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Wilson v. Bradt

United States District Court, S.D. New York

August 20, 2014

JAMES WILSON, Plaintiff,
MARK L. BRADT, Defendant.



On September 27, 2013, petitioner James Wilson ("petitioner" or "Wilson") filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 2.) Petitioner seeks relief from the April 17, 2009 judgment of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County, whereby he was convicted of Murder in the First Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.27(1)(a)(vii)) and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Petitioner is currently incarcerated pursuant to that conviction.

On March 13, 2012, the First Department unanimously affirmed petitioner's conviction. See People v. Wilson, 93 N.Y.S.2d 483 (1st Dep't 2012). On July 11, 2012, the New York Court of Appeals denied petitioner's leave to appeal. (Resp't's Mem. of Law in Opp'n to the Pet. for a Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Resp't Mem."), Ex. V, Mar. 6, 2014, ECF No. 11.)

Petitioner challenges his conviction on six grounds (1) the trial court denied petitioner a fair trial by modifying its Sandoval[1] ruling while petitioner was testifying; (2) the trial court denied petitioner the right to a fair trial as a result of its "interested witness" charge; (3) the trial court failed to suppress evidence obtained in violation of petitioner's right to counsel; (4) petitioner was denied a speedy trial, in violation of the Sixth Amendment; (5) petitioner was denied his right to a jury free from bias and external influence, in violation of the Sixth Amendment; and (6) petitioner's sentence is unduly harsh and excessive.[2] (Pet. for Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Pet."), Sept. 27, 2013, ECF No. 2.)

For the reasons set forth below, Wilson's request for habeas relief is DENIED.


A. The Murder

On April 28, 2004, petitioner and another individual, Cornelius Drake spent the night in the apartment of petitioner's neighbor, William Willis. (Resp't Mem. 1.)

At approximately 830 a.m. the next morning, April 29, 2004, petitioner departed from Willis's apartment. ( Id., Ex. P at 15; see also Trial Tr. ("Tr.") 412-13.) Later that morning, sometime between 1000 a.m. and 1100 a.m., petitioner returned to Willis's apartment. (See Resp't Mem. 1, Ex. P at 16-17.) While there, petitioner "beat Willis with a baseball bat and an axe handle and slashed Willis's throat [with a knife], severing his jugular vein." (Resp't Mem. 1.) After slashing Willis's throat, petitioner took Willis's ring and wallet. ( Id. at 1-2.) Around 1100 a.m., petitioner pawned Willis's ring for $25.00 at Golden Pawn Shop II, located at 2482 Seventh Avenue in Harlem, New York. ( Id., Ex. P at 17.)

At approximately 100 p.m., petitioner saw another of his neighbors (and a distant relative of Willis), Shotetice Price inside petitioner and Willis's building. ( Id., Ex. P at 16, 18.) Price testified that she observed that petitioner did not "look like himself" and asked petitioner what was bothering him. ( Id., Ex. P at 18.) Petitioner responded, "You just don't know. It won't be long now." (Id.)

Sometime after 1200 p.m., Drake went to Willis's apartment to look for Willis, who had said he would meet Drake at the Social Security office. ( Id., Ex. P at 18.) Drake found Willis laying a pool of blood. (Id.; see also tr. 416.) Drake went downstairs and told an unidentified individual to call the police. (Resp't Mem., Ex. P at 18; see also tr. 418-19.)

B. The Police Investigation

Willis was pronounced dead upon the arrival of police officers and emergency medical technicians at the scene of the crime. (Resp't Mem., Ex. P at 19; see also tr. 40.)

Price testified that, shortly thereafter, she learned of Willis's death and relayed that information to petitioner. (Tr. 460-61.) Petitioner said nothing in response. (Tr. 461.) Petitioner went to Willis's apartment and told police officers that he needed to retrieve a blue duffel bag he had left at Willis's apartment.[3] (See Resp't Mem. 16, Ex. C at 2.) Petitioner was told that he could not enter the apartment because a police investigation was underway and that he should talk to a detective. ( Id. 2-3, Ex. P at 20.) Petitioner agreed to be escorted to the precinct by Detective Norman Calderon. ( Id., Ex. C at 3.)

Petitioner was cooperative during the trip to the precinct and the interview; he was not handcuffed, frisked, searched, or restrained during the trip. (Id.) As Calderon walked petitioner into the precinct, he noticed what appeared to be blood stains on petitioner's shirt. (Id.) When petitioner arrived at the precinct, the police asked him to wait in a lieutenant's office. ( Id., Ex. C. at 3-4.) Petitioner did not request to leave the precinct. ( Id., Ex. C. at 6.)

At the precinct, Detectives Edward Clifford, Gerard Blake, Thaddeus Hall, and Calderon interviewed petitioner in a lieutenant's office. ( Id., Ex. C at 3-4, 6-7.)

Clifford testified that, during the interview, petitioner admitted he regularly used crack cocaine and that he had done so on April 29, 2004. (Suppression Hr'g. Tr. ("S.Tr.") 184-85.) Petitioner initially stated he knew nothing about Willis's death. (Resp't Mem., Ex. C at 7.) This statement was reduced to writing and signed by petitioner. ( Id., Ex. C at 9-10.) Detective Clifford then asked petitioner if he "had any problems" with Detective Clifford reading petitioner his Miranda[4] rights. ( Id., Ex. C at 8.) Petitioner asked if he was under arrest and Detective Clifford told him he was not. (Id.) Petitioner then laughed and said, "Go ahead, read me my rights. I know those rights better than you do." ( Id. at 9.) Thereafter, Clifford confronted petitioner about the blood stains on his clothing. ( Id. at 11.)

The questioning ceased for about 20 minutes while petitioner ate dinner. (Id.) After dinner, petitioner called Clifford back into the office; petitioner told Clifford that he happened upon Willis's body alone, before the police arrived, and found Willis dead. ( Id., Ex. C at 13.) Petitioner told the detectives that he "robbed a dead man" and that he stole and pawned Willis's ring. (See id.) Petitioner gave the detectives three pawn tickets, including the ticket for Willis's ring. (Id.) Petitioner's statement was reduced to writing and signed by petitioner. ( Id., Ex. C at 13-14.) Clifford placed petitioner under arrest for larceny. ( Id., Ex. C at 14.)

After arresting petitioner, police officers searched petitioner's clothing and found a folding knife. (Id.) The police removed petitioner's clothing and provided the items to the Medical Examiner's Office to analyze what appeared to be blood stains on the clothing.[5] ( Id., Ex. C at 14-15.)

Although petitioner was arrested for larceny, an indictment was not filed against him within five days of arrest, as required by § 180.80 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law. ( Id., Ex. C at 15.) Accordingly, petitioner was released on his own recognizance. (See id.)

On July 4, 2005, petitioner was arrested for possessing a forged instrument and for selling Metrocard swipes. ( Id., Ex. C at 15.) During the ride to the station house, petitioner told the arresting officers that he had killed someone before and that prison time associated with the Metrocard charge would be negligible in comparison.[6] ( Id., Ex. C at 16.)

On January 27, 2006, petitioner was indicted on charges of Murder in the First Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.27(1)(a)(vii), (b)) and Murder in the Second Degree (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(1)), under Indictment Number 6826/05. ( Id. at 47, Ex. A.)


A. Pre-Trial Motions

By pro se motion dated May 25, 2006, petitioner moved to dismiss the Indictment, arguing he had been denied a speedy trial. ( Id., Ex E.) By filing dated October 30, 2008, petitioner submitted a second pro se motion to dismiss, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. ( Id., Ex. F.) On November 3, 2008, the State filed papers in opposition. ( Id., Ex. G.) On November 10, 2008, the trial court rejected petitioner's contention that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. ( Id., Ex. H.)

Separately, petitioner made a motion to suppress the statements and any evidence taken at the precinct. Judge Richard Carruthers presided over a hearing on the motion and, on February 27, 2008, issued a written opinion denying petitioner's motion "in all respects." ( Id., Ex. C at 36.)

On November 3, 2008, Judge Zweibel presided over a Sandoval hearing, which is intended "to provide the defendant with an advance ruling on whether the People will be permitted to cross-examine him or her about particular criminal (charged or uncharged), vicious, or immoral conduct for the purpose of impeaching credibility should he or she testify at trial." People v. Morales , 764 N.Y.S.2d 104, 106 (2d Dep't 2003). (Resp't Mem., Ex. D.) At the hearing, the State sought permission to introduce as evidence a number of petitioner's prior convictions and the underlying facts that led to each conviction. (Resp't Mem., Ex. D at 9-17.) The court ruled that if petitioner testified, the State could ask him about four prior convictions a 2006 attempted forgery, a 2000 petit larceny, a 1998 grand larceny, and a 1987 attempted robbery. ( Id., Ex. D. at 4.) The court determined that the State could ask about the underlying facts of only the 1987 attempted robbery, where petitioner "held a metal like object to the complainant's throat, said it was a knife, and demanded money." ( Id., Ex. D at 16, 23, 30-31.)

B. Trial[7]

On November 10, 2008, petitioner's trial by jury commenced before Judge Zweibel. (Tr. 1; see also Resp't Mem. 3.) After respondent rested its case-in-chief, petitioner asked the court to amend its Sandoval ruling given the similarity between the 1987 attempted robbery conviction and the crime for which petitioner was on trial. (Tr. 961-63.) The court granted the request, verbally amending its Sandoval ruling and holding that respondent may still introduce the fact that petitioner was convicted of attempted robbery in 1987, but that the underlying facts of that conviction could not be raised. (Tr. 967.)

Petitioner took the stand and testified in his own defense. Petitioner denied that he had killed Willis, testifying that he had merely stolen Willis's ring and wallet from Willis's dead body. (Tr. 996-1000.)[8] The State asked petitioner if he had been convicted of attempted forgery in 2006; petitioner answered in the affirmative and the State then asked if he was, in fact, guilty of attempted forgery. (Tr. 1034-35.) Petitioner's counsel objected, arguing that asking petitioner whether or not he was actually guilty was tantamount to asking about the underlying facts of the attempted forgery conviction, which Judge Zweibel had disallowed. (Tr. 1035-39.) Judge Zweibel stated "If [petitioner] denies his guilt to the charge, then I think it would open the door" to allow respondent to introduce the underlying facts. (Tr. 1036.)

The State then asked petitioner if he had been convicted of an attempted robbery in 1987 and if he was in fact guilty of that crime. (Tr. 1042-43.) Petitioner denied his guilt and his counsel objected. (Tr. 1042-45.) The court overruled the objection, determined that petitioner had opened the door to the introduction of the underlying facts of the 1987 conviction because he had denied guilt, and allowed the State to introduce the underlying facts. (Tr. 1045.) The State's questioning of petitioner on this point consisted of the following

Q: Mr. Wilson, isn't it true that in that case, you and your cohort approached the complainant, and as the complainant passed, both you and your cohort grabbed the complainant, threw him against the wall, and you held a metallic object to his throat, and you said it was a knife, and you demand[ed] money. And when the police came, you threw the knife over the wall where it was later recovered. Is that true?
A: No, sir. It isn't true.
Q: You were convicted of doing exactly that?
A: Yes, sir. I was convicted.
Q: In that case, did you testify that you weren't even there?
A: Yes, sir.

(Tr. 1046-47.)

C. Jury Charge

In a final discussion regarding the jury charge, petitioner requested that Judge Zweibel not "separate out the defendant by saying he's an interested witness as a matter of law, " arguing that doing so would violate petitioner's due process rights and citing United States v. Brutus , 505 F.3d 80 (2d Cir. 2007). (See tr. 1138-39.) Judge Zweibel denied petitioner's request.

During his charge to the jury, Judge Zweibel instructed the jury to consider whether each witness is "interested" or "disinterested." (Tr. 1315-16.) Judge Zweibel instructed the jury

Another factor you may consider in accessing [sic] the credibility of a witness, is whether a witness is an interested witness or a disinterested witness. The witness is an interested witness, when, by reason of relationship, friendship, antagonism, or prejudice, in favor of or against one party or the other, the witness's testimony is, in your judgment, likely to be biased toward the side the witness favors. The defendant, who took the stand and testified in his own behalf, is an interested witness. It is for you to decide whether any of the other witnesses in this case should be considered interested. Now, there is no presumption that an interested witness lies or that a disinterested witness tells the truth. It is for you to decide to what extent, if any, a witness's interest in the outcome of this case affected his or her credibility.

(Tr. 1315-16.)

D. Conviction and Sentence

On December 2, 2008, the jury convicted petitioner of Murder in the First Degree. (Tr. 1350, 1358.) On April 17, 2009, the court sentenced petitioner to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Resp't Mem., Ex. N at 1, 15.)[9]

E. Post-Trial Motions and Appeals

1. Motion to set aside the verdict based on juror misconduct

On December 29, 2008, petitioner made a motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 330.30(2), arguing that Juror Number Three, Julia Filz, posted comments on Facebook showing that she had violated the trial court's admonitions and that she was unfairly biased. (Resp't Mem., Ex. I.) Specifically, Filz "had made a number of [Facebook] entries about the case, including one on November 5, 2008, after she had been selected as a juror, and one on November 19, 2008, during the middle of the trial." ( Id. at 4.)

In particular, on November 5, 2008, Filz posted on her Facebook page "Julia got picked for a criminal trial." (Resp't Mem., Ex. J at 20.[10]) Various people posted the ...

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