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Holifield v. Superintendent

January 22, 2009


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


Henry Holifield, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges a 2003 judgment of conviction entered in the Onondaga County Court on charges of first degree murder, second degree possession of a weapon, first degree robbery, and grand larceny in the fourth degree. Petitioner's sole claim is that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. See Docket No. 1 (Pet.). The Government has filed a Response. See Docket Nos. 6 (Response); 7 (Mem.). Petitioner did not file a Traverse.


Petitioner was indicted in Onondaga County Court for the April 2003 murder of Jonathan Perry. At trial, the People sought to prove that Petitioner and his girlfriend, Marteasha Glen, planned to rob Perry in his home. As part of that plan, Petitioner lured Perry into the basement and shot him in the back of the head. Petitioner and Glen stole Perry's wallet and car along with other valuable items from the home. The two then embarked on a spending spree with Perry's credit cards buying wedding rings, electronics and clothing. In support of this version of events, the People introduced Petitioner's detailed confession to police along with the testimony of store employees who identified Petitioner as the male who used Perry's credit card to purchase merchandise from their stores. The People also introduced some of the merchandise recovered from Petitioner's apartment and a local pawn shop. A.38-caliber revolver, identified as the murder weapon by forensic experts, was also recovered based on information from Petitioner and Glen. Petitioner testified at trial that Glen had killed Perry without his knowledge or assistance and that he falsely confessed to protect her. The jury found Petitioner guilty on all counts.

Petitioner raised his current claim on direct review. See Docket No. 9, Attach. 1. The Appellate Division refused to reweigh the evidence and affirmed the convictions in a reasoned decision. People v. Holifield, 27 A.D.3d 1163 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep't 2006) (available in the record at Docket No. 9, Attach. 6). The Court of Appeals denied review on April 4, 2006. People v. Holifield, 6 N.Y.3d 848 (2006) (available in the record at Docket No. 9, Attach. 8). The instant petition was timely filed on November 17, 2006. See Docket No. 1.


Because the instant petition was filed after April 24, 1996, any claim therein that was adjudicated by a state court on the merits is governed by the deferential standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 311 (2d Cir. 2001). A decision is adjudicated "on the merits" when it finally resolves the claim, with res judicata effect, based on substantive rather than procedural grounds. Id. at 311-12. This is so, "even if the state court does not explicitly refer to either the federal claim or to relevant federal case law." Id. at 312.

Under the deferential standard of review imposed by AEDPA, a writ of habeas corpus shall not be granted unless the state adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or resulted in a decision that 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). A state court decision is contrary to clearly established federal law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). A state court decision involves an unreasonable application of Supreme Court case law if it "identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the particular facts of [a] prisoner's case." Id. To qualify as "unreasonable," it must be objectively unreasonable, a substantially higher threshold than merely incorrect. Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 127 S.Ct. 1933, 1939 (2007).

The Supreme Court has also explained that clearly established Federal law "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision." Williams, 529 U.S. at 412. In the absence of a holding of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review, "it cannot be said that the state court unreasonably applied clearly established Federal law." Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 127 S.Ct. 649, 654 (2006) (internal quotation marks removed). Finally, 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 outcome. Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 2328 (2007) (adopting the standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637--38 (1993)).

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by a state court. Jones v. Stinson, 229 F.3d 112, 118 (2d Cir. 2000). The Court presumes that the state court's findings of fact are correct, unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). The presumption of correctness applies to findings by both state trial and appellate courts. Whitaker v. Meachum, 123 F.3d 714, 715 n.1 (2d Cir. 1997).

Claims that have not been adjudicated by a state court on the merits are reviewed de novo based on the record before the Court. See Cotto v. Herbert, 331 F.3d 217, 230 (2d Cir. 2003).


Petitioner asserts that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Specifically, he points to the absence of physical evidence directly linking him to the crime scene and reiterates his claim that he falsely confessed to protect Glen. Docket No. 1 at 6. Respondent argues that Petitioner's claim is based on state law and not cognizable on federal habeas review. Docket No. 7 at 15. Respondent also argues that, if the Court deems the Petitioner to have raised the closely related and federally cognizable claim of insufficiency of the evidence, the Court should find that claim unexhausted as only the state law claim was presented to the state courts for review. Id. Lastly, Respondent argues that an insufficiency of the evidence claim would now be procedurally barred by state law and is otherwise without merit. Id.

Petitioner's plainly stated argument that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence is not cognizable on federal habeas review. "[A]ssessments of the weight of the evidence or the credibility of witnesses are for the jury and not grounds for reversal on appeal; we defer to the jury's assessments of both of these issues." Maldonado v. Scully, 86 F.3d 32, 35 (2d Cir. 1996). As Petitioner is pro se and his pleadings must be construed liberally, the Court will construe his ...

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