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STEELE v. DUNCAN

United States District Court, S.D. New York


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 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.

  II. DISCUSSION

  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 Simultaneously

  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 Sixth Amendment.

  III. CONCLUSION

  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.


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