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Dunton v. Rock

May 19, 2008


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


Petitioner Nathaniel Dunton, III, appearing pro se, has petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is currently in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services incarcerated at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility. Following a trial by jury, Petitioner was convicted in the Rensselaer County Court of two counts of Robbery in the First Degree (N.Y. Pen. Law § 160.15(2), (4)), one count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree (N.Y. Pen. Law § 265.03(2)), and one count of Grand Larceny in the Third Degree (N.Y. Pen. Law § 155.35). Petitioner was sentenced to concurrent determinate terms of 25 years on each of the robbery counts, 15 years on the weapons charge, and a concurrent indeterminate term of imprisonment of three and one-half to seven years on the larceny charge.

Petitioner timely appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, Third Department, which affirmed his conviction on June 16, 2005, and the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on August 24, 2005. People v. Dunton, 797 N.Y.S.2d 166 (N.Y.A.D.), lv. denied, 836 N.E.2d 1157 (N.Y. 2005). Petitioner timely filed his petition in this Court on August 3, 2006.

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 courts 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 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 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).

Finally, in a federal habeas proceeding, the standard under which this Court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict. Fry v. Piler, 551 U.S. ___, ___, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 2328 (2007) (adopting the standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637--38 (1993)).

Petitioner presents his claim in three grounds: (1) That his request for assignment of new counsel was ignored; (2) whether he abandoned his request for reassignment of counsel; and (3) whether his right to effective counsel was violated by his continued representation by counsel with whom he had a conflict. Respondent concedes that Petitioner exhausted his state court remedies.

The Appellate Division, in rejecting Petitioner's position, held (798 N.Y.S.2d at 166--67): Defendant was assigned counsel who, among other things, twice sought bail on defendant's behalf and filed an omnibus motion requesting pretrial discovery and suppression hearings and a demand for a bill of particulars. A Huntley/Mapp hearing was granted and, after two days of testimony, County Court denied defendant's motion to suppress the evidence. Shortly thereafter, defendant filed a pro se motion requesting reassignment of counsel, contending that his attorney had not visited him to discuss his case and had not conducted an investigation or informed him of any pertinent motions made on his behalf. Counsel responded and defended his representation and, on June 26, 2002, County Court denied defendant's request. Three months later, defendant proceeded to trial, was found guilty on all counts and was sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 25 years.

At sentencing, County Court denied defendant's pro se motion claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Defendant now appeals.

Defendant's claim that County Court did not address his pretrial motion for reassignment of counsel until the time of his sentencing is belied by the record, which reflects that County Court resolved the matter three months before trial when it denied defendant's pro se request in this regard. In any event, the motion was properly denied as "[t]he law is now well established that a defendant may be entitled to new assigned counsel upon a showing of good cause for a substitution, such as a conflict of interest or other irreconcilable conflict with counsel" (citations omitted). Here, defendant made no claim of a conflict of interest, nor did his motion, in which he expressed dissatisfaction with his attorney, "suggest a serious possibility of irreconcilable conflict between defendant and counsel" (citations omitted). Therefore, substitution was not warranted. Based on the record before us, defendant received meaningful representation (citation omitted).

First, the finding of the Appellate Division that the County Court did not "ignore" Petitioner's pro se request for reassignment of counsel is fully supported by the record. Under AEDPA deference, this finding stands unless refuted by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). This hurdle Petitioner has failed to clear. Even assuming that the trial court did not explicitly rule on Petitioner's request or that he did not receive the decision-letter denying his request, Petitioner was not prejudiced by either its implicit denial or his failure to receive the decision-letter, and the continued representation by appointed counsel.

"A defendant's Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel includes the right to representation by conflict-free counsel." United States v. Blau, 159 F.3d 68, 74 (2d Cir.1998). In the absence of a conflict of interest, a defendant claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must demonstrate that the lawyer's representation "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness," Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and that counsel's deficiency was "prejudicial" to the defense, id. at 692, 104 S.Ct. 2052. However, "[p]rejudice is presumed . . . if the defendant demonstrates that counsel 'actively represented conflicting interests' and that 'an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance.' Cuyler [446 U.S.] at 350, 348, 100 S.Ct. 1708 (footnote omitted)." Id. These components are considered in a single, integrated inquiry. "[T]he [Cuyler v.] Sullivan standard is not properly read as requiring inquiry into actual conflict as something separate and apart from adverse effect. An 'actual conflict,' for Sixth Amendment purposes, is a conflict of interest that adversely affects counsel's performance." Mickens v. Taylor, 535 U.S. 162, 172 n. 5, 122 S.Ct. 1237, 152 L.Ed.2d 291 (2002).

Eisemann v. Herbert, 401 F.3d 102, 107 (2d Cir. 2005).

Petitioner stated in support of his request to the ...

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