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Melendez v. Senkowski

August 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Pro se petitioner Orlando Melendez ("petitioner") has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his conviction in Monroe County Supreme Court of Burglary in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal L. § 140.25(2)) following a jury trial before Justice Thomas Van Strydonck.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

Petitioner's conviction stems from an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of October 14, 2001, at 36 Avenue A in the City of Rochester. That night, Samuel Cruz and his wife Carmen Stupia had picked up their infant son from a babysitter and were returning to their home after a night out. When they arrived, they saw that their kitchen window was broken open, there were shards of glass with blood on them, and blood on the windowsill. They also observed that a bedroom door that had previously been shut was open, and the lid from a jewelry box on their bedroom dresser had been removed.

While Ms. Stupia called 911, Mr. Cruz searched the house. While doing so, he noticed drops of blood in the kitchen, hallway, and in his son's bedroom. He then discovered petitioner hiding in his son's bedroom with a blanket wrapped around his hand. Mr. Cruz knew petitioner as an indigent from the neighborhood, having given him food and money a few weeks earlier. Cruz held petitioner until police arrived. Trial Tr. 297-310, 324-328, 354-355, 368-378, 387, 393-425.

At his trial, petitioner was provided with the services of a court-appointed Spanish language interpreter. The interpreter initially sat at counsel table to assist the defense. Mr. Cruz offered his testimony in Spanish, however, which created the need for his statements to be interpreted to the trial court, counsel, and the jury. The District Attorney provided a second interpreter for this purpose. After a series of questions and answers, defense counsel objected on the ground that the District Attorney's interpreter had not accurately translated particular questions and answers. In response to this, the trial court excused the jury and held a fact-finding hearing. At the conclusion, the translator provided by the District Attorney's office was excused, and the court-appointed interpreter was asked to stand away from the defense table and translate for both the petitioner and the courtroom. Trial Tr. 296, 310-320.

Petitioner moved for a mistrial on the issue of the allegedly defective interpretation, citing examples of inaccurate translation on the part of the discharged translator. Specifically, he articulated a concern that the translator had not properly asked a certain question or given the related answer, and that by doing so he had indicated to the jury that petitioner made a tacit admission to Mr. Cruz that he "robbed" the house.*fn1 The trial court denied his motion, as well as a request by the defense that the prosecutor's questions be re-read to Mr. Cruz using the court-appointed interpreter. The trial court instead suggested that counsel could re-ask those questions, if he chose, and in doing so "rehabilitate the record as best you think it needs to be rehabilitated." The trial court then instructed the jury that because there was some difference of opinion regarding the accuracy of the interpretations, he was going to have the court-appointed interpreter translate for the balance of the trial, and that he was allowing defense counsel to cover areas that had been the subject of questions regarding the interpretations. Trial Tr. 310-324.

After brief deliberations, the jury found petitioner guilty of second-degree burglary. He was thereafter adjudicated a persistent violent felony offender and sentenced to the statutory minimum term of incarceration of sixteen years to life. Sentencing Tr. 12, 21.

Petitioner then filed an appeal in the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which unanimously affirmed the judgment of conviction. People v. Melendez, 24 A.D.3d 1223 (4th Dept. 2005). After granting leave to appeal the Appellate Division's decision, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the order and decision of the Appellate Division. People v. Melendez, 8 N.Y.3d 886 (2007).

Petitioner then filed the instant petition for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising two related claims: (1) that his conviction was obtained by the use of misinterpreted testimony, depriving him of a fair trial and due process; (2) as a result of the faulty translation, he was denied his right to counsel, the right to be present at trial, the right to confrontation, and the right to participate in his own defense. Petition ("Pet.") ¶ 22(A)-(B).

For the reasons that follow, the petition is dismissed.

III. ...

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