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Morgan v. Rock

September 16, 2010


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


I. Introduction

Pro se petitioner Michael A. Morgan ("petitioner") filed a timely petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his conviction in Erie County Supreme Court of Murder in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal L. § 125.25(1)) following a jury trial before Justice Penny M. Wolfgang. Petitioner is currently serving a term of imprisonment of twenty-five years to life.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

Petitioner's conviction stems from the murder of his former girlfriend ("the victim"), who was last seen alive on the evening of October 3, 2004. Three weeks later, police found her decomposed and mutilated body in the home that she shared with petitioner and her two daughters on Herkimer Street in the City of Buffalo. Both of the victim's legs had been amputated below the knee. Her right leg was frozen and showed no signs of decomposition, and her left leg had been "cooked" and contained burns in the muscle. The remainder of victim's body, which had been found in an armchair, revealed an eight-inch by six-inch cut in the abdomen, made by a sharp instrument. The victim's official cause of death, however, was strangulation. T. 418-427, 583-586, 652-659.*fn1

Petitioner, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, admitted mutilating the victim's body, but denied that he was responsible for her death. The defense theorized that the victim either committed suicide, or, alternatively, that petitioner suddenly "snapped" and killed the victim unintentionally. T. 3, 717, 725. The jury found petitioner guilty on the sole count of intentional murder, and he was subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment of twenty-five years to life. T. 801, S. 7.

Through counsel, petitioner filed a direct appeal and pro se supplemental brief in the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which unanimously affirmed the judgment of conviction. People v. Morgan, 38 A.D.3d 1329 (4th Dept.), lv. denied, 8 N.Y.3d 988 (2007).

Petitioner then filed the instant petition for habeas corpus and supporting memorandum of law (Dkt. ## 1, 12), alleging the following seven grounds for relief: (1) the trial court erred in admitting prejudicial photographs of the victim and the crime scene; (2) the trial court erred in admitting evidence of uncharged crimes; (3) the conviction was based on legally insufficient evidence; (4) petitioner was denied due process because he was precluded from questioning prospective jurors; (5) petitioner's statements to police were admitted in violation of Miranda v. Arizona and his right to counsel; (6) ineffective assistance of trial counsel; and (7) the sentence is harsh and excessive. Petition ("Pet.") ¶ 22(A)-(D), Attach. Grounds 5-7.

The respondent has submitted a response and memorandum of law opposing the petition (Dkt. ## 8, 9). For the reasons that follow, I find that petitioner is not entitled to the writ, and the petition is dismissed.

III. Discussion

A. General Principles Applicable to Federal Habeas Review

1. Standard of Review

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner only if a claim that was "adjudicated on the merits" in state court "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," 28 U .S.C. § 2254(d)(1), or if it "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding." § 2254(d)(2). A state court 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 court decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). The phrase, "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," limits the law governing a habeas petitioner's claims to the holdings (not dicta) of the Supreme Court existing at the time of the relevant state-court decision. Williams, 529 U.S. at 412; accord Sevencan v. Herbert, 342 F.3d 69, 73-74 (2d Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1197 (2004).

A state court decision is based on an "unreasonable application" of Supreme Court precedent if it correctly identified the governing legal rule, but applied it in an unreasonable manner to the facts of a particular case. Williams, 529 U.S. at 413; see also id. at 408-10. "[A] federal habeas court is not empowered to grant the writ just because, in its independent judgment, it would have decided the federal law question differently." Aparicio v. Artuz, 269 F.3d 78, 94 (2d Cir. 2001). Rather, "[t]he state court's application must reflect some additional increment of incorrectness such that it may be said to be unreasonable." Id. This 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." Francis S. v. Stone, 221 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Under AEDPA, "a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The [petitioner] shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Parsad v. Greiner, 337 F.3d 175, 181 (2d Cir. 2003) ("The presumption of correctness is particularly important when reviewing the trial court's assessment of witness credibility."), cert. denied sub nom. Parsad v. Fischer, 540 U.S. 1091 (2003). A state court's findings "will not be overturned on factual grounds unless objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).

B. Merits of the Petition

1. Improperly Admitted Photographs

Petitioner first contends that he was denied due process when the trial court admitted photographs of the crime scene that were "offered only to inflame the jury." Pet. ¶ 22(A). The Appellate Division held, "[p]hotographic evidence should be excluded 'only if its sole purpose is to arouse the emotions of the jury and to prejudice the defendant,' and here, the photographs were relevant with respect to the efforts of defendant to dispose of the victim's body and the issue of his intent." Morgan, 38 A.D.3d at 1330 (quoting People v. Pobliner, 32 N.Y.2d 356, 370 (1973)).

Prior to the commencement of trial, the prosecutor marked forty photographs for identification, to which defense counsel objected to nine as "highly inflammatory and not probative of any of the remaining issues at trial." T. 374. The photographs included images of the victim's body parts and a freezer bag containing flesh. T. 374-376. In support of the admission of the photographs, the prosecutor argued that they were probative of the condition of the crime scene, the recovery of evidence, and demonstrated an intentional act. T. 377. In an exercise of discretion, the trial court agreed that certain photographs were inadmissible and deemed the remaining photos to be admissible at trial. T. 379-380.

Generally an evidentiary ruling is not a matter of federal constitutional law; an erroneous evidentiary ruling can, however, rise to the level of a constitutional claim cognizable on a habeas corpus petition if it is shown that the error so infected the proceedings as to have denied the petitioner a trial affording due process of law by rendering it fundamentally unfair. Collins v. Scully, 755 F.2d 16, 18 (2d Cir. 1985) (holding that in order to establish denial of fair trial from erroneous admission of evidence, it must be shown that the erroneously admitted evidence, viewed objectively in light of entire record before jury, was sufficiently material to provide basis for conviction or to remove reasonable doubt that would have existed on record without it); Taylor v. Curry, 708 F.2d 886, 891 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1000, (1983); Roberts v. Scully, 875 F.Supp. 182, 188-89 (S.D.N.Y.), aff'd, 71 F.3d 406 (2d Cir.1995).

Under longstanding New York law, it is matter of the trial court's discretion as to whether to introduce photographs of homicide victims. See People v. Wood, 79 N.Y.2d 958 (1992). ("The general rule is ... [that] photographs are admissible if they tend 'to prove or disprove a disputed or material issue, to illustrate or elucidate other relevant evidence, or to corroborate or disprove some other evidence offered or to be offered.' They should be excluded 'only if [their] sole purpose is to arouse the emotions of the jury and to prejudice the defendant[.]' ") (quoting People v. Pobliner, 32 N.Y.2d 356, 369-70 (1973)).

In the instant case, the central issue was the intent of the petitioner. The defense conceded that petitioner had dismembered the body, but was either not responsible for the victim's murder or did not kill the victim intentionally. The prosecution's theory, on the other hand, was that petitioner intentionally strangled the victim while she slept in an armchair. After killing her, petitioner, who weighed over one hundred pounds less than the victim, was unable to move her body. According to the prosecution, the petitioner then cut up the body and attempted to dispose of it to conceal the crime. Thus, the prosecution sought to show the deliberateness of petitioner's actions in dismembering the victim's body to prove that he was the murderer, because only the perpetrator would have felt the need to mutilate the body and dispose of it. The Appellate Division agreed with this reasoning, finding that the photographs were relevant to the issue of petitioner's intent. Morgan, 38 A.D.3d at 1330.

Based on a review of the record, petitioner has failed to demonstrate an error of state evidentiary law. Even if there were such an error, petitioner was not prejudiced in the constitutional sense by the photographs' introduction into evidence because the photographs were not the basis for petitioner's conviction. There was abundant evidence presented by the prosecution to convict petitioner of second-degree murder, see infra at III.B.3., and thus even if the photographs had been excluded, there is no ...

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