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Rodriguez v. Connell

March 23, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, J.


Petitioner, Edwin Rodriguez, was convicted of three counts of manslaughter in the second degree, one count of driving while intoxicated and six vehicle and traffic infractions in Suffolk County Court. Petitioner files this pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (2000), to vacate his judgment of conviction. For the following reasons, his petition is denied.



Petitioner was tried by jury for second degree murder and manslaughter, among other charges, resulting from a traffic collision on New Year's Eve 1998. On that night, petitioner, a corrections officer working at Riker's Island, while driving drunk, collided with another car driven by Angelette Coffey and occupied by passengers Norma Vestal, Pascal Lee Trent and Matthew Marcotrigiano on the Long Island Expressway in Suffolk County.

While petitioner was speeding and weaving through expressway traffic, his Kia impacted the rear of Coffey's Chevrolet Chevette, loosening its gas tank from the chassis. Petitioner's front bumper wedged underneath Coffey's rear bumper, causing the two cars to become momentarily hitched to each other. When the cars separated, the Chevette's gas tank was dragged along the road, causing enough friction for the gasoline to ignite, which in turn set the car ablaze. A driver who stopped at the scene moments later was able to pull Coffey out of the car. The heat, however, hindered him from pulling out the passengers. The force of the impact seriously injured Coffey and, along with the fire and smoke resulting from the crash, killed Vestal, Trent and Marcotrigiano.

A number of people witnessed the collision and defendant's erratic driving preceding it. When the police arrived at the scene of the collision, several bystanders were already tending to petitioner and Coffey. Witnesses described several near collisions involving petitioner's car moments before the collision. Several witness saw the car weave in and out of traffic, and one estimated petitioner's speed, at one point, to be 110 miles per hour. Witnesses also noted petitioner's bloodshot eyes and a smell of alcohol emanating from him.

When the police arrived, officers collected evidence, videotaped the scene and questioned petitioner. Petitioner initially denied that he was driving the Kia but, after he was placed under arrest, presented his corrections facility identification and said, "I'm on the job. I'm a cop just like you are. Can't you give me a break?" Police officers and a volunteer fireman on duty observed that petitioner was impaired and smelled alcohol on his breath.

Petitioner was arrested and taken to Stony Brook University Medical Center where he received treatment for a head injury. At the hospital, a police officer interviewed him for an Alcohol Influence Report. Petitioner refused to submit to chemical testing or sign the refusal form despite warnings that a report would be made of his refusal. Pursuant to a warrant, a blood test found alcohol over the legal limit in petitioner's system.


Petitioner was charged with second degree murder, second degree manslaughter, assault, vehicular assault, driving while intoxicated and various traffic infractions. The State wanted to introduce portrait photos taken of the deceased while they were alive. In a pretrial motion, petitioner objected. Trial Tr. 10-11. The trial court overruled the objection, ruling that, upon prior inspection by the court, the State would be entitled to introduce the portraits solely for the purpose of identification. Id. at 11:2-10.

The trial court also denied petitioner's motion to exclude videotape shot at the scene of the collision. Id. at 90:13-14. The videotape, which was shot and narrated by a police officer at the crime scene, ran eighteen minutes and depicted the positions of the two vehicles and the still-smoldering, charred bodies of Vestal, Trent and Marcotrigiano. Id. at 139-46, 148.

Before the video was shown to the jury and entered into evidence, petitioner objected to the introduction of the last five minutes in which the camera lingers on the burned bodies of the deceased. Defense counsel argued that the only purpose of admitting the depiction of the burned bodies would be to inflame the passion of the jury. Id. at 75. Furthermore, defense counsel contended that there would be no dispute as to the cause of death and that, even if there were, the State had a wealth of other evidence which it could use to establish cause of death. The State replied that the disputed portion of the video was relevant to the cause of death, the positions of the bodies and petitioner's depraved indifference to human life.

The court overruled petitioner's objection. In support of its ruling, the court noted that the video was being offered to show depravity and the general location of the vehicles and to corroborate the medical examiner's testimony about the causes of death. After the video was shown, the petitioner moved for a mistrial claiming the videotape ...

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