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Washington v. Brown

June 8, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge



James Washington, currently incarcerated in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, petitions for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, seeking relief from his conviction in New York State Supreme Court of first-degree manslaughter and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Washington alleges that the trial judge erred in refusing to admit evidence of the victim's prior criminal record and that he was denied effective assistance of counsel at various stages in the proceedings against him. For the reasons stated below, Washington's petition is denied.


A. Washington's Trial and Sentencing

The parties agreed to a bench trial of the charges against Washington. The government's evidence at trial established that on the evening of November 2, 2001, Washington struck Darryl Pelle in the head with a baseball bat. Pelle died from injuries inflicted by Washington several days later.

Monique Jessie testified for the prosecution. She stated that on November 2, 2001, after speaking briefly with Pelle on the street, she turned to walk into a store and heard a loud thump. Turning around, she saw Washington hit Pelle three or four times with a bat while saying "Next time you know to keep your hands off of females." Tr. at 250-55.

John Pelle, an uncle of Darryl Pelle, testified that he heard there was a fight and walked toward the crowd forming at the scene. He saw his nephew on the ground and saw Washington walking away holding a bat. He then drove his nephew to the emergency room. On his way home, he saw Washington and asked him, "Why did you do that," to which Washington responded, "Well, he disrespected my daughter, and that's how I'm going out." Tr. at 173. Darryl Pelle was pronounced dead on November 8, 2001.

Wahington testified that he was in the neighborhood to visit his mother, and he passed a group of men on the sidewalk. A man that Washington had never seen before approached him and swung the bat at him, but Washington blocked the swing and wrested the bat away. Washington then turned and saw Darryl Pelle reaching for a gun in his waistband. He then hit Pelle with the bat twice, once on the left arm and once on the right side of his head. Washington also stated that at the time of the altercation, he had no knowledge of "whether [Pelle] had been involved in an incident with [Washington's] daughter Tiffany on a previous occasion." Tr. at 366.

On May 27, 2004, the judge found Washington guilty of first-degree manslaughter and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. The judge sentenced Washington to 23 years' imprisonment on the manslaughter count and seven years on the possession count, with the sentences to run concurrently.

B. Appeal and Collateral Proceedings

On appeal, Washington filed a counseled brief arguing that the trial judge improperly refused to provide Washington access to Pelle's criminal record and erred in refusing to admit evidence concerning Pelle's record to prove that Washington knew of Pelle's prior violent acts and that Pelle was the initial aggressor in their encounter. He also filed a pro se brief arguing that the trial judge failed to inquire into an alleged conflict of interest between Washington and Frank Hancock, the attorney who represented Washington in his initial suppression hearing.

While his appeal was pending, Washington filed a motion under New York Crim. Proc. L. §440.10 to vacate his judgment of conviction. He contended that Hancock was ineffective because he labored under a conflict of interest and because he failed to seek a Payton hearing. Washington also alleged that Scott Brettschneider, who represented him at trial, had a conflict of interest because he had represented a relative of Darryl Pelle in an unrelated matter at the time of Washington's trial and was ineffective because he failed to object to an alleged Brady violation and to improper arguments made by the prosecutor in summation. On January 24, 2007, Justice Stephen A. Knopf denied Washington's motion. He held that Washington's claim regarding Hancock's conflict of interest was pending before the Appellate Division and thus not properly before him, that his claims regarding Hancock's and Brettschneider's ineffectiveness were procedurally barred because Washington failed to raise them on direct appeal, and that his claim regarding Brettchneider's alleged conflict of interest was meritless. The Appellate Division denied leave to appeal Judge Knopf's decision on August 20, 2007.

On October 23, 2007, the Appellate Division affirmed Washington's conviction. People v. Washington, 843 N.Y.S.2d 686 (2d Dep't 2007). It held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding evidence, that any evidence excluded would have been cumulative, and that Washington's remaining contentions were meritless. The Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on January 10, 2008. People v. Washington, 9 N.Y.3d 1040 (2008).

Washington then petitioned the Appellate Division for a writ of error coram nobis. In this petition, he alleged that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the ineffective assistance claims discussed above. The Appellate Division denied Washington's petition on September 16, 2008. People v. Washington, 54 A.D.3d 886 (2d Dep't 2008). The Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on January 23, 2009. People v. Washington, 11 N.Y.3d 931 (2009).


A. Review of State Court Adjudications under AEDPA

A federal habeas court may overturn a state court's ruling on the merits of a claim only if the state decision was "contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," or "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 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 decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000). A decision is "an unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law if a state court "identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of [a] prisoner's case." Id. at 413. An unreasonable application is more incorrect than a merely erroneous one, Gilchrist v. O'Keefe, 260 F.3d 87, 93 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 411), but while "[s]ome increment of incorrectness beyond error is required . . . the increment need not be great; otherwise, habeas relief would be limited to state court decisions so far off the mark as to suggest judicial incompetence," Gilchrist, 260 F.3d at 93 (internal quotation marks omitted).

AEDPA's limited scope of review applies whenever a state court disposes of a state prisoner's federal claim on the merits and reduces its disposition to judgment, regardless of whether it explicitly refers to federal law in its decision. Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 312 (2d Cir. 2001). If a state court's summary disposition of a petition does not expressly indicate that a claim was denied as procedurally barred, a federal court must ...

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