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David Sonachansingh v. William Lee

March 15, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge


David Sonachansingh, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for Relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Sonachansingh is currently in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, incarcerated at the Green Haven Correctional Facility. Respondent has answered, and Sonachansingh has replied.


Following a jury trial in April 2006, Sonachansingh was convicted in the Schenectady County Court of one count each of Murder in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25[1]) and Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 120.20). The trial court sentenced Sonachansingh to an indeterminate prison term of 25 years to life. On direct appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal.*fn1 The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari on June 29, 2009, and rehearing on October 5, 2009.*fn2 On January 27, 2010, Sonachansingh filed a motion to set aside the verdict under N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 330.30 and to vacate the judgment under N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 440.10 [combined CPL §§ 330.30/ 440.10 motion] in the Schenectady County Court.*fn3 Sonachansingh then filed what appears to be the same combined CPL §§ 330.10/440.10 motion in the Appellate Division, which was summarily denied on March 31, 2010. Sonachansingh timely filed his petition in this Court on April 15, 2010. [Sonachansingh] was charged by indictment with intentional murder in the second degree, depraved indifference murder in the second degree, reckless endangerment in the first degree and unlawful imprisonment in the first degree based upon evidence that he fatally shot his wife and then held his stepdaughter hostage in their home in the City of Schenectady, Schenectady County.*fn4


In his Petition Sonachansingh raises eleven grounds: (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failure to communicate with Sonachansingh and for allegedly making false remarks in counsel's opening statement; (2) the verdict was improperly returned by nine jurors; (3) Sonachansingh was deprived of documents necessary to prepare his pro se appellate brief by the courts and agencies involved in the case; (4) appellate counsel improperly perfected his appeal using the appendix method; (5) appellate counsel improperly interfered with Sonachansingh's ability to submit arguments on appeal; (6) trial counsel waived Sonachansingh's right to appear at pretrial hearings and jury selection without Sonachansingh's knowledge; (7) jury selection was unconstitutional; (8) the jury was not properly administered the Oath of Truthfulness; (9) actual innocence; (10) pending appeal on Sonachansingh's combined CPL §§ 330.30/410.10 motion; and (11) confidential issues intentionally left blank to all respondents.*fn5

In his Traverse, Sonachansingh appears to attempt to raise additional grounds, e.g., denial of his right to a public trial and illegal search and seizure. This Court does not ordinarily consider grounds raised for the first time in the traverse. "The petition must: (1) specify all the grounds for relief available to the petitioner; (2) state the facts supporting each ground; [and] (3) state the relief requested . . . ."*fn6 To the extent that Sonachansingh wishes to raise additional grounds, the proper procedure is to file a motion to amend the petition under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15. In this case, however, a motion to amend would be futile because the amendment would not relate back to the initial filing and would, therefore, be barred by the one-year limitation period of 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1).*fn7 Consequently, this Court declines to address any ground other than those grounds fairly raised in the Petition.

Respondent contends that Sonachansingh's first and second grounds are procedurally barred on adequate, independent state grounds. Respondent also contends that Sonachansingh's third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grounds are unexhausted and procedurally barred. Respondent asserts no other affirmative defense.*fn8


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254, this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the state court "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" at the time the state court rendered its decision or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn9 The Supreme Court has explained that "clearly established Federal law" in § 2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision."*fn10 The holding must also be intended to be binding upon the states; that is, the decision must be based upon constitutional grounds, not on the supervisory power of the Supreme Court over federal courts.*fn11 Thus, where holdings of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review are lacking, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.'"*fn12 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be objectively unreasonable, not just incorrect or erroneous.*fn13 The Supreme Court has made it clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing that the state court determination was incorrect.*fn14 "[A]bsent a specific constitutional violation, federal habeas corpus review of trial error is limited to whether the error 'so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.'"*fn15 In a federal habeas proceeding, the standard under which this Court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal proceeding is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the outcome.*fn16 Petitioner "bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that his constitutional rights have been violated."*fn17

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn18 In addition, the state court's findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.*fn19 Although pre-AEDPA precedent established that deference is due findings of state appellate courts,*fn20 the Second Circuit has left the question open with respect to AEDPA cases.*fn21 In the absence of a clear indication from the Second Circuit to the contrary, this Court can find no principled reason not to apply the same rule in the context of AEDPA, i.e., findings of a state appellate court are presumed to be correct.

To the extent that Sonachansingh raises issues of the proper application of State law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding. A petitioner may not transform a state-law issue into a federal one by simply asserting a violation of due process.*fn22

"[The Supreme Court has] long recognized that a mere error of state law is not a denial of due process."*fn23 "'Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension.'"*fn24


A. Procedural Bar

Sonachansingh raised his first ground (ineffective assistance of counsel) and second ground (nine-member jury) in his pro se brief on direct appeal. The Appellate Division summarily disposed of the issues raised in the pro se brief, stating: "The remaining contentions, all raised in defendant's pro se brief, are unpreserved for our review." Sonachansingh also included those claims in this application for leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals. Respondent argues that those issues are procedurally barred. This Court agrees.

Under the adequate-and-independent-state-ground doctrine, federal courts may not review the judgment of a state court that "rests on a state-law ground that is both 'independent' of the merits of the federal claim and an 'adequate' basis for the court's decision."*fn25 Because this doctrine applies on federal habeas review, and because the state-law ground may be a procedural bar,*fn26 federal habeas courts often speak of an "adequate and independent procedural bar" to federal review of a claim or simply of a "procedurally barred" federal claim. A federal habeas court lacks jurisdiction to evaluate questions of federal law decided by a state court where the state court judgment "rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment."*fn27 A procedural bar will be deemed "adequate" only if it is based on a rule that is "firmly established and regularly followed" by the state in question.*fn28

To classify the decision as either fairly appearing to rest primarily on or interwoven with federal law, or as resting primarily on state procedural law, this Court looks to three factors: (1) the face of the state court opinion; (2) whether the state court was aware of a procedural bar; and (3) the practice of state courts in similar circumstances.*fn29 There is no question that the Appellate Division explicitly invoked the state procedural rule as barring review. Looking behind the asserted state law grounds, as this Court must, this Court agrees with Respondent that the ...

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