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Thomas v. Superintendent

March 28, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge


Petitioner Aristelle Thomas, a state prisoner appearing pro se, has petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is currently in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility. Petitioner is currently serving a sentence of 17 years, followed by 5 years of supervised release, following his conviction on a guilty plea to Assault in the First Degree (N.Y. Pen. Law § 120.10(1)) in the Albany County Supreme Court. Respondent has filed his response; Petitioner has not filed a traverse.

Petitioner timely appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, Third Department, which affirmed his conviction on January 12, 2006, and the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on April 10, 2006. People v. Thomas, 806 N.Y.S.2d 800 (N.Y.A.D.), lv. denied, 849 N.E.2d 759 (Table) (2006). Petitioner timely filed his petition in this Court on April 3, 2007.

Because Petitioner filed his petition after April 24, 1996, it is governed by the standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Consequently, this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the state court was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court Petitioner, proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405--406 (2000); see Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 70-73 (2003) (explaining this standard). In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court, Jones v. Stinson, 229 F.3d 112, 118 (2d Cir.2000), which in this case was that of the New York Appellate Division, Third Department, affirming his conviction. In addition, the state court's findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).

To the extent that Petitioner alleges errors of state law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in deciding a petition for federal habeas corpus relief. This Court may only address violations of federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67--68 (1991) ("We have stated many times that federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law. Today, we reemphasize that it is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions.") (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). It is a fundamental precept of dual federalism that the states possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law. See Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 128 (1982). It is also presumed that the state court knew and correctly applied state law. See Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 653 (1990) overruled on other grounds by Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

In his Petition before this Court Petitioner raises what appears to be four grounds: (1) Petitioner should have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea; (2) Petitioner was denied effective assistance of counsel; (3) Petitioner was coerced into making a guilty plea; and (4) the trial court abused its discretion by withholding exculpatory evidence and giving false evidence. Respondent concedes that Petitioner has exhausted his state court remedies.

Petitioner pleaded guilty to the violent felony of assault in the first degree in full satisfaction of a six-count indictment and was sentenced as a second felony offender to a prison term of 17 years with 5 years of post-release supervision. Prior to sentencing, defendant sought to withdraw his plea, claiming that despite being innocent, he was pressured to enter his plea by the "whole court system." Following a hearing, the motion was denied.

Ground 1: Withdrawal of Guilty Plea

Petitioner contends that he did not have a full understanding of the consequences of his plea and that it was not entered voluntarily and intelligently. In rejecting Petitioner's position, the Appellate Division held (806 N.Y.S.2d at 801) (citations omitted):

Whether to allow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea is a matter committed to the discretion of the trial court. " 'Generally, a guilty plea may not be withdrawn absent some evidence or claim of innocence, fraud or mistake in its inducement.' " Furthermore, " '[w]here a defendant has been fully informed of the rights he is waiving by pleading guilty and proceeds to admit the acts constituting the crime, a subsequent protestation of innocence which is not substantiated by any evidence is generally insufficient to support a request for vacatur of the plea.' "

Prior to entry of his plea, defendant engaged in a colloquy with Supreme Court in which he freely and voluntarily admitted the facts underlying the crime to which he intended to plead guilty, acknowledged and waived his constitutional rights, and acknowledged his complete satisfaction with his present attorney, although he expressed some dissatisfaction with his prior attorney. Under these circumstances, we discern no abuse of Supreme Court's discretion in denying defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, particularly in view of defendant's failure to point to any evidentiary support for his protestation of innocence.

Petitioner faces a high hurdle in seeking to overturn a guilty plea on collateral review. As the Supreme Court held in Mabry v. Johnson, 467 U.S. 504, 508--09 (1984):

It is well settled that a voluntary and intelligent plea of guilty made by an accused person, who has been advised by competent counsel, may not be collaterally attacked. It is also well settled that plea agreements are consistent with the requirements of voluntariness and intelligence because each side may obtain advantages when a guilty plea is exchanged for sentencing concessions, the agreement is no less voluntary than any other bargained-for exchange. It is only when the consensual character of the plea is called into question that the validity of a guilty plea may be impaired. In Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 90 S.Ct. 1463, 25 L.Ed.2d 747 (1970), we stated the applicable standard: " '[A] plea of guilty entered by one fully aware of the direct consequences, including the actual value of any commitments made to him by the court, prosecutor, or his own counsel, must stand unless induced by threats (or promises to ...

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