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Williams v. Artus

March 19, 2009


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


Petitioner Mark Williams, a state prisoner appearing pro se, has filed a petition for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent has answered, and Williams has filed his traverse. Williams is presently in the custody of the New York Department of Correctional Services incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility.


Williams was convicted in July 2004 after a trial by jury in the Ulster County Court of murder in the second degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 120.25(1)). Williams was sentenced to an indeterminate term of 25 years to life. Williams timely appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, Third Department, which affirmed his conviction in a written, reasoned decision, and the New York Court of Appeals summarily denied leave to appeal on July 21, 2006.*fn1

Williams timely filed his petition for relief in this Court on February 15, 2007.


In his petition Williams raises nine grounds: (1) verdict was unsupported by the weight of the evidence; (2) impermissible admission of hearsay evidence concerning Williams' prior relationship with the victim; (3) sentence was unduly harsh and excessive; (4) ineffective assistance of counsel and right to fair trial; (5) a Brady violation; (6) broken chain of custody for the gunshot residue; (7) detectives committed perjury; (8) statement to police was coerced; and (9) trial judge was not impartial.

Respondent contends that Williams' fourth and ninth grounds are unexhausted and procedurally barred. Respondent has asserted no other affirmative defense.*fn2


Because Williams 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. Consequently, this Court cannot grant relief unless the state court decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" at the time the state court renders its decision or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn3 The Supreme Court has explained that "clearly established Federal law" in § 2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.*fn4 Thus, where holdings of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review are lacking, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.'"*fn5 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of the Supreme Court precedent must be "objectively unreasonable," "not just incorrect."*fn6 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing the state court determination was incorrect.*fn7 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 outcome.*fn8

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn9

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.*fn10 If a federal claim has not been adjudicated on the merits, AEDPA deference is not required.*fn11 In that situation, conclusions of law and mixed questions of fact and conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.*fn12 A state court decision is conclusively presumed to have been on the merits when the state court disposes of the claim on other than procedural grounds, even where it fails to provide any reasoning for the disposition.*fn13 Where there is no reasoned decision of the state court addressing the ground or grounds raised by Williams on the merits and no independent state grounds exist for not addressing those grounds, this Court must decide the issues de novo on the record before it.*fn14


Ground 1: Weight of the Evidence

Williams argues that his conviction was against the weight of the evidence. Under New York law, the Appellate Division employs two standards of review-legal sufficiency and weight of the evidence. Although related, each requires a discrete analysis. Under the sufficiency of the evidence standard the Appellate Division must determine whether there is a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences that could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of evidence at trial. Under the weight of the evidence standard, the court must examine the evidence further. If based upon all the credible evidence a different finding would not have been unreasonable, the Appellate Division must weigh the relative probative force of the conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony.*fn15 In determining the weight of the evidence, the Appellate Division not only determines credibility issues, it must assess the evidence in light of the elements of the crime as charged to the jury.*fn16 That is, the Appellate Division "must consider the elements of the crime, for even if the prosecution's witnesses are credible their testimony must prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."*fn17

The Appellate Division, after thoroughly reviewing the evidence, rejected Williams's position.*fn18 To the extent that Williams' argues the weight of the evidence under New York law, it is beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding.*fn19 The constitutional standard for sufficiency of the evidence, as stated in Jackson v. Virginia, is whether, "after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."*fn20 This court must, therefore, determine whether the decision of the Appellate Division on the merits unreasonably applied Jackson.

Williams misperceives the role of a federal court in a habeas proceeding challenging a state-court conviction. It is a fundamental precept of dual federalism that the states possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law.*fn21 Consequently, although the sufficiency of the evidence review by this Court is grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment, it must undertake its inquiry by reference to the elements of the crime as set forth in state law.*fn22

This Court is precluded from either re-weighing the evidence or assessing the credibility of witnesses. Under Jackson, the role of this Court is to simply determine whether there is any evidence, if accepted as credible by the jury, sufficient to sustain conviction of the crime as prescribed by state law. That such evidence exists is clearly established by the record in this case. Williams bears the burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that the factual findings of the jury were erroneous; a burden Williams has failed to carry. Here, the Appellate Division, a state court, found that there was sufficient evidence to support conviction of the crimes under state law. Under AEDPA this Court must defer to that decision in a federal habeas proceeding.

Williams is not entitled to relief under his first ground.

Ground 2: Admission of Hearsay Evidence

Williams argues that the introduction of hearsay evidence concerning his prior abusive, controlling and threatening behavior toward the victim (testimony of complaints made by the victim to third parties about the way that Williams mistreated her) was erroneous and prejudicial. In rejecting Williams's arguments, the Appellate Division held:

Next, contrary to defendant's contention, County Court did not abuse its discretion in permitting evidence of defendant's prior abusive, controlling and threatening behavior toward the victim as it provided necessary background information as to their relationship and also bears on motive and intent (citations omitted). Additionally, the ...

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