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Bryant v. Lord

December 27, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frank Maas, United States Magistrate Judge.


I. Introduction

In this habeas corpus proceeding pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, petitioner Sherain Bryant ("Bryant") challenges her conviction, on one count of Murder in the Second Degree, following a jury trial in Supreme Court, Bronx County. (Pet. ¶¶ 1, 4, 6). The charge against Bryant arose out of the brutal death of her four-year old daughter, who was the victim of extensive abuse. (See S. 26-27).*fn1 On June 13, 1996, Justice Joseph Fisch, before whom the case was tried, sentenced Bryant to an indeterminate prison term of twenty-five years to life. (Id.). The Justice also recommended to the New York State Division of Parole that Bryant "never be granted parole" and "remain incarcerated for the rest of [her] natural life" because she was "not fit for human society." (Id. at 27).

Bryant's petition raises just one claim. Bryant contends that she was denied both her Sixth Amendment right to present a defense and her Fourteenth Amendment due process right to a fair trial because the trial judge refused to admit a proposed expert witness' testimony regarding battered women's syndrome in support of her duress defense. (See Pet. at 12.A; Pet'r's Mem. at 1).

For the reasons that follow, Bryant's petition should be denied.

II. Background

A. Trial

1. People's Case

a. Trial Testimony

The People's proof at trial established as follows: On March 28, 1994, at approximately 7:20 p.m., Police Officer Michael Kelly ("Kelly") entered Apartment 424 at 760 East 183rd Street in the Bronx in response to a "911" call. (T. 111-13). There, he observed four-year-old Shayna Bryant ("Shayna"), who was lying on her back on a table. (Id. at 113-14). The child was dead and appeared to have been "badly beaten," with a "tremendous bruise" on her forehead, and "bruises" and "cigarette burns" on her arms. (See id. at 113, 120). Emergency Medical Services personnel previously had arrived at the apartment, and Orlando Bryant ("Orlando"), the child's father, was there. (See id. at 113-14). Detectives Thomas Murray ("Det. Murray") of the 48th Precinct and Frank Katen of the Crime Scene Unit also responded to the scene and saw Shayna's condition. (Id. at 289-91, 342-44). The detectives observed blood throughout the apartment --on walls, bed sheets, and in the bathtub -- as well as human feces on the bathroom floor, and a pail of dirty water in the bathtub with undershorts floating in it. (Id. at 291-92, 356, 358, 363-64, 379).

Shayna Bryant had lived in the apartment with her mother Sherain, her father Orlando, her sisters Alanda, Joi and Sherain, and her brother Rahman. (See id. at 163-65, 201-03). Alanda testified that on the night their sister died -- which, sadly, was her birthday -- Orlando had beaten Shayna in Rahman's room. (Id. at 213, 220). Orlando and Bryant also hit and kicked Shayna in the bathroom, as well as in the hallway. (Id. at 187-190, 215, 219-21). As a consequence, Shayna was crying and soiled herself. (Id. at 221). When Shayna emerged from the bathroom, Orlando put her on the couch, but later moved her to the kitchen table. (See id. at 216, 218). Joi, who pretended not to know what her parents had done, asked Bryant what had happened. (Id. at 165). Bryant admonished Joi to "shut up before I do the same thing [to you] that I did to Shayna." (Id.). Bryant then called "911" to report that Shayna -- who was not asthmatic -- was having an asthma attack. (Id. at 216-17, 232-233). Shortly thereafter, Bryant took her four other children to her sister's house. (Id. at 166, 234).

Bryant eventually contacted the 48th Precinct Detective Squad in response to Det. Murray's telephone calls to some of her relatives. (Id. at 296-97). Det. Murray then drove her to the precinct from 105 West 168th Street. (Id. at 298, 301). At the time Det. Murray first saw Bryant, she appeared upset, but he did not detect any bruises on her, nor did she ask to see a doctor. (Id. at 300).

At the precinct, Bryant made no claim that Orlando had hit her. (Id. at 331). With respect to the injury to Shayna's forehead, Bryant told Det. Murray that Shayna and Joi had been burned by hot oil or grease as the result of a kitchen accident. (Id. at 332-33). Outside Bryant's presence, however, Orlando told an assistant district attorney that Shayna's forehead had been burned by hot water. (Id. at 324-25, 333). Orlando also admitted that he often had tied Shayna to a chair at night to prevent her from scratching sores on her head and hands. (Id. at 326-27).

Shayna was not the only victim of abuse in the household. Months before Shayna's death, Alanda watched her mother burn the bottom of her sister Joi's feet with a curling iron. (Id. at 223-24). Additionally, before Joi's birthday in 1993, Bryant and her husband Orlando pushed Joi into a wall, an incident that left her blind in one eye. (Id. at 168-69). After that birthday, when Orlando was not at home, Bryant also burned Joi's hand by rolling a "hot curler" back and forth on it.*fn2 (Id. at 166-67, 177, 192). Bryant and Orlando also tied Joi to a chair fitted with pink straps when she "lied." (Id. at 196, 205-06, 240). At times, Orlando took Joi into the bathroom and hit her. (Id. at 187). Bryant also hit Joi with a belt and burned her neck with a cigarette and her arm with a clothes iron. (Id. at 190, 241-42). On one occasion, Bryant threatened to cut off Joi's tongue while she wielded a knife. (Id. at 192-94). Not surprisingly, Bryant never took Joi to the hospital or sought any treatment for any of her injuries. (Id. at 168, 224).

Bryant also hit her daughter Alanda at times. (Id. at 222). Alanda testified, however, that Bryant and Orlando hit Shayna more than their other children. (Id. at 213). They both tied Shayna to the chair, often leaving her there all night, which led to her urinating on herself. (See id. at 196-97, 206-07, 225). Bryant would hit Shayna with her hands or a belt when Orlando was not at home. (Id. at 191, 215). She also burned Shayna's neck with cigarettes. (Id. at 214). On one occasion, Bryant burned Shayna's hands with a hot curling iron. (Id. at 209-10, 244-45, 279). Alanda testified that her mother hurt Shayna because Bryant "hated" Shayna and thought that she was "ugly." (Id. at 214). Orlando also hit Shayna with his hands or kicked her. (See id. at 211). Sometimes, Bryant would tell Orlando to stop hitting Shayna because their neighbors might hear him. (Id. at 211-12).

Joi eventually was examined at Jacobi Hospital, where she falsely told a doctor that her hand and Shayna's head had been burned while she and Shayna were baking a cake for Sherain. (See id. at 118, 166, 182-83). At trial, Joi testified that she said this pursuant to Bryant's instructions. (Id. at 195). According to Joi and Alanda, the truth was that Bryant had burned Joi's hand with a curling iron, and Orlando had burned Shayna's forehead by placing her in a tub of hot water. (Id. at 166, 211).

The medical examiner's autopsy on the day after Shayna's death established that she "died as a result of child abuse syndrome with multiple, recent and healed blunt force and thermal or burn injuries of the head, torso and extremities." (Id. at 403, 442). Thus, Shayna's death was not caused by a single injury, but, rather, a "pattern of multiple injuries" suffered over a period of time. (Id. at 442-45, 502-503). Additionally, Shayna's malnourished condition exacerbated her injuries because she was unable to respond to them as would a properly-nourished child. (Id. at 443-44).

The medical examiner also found that Shayna had a "large" and "recent" burn on her forehead, as well as burns around her nose, and on the backs of her hands. (Id. at 406-08, 410). These burns were consistent with Shayna's skin being placed against a hot surface, such as a curling iron, and were not consistent with a hot liquid spill. (Id. at 408-10, 416). Shayna had lacerations, abrasions, bruises and contusions on her face, as well as a "multitude" of circular burns, consistent with burns from a lit cigarette. (Id. at 406, 411). Shayna also had numerous scars and abrasions on the front and back of her torso and on her legs. (Id. at 406-07). Some of these scars were consistent with fingernail scratches or being choked. (Id. at 407, 411-12). Additional abrasions on Shayna's wrists and ankles were consistent with having been restrained by, and struggling against, some type of ligature. (Id. at 407-08, 415-16, 418). There also were injuries to Shayna's buttocks and genitals which were consistent with her having been kicked, slapped, or punched in those areas. (Id. at 414, 417-18). The medical examiner further observed numerous cuts and abrasions inside Shayna's mouth and that some of her teeth had been knocked out as the result of an injury. (Id. at 419-20).

The autopsy established that near the time of her death Shayna suffered contusions where the inferior vena cava met the right atrium of her heart. (Id. at 424, 488-89). There also was tearing in one area of her pancreas, which was determined to have occurred one to two days before her death. (Id. at 425-26, 483). Two areas of bleeding into Shayna's scalp were consistent with blunt-force trauma inflicted at or near the time of her death. (Id. at 427). Her abdomen was distended, and that, coupled with her low body weight, indicated that Shayna was malnourished. (Id. at 415). An examination of Shayna's respiratory system yielded "absolutely no evidence" that she suffered from asthma. (Id. at 425, 489).

b. Transcript of Orlando's Guilty Plea

Orlando's guilty plea allocation was admitted into evidence at trial and read to the jury. (Id. at 547-71).*fn3 As the minutes reflect, Orlando was permitted to plead guilty to one count of Murder in the Second Degree on the understanding that he would receive a sentence of eighteen years to life in prison. (Id. at 548). In the course of his plea, Orlando admitted that, on the date of Shayna's death, he struck her about her head, body, and limbs approximately five to ten times because she had been drinking water from the toilet bowl. (Id. at 550-53). During the course of this attack, Shayna's head hit the toilet. (Id. at 560-61).*fn4

Orlando also admitted that on approximately four occasions, he and Bryant tied Shayna to a chair until she was asleep to prevent her from rubbing the burn on her forehead. (Id. at 553-54). Orlando stated that Bryant burned Shayna with cigarettes, hit her, and was otherwise "abusive" to her. According to Orlando, Bryant at times told the children that she hated them. (Id. at 556-57, 563).

During the guilty plea, the prosecutor indicated that had Orlando proceeded to trial, the People would have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Shayna was malnourished, that she never received medical attention for her injuries, and that she died as a result of child abuse syndrome. (Id. at 561-62, 564-65). The prosecutor also contended that the beatings, burns, and malnutrition to which Shayna was subjected constituted a reckless course of conduct on the part of Orlando and Bryant, which created a grave risk of serious physical injury or death. (Id. at 565-66). After the prosecutor made this proffer, Orlando admitted the accuracy of the prosecutor's statements. (Id. at 566).

2. Defense Case

a. Bryant's Testimony

Bryant was the principal defense witness. She testified that her relationship with her husband Orlando was marked by physical and mental abuse. Among other things, Orlando hit her with his hands and feet (as well as a billy club, a hanger, and shoes) resulting, on one occasion, in a broken nose, and on other occasions, in fractures of two of her vertebrae and three of her ribs. (Id. at 629-30). According to Bryant, a mark below her left eye was the result of being burned by Orlando with a cigarette. (Id. at 630). She testified that her brother and perhaps some of her neighbors saw her bruises, but that she generally stayed inside so that no one could see her injuries. (Id.). Once, however, Bryant sought medical attention after Orlando broke her nose. (Id. at 687).*fn5

Bryant testified that Orlando was a drug user, who gave her heroin and cocaine, causing her to become addicted to heroin. (Id. at 631-32). Indeed, Joi and Shayna both were removed from her custody because they were addicted at birth. (Id. at 633). Eventually, however, Bryant enrolled in drug treatment and parenting programs which enabled her to regain custody of her children. (Id. at 633-34).

Bryant regained custody of all her children by 1992. (Id. at 634). Thereafter, she lived with her five children and Orlando in Apartment 424. (See id.). Bryant testified that Orlando worked nights, and that she would go to her drug treatment and parenting programs after he returned home and most of the children had left for school. (Id. at 635). Bryant said that Shayna attended day care, but that their youngest child, Sherain, would be left home with Orlando. (See id. at 636-37).

According to Bryant, Orlando had a "rule" that family members were not to discuss "family business" -- i.e., anything that happened "within the household" -- with outsiders. (Id. at 639-40). Although this was Orlando's rule, Bryant testified that she also conveyed it to their children. (Id. at 640).

Bryant testified that on one occasion Orlando punched her in the mouth, breaking her tooth, because he was angry that she had enrolled in a methadone program and was becoming "too independent." (Id. at 642-44). Despite the "rule," and over Orlando's objections, Bryant went to a dentist to have the tooth capped. (Id. at 644, 687-88, 702-03).

Bryant also testified that Orlando frequently would beat her or one of the children in the bathroom so that the others could not see. (Id. at 644). According to Bryant, after Orlando beat her, she would not talk to her children about what had transpired. (Id. at 645-46).

Bryant testified that she did not report Orlando's abuse to the police because "a man hitting a woman" was a "natural part of [her] growing up." (Id. at 647-48). Although she claimed to have felt unable to stop him, she conceded on cross-examination that she had heard of an order of protection. (Id. at 683-84). In fact, Bryant previously had obtained such an order against a man named "Smitty," which led to the termination of their relationship. (Id. at 684-85).

When she was asked about her children, Bryant denied burning Joi with either a curling iron or cigarettes, and claimed that she never saw the child burned. (Id. at 649-50). She admitted, however, that she did punish Joi for stealing and lying by spanking her buttocks with her hand or a belt. (Id.). Bryant also claimed that she "never" burned Shayna with a curling iron or cigarettes, and was not present when her forehead was burned. (Id. at 651-54, 671). She testified that it was Orlando who had inflicted cigarette burns on Shayna, although she never actually saw him do so. (Id. at 651-52). Bryant conceded, however, that Orlando was a nonsmoker. (Id.).

Bryant claimed that she never took her children to a hospital or doctor because Orlando threatened that he would kill her if she told anyone of his abuse and that her children would be taken from her. (Id. at 672-74). She admitted, however, that hospitals were open twenty-four hours a day, and that she often was alone with her children during the hours Orlando was at work. (See id. at 705-06).

With respect to the events leading to Shayna's death, Bryant testified that she heard Shayna drinking from the toilet and yelled at her, which caused Orlando to wake from his sleep. (Id. at 658). Orlando then grabbed Shayna, took her into the bathroom, and closed the door. (Id. at 658-59). While Bryant did not see what transpired in the bathroom, she claimed that she would have allowed Orlando to hit her, instead of Shayna, in an effort to "save" the child, but could not get into the ...

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