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Messa v. Artus

November 20, 2006

RAFAEL MESSA, PETITIONER,
v.
D. ARTUS, SUPERINTENDENT, CLINTON CORRECTIONAL FACILITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Petitioner, Rafael Messa ("petitioner"), brings this pro se habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner raises the following related claims: that (1) the trial court displayed partiality and bias in front of the jury, thereby, denying petitioner his right to a fair trial;*fn1 and (2) because of the trial court's interference, petitioner was denied the right to confront witnesses and present his defense. For the following reasons the petition is denied.

Background

(1) The Crime

On the night of July 3, 1996 Shamsul Huq ("Huq") entered his apartment building on Woodside Avenue in Queens County, New York. Petitioner and his co-defendant, Rafael Magrigor ("Magrigor"), entered the building elevator with Huq. In the elevator the two defendants beat, threatened and robbed Huq.

When the elevator arrived at Huq's floor, petitioner and Magrigor forced Huq to open the door to his apartment where he lived with seven other family members. What followed was a scene of brutality and debauchery, during which the two assailants tied up the family members, beat them, took money and jewels, and forcibly sodomized one of them. While this was going on, another tenant of the apartment returned home. Upon seeing his family tied up, the other tenant fled to call the police.

The police arrived to find petitioner and Magrigor by the apartment window throwing items out the window. As the police entered the room, the two perpetrators threw a knife, gun and ammunition on the floor. On petitioner's person the police recovered more than $300 in cash, the victim's jewelry, and some cocaine.

(2) The Trial

Petitioner was charged in New York State Supreme Court with burglary in the first degree, N.Y. Penal Law ("Penal Law") § 140.30(3), five counts of robbery in the first degree, Penal Law § 160.15(3), sodomy in the first degree, Penal Law § 130.50(1), sexual abuse in the first degree, Penal Law, § 130.50(1), assault in the second degree, Penal Law § 120.05(2), criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, Penal Law § 265.03, criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, Penal Law § 265.02(4), and five counts of unlawful imprisonment in the first degree, Penal Law § 135.10.

Petitioner and Magrigor proceeded to trial on July 20, 1998. At trial the prosecution presented a number of witnesses including the arresting police officer, Officer Amato, the investigating detective, Detective Soto, and five of the adult victims. Through these witnesses the prosecution presented the version of the crime described above. All five victims testified with the aid of an interpreter and identified the petitioner and Magrigor as the assailants.

In response, both petitioner and Magrigor testified that on the night in question they met up for dinner, after which they walked up the street to the victims' apartment to buy drugs. They both testified that they had entered the apartment only moments before the police arrived and had found the victims bound. Petitioner and Magrigor stated that they were near the window when the police entered because they were looking for the actual perpetrators who they claim left moments earlier.

Petitioner was convicted on all counts except one count of robbery in the first degree and the one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. Petitioner was sentenced as a second violent felony offender to an aggregate prison term of fifty years.

(3) The Trial Court and Attorney's Actions During the Trial

In reviewing the trial transcript, it is clear that the trial court took an active role. In his brief, petitioner presents a number of exchanges between the trial court and petitioner's and Magrigor's attorneys. These exchanges form the basis of petitioner's claims. Rather than repeating the exchanges verbatim, the relevant exchanges will be summarized here.

The exchanges between the trial court and the attorneys began with several objections sustained sua sponte*fn2 during petitioner's opening. During his opening, petitioner's counsel began to point out to the jury that petitioner was not charged with criminal possession of stolen property. After the trial court sustained an objection sua sponte, counsel proceeded to state that the issue was not something that the jury had to consider, whereupon the court sustained another objection sua sponte; when counsel mentioned the issue a third time, the trial court asked "[w]hy do you keep repeating something?" In addition to this exchange, during the opening the trial court also prevented Magrigor's counsel from mentioning grand jury testimony. The court stated: "that's not a proper opening, mentioning what's in the grand jury."

Another set of exchanges between the trial court and the defense attorneys dealt with Huq's identification of petitioner. Most of the objections sustained sua sponte during Huq's testimony were a result of Huq's previously answering a similar question. For instance, Magrigor's counsel asked if the assailants were wearing shoes. When Huq answered in the affirmative, the trial court prevented counsel from inquiring about what type of shoes because the witness ...


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