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Melissa Strawbridge v. Elaine Lord

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


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 questioning at the New York State Trooper barracks, and that Petitioner voluntarily accompanied police for additional questioning. (Id. at Part IV.D.)

Finally, Magistrate Judge Homer recommended that no certificate of appealability issue with respect to any of Petitioner's claims. (Id. at Part V.)

C. Petitioner's Objections

On January 4, 2012, Petitioner filed her Objections to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 73.) Generally, in her Objections, Petitioner asserts the following five arguments: (1) Magistrate Judge Homer failed to address evidence, and the applicability, of Plaintiff's neonaticide syndrome in his Report-Recommendation;*fn2 (2) Magistrate Judge Homer's reliance on certain New York State cases regarding depraved indifference murder, including Policano v. Herbert, 7 N.Y.3d 588 (N.Y. 2006), is misplaced; (3) as to the "depraved mind murder" statute, Magistrate Judge Homer failed to address Petitioner's argument that, because the trial court failed to take into account the "circumstances" element, the state court was effectively relieved of its burden to establish every element under the statute; (4) Magistrate Judge Homer disregarded the Appellate Division's minimal fact-finding with respect to the "circumstances" element under NY PL § 125.25 and ignores evidence of Petitioner's neonaticide syndrome; and (5) Petitioner's statements during the initial and custodial interrogations should have been suppressed, because a sufficient break had not occurred between the two interrogations, and the subsequent custodial interrogation rested directly on information which had already been coerced. (Id. at "Facts" Section and Part IV.)

II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Standard of Review

When a specific objection is made to a portion of a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to a de novo review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). To be "specific," the objection must, with particularity, "identify [1] the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations, or report to which it has an objection and [2] the basis for the objection." N.D.N.Y. L.R. 72.1(c).*fn3 When performing such a de novo review, "[t]he judge may . . . receive further evidence. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). However, a district court will ordinarily refuse to consider evidentiary material that could have been, but was not, presented to the magistrate judge in the first instance.*fn4

When only a general objection is made to a portion of a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to only a clear error review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2),(3); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Addition.*fn5 Similarly, when an objection merely reiterates the same arguments made by the objecting party in its original papers submitted to the magistrate judge, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation challenged by those arguments to only a clear error review.*fn6 Finally, when no objection is made to a portion of a report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to only a clear error review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Addition. When performing such a "clear error" review, "the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation." Id.*fn7

After conducting the appropriate review, the Court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

B. Standard Governing Review of Petitioner's Habeas Petition

Magistrate Judge Homer correctly recited the legal standard governing review of Petitioner's habeas petition. (Dkt. No. 69, at Part II.) As a result, this standard is incorporated by reference in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for review of the parties.

III. ANALYSIS

After carefully reviewing all of the papers in this action, including Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation, the Court can find no error (clear or otherwise) in Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation. Magistrate Judge Homer employed the proper legal standards, accurately recited the facts, and correctly applied the law to those facts. (Dkt. No. 69, at Parts I-IV.)*fn8 As a result, the Court accepts and adopts Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation in its entirety for the reasons stated therein.

The Court would add only three brief points regarding Petitioner's Objections. First, because Petitioner's did not raise the argument that Petitioner suffered from neonaticide syndrome at during the guilt phase of the trial, Petitioner has failed to exhaust this argument in state court proceedings.*fn9 In addition, Petitioner's suggestion that the Appellate Division acknowledged that Petitioner "fit the pattern for neonaticide" and recognized this as a mitigating circumstance*fn10 is unsupported by the Appellate Division's decision, which does not discuss how, or whether, Petitioner's mental health related to the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial. See generally People v. Strawbridge, 299 A.D.2d 584 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep't 2002). Finally, despite Petitioner's extensive briefing on neonaticide syndrome and its alleged applicability to Petitioner, evidence of the syndrome is not admissible in New York State courts. See People v. Wernick, 89 N.Y.2d 111, 115 (N.Y. 1996) (finding that neonaticide syndrome is "not generally recognized in the relevant medical context and community"). As a result, it would be improper for the Court to evaluate whether that "circumstance" supports or detracts from Petitioner's "sufficiency of the evidence" argument.

Second, Petitioner's definition of "denial" as a "psychological inability to accept and deal with a reality that is evident and has been made known to the subject" (Dkt. No. 73, at 10) is too broad, excluding a definition that substitutes the word "refusal" with the word "inability." See, e.g., Webster's New College Dictionary at 308 (3d ed. 2008) (defining "denial" as "[a] refusal to acknowledge the truth of a statement or allegation"). Such a distinction is material where, as here, the petitioner's argument hinges on a lack of awareness and/or consciousness.

Third, Petitioner's attempt to highlight a purported "conflict" between two pieces of evidence regarding whether the fetus moved after birth, and to highlight certain trial testimony regarding the possibility of a cause of death other than asphyxia, is in vain, given the legal standard governing the Court's review of her conviction, pursuant to which the Court must determine whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

ACCORDINGLY, it is

ORDERED that Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 69) is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED in its entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that the Amended Petition (Dkt. No. 61 ) in this matter is DENIED and DISMISSED in its entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that a certificate of appealability not issue with respect to any of the claims set forth in the Petition as Petitioner has not made a "substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right" pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).


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