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Nappi v. Yelich

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

July 15, 2015

DONATO NAPPI, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
BRUCE YELICH, SUPERINTENDENT, BARE HILL CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Respondent-Appellee. [*]

Submitted June 19, 2015.

Donato Nappi appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Singleton, Jr., J.), denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court issued a certificate of appealability on a single issue: whether habeas relief is warranted on the ground that Nappi's Confrontation Clause right was violated by the state trial court's order precluding Nappi from cross-examining his wife, the main witness against him at trial, about her motive for testifying against him.

The state appellate court ruled that the limitation was a proper exercise of the trial court's discretion to limit questioning regarding collateral matters. We hold that this was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent. We further conclude that this Confrontation Clause violation deprived Nappi of a fair trial, and cannot be deemed harmless.

Accordingly, we reverse and remand the judgment of the district court. On remand, the district court shall issue a writ of habeas corpus to Nappi by the thirtieth calendar day after the issuance of our mandate unless the state has, by that time, taken concrete and substantial steps expeditiously to retry Nappi. The mandate shall issue in ten days.

Christopher J. Pelli, Utica, New York, for Appellant.

Lisa Ellen Fleischmann, Assistant Attorney General (with Barbara D. Underwood, Solicitor General, and Nikki Kowalsi, Deputy Solicitor General for Criminal Matters, on the brief) for Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of the State of New York, New York, New York, for Appellee.

Before: JACOBS, CALABRESI, and LYNCH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judge:

Donato Nappi was convicted, after a jury trial in New York's Herkimer County Court, of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree. At the time of his arrest, Nappi was on parole after having served a long sentence for a prior, unrelated crime. His wife, Janice Nappi, reported Nappi's gun possession to his parole officer and was the key witness against him at trial.

Nappi was tried twice for the crime at issue on this appeal. At his first trial, which ended in a hung jury, Nappi cross-examined his wife about her motive for reporting him and testifying against him: he suggested that she wanted to continue a relationship with another man, whom she had recently--and secretly--bailed out of jail. At the second trial, which ended in conviction, the court sustained the state's relevance objection to this line of inquiry. The Appellate Division concluded that the trial court properly precluded the inquiry.

Nappi raised a host of challenges to his conviction in a habeas petition filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Singleton, Jr., J.). Among them was the argument that his rights to confrontation and a fair trial were violated because the state trial court prevented him from probing his wife's motive to implicate him in the gun possession charge: her relationship with another man. The district court denied relief, concluding that the high threshold for relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was not satisfied. The court issued a certificate of appealability only as to Nappi's Confrontation Clause challenge.

We conclude that the limitation imposed on Nappi's ability to cross-examine the key witness against him at trial was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. We further conclude that this Confrontation Clause violation was not harmless.

BACKGROUND

At the time of his arrest, Nappi and his wife had been married for 36 years, of which time he spent 26 years in prison after his conviction for an unrelated crime. (Trial Tr., New York v. Nappi, 09-037, at 254 (Feb. 23, 2010) (" Trial Tr." ).) Upon his release, Nappi returned to live with his wife; but since they " really weren't that close" anymore, they slept in separate ...


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