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Steele v. Fischer

July 19, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gabriel W. Gorenstein, United States Magistrate Judge


Londel Steele brings this pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus challenging his conviction in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County, for two counts of Rape in the First Degree (New York Penal Law ("N.Y.P.L.") § 130.35(1)), one count of Sexual Abuse in the First Degree (N.Y.P.L. § 130.65(1)), one count of Rape in the Third Degree (N.Y.P.L. § 130.25(2)), and one count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree (N.Y.P.L. § 265.02(1)). Steele was sentenced to concurrent terms of imprisonment for these convictions, the longest of which was 25 years to life on the first-degree rape charge. Steele is currently incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. The parties have consented to disposition of this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons stated below, Steele's petition is denied.


A. Evidence Adduced at Trial

1. The People's Case

Steele and T.C.*fn1 met in early 1998 and began dating in August of that year, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-four. They each lived with their families in different apartments at 40 West 115th Street. See T.C.: T. 4-10.*fn2 During their approximately two-month-long relationship Steele would "[s]ometimes . . . act regular and then sometimes he just had a bad temper." (T.C.: T. 9-10). Steele and T.C. had sexual intercourse approximately five to seven times over the course of the relationship. (T.C.: T. 17). In mid-October 1998, T.C. told Steele that she wanted to end the relationship, to which Steele responded by "arguing with me, yelling at me." (T.C.: T. 11). By then, she was getting "more and more scared" of him because he was being "overprotective" and would wait for her outside her window or her school. (T.C.: T. 25). She also testified that he had been "throwing things" and threatening that, if she left him and dated other men, he would shoot them. (T.C.: T. 20-21).

On November 9, 1998, at about 2:00 p.m., Steele called out to T.C. from the window of his apartment as she was returning home from school. (T.C.: T. 22). When T.C. got to her front door, she found Steele there, asking why T.C. had not called him. (T.C.: T. 24). Steele told T.C. that he wanted her to return tapes and CD's belonging to him and she agreed to do so. (T.C.: T. 24). When she got to her apartment, the phone rang and Steele was on the telephone, yelling at T.C. to bring him his belongings. (T.C.: T. 26-27).

T.C. then went to Steele's apartment to return the items. (T.C.: T. 26-27). Steele opened the door and they argued at the doorway. (T.C.: T. 29). T.C. testified that Steele "said sit in like by the door, so I went to sit by the door and it was like he like pulled my arm." (T.C.: T. 29). Steele then locked the door behind her. (T.C.: T. 30). At this point T.C. "started getting scared" and told Steele that she needed to go back upstairs to help her mother pick up her niece from school. Steele asked her why she had told her mother where she was going. (T.C.: T. 30). When T.C. attempted to unlock the door, Steele told her "don't touch the door" and "don't test him." (T.C.: T. 31). Steele then went into another room and returned with a knife, about "14 or 15 inches long." (T.C.: T. 31-32).

As they continued to argue, Steele told her "to shut up and go to the back," where his bedroom was, and T.C. started to cry. (T.C.: T. 33). T.C. walked into Steele's bedroom, believing that if she "just let him talk," he would let her leave. (T.C.: T. 34). Once in the bedroom, Steele told her that if she stopped crying he would put the knife down. T.C. stopped crying, and Steele put the knife down on the kitchen table. (T.C.: T. 35). When he returned to the bedroom, T.C. told him again that she needed to leave, and Steele went back into the kitchen and got the knife. (T.C.: T. 36). This time, he "was holding it in his hand and asking me where should he stab me at." (T.C.: T. 37). T.C. replied that he should not stab her at all, and started to cry again. (T.C.: T. 37). Steele then stated that there were two ways T.C. could leave the apartment: either he could stab her in the face and stomach, or she could have sex with him. (T.C.: T. 37-38). T.C. "kept telling him I didn't want to do anything with him," and made up "a lot of excuses why I didn't want to," such as that she was pregnant, which was not true. (T.C.: T. 38-39).

Steele then removed his coat and hat and placed the knife on the floor next to his foot. (T.C.: T. 39). T.C. was standing by the bedroom window crying, when Steele approached her and "started rubbing on" her. (T.C.: T. 40-41). T.C. continued crying, and was "moving, like trying to pull away. . . . Like pushing him off a little." (T.C.: T. 41). Steele then unbuttoned her pants and removed his own pants, and sat T.C. down on the couch in the bedroom. (T.C.: T. 42-43). After she was lying on the couch, Steele pulled her pants and underpants down to around her ankles, then he climbed in between her legs and put his penis into her vagina. (T.C.: T. 44-46). T.C. "was just crying, sitting there crying, covering my face crying." (T.C.: T. 46). Steele told her "if I move my bottom, the faster this could be over and the faster I could leave." (T.C.: T. 46). After approximately five to seven minutes, Steele withdrew his penis, at which point T.C. got up off the couch, pulled up her pants, and hurried out of the apartment as Steele was "throwing on his clothes" and telling her to wait for him. (T.C.: T. 47-49). T.C. left the building and walked toward a store across the street, hoping to find someone she knew. (T.C.: T. 51). Steele followed her out of the building. (T.C.: T. 51). T.C. ran into her aunt in the street and stopped to talk to her while Steele continued into the store. (T.C.: T. 51-52). T.C.'s mother then came outside and she and T.C. went to pick up T.C.'s niece from school. (T.C.: T. 54). During the walk, T.C. told her mother what had happened. When they returned home, her mother told her father, who called the police. (T.C.: T. 57).

The police arrived along with an ambulance, which transported T.C. to the hospital, where she was examined by a physician who was a trained sexual assault forensic examiner. (Marrast: T. 188-90). Subsequent blood tests demonstrated that Steele's DNA matched the DNA in the semen taken from T.C.'s vagina. (Sandomir: T. 333; Langley: T. 404-17). On the evening of November 9, a police detective went to Steele's grandmother's apartment to collect evidence. In Steele's bedroom he found several hairpins on the floor and a kitchen knife on top of a storage bin inside the closet. (Aponte: T. 265-66). T.C. identified the knife as the same knife that Steele had used to threaten her. (T.C.: T. 77-78). She also testified that the hairpins were identical to the type of pins she was wearing in her hair when she went to the defendant's apartment on the day of the rape. (T.C.: T. 78-79).

Jennifer Marrast, a physician at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, examined T.C. on November 9, 1998; specifically, she performed a "complete physical, the outside of the body and inside of [T.C.'s] vaginal area." (Marrast: T. 186, 218). Dr. Marrast did not find injuries, bruises, or lacerations anywhere on T.C. (Marrast: T. 222). Dr. Marrast testified that the lack of physical injury was consistent with both consensual sex and forcible sex. (Marrast: T. 228, 232).

T.C.'s mother, Deborah, testified that she knew her daughter was dating Steele and that she had told her to stop. (Deborah: T. 152, 162). On the day of the incident, she knew Steele had asked T.C. to return his belongings to him because "I was standing in her room when he yelled so loud you could hear it over the phone." (Deborah: T. 155). Deborah testified that she knew T.C. "always went downstairs" to see Steele, see Deborah: T. 156. After T.C. went downstairs to return Steele's belongings, Deborah testified that she saw T.C. exit the building, and that when she herself went downstairs to walk with T.C. to pick up her granddaughter, T.C. "seemed shaken up, was trying to hold her tears in because she was in the street." (Deborah: T. 157-59). Deborah then asked T.C. what was wrong, and after T.C. told her to "swear that I wouldn't do anything," she told her that "Londel pulled a knife to her and forced her to have sex." (Deborah: T. 160). After they returned home, Deborah told T.C.'s father, who called the police. (Deborah: T. 161).

2. Steele's Case

In Steele's defense, Amy Reynolds, a law student who worked as an investigator for the Legal Aid Society, testified that on June 21, 1999, she spoke with T.C. in her apartment, in the presence of T.C.'s mother. T.C. told Reynolds what had happened, and Reynolds wrote it down and then asked T.C. to check it and make sure it was correct. T.C. said it was, but refused to sign it because her mother had told her not to. (Reynolds: T. 429, 434-41).

Reynolds testified that T.C. did not tell her that Steele had removed her clothing, but rather that, "He told me to take my clothes off. He was taking his off. I did." (Reynolds: T. 441). Reynolds also testified that T.C. did not tell her that Steele had pulled her into the apartment or that she had tried to use the door after entering the apartment, although Reynolds did not specifically ask T.C. whether she had tried to use the door. Reynolds did not ask T.C. about any threats Steele made and T.C. did not mention any such threats. (Reynolds: T. 441-42, 461).

B. Summations

1. Defense Summation

In his summation, Steele's counsel, Christopher Pisciotta, challenged T.C.'s credibility as a witness. He emphasized the lack of corroborating evidence in support of T.C.'s testimony, and argued that she was not being truthful. For example, he argued, Do you believe [T.C.] beyond a reasonable doubt, despite what she says doesn't quite make sense and there's some little things that just doesn't make common sense? Do you believe [T.C.] beyond a reasonable doubt when what she says is different today than what she said on prior days? And do you believe [T.C.] beyond a reasonable doubt when she lies to you, when she lies to hide the motive as to why she would accuse this man of doing something that he did not do?

(T. 492-93). Pisciotta pointed out that T.C. lied to her parents regarding how much time she was spending with Steele and regarding the extent of their sexual relationship, see T. 496-98, that she gave inconsistent testimony regarding whether she thought she was pregnant on November 9, 1998, see T. 500-02, and that her behavior immediately before that date suggested that she did not want the relationship to end, as she testified, see T. 504-06. See, e.g., T. 500 ("Now, ladies and gentlemen, you know, a lot of juries outside TV and the movies don't get to see this, but you saw it. You got to see a witness blatantly lie under oath in a court of law.").

Pisciotta then theorized that T.C. thought she was pregnant before November 9 and told her mother that Steele had raped her so that she would have an explanation for the pregnancy. See T. 507. He also reminded the jury of the testimony of the doctor who examined T.C., in which the doctor acknowledged that T.C. had no physical injuries and that this was "consistent with consen[s]ual sex." See T. 513.

Finally, Pisciotta focused on the differences in T.C.'s story as she told it over time and to different people, see T. 515-23, and said,

Ladies and Gentlemen, if she says one thing on one day and says another thing on another day, how are you supposed to believe her beyond a reasonable doubt when she says he raped me. You can't. You can't put faith in her words. The truth doesn't change, but her story did.

(T. 523).

2. People's ...

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