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Rutledge v. Lempke

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 5, 2015

JOHN B. LEMPKE, Respondent.


MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Proceeding pro se, Antonio Rutledge ("Petitioner") filed a Petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is incarcerated as the result of a judgment entered against him on June 6, 2008, in New York State Supreme Court, Monroe County (Valentino, J.), following a jury verdict convicting him of one count of first-degree manslaughter (N.Y. Penal Law ("P.L.") § 125.20(1)).

II. Factual Background and Procedural History

A. Petitioner's Criminal Trial

In May of 2007, Petitioner and his brother, Christopher Walker ("Walker"), lived in a three-family house at 79 Watkins Terrace in the City of Rochester, New York. Walker was dating a woman named Tisa Willis ("Willis").

On the evening of May 25, 2007, Dean Westphal ("Westphal"), who also lived at 79 Watkins Terrace, was sitting on his front steps when he saw Petitioner and Walker leaving the house. Westphal heard one of them say, "No is going to call you a bitch." T.357.[1] Later, Westphal heard fighting coming from 53 Watkins Terrace, where the victim, 65-year-old Bobby Simmons ("Simmons"), resided.

Just before 11:00 p.m., Harold Hardmon ("Hardmon"), who lived across the street from Simmons, was sitting on his front porch when he saw Petitioner and Willis walking down the street. Petitioner and Willis approached Simmons, who was sitting on his front porch. Petitioner and Willis started arguing loudly with him. Simmons told them to leave, to which Petitioner responded, "I told you I would fuck you up!" T.339-41. Hardmon watched as the verbal confrontation escalated into a physical struggle among Willis, Petitioner, and Simmons on Simmons' porch. After Simmons hit Petitioner in the head with a hammer, Willis left the porch for a moment to go tell Walker that Simmons was fighting with Petitioner and that Petitioner had gotten hit.

Petitioner's next-door neighbors, Mercedes Ruiz ("Ruiz") and Luis Diaz ("Diaz"), saw Walker run over to Simmons' house and observed that Simmons was holding a hammer and trying to force Willis, Walker, and Petitioner to leave. Lisa Frasier ("Frasier"), who lived across the street from Simmons, was walking home when she heard fighting coming from his porch. After she arrived home, she watched the fight from her front porch before deciding to walk across the street to Simmons' house. As she got closer, she saw Walker stab Simmons with a knife, causing him to fall off of the left side of the porch.

Hardmon related that as Simmons lay on the ground on his back, Petitioner, Walker, and Willis "stomped" on him by kicking them all over his body with their feet. Hardmon and Frasier ran over to try to aid Simmons. Petitioner, Walker, and Willis fled when Hardmon yelled at them. Hardmon and Frasier helped Simmons to stand up but he quickly collapsed. Hardmon called 911.

Meanwhile, Westphal, Ruiz, and Diaz saw Petitioner, Willis, and Walker return home. Walker, whose shirt was covered in blood, was holding a knife and a hammer. Ruiz saw Petitioner conceal something underneath the front porch. A short time later, Walker, Willis, and Petitioner left their house in a rush. The neighbors noticed that Walker had changed his clothes.

When the police responded to Watkins Terrace, they found Simmons, lying dead on the ground next to his front porch. During their search of the area, the police found Walker's bloody t-shirt folded around a hammer and a knife, both of which had been concealed under the front steps of Petitioner's house. DNA testing confirmed that the blood on the shirt, knife, and hammer matched Simmons' DNA profile. T.529, 533.

On May 29, 2007, the police apprehended Petitioner and Willis in Rochester, and they were arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter. Several hours later, Walker's attorney contacted the police department and made arrangements for Walker to turn himself in the following day. On May 30, 2007, the police arrested Walker and charged him with second-degree murder. Petitioner, Willis, and Walker were jointly charged under the same indictment, but they were granted separate trials.

Petitioner proceeded to trial on April 28, 2008. The prosecution's proof at trial will be discussed in further detail, infra, in the context of the Court's analysis of Petitioner's legal insufficiency claims. The jury returned a verdict convicting Petitioner as charged in the indictment. On June 6, 2008, Petitioner was sentenced to a determinate prison term of 20 years, plus by 5 years of post-release supervision. Petitioner's conviction was unanimously affirmed on direct appeal. People v. Rutledge, 70 A.D.3d 1368 (4th Dep't), lv. denied, 15 N.Y.3d 777 (2010). He also filed a number of collateral proceedings in state court which were unsuccessful.[2]

B. Petitioner's Habeas Claims

Presently before the Court are Petitioner's original habeas claims, as raised in the petition (Dkt #1), first amended petition (Dkt #7), and first motion to amend (Dkt #16); and his new amended claims (Dkt #49). The original claims are as follows: (1) the evidence was legally insufficient to support the conviction for first-degree manslaughter under an accessorial theory of liability; (2) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; (3) the trial court's ruling pursuant to People v. Sandoval, 34 N.Y.2d 371 (1974), constituted reversible error; and (4) the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. Petitioner's new amended claims are as follows: (1) the prosecutor violated his discovery obligations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963), by allegedly withholding a 911 tape which, according to Petitioner, contained exculpatory evidence; (2) co-defendant Willis was "coerced by D.A. to give testimony against [him] to receive a better plea agreement"; (3)(a) the evidence was legally insufficient to support the first-degree manslaughter conviction because the medical evidence showed that the victim's drug and alcohol use and pre-existing medical issues allegedly caused his death, and (b) the evidence was legally insufficient because testimony of Walker, Petitioner's brother and co-defendant, was "withheld from the jury"; (4) trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by (a) failing to present medical evidence concerning the victim's pre-existing medical issues to the jury, and (b) failing to successfully suppress Petitioner's statements to police; (5) appellate counsel was ineffective for unspecified reasons; (6) Petitioner was denied an impartial jury because the jurors were "most[ly] white"; (7) the trial court erroneously denied Petitioner's motion to vacate pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law ("C.P.L.") § 440.10 without holding an evidentiary hearing; (8) the prosecutor "illegally charged the jury"; and (9) the trial judge had had "upwards of 90%" of his cases overturned on appeal.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that all of Petitioner's original habeas claims and new amended claims are without merit and are denied with prejudice.

III. Preliminary Matters

The instant petition post-dates the 1996 amendments to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 set forth in the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). Under AEDPA, habeas relief is not available with regard to any claim adjudicated on the merits by a state court unless the state court's ruling was an unreasonable application of, or contrary to, clearly established Supreme Court precedent. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Some of Petitioner's claims do not appear to have been adjudicated on the merits, raising an issue of what standard should apply. See Washington v. Schriver, 255 F.3d 45, 55 (2d Cir. 2001) (assuming the claim was not adjudicated on the merits in state court, pre-AEDPA standard of reviewing mixed questions of law and fact de novo applied). In the interest of judicial efficiency, the Court will apply a de novo, pre-AEDPA standard of review to all of Petitioner's claims. "Because AEDPA provides for a more deferential review of state court determinations than did its precursor, where a claim fails under the pre-AEDPA standard of review, the claim must also fail under AEDPA." Joyner v. Miller, N o. 01.CIV.2157(WHP)(DF), 2002 WL 1023141, at *6 n.11 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2002) (citing Washington, 255 F.3d at 55) (where claims failed under pre-AEDPA standard, claims necessarily failed under AEDPA)).

Notwithstanding the fact some of Petitioner's new amended claims may be unexhausted, the Court has the authority to deny them on the merits. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2) (stating that a habeas petition "may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies in the courts of the State"). The habeas statute does not articulate a standard for denying a petition containing unexhausted claims on the merits, and neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has established one. The various formulations suggested by district courts in the Second Circuit share "the common thread of disposing of unexhausted claims that are unquestionably meritless." Keating v. N.Y., 708 F.Supp.2d 292, 299 n. 11 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citations omitted). Here, invocation of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2) "is appropriate as none of the claims [asserted by Petitioner] raise even a colorable constitutional question." Ricks v. Superintendent, No. 10-CV-0785(MAT), 2012 WL 162608, *3 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 19, 2012).

Respondent has asserted the defenses of non-exhaustion and procedural default as to some of the new amended claims. "[J]udicial economy sometimes dictates reaching the merits if the merits are easily resolvable against a petitioner while the procedural bar issues are complicated." Barrett v. Acevedo, 169 F.3d 1155, 1162 (8th Cir. 1999) (citing Lambrix v. Singletary, 117 S.Ct. 1517, 1523 (1997); Chambers v. Bowersox, 157 F.3d 560, 564 n. 4 (8th Cir. 1998) ("The simplest way to decide a case is often the best.")). Since the Court finds that Petitioner cannot ...

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