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Melissa Strawbridge v. Elaine Lord

March 27, 2012

MELISSA STRAWBRIDGE, PETITIONER,
v.
ELAINE LORD, SUPERINTENDENT, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court, in this habeas corpus proceeding filed by Melissa Strawbridge ("Petitioner") against Bedford Hills Correctional Facility Superintendent Elaine Lord ("Respondent") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, are (1) United States Magistrate Judge David R. Homer's Report-Recommendation recommending that Petitioner's Amended Petition be denied and dismissed, and (2) Petitioner's Objections to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. Nos. 69, 73.) For the reasons set forth below, Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation is accepted and adopted in its entirety, and Petitioner's Amended Petition is denied and dismissed in its entirety.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

For the sake of brevity, the Court will not repeat the factual background of Petitioner's conviction for murder in the second degree but will simply refer the parties to the relevant portions of Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation, which accurately recite that factual background. (Dkt. No. 69, at Part I.)

A. Petitioner's Asserted Grounds for Relief

In her Amended Petition filed on March 21, 2011, Petitioner asserts the following three grounds for relief: (1) the evidence was not sufficient to establish elements of New York Penal Law ("NY PL") § 125.25(4); (2) NY PL § 125.25 is unconstitutional as applied to Petitioner; and (3) New York's clarification of the elements of depraved indifference murder requires vacatur of the conviction. (Dkt. No. 59, at ¶¶ 197-261 [Petitioner's Am. Petition].)

Generally, in her memorandum of law in support of her Amended Petition, Petitioner asserts the following five arguments: (1) because the ruling in People v. Suarez clarified the standards for depraved indifference murder convictions, Petitioner's federal right of due process requires that her conviction be vacated; (2) the medical evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support her conviction; (3) the same mental health issues that the Appellate Division found to be mitigating factors when considering Petitioner's sentence should be considered by the Court to find that there was insufficient evidence to support the "depraved indifference to human life" element necessary for a murder conviction under NY PL § 125.25; (4) the "recklessness-plus-risk" standard under NY PL § 125.25 was unconstitutionally vague as applied to Petitioner; and (5) various statements that Petitioner made to law enforcement officers should have been suppressed at trial. (Dkt. No. 59, Attach. 2, at Points I-V [Petitioner's Memo. of Law].)

B. Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation

On November 23, 2011, Magistrate Judge Homer issued his Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 69.) In his Report-Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Homer recommended dismissal of Petitioner's Amended Petition because, after reviewing the evidence presented at trial, a rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (Id. at Part IV.)

For example, as to Petitioner's first argument (i.e., that the ruling in People v. Suarez requires the overturning of her conviction under the depraved-indifference-murder statute), Magistrate Judge Homer found that there is no federal habeas corpus relief for determining the correctness or incorrectness of the Appellate Division's interpretation of New York law. (Id. at Part IV.A.) Magistrate Judge Homer further found that, because the decision in Suarez was issued two years after Petitioner's conviction became final, and because the Appellate Division has not retroactively applied Suarez, this Court must give the Appellate Division's decision due deference. (Id.)

As to Petitioner's second argument (i.e., that medical evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support her conviction of murder in the second degree), Magistrate Judge Homer found that the medical evidence presented at trial, as well as Petitioner's statements admitted at trial, clearly establish that Petitioner's baby was born alive and that Petitioner's subsequent actions "supply the chain of events" contributing to the baby's death from asphyxia. (Id. at Part IV.C.) Magistrate Judge Homer further found that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution (pursuant to the applicable federal habeas corpus standard of review), there is sufficient evidence for a rational fact finder to find the essential elements of depraved indifference murder. Moreover, Magistrate Judge Homer found that the Appellate Division properly applied this standard by finding that a rational fact finder could have objectively viewed Petitioner's "extreme recklessness" as "manifest[ing] a depraved indifference to human life." (Id.)

As to Petitioner's third argument (i.e., that the same mental health issues that the Appellate Division found to be mitigating factors when considering Petitioner's sentence should be considered by the Court to find that there is insufficient evidence to support the "depraved indifference to human life" element necessary for a murder conviction under NY PL § 125.25), Magistrate Judge Homer found that the evidence presented at trial, in which Petitioner revealed both an awareness of her pregnancy, and had expressed both disdain for the baby and an intention to dispose of the baby, clearly indicates that Petitioner had the capacity to understand the circumstances of her situation. (Id. at Part IV.C.) He further found that Petitioner's assertion that she was incapable of acting with depraved indifference (because she did not have the capacity to understand the circumstances she was experiencing while pregnant/giving birth)is barred because such evidence was not presented at trial. (Id.)

As to Petitioner's fourth argument (i.e., that the "recklessness-plus-risk" standard under NY PL § 125.25 had not been properly clarified at the time of her conviction and was unconstitutionally vague as applied to her), Magistrate Judge Homer rejected that argument on multiple grounds. (Id. at Part IV.B.) More specifically, with regard to Petitioner's notice challenge, Magistrate Judge Homer found that "[g]iving birth and then leaving a new born child unattended in a toilet after seeing it move and then placing it into a garbage bag and sealing it would be criminal conduct of which an ordinary person would be on notice." (Id.) With regard to Petitioner's vague-as-applied challenge, Magistrate Judge Homer found that (1) "[t]he presence of . . . distinctions [between the tests for depraved indifference murder and the lesser included offense of reckless manslaughter] precludes an argument that depraved indifference could have been conflated with the requirements of either intentional murder or reckless manslaughter," and (2) "vagueness challenges grounded upon due process do not give rise to constitutional violations when two statutes proscribe the same conduct and a defendant is charged under the one subjecting him to greater punishment." (Id.)

As to Petitioner'sfifth argument (i.e., that statements she made to various law enforcement officers during the custodial interrogation should have been suppressed at trial on the basis of police coercion), Magistrate Judge Homer found not only that Petitioner had failed to exhaust these claims*fn1 but that the Appellate Division properly determined there was no evidence of coercion based on the record demonstrating that a significant break in time occurred between Petitioner's initial questioning at her place of employment and the subsequent ...


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