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Stewart v. Ercole

February 15, 2006

CHRISTOPHER STEWART, PETITIONER,
v.
ROBERT E. ERCOLE, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Christopher Stewart petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging his 2002 conviction in state court in Richmond County, following a jury trial, of murder in the second degree, aggravated criminal contempt, and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. For the reasons set forth below, the petition is denied.

BACKGROUND

A. The Offense Conduct

Stewart's claims arise from his state prosecution for the March 8, 2001 killing of Angelique Williams, the mother of his daughter, Alexis. On February 20, 2001, Williams and Stewart had a confrontation at Williams's residence, leading to the issuance of an order of protection against Stewart. On the morning of March 8, 2001 Stewart appeared in Richmond County Criminal Court and was served with the order of protection on behalf of Williams.

That same evening, Williams boarded a Staten Island S-54 southbound bus at approximately 4:20 p.m. as a part of her daily commute home from work. Williams was headed towards the Todt Hill Houses on Schmidts Lane and Manor Road, where she once lived with her mother, and where she normally parked her car during the workday.

A MetroCard belonging to Stewart -- an employee of the Transit Authority --shows that Stewart also boarded an S-54 bus on Staten Island between 4:18 and 4:24 p.m. that day, at a location that was a 7-9 minute bus ride from the Todt Hill Houses. At 5:25 p.m., Williams spoke with her friend Cherise Cohen on her cell phone to report that she was about to get off the express bus, and that she could pick up Cohen's daughter from school by 5:30 p.m.

Williams was murdered after the 5:25 p.m. call with Cohen but before 5:40 p.m., when a passing motorist called 911 after seeing Williams collapse outside the Todt Hill Houses. Williams was stabbed in her neck, abdomen, and right hand, including defensive cuts to each of her five right fingers that went to the bone; on some fingers the bone had been severed. The stab wound to the neck was 6-7 inches deep and severed Williams's right jugular vein, punctured and collapsed her right lung, and caused approximately one liter of blood to fill her right chest cavity.

Williams died as a result of her injuries. Three adolescent boys witnessed her collapse, as well as part of the stabbing itself.

Stewart came to the police on his own initiative on March 12, 2001. He told the police that he wanted to "clear his name," and that he got on a northbound S-46 bus in order to board the 5:40 p.m. Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan. He told officers that he then bought a ticket for a bus to Atlantic City that left at 8 p.m. on March 8, and that he stayed in Atlantic City for several days. The officers were later able to use MTA computer records to refute Stewart's statements about when he boarded the northbound bus in Staten Island. The records revealed that Stewart's MetroCard was used again between 5:42 and 5:48 p.m. that night on the S-54 bus as it traveled northward on its return trip.

A witness identified Stewart in a photo array on March 19, 2001, and officers arrested Stewart the following day.

B. The Procedural History

1. The Testimony at Trial

At trial, Nicole Spratley, Williams's longtime friend and roommate during the relevant events, testified that on February 20, 2001 she came home and found Williams and Stewart arguing. Williams was standing next to her car, and Stewart was sitting in the driver's seat. On the right side of Williams's face was a bruise that had not been there earlier that morning. When Spratley called 911, Stewart drove away in Williams's car. Spratley further testified that she walked into the house to find the door to Williams's bedroom torn off its hinges and the bedroom in shambles. She also saw Stewart drive past the house shortly after his initial departure, and testified that he sped away when the police arrived. Stewart later confessed that he crashed Williams's car into a pole, causing Williams to rent a car that she drove until her death. Spratley testified that these events led to the order of protection that was issued on March 8, 2001.

Nolan Emory, age 12, James Costello, age 13, and Andre Cirino, age 14, were playing basketball in the park next to the Todt Hill Houses on March 8. The three testified that they heard a car alarm at approximately 5:30 p.m. Emory and Cirino went to investigate, saw an African-American man in a gray hooded sweatshirt with the hood up fighting with a woman they later identified to be Williams. Emory heard Williams say "I'm sorry," to which the man replied, "You're not sorry." Emory also saw the man's left hand moving repeatedly back and forth toward Williams's chest and stomach, while she continued to apologize. Cirino also saw the man's hand move towards Williams's chest one or two times, and heard her cry for help. Then the man bent down to pick up Williams's black bag, and walked away. The boys did not clearly see the man's face at that time.*fn1

Costello joined the other two boys to see Williams bleeding, and also heard her say "I'm sorry." All three saw her stagger, slump against a car, and slide to the ground. Debra Alvarado, the 911 caller who was driving past the scene that evening, testified that she saw the three boys, and also saw Williams stagger, slump over a car, and fall to the ground.

Emory testified that in the minutes after the stabbing he went to a park inside the Todt Hill Houses known as "Little Park." In Little Park, Emory saw a man he recognized to be the same man who had just stabbed Williams. The man was wearing the same gray sweatshirt, and the front of the sweatshirt was covered in blood. Emory testified that the man was "freaking out," and stopped and glared at him from approximately seven feet away. On March 27, 2001, Emory identified Stewart in a pretrial lineup as the as the man who he saw in Little Park on March 8, and also identified him at trial.

William Fuschino, who drove the S-54 bus on March 8, testified that he picked up a man that fit Stewart's description wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt at approximately 4:15 p.m., and that the man used an employee MetroCard. Fuschino testified that the man seemed cold or angry. Fuschino was also driving the northbound bus on its return trip as it passed the Todt Hill Houses that evening. Fuschino saw the police activity near the scene of the murder, but did not pay attention to the people getting on the bus at that stop.

Defense counsel sought to highlight certain inconsistencies in the testimony of the three boys, such as differing accounts of whether or not the boys scattered from the scene before the police arrived, the fact that Emory did not immediately report to the police that he had seen anyone in Little Park, and the fact that Emory, unlike the other two boys, did not report that the attacker was wearing a vest or a jacket over the gray sweatshirt.

2. The Jury Charge, Verdict and Sentence

The trial court gave the jury an instruction on the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree, as well as an identification charge and a Molineux charge. There was no mention at trial of a circumstantial evidence charge by defense counsel. In fact, defense counsel did not object to the charge except with respect to the lack of a missing witness instruction.

On May 31, 2002 the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Stewart was sentenced on June 14, 2002 to 25 years to life imprisonment for the murder count to run concurrently with 2 to 7 year prison terms for the aggravated criminal contempt count and for the criminal possession of a weapon count.

Defense counsel submitted a post trial motion asserting legal insufficiency and weight-of-the-evidence arguments, and requested that the court dismiss the murder count, set aside the guilty verdict on that count, or modify the verdict from guilt of murder in the second degree to guilt of manslaughter. The court found that the evidence ...


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