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Mannix v. Phillips

August 30, 2010

JOHN MANNIX, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
WILLIAM PHILLIPS, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.
JERMAINE ARCHER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
BRIAN FISCHER, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeals from judgments of the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, denying petitioners' petitions, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, for writs of habeas corpus.

Petitioners John Mannix and Jermaine Archer contend that, at the time that each of their convictions became final, New York's depraved indifference murder statute, N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2), was unconstitutionally vague as applied to them. We hold that the New York state courts' determination that the depraved indifference murder statute was not unconstitutionally vague was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

We further hold, with respect to petitioner Mannix, that legally sufficient evidence supports his conviction. Finally, we hold that even if Mannix's claim based on the prison mailbox rule is properly before this Court, no relief is warranted on this basis.

Accordingly, the judgments of the district courts, denying the petitions for writs of habeas corpus, are hereby AFFIRMED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wesley, Circuit Judge

Argued: July 12, 2010

Before: RAGGI, WESLEY, HALL, Circuit Judges.

John Mannix appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Richard Conway Casey, Judge) denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Jermaine Archer appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Joseph F. Bianco, Judge) denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. We heard the appeals in tandem because both petitioners argue that, at the time their convictions became final, the definition of depraved indifference murder under New York law, see N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2), was unconstitutionally vague. Mannix further argues that the evidence was legally insufficient to support his conviction.*fn1

The New York state courts' rejection of petitioners' vagueness claims was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). At the times petitioners' convictions became final, New York's depraved indifference murder statute, N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2), provided them with notice that their conduct was prohibited. And, the statute did not authorize or encourage arbitrary enforcement.

Petitioners argue that, at the time that each of their convictions became final, the depraved indifference murder statute, id. § 125.25(2), was constitutionally defective because the differences between that statute and the statute governing reckless manslaughter, or manslaughter in the second degree, id. § 125.15(1), were indiscernible or nonexistent. In support, petitioners cite two decisions by a former judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granting habeas corpus relief from convictions on this ground. See St. Helen v. Senkowski, No. 02 Civ. 10248, 2003 WL 25719647 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 2003), rev'd on other grounds, 374 F.3d 181 (2d Cir. 2004); Jones v. Keane, No. 02 Civ. 1804, 2002 WL 33985141 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2002), rev'd on other grounds, 329 F.3d 290 (2d Cir. 2003). We conclude that the argument lacks merit. The depraved indifference murder and reckless manslaughter statutes were distinct at the times that petitioners' convictions were finalized. And, in any event, an act may violate more than one criminal statute, and the government may prosecute a defendant under either one without raising constitutional vagueness concerns under the Due Process Clause. What the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause demands is that the government not discriminate against a class of defendants in the exercise of its prosecutorial discretion.

We also hold that legally sufficient evidence supports Mannix's conviction. Finally, we need not resolve the question of whether or not, pursuant to the prison mailbox rule, Mannix's objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation are properly presented to this Court. Even if this claim is properly before us, Mannix is not entitled to any relief on this basis because the magistrate's report and recommendation were not in error.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Petitioner John Mannix

In the early morning hours of February 26, 2000, in a Manhattan bar, Mannix got into a heated exchange with an individual named Matthew Torruella. Mannix v. Phillips, 390 F. Supp. 2d 280, 283 (S.D.N.Y. 2005). Eventually, the two men ended up in a physical altercation. Id. The dispute appeared to come to an end when Mannix pinned Torruella up against a wall and the two men then separated. Id. However, as Mannix was backing away, Torruella "sucker-punched" him in the face. Id. Apparently recognizing that Mannix was angry, Torruella's companion pulled Torruella into the ladies' room at the back of the bar - a one-person restroom, approximately four feet by eight feet in size - and locked the door. Id. Moments later, Mannix followed. Id.

According to witnesses, Mannix kicked and pounded the bathroom door for between thirty seconds and two minutes. Id. At this point, as least one witness indicated that she heard something that sounded like a gunshot while Mannix was still in front of the door. Id. at 283-84. Others testified to hearing loud pounding noises and something that sounded like someone throwing himself against a door. Id. Mannix fatally shot Torruella in the chest through the bathroom door. Id. at 284. Mannix then left, but later called the bar and asked if he had "hit anyone." Id. When he was told that he had, he responded, "good," and hung up. Id. An investigating officer determined that the bullet hole in the bathroom door was "dead center in the middle of the door at approximately chest level." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Mannix was charged with depraved indifference murder, N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2), and the lesser included offense of reckless manslaughter, id. § 125.15(1). The court explained to the jury that, if it was "satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the defendant," it could "find him guilty of only one of these crimes." Trial Tr. 1067:17-19. The judge informed the jury that a person is guilty of depraved indifference murder "when under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of that person."*fn2 Trial Tr. 1068:9-12. The court made it clear that in order for the jury to find Mannix guilty of depraved indifference murder, it had to "decide whether the circumstances surrounding his reckless conduct when objectively viewed, made it so uncaring, so callous, so dangerous and so inhuman as to demonstrate an attitude of total and utter disregard for the life of the person or persons endangered." Trial Tr. 1069:17-21. The judge further instructed:

Under our law a crime committed recklessly is generally regarded as less serious and blameworthy than a crime committed intentionally. But when reckless conduct is engaged in under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, the law regards that conduct as so serious, so egregious as to be the equivalent of intentional conduct.

Conduct evincing a depraved indifference to human life is much more serious and blameworthy than conduct which is merely reckless. It is conduct which beyond being reckless is so wanton, so deficient of moral sense and concern, so devoid of regard for life or lives of others, as to equal in blameworthiness intentional conduct, which produces the same result. Trial Tr. 1069:1-14.

The judge instructed that if the jury did not find Mannix guilty of depraved indifference murder, it should next consider whether the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of reckless manslaughter. The judge explained that "a person is guilty of [reckless] manslaughter . . . when that person recklessly causes the death of another person." Trial Tr. 1070:17-19. On November 13, 2000, the jury found Mannix guilty of depraved indifference murder.*fn3 N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2).

Mannix appealed, and the appellate division affirmed his conviction. People v. Mannix, 756 N.Y.S.2d 33, 34 (1st Dep't 2003). The appellate division held that, "[c]ontrary to [Mannix's] contention, Penal Law § 125.25(2), which defines 'depraved indifference' murder, is not unconstitutionally vague." Id. The court stated that depraved indifference murder and reckless manslaughter were "separate crimes, both facially and as interpreted." Id. The appellate division further noted that, "[i]n any event, the Supreme Court of the United States 'has long recognized that when an act violates more than one criminal statute, the [g]overnment may prosecute under either so long as it does not discriminate against any class of defendants.'"

Id. (quoting United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123-24 (1979)). The appellate division also found that "[t]he verdict convicting [Mannix] of depraved indifference murder was based on legally sufficient evidence and was not against the weight of the evidence." Id. The New York Court of Appeals denied Mannix's application for leave to appeal. People v. Mannix, 100 N.Y.2d 622 (2003).

Mannix filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Southern District of New York. Mannix, 390 F. Supp. 2d at 282. Judge Casey referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Gorenstein, to whom Mannix argued that "the difference between depraved indifference murder and reckless manslaughter is no longer 'well understood' in New York," that the depraved indifference murder statute "does not prohibit the proscribed conduct 'with ...


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