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Coble v. Unger

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 28, 2017

DUANE COBLE, Petitioner,
DAVID M. UNGER, Respondent.


          HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Proceeding pro se, Duane Coble (“Coble” or “Petitioner”) seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is currently in Respondent's custody pursuant to a judgment entered against him in County Court, Erie County (Amico, J.) of New York State, following a bench trial, on one count Robbery in the Second Degree (P.L. § 160.10(2)(b)).

         II. Factual Background and Procedural History

         Under Erie County Indictment No. 01278-2009, Petitioner, Ronald McCoy (“McCoy”), and Rodney Harris (“Harris”) were charged with Robbery in the First Degree (P.L. §§ 160.15(2), 20.00) and Burglary in the First Degree (P.L. §§ 140.30(1), 20.00). The indictment also charged Petitioner and McCoy (but not Harris) with Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree (P.L. §§ 265.03(3), 20.00). The charges stemmed from an alleged home invasion on May 13, 2009, at the apartment of Frankie and Soloana Knighton located at 73 St. Mary's Road in the City of Buffalo.

         Petitioner and his co-defendants were convicted after a three-day bench trial before Judge Amico in Erie County Court. During the prosecutor's direct case, one of the victims, Frankie Knighton (“Mr. Knighton”), testified that as he was putting out the trash prior to leaving to attend a car auction in Syracuse, he observed three masked men walking up his driveway. McCoy had a bandana covering his face; Coble and Harris had stockings over their faces. (T.37-39, 41). Mr. Knighton testified that McCoy pointed a gun at his stomach, while Coble pointed a gun at his head. (T.40). They said, “[G]ive it up, give up everything, we know you got it.” (T.35-42). They then forced him back inside the building.

         Once inside the house, McCoy emptied Mr. Knighton's pockets of cash after demanding to know what he “had on him.” Mr. Knighton informed them where all of the cash he had in the house was located, including the $1, 000 he intended to bring to the car auction. According to Mr. Knighton, Coble went into the bedroom where his wife, Soloana Knighton (“Mrs. Knighton”), and their infant daughter, Samia, were lying in bed (T.43-44), while McCoy and the third assailant, Rodney Harris (“Harris”), stayed with him. They took out a sandwich bag and told Mr. Knighton, “[W]e going to fill this up.” (T.45). Mr. Knighton insisted that there was no more money in the house. (T.92). Harris handed the money to McCoy, who placed it into a plastic bag. McCoy ordered Mr. Knighton to the floor at gunpoint while Harris attempted to tie him up with duct tape. Mr. Knighton testified that Harris spent “15 to 20 minutes” in a “halfhearted” attempt to restrain him with duct tape, and succeeded only in getting duct tape on one of Mr. Knighton's wrists and around his forehead. (T.74, 97-98).

         Mrs. Knighton testified that it was McCoy who was the first perpetrator to enter the room she was in with Samia. She testified that McCoy was wearing gloves, and pointed his handgun at her and demanded to know where the money was. At some point, Mrs. Knighton testified, Petitioner joined McCoy in the room with her and her daughter, and McCoy went back and forth between the two bedrooms. Mrs. Knighton testified that toward the end of the encounter, all three of the defendants “kind of rush[ed] up to the front” of the apartment and then “kind of ran off to the back, ” each into a different room. (T.128). Petitioner came into the room she was in, and tried to escape through the window but the bars blocked his exit. (T.128-29). Petitioner “kind of paused, looked at [her]” and then “started stripping off his layers of clothing. He took his mask off and he took his gloves off and he took his coat off and then he dropped the weapon by [her] daughter's bassinet.” (T.128). This weapon, which had not been displayed previously, was a knife. (T.150). According to Mrs. Knighton, once they heard the police announce their presence, Petitioner raised his hands and repeatedly called out, “I'm back here, ” as if he were one of the victims. (T.149). Mrs. Knighton did not testify that she or her husband had been restrained with duct tape.

         The first Buffalo Police Department (“BPD”) officer on the scene, Steven Stribing (“Officer Stribing”), said the house was very quiet even after they “holler[ed]” it was the police. (T.178). Eventually, they testified, Mr. Knighton was the first to approach the officers, and was “hollering the whole time that [the defendants] broke into his house and held him at gunpoint and held his family at gunpoint.” (T.157, 169, 208-09). Officer Stribing and Officer Gerald Sullivan testified that Mr. Knighton's hands or wrists bound, in front of his body, with duct tape. (Id.). Shortly thereafter, Officer Stribing heard Mrs. Knighton “screaming . . . that they had weapons.” (T.190-91). McCoy was the next person to approach the officers. (T.158, 169, 184). He was frisked and taken to the dining room. (T.158). Officer Stribing then heard Mrs. Knighton “hollering that [the defendants] had guns on her and that their baby was in the room;” she was saying, “they are trying to get out the window. They are looking to get out the window and the windows are barred. We just had bars put on the windows.” (T.159). The officer observed that Mrs. Knighton “had duct tape on her wrist with her baby in her arms.” (T.163). Officer Stribing testified that he noticed one of the suspects opening the window curtains and looking outside.

         Petitioner was the third person in the apartment to approach the officers, which he did “maybe a minute or two” after McCoy. (T.159-60, 204). The police ordered him to the ground and he was brought towards the kitchen area. There was then a struggle between Mr. Knighton and Petitioner, and Petitioner ran from the house. (T.160, 180). Officers caught him after a brief foot chase, and brought him back to the Knightons' apartment. (T.216-18).

         Officer Patrick Baggott then went into the bedroom where Mrs. Knighton and Samia were, and found Harris. (T.185). Harris was arrested and patted down; Officer Baggott found a knife in his back pocket. (T.197). A search of the apartment yielded two handguns, a loaded .44-caliber revolver and an unloaded .38-caliber revolver, which were in a basket on the top shelf of a bedroom closet. In the baby's bedroom, he recovered a mask, a pair of gloves, and a knife that was lying next to the crib. Detective James Maroney recovered a blue bandanna and black ski cap in the bedroom closet. (T.154-160, 184-187, 249).

         The seized handguns were analyzed by a forensic serologist. The DNA sample obtained from the .38-caliber (unloaded) handgun was consistent with the DNA samples taken from both McCoy and Mr. Knighton; Harris and Petitioner were excluded as contributors. The .44-caliber (loaded) handgun contained only a trace amount of DNA, which excluded Mr. Knighton and all three co-defendants as possible contributors. (T.349, 352, 358, 365-66). Mr. Knighton's DNA was found on both items of duct-tape, while each defendant was ruled out as a contributor of DNA to the duct tape and the knife. (T.358, 364-66). The prosecution's DNA expert, when asked “if someone were wearing gloves would that be consistent with a lower number, ” responded, “I can't tell that.” (T.353).

         McCoy was the only defendant who testified. He stated that Mr. McKnight owed him $3, 600 for marijuana which Mr. McKnight had purchased six weeks earlier.[1] According to McCoy, he went to Mr. McKnights's house with Petitioner and Harris in order to collect the money. McCoy acknowledged that he was carrying an unloaded handgun, but denied that he ever used it. He further claimed that Mr. McKnight voluntarily turned over the $1, 000 to repay his drug debt, and that no robbery had taken place. (T.380-384).

         After a two-day adjournment, Judge Amico convicted Coble of second-degree robbery (P.L. § 160.10(2)(b)) as a lesser included offense. Judge Amico did not explicitly render a verdict on the burglary charge as to Coble, although he did say he found Harris and McCoy guilty of second-degree burglary. At sentencing, Judge Amico sentenced Coble as if he had been convicted of second-degree burglary (P.L. § 140.25(1)(d)) as a lesser included offense, imposing concurrent ...

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