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Cruz v. Ercole

April 3, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David N. Hurd United States District Judge


I. Background*fn1

A. State Court Proceedings

According to the testimony adduced at trial, in early April, 2002, petitioner, pro se Angel Cruz, his fiancee, Edna Bermudez, and Bermudez's friend, Annie Rannazzo, all traveled from Brooklyn to stay at the house of a friend on Mason Street in Utica, New York. See Transcript of Trial of Angel Cruz (9/9/02) ("Trial Tr.") at 448-50, 473-75. Sometime during the evening of April 4, 2002, Cruz, who was also known as "Felix," id. at 350, went to a nearby residence on Bleecker Street where an acquaintance, Tamaica Watkins, lived with her two children and her brother, Daniel Watkins. Id. at 326-27, 408, 411. Several other people were at the Bleecker Street home at that time, including Victor Arimont, Marilyn Colon, Omar Harvey and Juan Delacruz, who was also known as "Kane." Id. at 329, 369-70, 408, 424-25 and 503-04.

Sometime after Cruz arrived at that residence, he was heard arguing in the kitchen with Delacruz. Id. at 342-43, 352. According to Watkins, Cruz and Delacruz were arguing because Cruz had asked Watkins' brother to purchase drugs from Cruz but he declined, and Cruz had also asked Delacruz to buy drugs, but he, too, refused. Id. at 354-57. When Cruz thereafter observed someone giving money to Delacruz, Cruz became angry and then informed Delacruz that he was "really going to buy it." Id. at 362-63. Around that time, Cruz motioned toward Delacruz with a knife, prompting him to remark "that was pretty close." Id. at 360-61. When Cruz jabbed at Delacruz again, Watkins saw Cruz's fist hit Delacruz's chest, after which she saw the knife being pulled from Delacruz's torso. Id. at 364-65. Cruz motioned toward Delacruz a third time with the knife, however he jumped back and hit a wall, damaging it, and began walking towards Watkins' bedroom. Id. at 365-67. Around that same time, Watkins heard Cruz boast: "[t]hat's what you get for fucking with my hustle. Now look at you." Id. at 369.

Harvey then saw Cruz pacing in the kitchen, holding a cigarette and a long butcher knife. Id. at 414-15. Delacruz then emerged from Watkins' bedroom and said to Cruz: "[y]ou fucking stabbed me," after which he turned to Arimont and stated: "Victor, he fucking stabbed me." Id. at 369-70. When Watkins told Cruz to leave the apartment, he dropped the knife into the sink, ran some water and left the building. Id. at 371-72.*fn2

Sergeant Wayne Manolescu and Officer Jack Sitts of the Utica police department were the first officers to arrive at the Bleecker Street apartment. Id. at 207-08. Upon arriving at the scene, they observed a man lying on the floor. Id. at 208-09. When they asked the occupants of the apartment what had transpired, the officers were initially told that the victim had left the apartment and returned a short time later after having been stabbed. Id. at 211-12. Based upon that misinformation, the officers canvassed the area around the residence and questioned people on the street about the stabbing, however the officers obtained no information about an assault and could not locate any blood trails outside the residence or any other evidence suggestive of criminal activity. Id. at 212-13. The Bleecker Street apartment was then searched, which revealed the presence of "push-in" damage to an interior wall and a black-handled steak knife lying in water in the kitchen sink. Id. at 275-80. There was no blood on the knife or in the sink, however, and a fingerprint found on the knife blade contained insufficient detail to provide evidence of the individual's identity. Id. at 285-92.*fn3

The records also reflect that Margaret Tropea and her boyfriend, John Miranda, were at their home in Utica when Arimont called Miranda and told him that Delacruz was in the hospital. Id. at 520-21. Tropea and Miranda went to the hospital but soon left that institution when the hospital would not release information regarding Delacruz's condition to them. Id. at 521-22. They then drove to the Mason Street apartment and, while the two were in that residence, Tropea heard Cruz admit to another individual that Cruz had stabbed Delacruz in the chest. Id. at 525-26. Soon thereafter, Tropea and Miranda decided to leave the apartment. Id. at 527-28. As they were walking down the staircase, they were stopped by the police, who asked them if Felix was in the apartment. Id. at 545-46. Miranda volunteered that he was upstairs. Id. at 546. A detective then knocked on the door of the Mason Street apartment and asked for Felix. Id. at 546-47. Bermudez answered the door, informed the officers that no one by that name was there, and invited the police to enter the apartment to look for him. Id. at 547. During that search, a detective noticed that a door in the kitchen led to a set of stairs leading to an attic. Id. at 547-48. Aided by his flashlight, the detective entered the attic, where he observed Cruz lying on the floor, face down, behind a couch. Id. at 549. Cruz was then handcuffed and brought downstairs. Id. at 549-50.

At trial Stephen Buda, a paramedic with a local ambulance service, testified that he was dispatched to the Bleecker Street apartment and, when he arrived at that residence, he began treating Delacruz, who had been stabbed and was experiencing difficulty breathing. Id. at 228-32. Delacruz was soon thereafter transported to a hospital, where he subsequently died of his stab wounds. Id. at 249.

As a result of the foregoing, on April 9, 2002, an Oneida County Grand Jury returned a two count indictment against Cruz in which he was charged with the intentional and depraved indifference murder of Delacruz. See Indictment No. 202-105. In September, 2002, Cruz's jury trial on the foregoing charges commenced, with Oneida County Court Judge Barry M. Donalty presiding. At the conclusion of that trial, the jury found Cruz guilty of the intentional murder of Delacruz. Id. at 659. On October 24, 2002, Judge Donalty sentenced him to an indeterminate term of twenty-five years to life imprisonment on the murder conviction. See Transcript of Sentencing of Angel Cruz (10/24/02) ("Sentencing Tr.") at 7.

On or about April 25, 2005, petitioner filed, through counsel, a brief in support of Cruz's appeal with the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department. In that appeal, Cruz argued that: i) the prosecutor was wrongfully permitted to use Watkins' supporting deposition and grand jury testimony to impeach her credibility during the direct examination of that witness at Cruz's trial; ii) the trial court abused its discretion in permitting the prosecutor to have a twenty minute recess during Watkins' testimony to "coach" her so that her trial testimony conformed to her prior statements; iii) Watkins' testimony was replete with contradictions and was so inconsistent that the jury's verdict should have been set aside as being against the weight of the evidence; and iv) Cruz's sentence is harsh and excessive. See Appellate Brief on Appeal (4/25/05) ("App. Br."). That appeal was opposed by the Oneida County District Attorney, and on November 10, 2005, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed Cruz's conviction. People v. Cruz, 23 A.D.3d 1109 (4th Dept. 2005). On February 24, 2006, the New York Court of Appeals denied Cruz's application for leave to appeal. People v. Cruz, 6 N.Y.3d 811 (2006).

B. This Action

Cruz commenced the present action by filing, pro se, an application seeking a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on May 24, 2007. See Dkt. No. 1 ("Petition"). In his petition, Cruz raises three grounds in support of his request for federal habeas intervention: i) the prosecutor improperly used Watkins' grand jury testimony and supporting deposition to impeach that witness after the District Attorney found Watkins' trial testimony to be unsatisfactory; ii) the trial court abused its discretion in affording the prosecutor a twenty minute recess during the direct examination of Watkins so that the prosecutor could coach that witness; and iii) Watkins' testimony "consisted of so many hopeless contradictions and the various versions of her testimony were so irreconcilable that her testimony must be deemed to be incredible as a matter of law," and the verdict set aside as being against the weight of the evidence. See Petition, Grounds One through Three.

On October 24, 2007, the Attorney General for the State of New York, acting on respondent's behalf, filed a response in opposition to Cruz's application. Dkt. No. 6. Respondent also filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the petition in which he argues that Cruz is procedurally barred from obtaining the relief he seeks as to some of ...

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