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Leonel Mejia v. United States of America

May 24, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wexler, District Judge


Petitioner Leonel Mejia ("Mejia") moves under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his judgment of conviction and sentence of imprisonment imposed by this Court. The government opposes the motion.


For purposes of this decision, the relevant background can be summarized as follows:

A. The Murder, Mejia's Statements, and Seizure of the Murder Weapon

1. The Sanchez Murder

Mejia, an alleged member of the La Mara Salvatrucha, "MS-13," street gang, was charged with the murder of fellow MS-13 member Edgardo Sanchez ("Sanchez") on the night of September 13, 2003 in a wooded area in Farmingdale, New York. Trial Transcript ("Tr.") 604-09, 725-26, 905, 1087-93. Mejia killed Sanchez by firing one bullet through his heart at close range, admittedly because he believed, correctly, that Sanchez had provided information to local law enforcement officers that led to the arrests of several MS-13 members on murder and assault charges. Tr. 605, 802-13.

2. Mejia's Oral and Written Statements to New York State Police Investigators On September 16, 2003, New York State Police Investigator Robert Rodriguez ("Investigator Rodriguez") interviewed Mejia three times in the New York State police barracks in Bethpage, New York. Tr. 597-609. Following repeated oral and written rights waivers, Mejia provided Investigator Rodriguez and other investigators with several oral statements and a typewritten statement on September 16 and 17, 2003. Mejia acknowledged, inter alia, that he was an MS-13 member, that he was with Sanchez and other MS-13 members at a delicatessen in Hempstead, New York on the night of September 13, 2003, that he possessed a handgun that night, and that MS-13 members discussed a plan to murder Sanchez because they believed he was an informant. Tr. 614-23. While Mejia initially denied being present at the murder, he later admitted being present. Nevertheless, he initially claimed that fellow MS-13 member Mario Zuniga ("Zuniga") shot and killed Sanchez. Tr. 620.

Before the first two interviews, Investigator Rodriguez advised Mejia of his rights in both Spanish and English, and Mejia orally waived his right to counsel and his right to remain silent. Tr. 597-609, 614-23. During breaks and between the three interviews, Mejia ate, slept, and used the restroom. Tr. 235-58, 617-18. He was told that he could use a telephone. Tr. 642-44.

Following the third interview, at approximately 7:05 a.m. on September 17, 2003, Investigator Rodriguez went to observe an interview of Zuniga being conducted in another room. Tr. 239, 620. While there, he was informed that Mejia wanted to speak to him again. Tr. 239. Consequently, Investigator Rodriguez returned to the lunchroom to speak to Mejia,who indicated that he could provide information about stabbings. Tr. 240.

During this conversation, at approximately 8:31 a.m., Investigator Thomas Hughes, the investigator responsible for interviewing Zuniga, called Investigator Rodriguez out of the lunchroom and informed him that Zuniga had just identified Mejia as the shooter. Tr. 240-41. Investigator Rodriguez then returned to the lunchroom and confronted Mejia with Zuniga's allegation. Tr. 241. At that point, Mejia admitted shooting and killing Sanchez. Tr. 241, 604-09, 622-23. Rodriguez then had Mejia explain the entire incident again. Tr. 242, 622. During that explanation, Mejia revealed that the murder weapon was hidden in his residence. Tr. 245.

After Mejia described the events leading up to the murder and the murder itself, and following another rights waiver, Rodriguez took a typewritten statement from Mejia. Tr. 242-44, 622-23. In that statement, Mejia explained how he shot and killed Sanchez and hid the murder weapon in his residence.

Later, while being transported by New York State Police personnel, Mejia overheard an officer comment to another officer that he had once arrested Sanchez. After hearing the remark, Mejia said, "You arrested him, I killed him, I killed the fuck." Tr. 905.

3. Seizure of the Murder Weapon

After providing the written statement, Mejia signed a consent-to-search form relating to his residence. Tr. 623. Law enforcement personnel escorted Mejia to his residence, where Mejia opened the door and pointed to the bureau by his bed as the location of the murder weapon. Tr. 623-28. The investigators then seized the handgun used to murder Sanchez. Tr. 847-49.*fn1

4. Mejia's Videotaped Statement to the Nassau County District Attorney's Office After departing the residence, Mejia was transported to the Nassau County District Attorney's Office, where he provided a videotaped statement to an assistant district attorney on the afternoon of September 17, 2003. Tr. 247-49, 628.*fn2 Prior to any interrogation, Mejia was again advised of and again waived his rights. Tr. 248.

Thereafter, Mejia provided information about MS-13 and described in detail how he shot and killed Sanchez on the night of September 13, 2003, including that:

(1) MS-13 is "a Salvadorian, Central American gang";

(2) MS-13 members "wear blue bandanas";

(3) He had been an MS-13 member for 2-3 years;

(4) MS-13 is involved in "fighting with other gang members," including the "SWP" and Latin Kings;

(5) He was initiated into MS-13 by being "jumped by three [MS-13 members]";

(6) MS-13 is divided into "cliques"; he identified his clique as "HLS -- Hempstead Locotes Salvatruchas";

(7) He has an MS-13 tattoo signifying his membership, three dots in the web of his hand, which he described as representing "death, hospital, jail . . . the main three reasons to be in the gang . . . the three points of your life";

(8) He held the position of "soldier" in the MS-13 leadership hierarchy, which he described in detail;

(9) MS-13 meetings are held regularly and that dues, usually $13.00, are collected at each meeting;

(10) MS-13 "collect[s] money to buy, buy stuff, like they collect money to buy guns, they collect money to buy cars or drugs";

(11) MS-13 members must make their "quota" as part of their membership in the gang;

(12) When Sanchez arrived for an MS-13 meeting at a delicatessen on the night of September 13, 2003, Mejia and other MS-13 members decided to cancel the meeting because "we heard that [Sanchez] was a snitch";

(13) An MS-13 member from the Freeport clique incarcerated for murder had sent a letter from the Nassau County jail informing other MS-13 members that Sanchez was "a snitch";

(14) Sanchez had "already signed a statement about what [the incarcerated MS-13 member] did";

(15) After deciding to cancel the meeting, Mejia and other MS-13 members present discussed killing Sanchez;

(16) He brought a loaded 9 millimeter MS-13 handgun to the delicatessen;

(17) He agreed to kill Sanchez to make his "quota";

(18) Another MS-13 member present told Sanchez that they were going to a party in Farmingdale as a ruse to lure him to a location where he could be killed;

(19) Once they arrived at the Farmingdale location, they walked into a wooded area;

(20) In the wooded area, "I just turned around and I shot him," gesturing to his chest;

(21) He attempted to shoot Sanchez a second time "in the head" but the handgun jammed;

(22) After the murder, "we went to my house, I dropped the gun there"; "I hide it behind my bed"; and "I cooperate with the police and told them where it was";

(23) He killed Sanchez "because he was a snitch" who had provided information against a member of the Freeport MS-13 clique; and

(24) Sanchez had to be killed "because he was probably going to keep doing the same thing -- ratting on probably, mostly, everybody."

During the videotaped statement, Mejia was calm and conversational. In it, Mejia acknowledged that the police read him his rights before they questioned him and, when asked how the police treated him, he responded: "It was nice, it was fine"; "I didn't give them no problem and they didn't give me no problem"; and they "gave me soda and lunch and dinner."

B. Pretrial and Trial Proceedings

1. Mejia's Suppression Motion

On April 4, 2006, Mejia moved to suppress his oral, written, and videotaped statements, as well as the seized handgun. In his motion and his supporting affidavit, Mejia contended that:

(1) he did not recall whether he was advised of his constitutional rights prior to giving his statements; (2) the investigators had falsely promised him a prison sentence of "no more than eight or ten years" if he cooperated; (3) an investigator had assaulted him during the interrogations; (4) the investigators threatened to strike him again if he did not cooperate; (5) he signed his typewritten statement "without reading it or having it read to him"; and (6) he did not consent to the search of his residence. Tr. 294. Regarding the alleged assault, Mejia asserted that [w]hen I tried to explain that I did not know what they wanted to know, or what they wanted me to say, one of the investigators struck me in the face with his hand and threatened that I would be struck again if I refused to answer questions about MS-13 and its activities. I was also told by one of the investigators that if I did not cooperate with them, I would spend the rest of my life in prison. The investigators repeated this routine with me throughout the day of my arrest. . . . The actions and statements of the investigators made me extremely frightened for my safety and well-being and eventually made me believe that I had no choice but to answer their questions.

Affidavit of Defendant Leonel Mejia, dated April 4, 2006, ¶¶ 6-7.

The Court conducted a suppression hearing on April 11, 2006, during which Investigator Rodriguez and another investigator testified. Tr. 231-90. During the hearing, Mejia's counsel supplemented Mejia's written motion by contending that Mejia's statements should be suppressed because his will had been overborne as a result of the length, nature, and timing of the interrogations. Tr. 288-97.

On April 12, 2006, this Court denied the suppression motion, finding that Mejia's contentions were unsupported; that the government had established that Mejia knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights in providing the oral, written, and videotaped statements; and that Mejia had voluntarily consented to the search of his residence. Specifically, the Court found that Mejia "was advised or readvised of his rights prior to giving any statements and that the statements were not taken under circumstances indicating the defendant's will was overcome by the conditions under which he was held. . . . [T]he evidence sufficiently establishes the defendant voluntarily waived his rights." Tr. 295-96.

2. The Government's Expert Testimony Notice

Prior to trial, the government maintains that it notified the defense that it intended to call New York State Police Investigator Hector Alicea ("Alicea") as an expert witness to testify about, "the structure, operations, and history of the MS-13 street gang. He will further testify about the hierarchy, cliques, methods, criminal activities, modes of communication, symbols and slang terminology used by MS-13 members." Government's Response in Opposition to Petitioner's Motion ("Government's Mem.), at 11 (quoting Government's April 7, 2006 Expert Notice).

3. Trial Evidence and Arguments

At trial, the government's evidence consisted of, inter alia, (1) the testimony of ten civilian or law enforcement witnesses; (2) Mejia's oral, written, and videotaped statements; the murder weapon found in Mejia's bedroom; (3) photographs of the crime scene, Mejia's gang tattoo, and the "XIII" he had shaved into his eyebrows prior to his arrest; (4) the testimony of four former MS-13 members (two of whom were present when Mejia murdered Sanchez); (5) a seven-minute videotaped recording of MS-13 members attending the funeral of a member*fn3 ; (6) and the testimony of Alicea, who provided background expert testimony relating to MS-13, as described in the government's pretrial notice.

a. Testimony of MS-13 Member Ralph Admettre

MS-13 member Ralph Admettre ("Admettre") testified, inter alia, that:

(1) He had been a member of the MS-13 since the age of 16 and had been in three different cliques over six years;

(2) MS-13 was an El Salvadorian street gang;

(3) MS-13 members identify themselves as members with tattoos, blue bandanas and other gang paraphernalia, and a specific handsign;

(4) A common MS-13 tattoo was three dots in the web of the hand - with the three dots representing jail, hospital, and cemetery -- the three destinations of an MS-13 member;

(5) The MS-13 street gang was divided into different cliques, all of which were part of the same organization;

(6) MS-13 cliques operated in New York, California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida;

(7) MS-13 cliques regularly held meetings at which dues were collected to fund a clique treasury;

(8) MS-13 treasury money was used "to bail people out [of jail], buy guns, buy bats, knives, bullets";

(9) Inter-clique meetings, called "Universals," were held to coordinate criminal activities ...

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