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Wilson v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. New York

February 10, 2015

RAHMAN WILSON, Petitioner,
JOSEPH T. SMITH, Superintendent, Respondent.

RAHMAN WILSON, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Wallkill, NY, Petitioner, pro se.

KEN THOMPSON, District Attorney, Kings County, Marie-Claude Palmieri Wrenn, Brooklyn, New York, Attorney for Respondent.


JOHN GLEESON, District Judge.

Rahman Wilson petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a writ of habeas corpus. Wilson is presently incarcerated pursuant to a New York state criminal conviction and sentence of two consecutive twenty-year terms of imprisonment following a trial for murder. He now argues that he was denied federal constitutional rights before, during, and after trial. I heard oral argument on the motion on January 20, 2015, at which Wilson appeared via videoconference. For the reasons given below, Wilson's petition is denied.


A. Facts of the Crime

Around 4:05 a.m. on December 27, 2008, a police officer heard shots being fired at a club located at 181 Chester Street in Brooklyn, New York. She responded to the scene and saw that two people, later identified as Jamel Benjamin and Travis Bright, had been shot. Tr. 57-73. Both men died from their wounds.

James Bynum testified that he worked at the club doing cleaning and maintenance. Tr. 129-30. On the night of the shooting, there was a birthday party for Sidney Mitchell. There were about one hundred guests. Tr. 132-36. Around three o'clock in the morning, three men walked in who looked out of place. They went to talk to Mitchell and the woman who paid for the party. Tr. 137-39.

Around 3:30 a.m., Bynum went outside and saw Mitchell, along with some of his friends, talking to the three men. Everything was quiet until about 4 o'clock, and the three men had gone back inside. Everyone started to leave the party. Bynum, who had gone inside after the three men, went back outside. That was when Bynum heard a loud noise that sounded like a metal chair slamming on the floor. Tr. 142-48. When he went inside to investigate, people were running out of the club and he was punched in the face by one of the three men. Tr. 149. At that point, he and several security guards were trying to hold down the man who punched Bynum in the face, and Mitchell said to the man, "you like to shoot people?" Based on this, Bynum thought the man he was holding down had a weapon. Tr. 149-53. While Bynum was holding the man down, the cousin shot him in the head. Tr. 153-56. Bynum started cursing at the shooter, then he watched the shooter run out of the club. Tr. 157-58. Bynum later identified Wilson as the shooter. Bynum had never seen Wilson before that night. Tr. 162-63.

Kim Smith also witnessed the shooting. He testified that Sidney Mitchell, a coworker, invited him to his birthday party on the night of December 26, 2008. Tr. 319-22. Smith said he first saw Wilson about half an hour after Mitchell came to the party, and Wilson was with two other people. One of the men was short and was wearing a gray leather jacket with a logo on the back. Tr. 329-30. When Wilson came in, he went up to Smith and Mitchell. Smith was telling Mitchell about a tattoo on Smith's arm, and Wilson grabbed Smith's arm to point out an area that Wilson thought should be tattooed. Tr. 330-31. At the time, Smith thought Wilson's first name was Ramel, and he knew him as Mitchell's cousin. Wilson worked with Smith at a bus company at the time, and Smith saw him every day for about twenty minutes each morning. Tr. 326-27. Smith and Wilson never spoke, and they did not have any problems. Tr. 328.

Smith testified that around 3:30 or 4:00 a.m., where there were only about five people left on the dance floor, several men arrived who looked out of place. Tr. 325-26. One of the men was shorter than the others, and Wilson went up to him and asked who they were with. The shorter man said, they're with me, they are homies. Tr. 332.

Smith testified that when the party was ending, Wilson and Mitchell had a playful fight on the floor, but everything still seemed to be going well. Then, Smith saw Wilson enter the party with a revolver in his hand. Tr. 333-34. He was with another man, shorter than Wilson, who was saying, "give it back to me, " to Wilson. Tr. 341. Wilson told the man, "I'm only going to just scare him." Tr. 336.

Wilson started talking to a man with dreadlocks, later identified as Jamel Benjamin, and telling him to come outside, but Benjamin ignored Wilson. Tr. 335-36; 338-41. Smith saw Wilson shoot Benjamin then go up to security guards who were wrestling with another man and shoot the man the security guards were holding down. Tr. 338-41. After Wilson shot the second person, Smith saw him run out of the club. Smith also ran out of the club with his girlfriend and called 911. Tr. 348-49.

When Smith called 911, he told the operator that two men had been shot in the face. Tr. 354-55. Smith told the 911 operator that he heard more shots because when the shooter exited the club, he was still firing his gun. Tr. 355-56. Smith also told the 911 operator that someone was giving the police a statement who saw the shootings better than Smith did. When Smith said that, he meant that the other person knew the shooter better than Smith before that evening. Tr. 356-57. After Smith called 911, he and his girlfriend stayed until the police and ambulance came, and then they walked home. Tr. 358. Smith later identified Wilson in a lineup. Tr. 364-66. Smith first identified Wilson as "Ramel, " but learned from his girlfriend that his real name was "Rahman." Tr. 357.

Shakir Afzal was also present the night of the shooting. Afzal testified that his father runs the nightclub located at 181 Chester Street, known as Platinum 181. Tr. 265-66. Afzal said he was outside the club when shots were fired at around 2:00 a.m.; when he heard the shots, he went inside and saw two men lying on the floor. He did not see anyone shooting and did not see anyone with a gun. Tr. 269-72. Afzal's cousin is James Bynum. Tr. 272. When Afzal saw the bodies, he called 911. Tr. 273. After the police arrived, Afzal went to the station for questioning and then returned to the club to clean up. When he was cleaning up, he found a bullet located near one of the bodies. Tr. 275-81. Afzal called the police, and Detective Parks of the NYPD went to the scene to collect the bullet. Tr. 474-77. The medical examiner testified that he recovered another bullet from the body of Jamel Benjamin. Tr. 111-16. Detective Wilfredo Torres of the Firearms Analysis Section testified that he examined both bullets and determined they were fired from the same firearm, a.9mm/.38mm caliber. Tr. 231-46.

B. Trial Proceedings

Wilson was charged in Kings County with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Wrenn Decl. (ECF No. 7) at ¶ 5. Trial began in July 2010. Only the second-degree murder charges and the weapon charge were submitted to the jury. Id. ¶ 6. On August 13, 2010, a jury convicted Wilson of both counts of second-degree murder and the weapon charge. Tr. 910-16. At the end of the trial, the government moved to dismiss the first-degree murder counts. Wrenn Decl. ¶ 6, n.1. On September 3, 2010, the court sentenced Wilson to consecutive terms of twenty-five years' imprisonment for the murder convictions, and a concurrent five-year prison term for the weapon conviction. Id. ¶ 7.

C. Subsequent Procedural History

Wilson appealed to the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division, Second Department. He argued that (1) the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; (2) the prosecution impermissibly elicited hearsay evidence to support the testimony; (3) the prosecution improperly impeached a defense witness; and (4) that his sentence was excessive. See Wren Decl. Ex. L1 (App. Div. Br.) at 2-3.

On December 5, 2012, the Second Department modified Wilson's sentence, reducing it to two consecutive indeterminate terms of 20 years to life. It otherwise affirmed the trial court's decision. People v. Wilson, 955 N.Y.S.2d 362, 363 (2d Dep't 2012). The appellate court found that Wilson's argument regarding insufficient evidence was unpreserved for review. Id. at 364. It also found that Wilson's argument that the prosecution impermissibly elicited hearsay testimony was unpreserved. It did note that it was error to admit the testimony in question, i.e., Smith's testimony that he learned Wilson's real name (Rahman, not Ramel, as he had believed) from Smith's girlfriend. But it further noted that the error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of guilt. See id. A judge of the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on February 21, 2013. People v. Wilson, 20 N.Y.3d 1066 (2013) (Graffeo, J.).

In his petition for habeas relief, filed on May 14, 2014, Wilson raises the first two arguments he submitted to the Second Department: (1) that the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and his verdict was against the weight of the evidence; and (2) that the prosecution impermissibly elicited hearsay evidence to support the testimony.[1] In his ...

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