The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, J
Petitioner Anthony McGhee filed this habeas petition pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2254 to contest the constitutionality of his New York State conviction for Manslaughter. McGhee raises one alleged constitutional deficiency for federal review: the trial court's failure to issue a justification charge.
A Suffolk County jury tried and convicted Anthony McGhee ("McGhee") for the 1998 murder of Demitrius Brown. At trial, the prosecution presented evidence to show that on May 31, 1998, McGhee approached Brown outside a house party at around 2 a.m., called Brown away from his group of friends and then stabbed him in the chest. The motive was revenge; a week before the murder, Brown had punched McGhee in the face during a disagreement apparently related to Brown's girlfriend. McGhee contested all of these allegations and maintained his innocence.
(1) McGhee was charged with one count of Murder in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25).
Absent any physical evidence or eyewitnesses, the prosecution based its case on circumstantial evidence supported by McGhee's incriminating statements to the police.
Two witnesses -- Brown's stepsister Charlotta Byrd and his best friend James McCullough -- were the last people present with Brown before he was stabbed. Both Byrd and McCullough*fn1 recalled lingering with Brown outside Byrd's house when a man neither of them knew approached at a distance of about fifteen feet. (Tr. at 457-58.)
Byrd and McCullough recalled that this man, whom both later identified as McGhee*fn2 , called out to Brown,--"Yo, D"-- and Brown left to go talk to him. Neither Byrd nor McCullough noticed anything odd about the conversation at the time. They knew something was awry, however, when Brown came running past them a few minutes later. He stopped a few yards in front of them, bent over with his hands on his knees, and called out to McCullough: "Come on, I've been stabbed." (Tr. at 468, 596, 603.)
McCullough drove his car to Brown and then drove him to the hospital.
McCullough's testimony provided the next critical link to McGhee. He told the jury that on the way to the hospital, Brown described the identity of his assailant. Brown indicated that the same person he had been in a fight with the week before had just stabbed him. Brown also identified a man named "Woo" as a witness to that previous altercation. (Tr. at 597, 629-30.)
Lester Stanley, also known as "Woo," then identified McGhee as the person who had fought with Brown several weeks earlier. According to Stanley's testimony, the fight, which ended when Brown punched McGhee in the face, was about Brown's girlfriend and her alleged interest in McGhee.
Having established McGhee's identity, the prosecution then moved to corroborate it with incriminating statements McGhee made in police custody following his arrest on June 3, 1998. Police detectives testified that McGhee initially claimed that he did not know Brown, that he had never been in a fight with him and that he had been at his girlfriend's house when Brown was murdered. Police further testified that McGhee related a very different story to them after detectives informed him that Charlotta Byrd had identified him in a line-up. This time, McGhee both incriminated himself and claimed self-defense.
In a written statement to the police, McGhee related details about the earlier fight between him and Brown, and his interaction with Brown on the night of the murder. He explained that on the night of the murder, after unsuccessfully trying to get into Charlotta Bryd's party, he encountered Brown in the street. (Tr. at 859-861.) Brown drew a knife and began swinging at him. Id. To defend himself, McGhee pulled out his own knife. Id. McGhee told the police that although he tried to withdraw from the fight, Brown persisted until at some point, Brown's knife fell to the ground. At that moment, McGhee swung his knife and stabbed Brown. Id. He then fled the scene. Id.
The prosecution also introduced an incriminating oral statement McGhee made while in police custody. According to Detective Douglas Mercer's testimony, he overheard a telephone conversation between McGhee and his mother during which McGhee allegedly said: "They had an eyewitness saying I did it. It's too late, I did it Ma. I did the murder. I am in Yaphank. I am going to court ...