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Williams v. Artus

August 20, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. Mcavoy United States District Judge



A. State Court Proceedings

The state court record supplied to this Court reflects that on July 20, 2002 at 11:11 p.m., Broome County 911 Dispatcher Gary Lowe received a 911 call for assistance originating from a home located in Binghamton, New York which terminated before the dispatcher could speak to the caller. See Transcript of Trial of Robert Williams Jr. (2/3/2005) ("Trial Tr.") at pp. 620-24. The dispatcher sent out a request for assistance from the police, and Officer Matthew Zandy of the Binghamton Police Department arrived at the residence from which the call was placed soon after the 911 call. Id. at pp. 629-32. As Officer Zandy approached the house, he heard three or four gunshots, and then saw a black male pass by a side window. Id. at pp. 636-37. Soon thereafter, the individual pointed what the officer believed to be a handgun at Officer Zandy. Id. at p. 641. After the officer started backpedaling toward his patrol car, another individual exited the residence, and the two men entered a car and fled the scene. Id. at pp. 645-47. A subsequent search of the home revealed that two people, later identified as Devin Spears ("Devin") and Valerie Spears ("Valerie"), were lying face down on the basement floor. Id. at p. 814. Neither of the victims were breathing or had any pulse. Id.

During the course of their investigation, law enforcement officials recovered from the home where the two victims had been killed, among other items, shell casings from a handgun as well as a baseball bat that was found on the dining room floor. Id. 880-886. The police subsequently learned that Vernon Parker, a co-defendant at the trial of petitioner, pro se Robert Williams, was married to the half-sister of Devin. Id. at p. 1045. Law enforcement agents also discovered during the course of their investigation that Parker had been criminally charged with molesting Devin and that those charges were still pending against him. Id. at pp. 1051, 1054, 1074.

At around 5:00 a.m. on July 21, 2002, the police arrived at Vernon Parker's residence, id. at pp. 1059-60, and, after a period of time, law enforcement officials succeeded in locating Parker and arresting him, who was then transported, along with his wife, to the police barracks. Id. at pp. 1062; 1116-17.

At trial it was also established that Parker was friends with Williams, who believed the criminal charges which alleged that Parker had molested Devin to be false and that Valerie was blackmailing Parker through the accusation that Devin had been molested by him. Id. at pp. 1360-61, 1457. The two eventually agreed to "get rid of them, kill them," id. at p. 1361, and after obtaining handguns from a friend, the two drove to Spears' residence and forced their way inside. Id. Devin came upon the intruders and attempted to hit one of them with a baseball bat, however she missed and was thrown down a staircase. Id. at pp. 1362-63. Parker then informed Williams that it was "personal" and that he "got this," and directed Williams up a staircase. Id. at p. 1363. Soon thereafter, Williams heard gunshots. Id. at pp. 1363-64.

After he had been arrested by the police, Williams was informed of his Miranda rights,*fn1 but agreed to waive them and speak with the officers without an attorney. Trial Tr. at pp. 2345-48. Williams initially claimed that he was in the Baltimore, Maryland area during the time the crimes were committed. Id. at pp. 2348-49. However, when he was confronted with the fact that authorities determined that his cell phone had been used in the Binghamton, New York area around the time that Devin and Valerie had been killed, "his story was no longer [he] was in Baltimore, it was now [he had] gone somewhere near Binghamton but not into Binghamton." Id. at p. 2350. When the officer posed a "hypothetical question" to Williams, asking him why he had not shot the officer who was standing in front of the residence immediately after the shots were fired, Williams "replied almost instantly, '[b]ecause I didn't shoot anybody inside.' "

Id. After a brief pause, Williams added "hypothetically." Id.

As a result of the foregoing, a Broome County grand jury returned an indictment against both Parker and Williams with respect to the murders of Devin and Valerie. In that accusatory instrument, Williams was charged with four counts of murder in the first degree and first degree burglary. See Indictment No. 02-503 (8/23/02) (Dkt. No. 9-1 at pp. 59-63). Williams' jury trial on the foregoing charges commenced on or about February 2, 2005, with Broome County Court Judge Martin E. Smith presiding. At the conclusion of that trial, Williams was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder and burglary in the first degree. Trial Tr. at pp. 2801-04.

On March 31, 2005, Judge Smith sentenced Williams to concurrent terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on each of the three murder convictions, and a concurrent, determinate term of twenty five years imprisonment on his burglary conviction. See Transcript of Sentencing of Robert Williams (3/31/05) ("Sentencing Tr.") at pp. 23-24.

Williams appealed the foregoing to the New York State, Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, however in its decision dated November 1, 2007, that court unanimously affirmed the judgment of conviction. People v. Williams, 45 A.D.3d 905 (3d Dept. 2007). New York State's Court of Appeals denied Williams' application seeking leave to appeal the Appellate Division's decision to the Court of Appeals in a decision dated March 6, 2008. See People v. Williams, 10 N.Y.3d 818 (2008).

B. This Action

Petitioner timely commenced the present action in this District by filing a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on April 9, 2009. See Dkt. No. 1 ("Petition"). Petitioner also attached to his petition a substantial supporting memorandum of law. See Attachment to Petition ("Supporting Mem."). In his pleading, Williams contends that he is entitled to habeas intervention because: i) the verdict was not supported by legally sufficient evidence; ii) his sentence is "far too excessive," and therefore must be reduced by this Court; iii) he received the ineffective assistance of trial counsel; iv) he was denied his right to a fair trial due to "inflammatory and prejudicial comments made by the prosecution during the course of the trial;" v) the cumulative effect of the prosecution's errors improperly shifted the burden of proof to petitioner and deprived him of his right to a fair trial; and vi) the jury that convicted him did not represent a fair cross-section of his community. See Petition and Supporting Mem.

On August 20, 2009, the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York, acting on respondent's behalf, filed a response in opposition to Williams' petition. Dkt. No. 12. Attached to that response is a memorandum of law in opposition to the petition. See Attachment to Dkt. No. 12 ("Resp. Mem."). The respondent has also provided the Court with state court records relating to the criminal matter below. See Dkt. No. 9. In opposing Williams' petition, respondent argues that Williams is procedurally barred from asserting certain of his grounds for relief, and that all of petitioner's claims lack merit. See Resp. Mem.

On September 11, 2009, Williams filed a traverse in further support of his habeas application. See Dkt. No. 15 ("Traverse").

This matter, which was re-assigned to this Court on July 13, 2010, see Dkt. No. 17, is currently before this Court for disposition.


A. Procedurally Barred Claims

As noted above, respondent claims that Williams is procedurally barred from obtaining habeas relief as to certain of the claims he has asserted in his petition. Specifically, respondent claims that petitioner failed to fully exhaust the following habeas claims: 1) his claim challenging the sufficiency of the evidence adduced at trial; 2) his ground for relief alleging prosecutorial misconduct; and 3) his claim that contends that the cumulative errors committed by the District Attorney at trial entitle Williams to habeas relief. See Resp. Mem. at pp. 19-21, 36-37. Respondent further argues that, because the Appellate Division denied, on an independent and adequate state procedural ground, petitioner's claim which argued that the jury pool did not represent a fair cross-section of his community, Williams is also barred from obtaining federal habeas relief as to that ground. Id. at pp. 40-42.

i. Unexhausted Claims

It is well-settled that a federal district court " 'may not grant the habeas petition of a state prisoner unless it appears that the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State ....' " Shabazz v. Artuz, 336 F.3d 154, 160 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Aparicio v. Artuz, 269 F.3d 78, 89 (2d Cir. 2001)); see also Hill v. Mance, 598 F.Supp.2d 371, 375 (W.D.N.Y. 2009). This is because "[s]tate courts, like federal courts, are obliged to enforce federal law." Galdamez v. Keane, 394 F.3d 68, 72 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 844-45 (1999)) (other citations omitted). As the Supreme Court noted in O'Sullivan, "[c]omity ... dictates that when a prisoner alleges that his continued confinement for a state court conviction violates federal law, the ...

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