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Martin L. Oakes v. James Conway

July 28, 2011


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


I. Introduction

Martin Oakes ("Oakes" or "Petitioner") has filed a pro se 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition, alleging that he is being held in state custody in violation of his federal constitutional rights. He is incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility as a result of a January 29, 2007 judgment of conviction in Steuben County Court, following a jury trial, on charges of first degree manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to a determinate prison term of 22 years.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

On the evening of December 5, 2005, Petitioner, Danny Larrow ("Larrow" or "the victim"), Ryan Stilts ("Stilts"), Chris Cervoni ("Cervoni"), Jack Kemp ("Kemp"), George Barkley ("Barkley"), Kathy Smith ("Smith"), and Julie Hunt ("Hunt") were partying at the apartment of Scott Rose ("Rose") in the Village of Bath. Petitioner and Larrow had been drinking heavily and were both intoxicated. Petitioner was been drinking vodka and Kool-Aid, whiskey, and a six-pack of beer. Petitioner had also been taking hits from a bowl of marijuana that was being passed around.

At about 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., Petitioner and Larrow had gone to the Kemp's apartment in the same building complex. Larrow began insulting Petitioner and the two men screamed at each other. At some point during the argument, Petitioner punched Larrow in the face, and Larrow threw Petitioner to the ground and kicked him. Stilts and other individuals broke up the fight, and Larrow left the area while Petitioner remained with Stilts for about an hour. During that time, Petitioner pulled out his knife, and informed Smith that he wanted to stab Larrow. Smith told Petitioner to put the knife away. Petitioner held the knife for a few minutes and eventually put it back in his pocket.

When Larrow returned to Kemp's apartment, Petitioner was in the hallway outside Kemp's apartment. At some point, both Larrow and Petitioner were in the hallway together, and they began punching each other and fighting on the floor. Larrow had no weapon. Hunt saw Petitioner take his knife out of his pocket and stab Larrow with it. The struggle ended with Larrow lying on the floor bleeding, having sustained stab wounds to his chest and stomach. As Petitioner stood up, Smith asked him what happened. Petitioner replied, "I stabbed Danny."

Petitioner looked around for his knife but could not find it. He then left the apartment building. Larrow announced to the others, "[D]ude stabbed me!" Stilts tried to stop the bleeding and administered CPR to Larrow, who had stopped breathing. Stilts ordered someone to call for help, and Smith called 911.

Sergeant Lester Brown and Police Officer Stephen Hawken responded to the apartment building where they observed Larrow lying in the floor of a hallway. He appeared to be deceased; he was lying in a pool of blood, his eyes were half open and glazed, and he had no pulse. The officers saw a knife on a step in the hallway, three or four feet away from Larrow's body. The knife was covered in blood.

After Petitioner left the building, Daniele Lockard ("Lockard") saw him near a pay telephone. Since Petitioner appeared to be intoxicated and Lockard wanted cash so she could buy alcohol, she approached Petitioner and asked him for some money. Petitioner told her, "I just killed somebody and I don't know what to do." Petitioner told Lockard that the dead body was behind a nearby car wash. Lockard searched the car wash but found no one there.

At about 9:00 p.m., Petitioner went to the home of his girlfriend, Edwina Bates ("Bates"). Bates could smell alcohol on Petitioner's breath and observed blood on his shirt and in his hair. Petitioner told Bates that he had been fighting with Larrow and stabbed him in the chest. According to Barbara Bulkley ("Bulkley"), who was also in Bates's apartment, Petitioner appeared to be bragging about the incident. He commented, "I stuck the fucking cock sucker and twisted it." When Bates asked Petitioner why he had stabbed Larrow, Petitioner said that it was because he had gotten tired of Larrow making fun of Petitioner's teardrop tattoo. Petitioner told Bates that he knew he was in trouble and was going to go to jail.

Investigator David Dubois ("Inv. Dubois"), who was familiar with both Petitioner and Larrow, went to crime scene. He observed Larrow's body and learned that Petitioner had been accused of stabbing him. After trying to locate Petitioner at his home, Inv. Dubois and several other officers went to Bates's home, where they found Petitioner.

As Inv. Dubois entered the apartment, he introduced himself to Petitioner, who stated that he knew Dubois. Petitioner then announced, "[H]e jumped me first." When Inv. Dubois asked Petitioner who he was talking about, Petitioner replied that Larrow had been making fun of his tattoos, and so Petitioner stabbed him.

Inv. Dubois told Petitioner that he wanted to talk to him at the police station, and Petitioner agreed. Before commencing the interview at the police station, Inv. Dubois administered the Miranda warnings, and Petitioner waived his rights. Petitioner said that he had gone to an apartment on West Morris Street to find someone named Chad who owed him $50. Petitioner said he saw a group of friends, and he began drinking with them. Petitioner said that Larrow, who also was drinking beer, had picked on him because of his tattoos. Petitioner said that he "got sick of it and just snapped and stabbed him and left." Petitioner told the police that he had removed the knife from his back pocket, held it against his arm, and stabbed Larrow in his torso.

Petitioner said that he had known Larrow for years and had previous conflicts with him, including problems when they were in jail together. Petitioner remarked that Larrow "was nothing but a pedophile anyway." Petitioner said that he wished he had not stabbed Larrow and that he hoped Larrow did not die. Inv. Dubois memorialized Petitioner's statement in writing, and gave Petitioner an opportunity to review it and make changes.

Because of errors in the first statement, a second statement was drafted, indicating that Petitioner was not sure where in the apartment building the stabbing had occurred. Petitioner signed both statements.

The jury returned a verdict acquitting Petitioner of second degree murder and third degree possession of a weapon. However, the jury convicted him of first degree manslaughter. On January 29, 2007, Petitioner was sentenced to a determinate prison term of 22 years.

On December 31, 2008, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, unanimously affirmed the judgment of conviction, and on March 19, 2009, the New York Court of Appeals denied petitioner permission to appeal. People v. Oakes, 57 A.D.3d 1425 (App. Div. 4th Dept. 2008), lv. denied, 12 N.Y.3d 786 (N.Y. 2009).

In this timely habeas petition, Oakes argues that (1) the trial court improperly denied the motion to suppress his statements to the police; (2) the trial court's Sandoval*fn1 ruling was improper; (3) the evidence was not legally sufficient to support the conviction; (4) the verdicts were repugnant; (5) the trial court improperly conducted an interview of a seated juror in Petitioner's absence; (6) the trial court improperly refused to excuse a seated juror on the grounds of bias; (7) he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel; and (8) his sentence was excessive. For the reasons that follow, the petition is denied.

III. Discussion

A. Erroneous Admission of Petitioner's Statements

Oakes claims, as he did on direct appeal, that the trial court improperly refused to suppress his statements to the police. The Appellate Division disagreed:

The record of the suppression hearing establishes that defendant was not in custody when he made his initial statement to the police at the home of his girlfriend, and thus Miranda warnings were not required. "Because the initial statement was not the product of pre-Miranda custodial interrogation, the post-Miranda detailed confession given by defendant cannot be considered the fruit of the poisonous tree". The record of the suppression hearing further establishes that, although defendant was intoxicated at the time he made the statements, he "was not intoxicated to such a degree that he was incapable of voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waiving his Miranda rights[.]"

People v. Oakes, 57 A.D.3d at 1426 (internal quotations omitted). The Appellate Division's rulings were ...

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