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Williamson v. Smith

February 24, 2009

STEVE WILLIAMSON, PETITIONER,
v.
JOE T. SMITH, SUPERINTENDENT, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Background

A. State Court Proceedings

The state court records reflect that on the evening of March 23, 1997, in an apartment in Troy, New York, petitioner, pro se Steve Williamson and Patricia Santana had an argument during which he hit Santana "numerous" times. See Transcript of Change of Plea of Steve Williamson (12/2/97) ("Plea Tr.") at p. 15. That altercation escalated, and at some point during the argument, Williamson picked up a serrated steak knife from the kitchen and began stabbing her. Id. at pp. 15-16. Santana died from those wounds, and on April 2, 1997, a Rensselaer County grand jury returned Indictment No. B-10439 against Williamson. See Appellant's Appendix on Appeal ("App.") at pp. A10-13 ("Indictment"). In that accusatory instrument, Williamson was charged with murder in the first degree, contrary to N.Y. Penal L. § 125.27(1)(a)(ix) and (b); murder in the second degree, in violation of N.Y. Penal L. § 125.25(1); two counts of assault in the second degree, contrary to N.Y. Penal L. § 120.05(1) & (9); and endangering the welfare of a child, in violation of N.Y. Penal L. § 260.10(1). The Rensselaer County District Attorney ("District Attorney") thereafter filed a "Special Information Charging a Predicate Offense," which served as a formal notice that Williamson's prior 1992 Florida conviction for second degree murder would be considered an aggravating factor under N.Y. Penal Law § 125.27(l)(a)(ix), thereby making him eligible to be, inter alia, subject to the death penalty.*fn1 See App. at p. A16 ("Death Notice").

Following negotiations between Williamson's trial counsel, Mark B. Harris, Esq., and the District Attorney, Williamson entered into a plea agreement with respect to the charges brought against him in the Indictment. On December 2, 1997, Williamson appeared before Rensselaer County Court Judge Patrick J. McGrath for purposes of entering his guilty plea in accordance with the terms of the plea agreement. At the beginning of that proceeding, Judge McGrath noted on the record that it was the court's understanding that "the People ha[d] made a determination pursuant to section 400.27 sub 1 of the CPL that the death penalty shall not be sought." Plea Tr. at p. 2. The prosecutor agreed with the court's observation, id., and then described the terms of the plea agreement, pursuant to which Williamson would plead guilty to murder in the first degree, and receive a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, in satisfaction of all charges brought against him in the Indictment. Id. Defense counsel then advised the court that the prosecutor had accurately portrayed Williamson's "understanding" regarding the case and noted that counsel and Williamson had "had an opportunity to confer on this matter for quite some number of days and have arrived at this disposition." Id. at pp. 2-3. The court then ascertained from Williamson that he had "talked to [his] attorneys about this," and that he had had "enough time to make a decision," as to whether he wished to plead guilty to the first degree murder charge. Id. at p. 3. Following a lengthy colloquy between Williamson and the court, Judge McGrath accepted Williamson's guilty plea. Id. at pp. 4-18.

On January 21, 1998, Williamson appeared with counsel for sentencing before Judge McGrath. At that time, Williamson declared that he was "very, very sorry" for what had transpired on March 23, 1997, and advised the court that he had arrived at the decision to plead guilty "not to be selfish and escape the death penalty, but to spare ... the entire Santana family [from] reliving this ordeal." See Transcript of Sentencing of Steve Williamson (1/21/98) at p. 15 ("Sentencing Tr."). Judge McGrath then sentenced Williamson, pursuant to the terms of the negotiated plea agreement, to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Id. at pp. 16-17.

On March 17, 2000, before his direct appeal of his conviction had been perfected, Williamson filed, with the assistance of counsel, a motion to vacate his conviction pursuant to CPL § 440.10. See Respondent's Appendix on Appeal ("R.App.") at pp. RA140-49 ("Initial CPL Motion"). In that motion, Williamson's counsel noted that subsequent to Williamson's guilty plea, the New York Court of Appeals decided the case of Matter of Hynes v. Tomei, 92 N.Y.2d 613 (1998). See CPL Motion at ¶ 11. In that decision, the Court of Appeals held that a defendant could not properly plead guilty to first degree murder while the prosecution's notice of its intent to seek the death penalty was still pending. Id. at ¶ 12 (citing Hynes, 92 N.Y.2d at 629). Counsel argued in his application that when Williamson pleaded guilty to the first degree murder charge, the Death Notice had not been formally withdrawn by the prosecutor, and that, as a result, Williamson's conviction was invalid. Id. at ¶¶ 11-27.

Williamson filed a pro se "addendum" to that motion in which he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel during pre trial proceedings, plea negotiations, and at sentencing. See R.App. at pp. RA151-65. In that submission, he argued that, because he was on Prozac(r) at the time of his guilty plea, and counsel never requested an evaluation of Williamson's competency, his guilty plea was invalid. Id. at pp. RA154-56. The District Attorney filed an affirmation and memorandum of law in opposition to Williamson's motion, see R.App. at pp. RA166-92,*fn2 and Judge McGrath denied that motion in the court's order dated August 25, 2000. See R.App. at pp. RA193-97 ("August, 2000 Order").

On January 31, 2002, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department granted Williamson permission to appeal the denial of his Initial CPL Motion to the Third Department, see R.App. at p. RA2, which appeal that court consolidated with Williamson's direct appeal of his conviction. In its decision dated January 23, 2003, the Appellate Division denied and dismissed that consolidated appeal. See People v. Williamson, 301 A.D.2d 860 (3d Dept. 2003). On June 16, 2003, New York's Court of Appeals denied Williamson's application for leave to appeal such decision to that court. See People v. Williamson, 100 N.Y.2d 567 (2003).

On February 25, 2004, petitioner filed a pro se application for a writ of error coram nobis with the Third Department, alleging therein that he was denied the effective assistance of appellate counsel. By letter dated March 29, 2004, Williamson advised the Appellate Division that he wished to withdraw that application, and, in a letter dated April 2, 2004, an Assistant Deputy Clerk of that court advised Williamson that his coram nobis application had been marked withdrawn.

On April 6, 2004, Williamson filed another coram nobis application in which he argued that his appellate counsel was ineffective because he failed to argue on appeal that: i) N.Y. Penal Law § 125.27(l)(a)(ix) was unconstitutional; and ii) Williamson's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to assert that constitutional challenge. See April 6, 2004 coram nobis application ("April, 2004 CNA"). The District Attorney opposed that application, and, by affirmation dated May 12, 2004, Williamson filed a reply to the District Attorney's opposition papers. In an order dated May 21, 2004, the Third Department denied Williamson's April, 2004 CNA, see People v. Williamson, No. 15236 (3d Dept. May 21, 2004), and his application for leave to appeal that decision is alleged to have been denied by the New York Court of Appeals on September 13, 2004.*fn3

On August 12, 2004, petitioner filed, pro se, a second CPL§ 440.10 motion to vacate his conviction ("Second CPL Motion"). In that application, Williamson asserted that: i) the prosecutor committed misconduct in failing to notify Williamson that the Death Notice had been withdrawn; and ii) his guilty plea was not knowingly or voluntarily entered because neither he nor his counsel knew that the Death Notice had been withdrawn at the time Williamson entered his guilty plea. See Second CPL Motion. The District Attorney submitted an affirmation in opposition to that application, and Williamson thereafter submitted a reply in further support of his motion. In a Decision and Order dated January 25, 2005, Judge McGrath denied Williamson's Second CPL Motion ("January, 2005 Order"). That court specifically found that the issues Williamson raised in his Second CPL Motion were largely addressed in the Third Department's decision denying Williamson's appeal, and, to the extent that he had presented any allegations that were not directly addressed by that decision, such claims "could have been addressed" by Williamson in that appeal. January, 2005 Order at p. 2. Judge McGrath therefore denied the Second CPL Motion pursuant to CPL §§ 440.10(2)(a) & 440.10(3)(c). See January, 2005 Order at pp. 2-3.*fn4 Petitioner sought leave to appeal that order, however on April 15, 2005, the Appellate Division denied Williamson's leave application. People v. Williamson, No. 15938 (3d Dept. Apr. 15, 2005).

On October 21, 2004, petitioner filed another coram nobis application with the Third Department ("October, 2004 CNA"). In support of that request, Williamson asserted that he received the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel because such counsel failed to argue on appeal that the prosecutor failed to comply with the CPL in withdrawing the Death Notice. The District Attorney opposed that request, and Williamson submitted a reply in further support of his application. In a decision dated December 13, 2004, the Appellate Division denied the October, 2004 CNA, People v. Williamson, No. 15710 (3d Dept. Dec. 13, 2004), and New York's Court of Appeals denied his application for leave to appeal that decision on April 6, 2005. People v. Williamson (Ct. App. Apr. 6, 2005).

On July 22, 2005, Williamson filed his final request for a writ of error coram nobis ("July, 2005 CNA"). In that submission, Williamson argued his appellate counsel was ineffective because he failed to raise on appeal the claim that trial counsel was ineffective in allowing Williamson to plead guilty "under a death penalty statute [counsel] knew was unconstitutional" and by failing to object to the fact that the County Court lacked jurisdiction to accept the guilty plea while the Death Notice "was still pending." See July, 2005 CNA. Williamson also reasserted in that submission his claim that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that the plea was invalid because the prosecutor failed to file a written notice of his withdrawal of the Death Notice. Id. The District Attorney opposed that request, and on September 12, 2005, the Appellate Division denied such application. People v. Williamson, No. 16331 (3d Dept. Sept. 12, 2005). Williamson's request for leave to appeal that decision was denied by New York's Court of Appeals on January 19, 2006. People v. Williamson (Ct. App. Jan. 19, 2006).

B. This Action

On January 30, 2006, Williamson filed a pro se petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus in this District. Dkt. No. 1 ("Petition"). He also filed a supporting memorandum of law along with his petition. Dkt. No. 3 ("Supporting Mem."). In his petition, Williamson argues that: i) his guilty plea was not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary because he was "not adequately informed of his available options" by counsel and because the plea was made under threat of execution; ii) he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel because his attorney did not investigate whether the prosecutor had "orally" withdrawn the notice to seek the death penalty; iii) he was denied the effective assistance of appellate counsel because such counsel failed to argue on appeal that trial counsel was ineffective because he allowed Williamson to plead guilty to an unconstitutional criminal statute, and by not arguing that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to accept his guilty plea; and iv) his due process rights were violated because the prosecutor failed to follow the statutory requirements established by the CPL in attempting to withdraw the Death Notice. See Petition.

United States Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles thereafter directed the respondent to file a response to Williamson's petition, Dkt. No. 5, and on August 9, 2006, the Office of the Attorney General for the State of New York, acting on respondent's behalf, filed a response in opposition to Williamson's petition. See Dkt. No. 10. Included in that submission is respondent's memorandum of law in opposition to petitioner's habeas application ("Resp. Mem.").

Petitioner was thereafter given permission to file a "traverse" in further support of his habeas application, see Dkt. No. 14, which he filed with the Court on October 6, 2006. Dkt. No. 15 ("Traverse"). This action is currently before this Court for disposition.*fn5

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

The enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") brought about significant new limitations on the power of a federal court to grant habeas relief to a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In discussing this deferential standard, the Second Circuit noted in Rodriguez v. Miller, 439 F.3d 68 (2d Cir. 2006) that: a federal court may award habeas corpus relief with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court only if the adjudication resulted in an outcome that: (1) was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States"; or (2) was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."

Rodriguez, 439 F.3d at 73 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)); see also DeBerry v. Portuondo, 403 F.3d 57, 66 (2d Cir. 2005); Miranda v. Bennett, 322 F.3d 171, 177-78 (2d Cir. 2003); Boyette v. LeFevre, 246 F.3d 76, 88 (2d Cir. 2001). In providing guidance concerning application of this standard, the Second Circuit has noted that:

[A] state court's decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if it contradicts Supreme Court precedent on the application of a legal rule, or addresses a set of facts "materially indistinguishable" from a Supreme Court decision but nevertheless comes to a different conclusion than the Court did. [Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362,] at 405-06 [2000]; Loliscio v. Goord, 263 F.3d 178, 184 (2d Cir. 2001).... [A] state court's decision is an "unreasonable application of" clearly established federal law if the state court "identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts" of the case before it. Williams, 529 U.S. at 413.

Thibodeau v. Portuondo, 486 F.3d 61, 65 (2d Cir. 2007); see also Williams v. Artuz, 237 F.3d 147, 152 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing Francis S. v. Stone, 221 F.3d 100, 108-09 (2d Cir. 2000)).

Significantly, a federal court engaged in habeas review is not charged with determining whether the state court's determination was merely incorrect or erroneous, but instead whether such determination was "objectively unreasonable." Williams, 529 U.S. at 409; see also Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 315 (2d Cir. 2001). Objectively unreasonable in this context means "'some increment of incorrectness beyond error is required'" in order to grant a ...


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