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Smith v. Lee

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 7, 2013

DAMON SMITH, Petitioner,
WILLIAM A. LEE, Respondent.


PAUL A. ENGELMAYER, District Judge.

Petitioner Damon Smith, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, brings a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254. On April 18, 2008, after a month-long jury trial in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Bronx County, Smith was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. On November 12, 2008, Judge Joseph Dawson sentenced Smith, as a persistent violent felony offender, to a term of 25 years to life. In this petition, Smith challenges the 2008 conviction, arguing that the court failed to provide an appropriate curative instruction in response to statements in the prosecutor's summation that Smith asserts were improper. Smith also challenges the trial court's finding that he is a persistent violent felony offender, arguing that one of the predicate felony convictions was obtained pursuant to an involuntary guilty plea. For the reasons stated herein, Smith's petition is denied.

I. Background[1]

A. The 2008 Conviction

On April 18, 2008, after a month-long jury trial, the jury acquitted Smith of murder in the second degree and convicted him of manslaughter in the first degree. Tr. 1090-91. These charges relate to the death, on August 18, 2005, of Curtis Ingram. The evidence at trial was as follows.

1. Evidence at Trial

a. The People's Case

The People opened their case with their primary witness-Nicole Givens. Givens testified that she had known Smith and his sister Dawn for approximately 30 years, and that she considered them like her brother and sister. Tr. 50-51.

On August 18, 2005, Givens went to apartment F-33 on the third floor of 1000 Anderson Avenue, which was occupied at the time by Dawn Smith and her boyfriend, Bob McIntyre. Id. at 56, 59-64, 446. Givens was accompanied by Ingram, whom she had known for two years. Id. at 52. Givens testified that when Ingram began knocking on the apartment door, Dawn Smith yelled "get the fuck away from the door, Bob's not here." Id. at 65-66. Ingram continued knocking, however, and said, "just tell Bob to come to the door because... I know he's inside." Id. at 66. Ingram continued to knock for 20-30 minutes. Id. at 69, 246-47. Finally, the door opened and Givens could see that someone, although she could not see who, [2] was poking a stick out of the open door at Ingram. Id. at 69-73, 247-48. Ingram grabbed the stick and pushed it back into the apartment. Id. at 73, 247-48.

About a minute and a half later, Dawn emerged from the apartment with her brother, petitioner Smith. Id. at 74, 261. Givens testified that Smith and Dawn began attacking Ingram. Id. at 74. Smith carried a butcher knife in his right hand. Id. at 76. Ingram began to back up but continued to face the door of the apartment. Id. at 76, 190. Givens testified that Ingram fell on his back in the hallway about five feet from the door, and Smith began to stab him repeatedly. Id. at 77-78. Ingram kicked at Smith from his back. Id. at 80-81. Givens screamed Smith's name and told him to stop, at which point Smith looked at Givens and then stabbed Ingram again on the right side near his lung. Id. at 85.

Givens testified that after Smith finished stabbing Ingram, Smith ran down the stairs to the first floor of the building. Id. at 90-92, 267-68. Givens followed Smith down the stairs to the first floor, where she saw Smith throw the knife out a first-floor window. Id. at 91-93. Givens then went back upstairs to help Ingram, who had started to come down the stairs from the third floor. Id. at 93-94. Ingram made it out of the building before he began to throw up blood. Id. at 95. Givens asked someone to call an ambulance, which arrived approximately five minutes later. Id. at 96-97.

The People also called Trinh Dinh, a paramedic. She testified that on August 18, 2005, she responded to a radio run at 1000 Anderson Avenue at about 5:30 p.m. Id. at 435. When she and her partner arrived on the scene, she saw Ingram lying face down in the street next to a parked car. Id. Dinh and her partner carefully rolled Ingram over, put him on a stretcher, and placed him in the back of the ambulance. Id. at 436. Dinh and her partner cut open Ingram's shirt, revealing multiple stab wounds. Id. On the way to the hospital, Ingram stopped breathing and lost pulse. Id. Dinh and her partner administered chest compressions and tried to put a breathing tube into Ingram's throat, but were unable to because of the amount of blood in his throat. Id. at 436-37. Upon arrival at the hospital, Dinh and her partner transferred care to emergency staff, who continued to administer chest compression. Id. at 437. They were unable to revive Ingram. Id.

The People also called the Police Officers Stephen Pierce and Christopher Brady, who responded to a radio run around 5:30 p.m. on August 18, 2005 and arrived at 1000 Anderson Avenue approximately three minutes later. Id. at 331-33, 376. Officer Pierce testified that when he arrived at the scene, three ambulances were already there and paramedics were caring for a black male bleeding heavily from the body. Id. at 334; accord id. at 377. The officers testified that Givens was on the scene, and was "hysterical, " id. at 335, and "distraught, " id. at 377. Givens then led Officers Pierce and Brady to an alley next to 1000 Anderson Avenue where she pointed out a knife lying on the ground. Id. at 337. The officers could not immediately access the alley so they followed Givens into the building, where she showed them the first-floor window through which she said Smith had thrown the knife; the officers could see the knife lying in the alley. Id. at 338. Officer Pierce then followed Givens upstairs to view the crime scene, id. at 339, while Officer Brady recovered the knife from the alley, id. at 341, 378. Officer Brady placed the knife in a paper bag and gave it to another officer. Id. at 342, 378-79.

Dr. Margaret Prial, an expert in the field of anatomic and forensic pathology employed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York in the Bronx, performed an autopsy on Ingram on August 19, 2005, the day after his death. Id. at 381-85. Dr. Prial identified 12 stab wounds on Ingram's body, but could not determine in which order the wounds had been inflicted.[3] Id. at 388. Dr. Prial testified that two stab wounds caused Smith's death: one to the left side of his chest that went through his lung and pulmonary artery, the other to his left arm that was three inches deep. Id. at 407-08. In other words, Dr. Prial testified, Ingram "bled to death." Id. at 409. Upon cross-examination, Dr. Prial conceded that had the wound to Ingram's left arm been treated right away, "[i]t's more likely than not that it would have been non-fatal, " id. at 412, whereas the stab wound to Ingram's left chest was definitively fatal, id. at 409. Ingram also suffered five non-fatal stab wounds on his thighs and left lower leg, a smaller wound on his left upper arm, a deep "chopping wound" to his lower left leg that caused the bone to break, a stab wound to the right lower back, and two shallower wounds to his left upper arm and left forearm. Id. at 392-97. Dr. Prial testified that these wounds were consistent with the knife that was recovered at the scene. Id. at 406. Dr. Prial also testified that Ingram had suffered abrasions to his chin and left forearm that had been inflicted within 24 hours of his death and were consistent with a "wooden object" or "a stick" hitting him. Id. at 397-99.

b. The Defense's Case

Smith testified in his own defense. He testified that, at the time of the trial, he was 41 years old. He admitted that he had been convicted of three felonies and at least four misdemeanors. Tr. 446. Smith explained that his sister Dawn lived at the apartment at 1000 Anderson Avenue where the incident occurred and that he typically visited the apartment two to three times per week. Id. at 446-47. Smith admitted that he had stabbed Ingram, but claimed that he had acted with justification-he wanted to get Ingram out of his sister's house and to prevent him from beating her. Id. at 470, 483.

Smith testified that he feared Ingram because Ingram had a reputation for being a loanshark, and that the first time Smith saw Ingram, the latter was "loansharking money to Bob [McIntyre, Dawn's boyfriend]." Id at 499-500. Smith also testified that a year and a half prior to Ingram's death, Smith saw Ingram "beating up some female. He was hitting the female in the face with his fist. The female was screaming I will get your money, Curtis. I will get your money. Please don't hit me no more.'" Id at 474. Smith also testified that, on another occasion, he saw Ingram come up to another customer in a store and "knock[] some money out of [the customer's] hand. When the dude went [to] protest, Curtis hit him twice and said you owe me.'" Id at 475.

Smith testified that on the day of the incident, he was lying on the couch of his sister's apartment around 5:30 p.m. when he heard loud banging on the door. !d. at 458-59. Dawn asked who was at the door, and Smith heard a male voice reply "open the door, Dawn, I'm here to see Bob." Id at 459. Dawn replied: "Bob's not here, Curtis, he's out on the street, go out on the street and find him." Id Ingram continued to bang on the door, saying: "I know Bob's in there, I'm going to keep on banging until you let me in.... I'm going to kick the locks off the hinges, open the f'n door, Dawn." Id at 459-60; accord id. at 544. After approximately 30 or 40 minutes of persistent banging, Smith testified, his sister said "I'm tired of this, " and opened the front door to tell Ingram to leave. Id at 461-62. Smith testified that he then heard a "smacking sound, " followed by Dawn saying "oh" and the sound of shuffling feet "like somebody else [was] pushing inside the apartment." Id at 461-62; see also id. at 547, 549-50; 557. At that point, Smith jumped up and grabbed the first knife he saw in the kitchen-the same knife later recovered by the police. Id at 462. When Smith ran to the door he saw Ingram standing over his sister and he heard Dawn say to Ingram, "oh, you hit me." Id at 463. Smith told Ingram: "[Y]o, get the fuck up off my sister, why you hit my sister, " to which Ingram replied "fuck your sister" and raised his right hand as if to hit Smith. Id. Smith then stabbed Ingram. Id. Smith testified that this initial stab wound was the one that Dr. Prial identified as the fatal wound. Id. at 464.

Smith and Ingram then struggled in the doorway and outside the apartment-Ingram was "throwing punches, " while Smith "would jab the area where [Ingram] was trying to punch [him]." Id. at 466-67. Smith testified that eventually he and Ingram grew tired and the struggle ceased. Id. at 469. Smith went downstairs, threw the knife on the windowsill, and went out of the building. Id. at 470, 473. The next day, Smith surrendered to the police. Id. at 470.

The defense called no other witnesses. In rebuttal, the People called five witnesses who testified to Ingram's reputation for peacefulness. See id. at 712-65.

c. The Prosecutor's Summation

During closing arguments, the prosecutor frequently referenced the number of stab wounds inflicted. He opened his statement: "[L]adies and gentlemen of the jury: Twelve wounds to the body of Curtis Ingram; 12 stab incisions and a chop wound." Tr. 849. He returned to the theme to argue that the number of wounds made the justification defense implausible:

Twelve wounds to the body of Curtis Ingram; 12 stabs incisions and a chop wound. Defendant's defense is that he was justified in inflicting these wounds as he was defending his sister's apartment from a burglary or attempted burglary, an apartment that his sister, Dawn Smith, was in at the time.... Twelve cuts by a knife, claim of justification. Based on the evidence you heard and you didn't hear, how can 12 stabs, incisions and a chop wound be justified? Id. at 849-51.[4] He returned to the point again:
The testimony of the stab wounds, even the fatal one, went two inches deep, but other wounds are three or four inches deep into Curtis Ingram's body. That's not a quick jab. That's a thrust. He is thrusting the knife into Curtis Ingram deliberately with no justification.... [H]e tells you that Curtis Ingram is raising his leg and this is after he's already been stabbed with that fatal wound a few minutes earlier, he still has the strength to try and stomp the defendant in the face with his foot all the way up, he's raising it, and he's able not only to just ward him off with that quick jab, to chop him, cause the chop wound, he hits that leg so hard he breaks the underlying bone. The tibia is broke from the force of that blow. This is not a jabbing. This is not him trying to stop Curtis from kicking him. This is the defendant savagely attacking an unarmed man.

Id at 866-67; see also id at 874 ("Curtis is cut twelve times."). Defense counsel did not object to these statements.

Later in his summation, the prosecutor, Mr. Weil, made several statements regarding the law of justification to which defense counsel, Mr. Cantor, did object, resulting in the following colloquy:

MR. WEIL: [W]hat did this defendant actually believe, what is he making up and what's the truth? And if he's making up the story about the punch and trying to prevent a burglary, then he didn't actually believe it and there's no justification.
The next hurdle is... did the defendant act in a reasonable manner, the objective part. Would a reasonable person, not the defendant, not a man with his background, but a reasonable person act in the manner that the defendant did? Would a reasonable person have believed that deadly physical force, the use of this knife was an appropriate response to what was going on?
MR. CANTOR: Objection.
THE COURT: The Court will instruct you on the elements of justification. Go on.
MR. WEIL: Would a reasonable person have done that before checking out-
MR. CANTOR: Objection.
THE COURT: I told you you can refer briefly to my instructions.[5] You're going beyond a brief reference. That's why I'm ...

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