United States District Court, S.D. New York
For Bledar Haxhia, Plaintiff: Samuel Michael Braverman, Fasulo Braverman & Di Maggio, LLP, Bronx, NY.
For Superintendent William Lee, Green Haven Correctional Facility, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, New York State, Defendants: Nancy Darragh Killian, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bronx District Attorney, Bronx, NY; Jason Scott Whitehead, Bronx District Attorney Office, Bronx, NY.
OPINION & ORDER
Kimba M. Wood, United States District Judge.
Petitioner Bledar Haxhia seeks a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, based on the alleged denial of his right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Haxhia claims that the state trial court violated his Sixth Amendment rights in
two ways: by making " four significant and erroneous evidentiary rulings to which defense counsel objected" ; and by failing " to conduct a thorough investigation into repeated notes from deliberating jurors, indicating that the jurors were being racially harassed by their colleagues in the jury room and, as a result, [were] unable to deliberate." (Pet'r's Mem. [ECF No. 1] at 1--2).
On May 1, 2014, Chief Magistrate Judge Fox issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that the Court deny Haxhia's petition. Haxhia v. Lee, No. 13-CV-1012, 2014 WL 1877081 (S.D.N.Y. May 1, 2014). The Court respectfully disagrees. For the reasons stated herein, Haxhia's petition is GRANTED.
a. The Altercation
Haxhia was convicted of manslaughter by a New York state court jury on November 10, 2008. (Resp't's Answer [ECF No. 6] at 3). His conviction stemmed from an altercation that occurred on April 1, 2006. That afternoon, Haxhia collided with Ermal Qelia while both were participating in a soccer game. At the end of the match, the men confronted each other, and after friends broke up the altercation, Haxhia and Qelia agreed to meet that evening to settle their differences. Haxhia went home, retrieved an unlicensed gun, and later met up with Qelia. Another altercation ensued, during which time Haxhia shot and killed Qelia.
b. Alleged Legal Errors By the Trial Court
Haxhia contends that the state trial court made five legal errors that deprived him of his right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment--four evidentiary errors and one error concerning jury deliberations.
i. Alleged Evidentiary Errors
911 Call. Haxhia states that, more than two years prior to trial, he requested from the State all 911 call recordings that related to his case. (Trial Trans. [ECF No. 12] at 142--45). In response, the State asserted that all related 911 recordings had been destroyed. ( Id. at 143). Yet during the second day of testimony at trial, the State advised Haxhia that a 911 tape did exist, and that the State intended to introduce it as evidence of Haxhia's guilt. ( Id. at 144--45). The trial court overruled Haxhia's objection to the admission of the 911 tape. ( Id. at 142, 152).
Ballistics Report. Haxhia similarly requested from the State disclosure of " any expert witness testimony of any ballistic evidence." (Pet'r's Mem. 14). Haxhia asserts that the State again denied the existence of any such evidence or testimony. ( Id.) Yet at trial, the State sought to introduce ballistics evidence via the testimony of an expert witness who had not appeared on the State's witness list. (Trial Trans. [ECF No. 13] at 409--11). The trial court overruled Haxhia's objection to the testimony. ( Id. at 413--14).
Victim Impact Testimony. During direct examination of Besim Haziraj, a witness for the State, Haziraj testified on direct examination that he and Qelia had been " very, very good friends," that Haziraj felt " very bad not having him around," and that Qelia was " a very caring person. He was good to everybody. He was a very good person, everybody that knew him, loved him." (Trial trans. [ECF No. 12] at 161--62). Haxhia objected to Haziraj's testimony,
but the trial court overruled the objection. ( Id.)
Medical Records. Haxhia sought to introduce at trial medical records showing that he suffered from a pre-existing injury that made him prone to shoulder dislocation. (Trial Trans. [ECF No. 10] at 632). The trial court refused to allow Haxhia to introduce the evidence. ( Id. at 641).
ii. Jury Deliberation Concerns
On the third day of jury deliberations, the trial court received a note from Juror #3 which stated:
Your honor I am Jury [sic] #3. I believe I can no longer continue to deliberate on this case fairly. Things has [sic] escalated to the point where I have been disrespected by being called a nigger. I feel that my view on this case is not being respected. And I'm feeling that I'm being forced to agree with others.
Pet'r's Mem. 16). That same day, the trial court received a note from Juror #4, which read:
I would like to be excused from the jury. There are personnel [sic] reasons I cannot continue. I apologize for this.
We are humbly requesting to resume deliberation Monday morning due to extreme tension which became overwhelming and we feel that it is in the best interest of all parties involved.
Id.) Several days later, the court received a second note from Juror #3:
Your honor I have listened to all the evidence presented. I have weighed all possibilities. I feel full heartedly I can no long [sic] deliberate on this case. I am emotionally and mentally exhausted. I feel I will not be able to render a decision in this case objectively. I am sincerely requesting to be excused from this case and an alternate replace me.
Id. at 16--17).
Each time the trial court received one of these notes, Haxhia asked the court to conduct an in camera interview of each of the twelve jurors to investigate the jurors' concerns and any potential conflicts within the jury room. The trial court refused to do so, and instead gave the jury what Haxhia characterizes as a " meaningless 'pep talk,'" ( id. at 17), about how they might handle disagreements that present themselves during deliberation. See (Trial Trans. [ECF No. 8] at 999--1001) (" What needs to happen here is twelve people have to agree. It's not always easy. Sometimes it ...