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Singleton v. Lee

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 20, 2013

WILLIAM A. LEE, Respondent.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Pro se petitioner Willie Singleton ("Singleton" or "Petitioner") seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his judgment of conviction entered on October 17, 2007, following a jury trial in New York States Supreme Court (Ontario County), on one count of Assault in the Second Degree (New York Penal Law ("P.L.") § 120.05(7)).

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

The conviction stems from Singleton's assault on a fellow inmate on November 27, 2006, when he was incarcerated at the Ontario County Jail. Singleton, who was part of the facility's cleaning detail, went to the janitor's closet to retrieve his cleaning supplies and cart at about 4:30 p.m. T.196-97, 247-48.[1] As Singleton left the janitor's closet with his cart, he encountered another inmate named Michael Manka ("Manka"). Manka either bumped into Singleton's cart or was accidentally struck by the cart, and a mop handle almost hit him in the face. Manka said, "Watch out, motherfucker. You almost hit me." T.249, 275. Singleton responded, "What did you say?" T.183, 249. Singleton then punched him four or five times in the face. T.182-83. Manka sustained bruising to the left side of his face and substantial swelling to his left eye. Manka testified that his pain persisted for several days and he had headaches during that time. T.278-79.

Correctional Officer Ronald Buckley intervened in the altercation and ordered the men to return to their cells. T.183-84, 235. When Sergeant Christian Smith spoke to Singleton after the incident, Singleton stated that Manka had bumped into his cart and called him a "motherfucker." Petitioner also admitted that he punched Manka. T.311-12.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., Investigator James McCaig interviewed Singleton. After being issued his Miranda warnings, Singleton again admitted that Manka had called him a "motherfucker" and, in response, Singleton punched Manka in the face. T.328.

Petitioner took the stand and testified at his trial. Petitioner stated that he was pushing a cart with cleaning materials, when Manka walked into the cart and said, "Watch where you are going motherfucker!" T.341. Petitioner responded, "What did you say?" Manka stated, "You heard what I said." Singleton replied, "I thought so, " and an "altercation" ensued. T.341. According to Petitioner, there was a lot of "loud talking", and then he and Manka were returned to their cells. T.342. Singleton denied striking Manka. T.347.

On October 10, 2007, the jury returned a verdict finding Singleton guilty as charged in the indictment. T.404. On October 17, 2007, Singleton was sentenced to a six-year term of imprisonment and three years of post-release supervision. S.11.

On August 11, 2008, Singleton filed a motion to vacate the judgment pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law ("C.P.L.") 440.10 on the grounds that he was denied his right to counsel at the arraignment and that the trial court issued erroneous instructions regarding his right to request his arraignment be adjourned for the purpose of securing counsel. On November 6, 2008, the trial court denied the motion, relying on C.P.L. § 440.10(3)(c), which states that the court may, but is not required to, deny a motion when the defendant was in a position to raise the claim in a prior motion to vacate[2] but failed to do so. The Ontario County District Attorney's Office did not file opposition papers. The trial court found that Singleton had presented no new facts which justified his failure to raise the arguments in a prior motion to vacate. The trial court also found that, pursuant to C.P.L. § 440.10(2)(c), sufficient facts appeared on the record for Singleton to have raised these claims on direct appeal, yet he unjustifiably failed to do so. Singleton's application for leave to appeal to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, of New York State Supreme Court, was denied on September 30, 2009.

On January 6, 2009, Singleton filed a second C.P.L. § 440.10 motion to vacate the judgment on the ground that the prosecution failed to prove the "physical injury" element of second degree assault. The Ontario County District Attorney's Office again did not file opposition papers. On February 27, 2009, the trial court denied the motion, finding that Singleton had presented no new facts that could not have been raised in his previous C.P.L. § 440.10 motions. On August 20, 2009, the Fourth Department denied leave to appeal.

On direct appeal, Petitioner's appellate counsel submitted a brief in the Fourth Department arguing that (1) the trial court erroneously limited the scope of cross-examination of the victim regarding his prior crimes, thereby violating Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to confrontation; (2) Petitioner was vindictively sentenced because he asserted his right to trial; and (3) the sentence was harsh and excessive. The Ontario County District Attorney's Office submitted a brief in opposition.

In a memorandum decision dated November 13, 2009, the Fourth Department unanimously affirmed the conviction. People v. Singleton , 67 A.D.3d 1455 (4th Dept. 2009). The court concluded that the trial judge had erred in limiting cross-examination of the victim with respect to his prior arrests for rape and conviction of sexual abuse. However, there was "no reasonable possibility that the error might have contributed to [Singleton]'s conviction" and therefore it was "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt". Id . (quotation and citation omitted). The Fourth Department rejected as unpreserved and, in any event, without merit, the contention that the trial court penalized Singleton for asserting his right to trial by imposing a greater sentence than that offered during plea negotiations. The Fourth Department rejected Singleton's argument raised in his pro se supplemental brief that the evidence of physical injury was legally insufficient to support the conviction. Finally, the Fourth Department rejected as unpreserved Singleton's argument, raised in his pro se brief, that the trial court failed to comply with the requirements of C.P.L. 200.60. Leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals was denied on November 30, 2009. People v. Singleton , 13 N.Y.3d 862 (2009).

This timely habeas petition followed in which Singleton asserts the following grounds for relief: (1) he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel at his arraignment and was erroneously instructed by the trial court with respect to his right to an adjournment in order to obtain an attorney; (2) he was not arraigned on a special information in violation of C.P.L. § 200.60 and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process; (3) he was improperly held for forty-three days in the local criminal court while awaiting ...

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