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Saunders v. Lavalley

United States District Court, S.D. New York

May 16, 2014

THOMAS L. LAVALLEY, Superintendent, Respondent.

Samuel Saunders, Fishkill Correctional Facility, Beacon, New York.

John Collins, Office of the District Attorney of Westchester County, White Plains, New York.


LISA MARGARET SMITH, Magistrate Judge.[1]

Petitioner Samuel Saunders, proceeding pro se, has filed the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the constitutionality of his state court conviction on four counts of murder in the second degree (N.Y. Penal Law §§ 125.25(1) & (3)), one count of kidnapping in the first degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 135.25(3)), one count of robbery in the first degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 160.15(2)), one count of burglary in the first degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 140.30(1)), and one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 265.03(3)). Am. Pet. 1. After a jury trial, Petitioner was sentenced to an indeterminate period of twenty-five years to life for murder in the second degree; an indeterminate period of twenty-five years to life for kidnapping in the first degree; a determinate period of twenty-five years with five years' post-release supervision for robbery in the first degree; and a determinate period of fifteen years with five years' post-release supervision for criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. The sentences were to run concurrently. S:34-34.[2]

Petitioner filed a direct appeal to the New York State Appellate Division, Second Department. Resp't's Ex. E. On appeal, Petitioner made three arguments: (1) Petitioner was denied a fair trial by admission of evidence from an alleged prior robbery; (2) Petitioner was denied a fair trial by admission of custodial statements in violation of the Petitioner's Miranda rights;[3] (3) the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Resp't's Ex. E. On March 23, 2010, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department unanimously affirmed the conviction. People v. Saunders, 71 A.D.3d 1058 (N.Y.App.Div. 2010); Resp't's Ex. H. Thereafter, Petitioner filed an application for leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, raising the same claims that he had made on direct appeal. Resp't's Ex. I. On June 15, 2010, the Court of Appeals denied Petitioner's application. People v. Saunders, 15 N.Y.3d 757 (2010); Resp't's Exhibit L.

Petitioner filed his Petition for habeas corpus on August 4, 2010. Pet., D.E. 1. He then filed an Amended Petition on April 1, 2011. Am. Pet., D.E. 14.

Herein, Petitioner raises the following grounds for habeas relief:

(1) The admission of evidence of a prior robbery violated Petitioner's Fourteenth Amendment right to a fair trial;

(2) Admission of Petitioner's pre-trial, custodial statements violated Petitioner's Miranda rights;

(3) The jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Am. Pet. 2.

For the following reasons, I conclude, and respectfully recommend that Your Honor should conclude, that this Petition should be denied in its entirety.


A. The Crime

At approximately 10:55 A.M., on the morning of January 3, 2007, Doctor Leandro Lozada called an 800 number for Bank of America Investment Services. T2: 274, 324-26, 872-73.[5] He requested a transfer of $400, 000 from his brokerage account to his checking account. T2: 327. Bank of America employee Stephen Griffin told Lozada that only $50, 174.49 was available for immediate transfer. PE: 158. Griffin heard a second person (later identified as the Petitioner) ask, "What do you have available today?" T2: 331, 788. Lozada repeated the question to Griffin, who replied that $50, 174.49 was available for immediate transfer. PE: 158. Lozada asked Griffin to transfer that amount, and Griffin completed the transaction as requested. Id . The transfer brought the total in Lozada's checking account to a few hundred dollars over $57, 000. T2: 309.

Later that day at approximately 1:45 P.M., Petitioner entered a Washington Mutual Bank in Bronx, New York. T2: 370-71. He deposited a check in the amount of $57, 000, dated January 3, 2007, made payable to him from Lozada's Bank of America checking account. T2: 296-97, 371-75. Approximately an hour later Lozada's girlfriend, Doctor Carmen Ramos, found Lozada dead in his apartment on Brendan Hill Road in Yonkers. T2: 246-48. He had gunshot wounds in his face and head. T2: 712, 1146-48, 1150-51. Ramos testified that when she arrived at Lozada's apartment the front door to the house was unlocked, although in her experience Lozada usually kept that door locked. T2: 246-47. A yellow chair with blood stains on its edge and back had been moved from the dining room to the bedroom. T2: 479-80, 995-96.

On the night of June 5, 2007, detectives, with the assistance of the crime scene unit, found in the garbage shed of Petitioner's apartment complex, among other items: a blood-stained towel with "Leandro" embroidered on it (T2: 407-08, 433-34, 464, 514); a black glove (T2: 464, 514); a pair of blood-stained sneakers owned by Petitioner (T2: 516-18, 522-53, 574-75, 587); Lozada's blue laundry bag, which contained a blood-stained pillow, a second black glove, and two swatches of cloth - one of which matched a piece of cloth found in Lozada's dresser (T2: 516-18); a bloodied piece of duct tape with a bullet hole (T2: 443-44, 538-42, 545-52); a blood-stained T-shirt and pair of shorts belonging to Lozada (T2: 443-44, 538-40, 554-55, 990-92); and three pillowcases from Lozada's bedroom, one of which had two pieces of duct tape attached to it and another containing two pieces of duct tape (T2: 443-44, 538-40, 554-55, 557). The towel with "Leandro" embroidered on it and the first black glove were found loose in the garbage bin, while the rest of the items were found in two black, plastic, garbage bags. T2: 433-34, 444, 537-41, 547-57.

The blood stains on the pair of sneakers matched Lozada's DNA, and the inside of the sneakers contained DNA from which Petitioner and his family could not be excluded. T2: 1000-01, 1071-72. Forensic analysis showed the following: the striation and other characteristics of the two black, plastic, garbage bags matched those of the garbage bags in an opened Ultrasac box found underneath Petitioner's sink (T2: 693, 704-05, 827, 830, 838, 855); the holes in the pillowcase were bullet holes (T2: 951, 954, 957); the blood on the duct tape matched Lozada's DNA (T2: 548; 1009-10); the blood stains on the yellow chair also matched Lozada's DNA (T2: 995-96); and Lozada was likely seated, with the duct tape and a pillowcase secured around his head, when he was shot in the head (T2: 479-80, 542, 954-58, 995-96).[6]

DNA testing showed that wall markings in Lozada's home matched the DNA of Petitioner's co-defendant, Juan Bernardez. T2: 1002, 1014-15. Telephone records revealed that Petitioner had called Bernardez's cell and home telephone numbers several times the night before and the morning of Lozada's murder. T2: 780, 859-62, 1078, 1095-97. Detectives recovered from Bernardez's home a box of.22-caliber cartridges of the same type and classification as bullet fragments retrieved from Lozada's head. T2: 622, 625, 629, 1134-36, 1138.

Petitioner told Detective George Piedade that the $57, 000 check from Lozada was payment for a property on Lincoln Avenue in Yonkers that Petitioner was selling to Lozada for $200, 000. T2: 749. However, no paperwork regarding the Lincoln Avenue property was found in Lozada's home. T2: 750. Petitioner did not own the Lincoln Avenue property. T2: 749. He could not explain what the term "flipping" the property meant, though he claimed he was "flipping" the Lincoln Avenue property to Lozada. T2: 749, 750. When asked why the check was for $57, 000, Petitioner said Lozada had chosen the amount, but Petitioner did not know why Lozada had chosen that amount. T2: 767, 891-92. Lozada's investment advisor testified that, within thirty days prior to Lozada's murder, Lozada had transferred $50, 000 from his bank account to his brokerage account, in order to earn a higher interest rate. The advisor also testified that Lozada expressed no intention of using the money any time soon. T2: 310-11. Petitioner also told Detective Piedade and Sergeant William Rinaldi that he had received the $57, 000 check around Christmas, and that Lozada had chosen to postdate the check for tax reasons, as well as to allow him to liquidate some assets before the check would be negotiated. T2: 749, 751, 892.

Petitioner had previously sold his home in Brendan Hill to Lozada in May of 2006, at a loss of $25, 000, because Petitioner and his ex-wife, Edna Saunders, were getting divorced. T2: 226, 349-51, 564-67, 639-40. After that sale Petitioner had asked real estate salesperson Louis Castaldi to find a property for Petitioner to buy. T2: 350. Castaldi found a property for Petitioner, and Petitioner made a $47, 000 down payment on the property. T2: 352-53. However, Petitioner lost the $47, 000 deposit when he was unable to pay the remainder of the purchase price. T2: 352-53. In July of 2006, Castaldi told Petitioner that a property at 110 Lincoln Avenue in Yonkers, consisting of two lots, one of which was vacant, was for sale at $730, 000. T2: 353, 363, 367. Petitioner told Castaldi that he wanted to buy the property, and Petitioner and Castaldi agreed that the vacant lot of the two lots would be listed for resale. T2: 363-64, 366. In October of 2006, Petitioner was required to make a down payment of $73, 000 on the Lincoln Avenue property in order for the purchase to go forward. T2: 354-55. Petitioner paid $10, 000, and for the next few months he failed to pay any additional money. T2: 354-55, 420, 421. During that time Petitioner reconciled with Edna Saunders, and he told her that they would move into the Lincoln Avenue home in the first week of January 2007. T2: 567, 576-77, 580. Castaldi pressed Petitioner for the rest of the down payment. T2: 355-56, 419-21, 423. The day after Lozada's murder, Petitioner showed Castaldi a receipt from the $57, 000 deposit and told Castaldi the amount was for the remainder of Petitioner's deposit on the Lincoln Avenue property. T2: 356-58.

B. The Davis Robbery[7]

At trial, the People introduced Stuart Davis's testimony about a prior robbery, allegedly committed by Petitioner, as proof of identity. T2: 635-53. Davis was an attorney who had represented Petitioner in the purchase and sale of the Brendan Hill home and in the sale of an apartment on Minford Avenue in Bronx, New York. T2: 636-42. Davis testified that six months prior to Lozada's murder, on June 29, 2006, at approximately 1:00 P.M., Petitioner and two other men had entered Davis's office. T2: 641. One of the men had locked the front door and pointed a pistol at Davis. T2: 641-42, 644, 646. Petitioner had then asked Davis how much money he had in his escrow account. T2: 642-43. Davis had responded that he had $40, 000. T2: 643. Petitioner had told Davis to write a check to Petitioner for $40, 000 and to call the bank and confirm how much was available in the account. T2: 643-45. Davis had called the bank, and the bank had confirmed there was approximately $47, 000 available. T2: 645. Petitioner had then told Davis they were going to hold Davis in the office for three days until the check cleared. T2: 647.

Petitioner had brought a chair from the reception area into Davis's office, and had told Davis to sit in the chair. T2: 643-44. One of Petitioner's cohorts had secured Davis's arms with duct tape to the chair's arms and stuffed a rag in Davis's mouth and placed tape across it. T2: 646-47. Petitioner had removed the tape from Davis's mouth after Davis had gestured for Petitioner to remove the tape. T2: 648-49. Davis had told Petitioner that they should go to the bank together to cash the check, and that the bank had previously cashed checks of larger amounts for Davis. T2: 649. Petitioner and his cohorts had then released Davis from the duct tape, Davis had then written a check for $45, 000 to Petitioner, and they had all walked out of the office to the bank. T2: 650-51, 656. Petitioner had told Davis that the men would kill him if he did not get the money. T2: 652. Inside the bank Davis had cashed the check, and he had then given the money to Petitioner. T2: 652-54. They had walked outside and Petitioner had told Davis he would get the money back soon, but that if Davis went to the police Petitioner and his cohorts would kill him. T2: 653, 660. Davis had immediately returned to his office and called the police. T2: 653-54.

C. The Interrogations

Detective Piedade testified during a pretrial hearing that he first read Petitioner his Miranda rights when Detective Piedade, Detective Anthony Chiarella, and Sergeant Rinaldi arrested Petitioner for grand larceny on January 5, 2007, at Petitioner's address at 10 Pennyfield Avenue in Bronx, New York. H: 26-28. The detectives and sergeant had spoken with employees at Washington Mutual Bank about the $57, 000 check Petitioner had deposited on January 3, 2007. H: 8-17. Detective Piedade testified that, after reading the Miranda warnings to Petitioner, Piedade asked Petitioner if he had any questions, and Petitioner answered no. H: 28. The detectives did not initiate any conversation with Petitioner on the ride to the Yonkers Police Station. H: 30. At the police station, Petitioner was placed in an interview room. H: 31. At around 8:30 P.M., Detectives Chiarella and Piedade entered the room and read Miranda rights to Petitioner again, asked Petitioner if he understood the warnings, and handed Petitioner the Miranda warnings card. H: 33. Detective Piedade asked Petitioner if he would speak to the detectives about a check that he had deposited on January 3, 2007. H: 33. Petitioner told the detectives at that point that he would talk to them about the check. H: 33, 138. Detective Piedade asked Petitioner to sign the Miranda warnings card if he understood what was on the card. H: 33-34. Petitioner said he did not want to sign anything and pushed the card back toward the detective. H: 34. Detective Piedade then wrote "Refused" and the time on the card. H: 34-35. The trial court found that Petitioner had agreed to answer questions about the $57, 000 check. H: 411. The interrogation lasted about an hour. Id.

Prior to this initial interrogation, Petitioner had asked to use the restroom, and he was allowed to do so. H: 31, 42. During the interrogation Detectives did not have their weapons with them in the interview room. H: 37. Petitioner was not restrained in any way. H: 37. Petitioner said that if he had had anything to do with Lozada's death he would not have deposited the check, knowing that Lozada's murder was "high profile" and in the news. H: 40. Detective Piedade told Petitioner that Petitioner could not have known that Lozada had been murdered when Petitioner deposited the check, because the check was deposited before Lozada's body was found. H: 40-41. Petitioner then said he did not want to talk anymore. Id . Petitioner remained unhandcuffed and the door was left ajar when Detectives Piedade and Chiarella left the room. H: 41-42.

Shortly thereafter, Detective James Konka again escorted Petitioner to the bathroom, upon Petitioner's request. H: 42-43. Petitioner told Detective Konka that he was a diabetic and had not taken his medication. H: 42-43, 179. Petitioner did not appear to be sick, confused, or in pain. H: 43. After Petitioner returned to the interview room, Sergeant Rinaldi conducted a second interview and asked Petitioner questions about the reason that Lozada had written the check in the amount of $57, 000 and about Petitioner's claim about selling the property to Lozada. H: 232. Petitioner responded that Lozada had postdated the check to first liquidate some assets and that Petitioner was flipping the Lincoln Avenue property to Lozada. H: 233. At approximately 10:50 P.M., police officers took Petitioner to Saint Joseph's Hospital for the hospital to assess whether Petitioner needed medication. H: 42-43, 45, 163, 225. No law enforcement officers questioned Petitioner while he was taken to the hospital or while Petitioner was at the hospital. H: 43-45. Petitioner stayed at the hospital overnight. H: 45-46, 225. No officers questioned Petitioner on his way back to the police station the following morning. H: 46.

Back in the interview room on the morning of January 6, 2007, at approximately 5:30 A.M., Detective Piedade and Sergeant Rinaldi conducted a third interview of Petitioner. Id . The officers told Petitioner that they had located articles in the garbage shed outside Petitioner's residence and asked Petitioner if he wished to speak with them about what was found. Id . Petitioner said yes. Id . Detective Piedade again read Petitioner his Miranda rights and Petitioner said, "I know my rights." H: 49. Petitioner still refused to sign the Miranda warnings card. H: 49. However, Petitioner said he would speak with the detectives, and Petitioner asked the detectives what they found in the garbage. H: 50, 52. Detective Piedade responded that a bloodstained, green towel with "Leandro" on it was found. H: 52. Petitioner said he had never seen a towel like that. Id . The detectives provided coffee and food for Petitioner. H: 46-47, 52. The detectives spoke with Petitioner regarding the $57, 000 check. H: 52-53. During the interview Petitioner was not handcuffed. H: 48, 176. The detectives' weapons were not in view. H: 49. The detectives made no threats or promises to Petitioner. H: 59. No one else was in the room. H: 61. The interview ended at approximately 6:30 A.M., and Petitioner remained in the room. H: 60-61. Detective Piedade returned to the interview room at approximately 10:00 A.M. to ask Petitioner more questions after a search of Petitioner's house was executed. H: 54. Detective Piedade asked Petitioner whether he had black garbage bags in his home, and Petitioner said no. H: 62. Detective Piedade asked Petitioner whether the bloody sneakers found in the garbage belonged to Petitioner, and Petitioner said no. H: 62. The interview lasted approximately fifteen minutes. H: 64, 178. After the interview, Petitioner was taken to central booking. H: 64.


A. Standard of Review

"Habeas review is an extraordinary remedy." Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 621 (1998) (citing Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 354 (1994)). To be granted a writ of habeas corpus from a federal district court, a petitioner must fully and carefully comply with the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under the AEDPA, all state remedies must be exhausted before a federal court may consider a state prisoner's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A); see also Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971). In the interests of comity and expeditious federal review, "[s]tates should have the first opportunity to address and correct alleged violations of [a] state prisoner's federal rights." See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 731 (1991); see also Daye v. Att'y Gen. of New York, 696 F.2d 186, 190-91 (2d Cir. 1982). The exhaustion requirement of the federal habeas corpus statute is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c):

(b)(1) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not ...

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