly lacking
in merit. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,
insofar as it has any relevance here, requires the government to
disclose to defendants favorable evidence material to guilt or
punishment. See California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 480
(1984); United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 104 (1976); Brady
v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). However, "unless a criminal
defendant can show bad faith on the part of the police, failure
to preserve potentially useful evidence does not constitute a
denial of due process law." Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51,
58 (1988). "The police do not have a duty to preserve all
material that might be of conceivable evidentiary significance.
This is especially true when the exculpatory value of the
evidence is purely speculative." People v. Williamson,
657 N.Y.S.2d 318, 320 (N.Y. Co. Ct. 1997) (citing Trombetta,
467 U.S. 479).
Here, Wells, a latent fingerprint development for the NYCPL,
treated the print with ninhydrin in order to search for latent prints instead of testing
the print for blood type. While it is possible that it would have
not have jeopardized the latent print testing had Wells first
performed a blood-type test, Wells was not obligated to perform
all potentially useful tests. The police are not under a
constitutional duty to perform any particular test. Youngblood,
488 U.S. at 59.*fn8 Steele has thus failed to establish that
the government violated his due process rights when it treated
the print with ninhydrin prior to performing blood type testing.
2. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Steele asserts that his trial counsel's (1) repeated failure to
object to the description of the substance in which the
palm-print was found as blood, when the prosecution had not
conclusively established that the substance was indeed
blood,*fn9 in conjunction with his counsel's (2) failure to
raise a Brady claim, in response to Wells' alteration of the
"bloody" substance, biased the jury and amounted to ineffective
assistance of counsel, in violation of his Sixth Amendment
rights. Neither claim meets the high burden necessary to
establish ineffective assistance of counsel. Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
In order to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a
petitioner must: (1) establish that "under prevailing norms of
practice," the representation "fell below an objective standard
of reasonableness," and (2) "affirmatively prove prejudice."
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. at 687-88, 693-94. In order
to satisfy the second prong of Strickland, "[t]he defendant
must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for
counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding
would have been different." Id. at 694. When analyzing
potential prejudice, Strickland cautions courts to be mindful
of the "distorting effects of hindsight." Id. at 689. Further,
Strickland guides courts to "recognize that counsel is strongly
presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and [to have] made
all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable
professional judgment." Id. at 690.
In this case, the petitioner fails to establish that he was
prejudiced by his counsel's acquiescence to the prosecutor's description of the substance in
which the palm-print was captured as blood. He offers no evidence
to prove that the jury would not have delivered a guilty verdict
if his counsel had objected to the prosecutions' semantics.
Haynes v. Lacey, 93 Civ. 2294, 1995 WL 500474, at *5 (E.D.N.Y.
Aug. 8, 1995) (declining to find ineffective assistance where
counsel failed to object to cross-examination of the defendant
because "even if [defendant] could establish that his counsel's
performance was unreasonable, he still cannot prove that he was
prejudiced."). With regard to the second allegation, because this
Court has already denied Steele's Brady claim, because of a
failure to establish that the government acted in bad faith in
failing to preserve the print for blood-type testing, the Court
also finds that Steele has failed to establish that he was
prejudiced by his counsel's failure to bring a motion to suppress
under Brady. In short, Steele has failed to establish a claim
of ineffective assistance of counsel in contravention of the
As a result of the foregoing, Steele's petition for habeas
corpus relief is denied. Because the petitioner failed to
demonstrate a substantial showing of the denial of a
constitutional right, a certificate of appealability will not
issue. 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2) ("A certificate of appealability
may issue . . . only if the applicant has made a substantial
showing of the denial of a constitutional right.").
The Clerk of the Court is instructed to close this case and any
pending motions and remove this case from my docket.
IT IS SO ORDERED.