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Sierra v. Bradt

United States District Court, Second Circuit

October 18, 2013

SAMUEL SIERRA, Petitioner,
MARK BRADT, Superintendent, Attica Correctional Facility, Respondent.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Samuel Sierra ("Petitioner") has filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that he is being held in Respondent's custody in violation of his federal constitutional rights. Petitioner is incarcerated following a judgment entered on November 5, 2007, in New York State, Monroe County Court (Egan, J.), convicting him, after a jury trial, of second degree manslaughter, second degree vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, and lesser related charges.

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

Petitioner's conviction stems from an accident in which his car struck the vehicle being driven by Michael Civiletti ("Civiletti"), causing Civiletti's death. The collision occurred at the intersection of Norton Street and Portland Avenue in the City of Rochester at around 10:00 p.m. on October 14, 2006. Petitioner was indicted by a Monroe County grand jury on charges of Manslaughter in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal Law ("P.L.") § 125.15(1)); Vehicular Manslaughter in the Second Degree (P.L. § 125.12(1)); Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle in the First Degree (Vehicle and Traffic Law ("V.T.L.") § 511(3)(iii)); two counts of Operating a Motor Vehicle While Under the Influence of Alcohol (V.T.L. §§ 1192(2), (3)); and a traffic violation of passing a red light (V.T.L. § 1111).

A. Pre-Trial Proceedings

On April 27, 2007, the matter was scheduled for a suppression hearing before Monroe County Court Judge John Connell. After arriving late for the scheduled hearing, the prosecutor announced that he had no witnesses, but he did not request an adjournment of the hearing or of trial. Judge Connell called the attorneys up to the bench, and a conference ensued which was not transcribed.

When the proceedings reconvened, trial counsel stated that Petitioner was prepared to plead guilty to the full indictment with the understanding that the trial court was promising an indeterminate sentence of 4½ to 9 years. The prosecutor said nothing to indicate any disagreement with the promised sentence before Petitioner pled guilty to the indictment, and ultimately approved the sufficiency of Petitioner's colloquy.

At the very end of the proceedings, the prosecutor said, "Just for the record, Judge, please note our opposition to the plea to the indictment." 4/27/07 Transcript ("Tr.") at 14. The prosecutor did not elaborate on this statement. The matter was adjourned for sentencing.

On May 24, 2007, prior to the scheduled sentencing date, the parties appeared before Judge Connell, who inquired about the prosecutor's statement at the previous appearance and asked whether it was really the sentence to which he was opposed. 5/24/07 Tr. at 2. The prosecutor stated that he had been clear that the sentence should be 7½ to 15 years. Judge Connell then recounted what had transpired at the off-the-record conference on April 24, 2007, when the prosecutor had been unprepared for the suppression hearing. At that time, defense counsel indicated that his client was willing to plead guilty with a sentence promise of 4½ to 9 years, and that a pre-plea investigation had already been completed. Judge Connell asked the prosecutor whether, "given the scheduling issues, the fact that the People were not prepared to go ahead with the scheduled [suppression] hearing, and the fact that the defendant was now willing to plead guilty to all the charges contained in the indictment, he felt that a change in his original position-sentence position[1] would result." 5/24/07 Tr. at 6. The prosecutor replied only that he wanted to tell the victim's family, and he left to do so. Judge Connell noted that in the absence of any stated opposition to the proposed plea arrangement, he believed that the prosecutor was changing his position and agreeing to a sentence of 4½ to 9 years. Id. at 7.

When the prosecutor re-entered the courtroom on May 24, 2007, he failed to make a request for an adjournment, and made no mention of any opposition to the plea and sentence that had just been discussed. Indeed, Judge Connell noted, the prosecutor had facilitated the entry of the plea, and it was only after the plea had been entered that the prosecutor "note[d]", "for the record", his "opposition to the plea to the indictment." 5/24/07 Tr. at 8.

Judge Connell noted that almost immediately after Petitioner entered his plea on April 24, 2007, the friends and family of the victim began expressing outrage. While he had not been privy to the discussions between the family and the District Attorney's Office, Judge Connell stated he could only "assume from the public statements that the family was at best misinformed and at worst intentionally mislead about the disposition of the case." 5/24/07 Tr. at 8. A month later, Judge Connell still was receiving letters from Civiletti's family and friends. Judge Connell opined that the prosecutor had only agreed to the plea disposition because of his failure to be prepared for the suppression hearing on April 27th day and his subsequent decision, for whatever reason, not to request an adjournment of the hearing or of trial. Judge Connell noted that he would not have agreed to a sentence of 4½ to 9 years over the prosecutor's objection, and that since the prosecutor had now made his opposition clear, he would not be able to honor his sentence promise of 4½ to 9 years. Id. at 10.

Petitioner was presented with two options and given a week to decide between them: he could proceed with sentencing knowing that the 4½-to-9-year sentence would not be honored, or he could withdraw his plea and proceed to trial. Judge Connell recused himself, and the case was transferred to Judge David Egan.

At a court appearance before Judge Egan, defense counsel argued that the promised sentence should be imposed because the plea had been taken to the indictment, a pre-plea investigation had been done and there had been no surprises, and ex parte communications had caused the court to change its mind. Judge Egan declined to do so, and Petitioner withdrew his guilty plea.

A suppression hearing was held concerning the admissibility of two statements made by Petitioner when he was at the hospital after the car crash. Petitioner also moved to suppress the results of the blood-alcohol test, alleging that the procedures for obtaining a court order for the drawing of his blood had not been followed. Judge Egan ...

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