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Murray v. People

United States District Court, E.D. New York

August 28, 2017

Sir Jules Murray, Petitioner,
v.
The People of the State of New York, Respondent.

          Petitioner is proceeding pro se.

          Respondent is represented by Madeline Singas, District Attorney, Nassau County District Attorney's Office

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOSEPH F. BIANCO United States District Judge.

         Sir Jules Murray (“petitioner” or “Murray”) petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his convictions in New York State Court. On April 29, 2010, following a jury trial in the Supreme Court of New York, Nassau County (the “trial court”), petitioner was convicted of six counts of assault in the second degree (N.Y. Penal Law (“NYPL”) § 120.05(3)), one count of promoting prison contraband in the second degree (NYPL § 205.20), one count of conspiracy in the sixth degree (NYPL § 105.00), and one count of obstructing governmental administration in the second degree (NYPL § 195.05). These charges arose from three incidents in which petitioner either assaulted, or assisted another inmate in assaulting, corrections officers.

         Petitioner was sentenced to three concurrent determinate sentences of seven years' incarceration followed by five years of post-release supervision for three of his assault convictions. Petitioner was sentenced to concurrent determinate sentences of six years' incarceration followed by five years of post-release supervision for the other three assault convictions and one year of incarceration for his obstructing governmental administration conviction. The assault sentences were imposed to run consecutive to each other. For petitioner's promoting prison contraband and conspiracy convictions, he was sentenced to concurrent definite sentences of one year of incarceration and 90 days' incarceration, respectively.

         Petitioner challenges his convictions on the following grounds: (1) the trial court erroneously admitted evidence of his gang affiliation and failed to issue adequate limiting instructions regarding gang affiliation; (2) the People's rebuttal witness improperly bolstered another witness's testimony; (3) the evidence was legally insufficient to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and (4) petitioner's fair trial right was violated when the trial court imposed a harsher jail sentence after his conviction than his proposed plea offer, and his sentence is unduly harsh and excessive.

         For the reasons discussed below, petitioner's request for a writ of habeas corpus is denied in its entirety.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are adduced from the petition, respondent's answer and memorandum of law, and the underlying record.

         1. Trial Court

         At trial, the People produced evidence of three altercations between petitioner and corrections officers, one occurring on January 23, 2009, one on March 2, 2009, and the last on April 28, 2009. On each of those dates, the People's evidence indicated that petitioner either assaulted, or assisted in assaulting, corrections officers.

         a. January 23, 2009 Incident

         On January 23, 2009, Sergeant Theodore Davis (“Sergeant Davis”), who oversaw inmate and officer movement on the fourth floor of the Riverhead Correctional facility, was notified by another officer that one of the fourth floor housing units smelled of smoke and that the officer thought he saw an inmate smoking in his cell. (T.[1] 451-54.) Lieutenant Conway then authorized a “shake-down”-a search of an area for contraband-of the fourth floor south block. (Id. at 86, 455.) Possession of anything that could be smoked is considered contraband. (Id. at 92-93.)

         A routine shake-down procedure began with the sergeant entering the tier followed by the participating officers in single file, with each officer standing in front of a cell. (Id. at 155-58.) The cells were approximately six by eight feet and contained a sink, toilet bowl, and metal bed with a mattress. (Id. at 160-61, 194.) Approximately a foot and a half of space existed between the bed and the toilet. (Id. at 160-61, 194.) Inmates were instructed to place their hands on the bars facing the two officers in front of their cell. (Id. at 158.) Once the sergeant gave the order to open the cell doors, inmates would remove their hands from the bars and step back. (Id. at 159.) One of the officers would then enter the cell and instruct the inmate to walk to the back of the cell. (Id. at 159-160.) The second officer would block the cell's entrance/exit area. (Id. at 160.) Inmates on this block required a strip search, after which they were told to dress and step outside their cell so that officers could enter and search the cell. (Id. at 161-65.)

         On January 23, approximately 16 officers reported to the fourth floor lobby to participate in the shake-down. (Id. at 98.) Corrections Officer Thomas Cotter (“Officer Cotter”) was one of these participating members. (Id. at 141.) Utilizing the shake-down procedure, Officer Cotter stood outside petitioner's cell with Officer Frank Mele (“Officer Mele”) as his partner. (Id. at 172, 324.) The officers had not had any prior interactions with petitioner and were unaware he was housed in that particular cell. (Id. at 171-72, 324.)

         As the shake-down procedure commenced, Officer Cotter was standing in front of the cell and Officer Mele was to his left. (Id. at 173, 362.) Petitioner complied with Officer Mele's instruction to put his hands on the bars, and when the sergeant gave the command to open the gates, petitioner complied with Officer Mele's instruction to take his hands off the bars. (Id. at 173-74, 324-325.) However, once the gate was approximately three-quarters of the way open, petitioner said “F*** you” and pulled Officer Cotter into the cell. (Id. at 174-75, 325-26.) Officer Cotter grabbed petitioner in an unsuccessful attempt to break free, and, instead, was tossed onto the bed by petitioner who stood over Cotter, punching him in the chest. (Id. at 175-76, 327-28.) Although Cotter fought back, petitioner seemed to remain unaffected. (Id. at 179, 181-82.) Officer Mele immediately entered the cell to assist but petitioner threw multiple punches and kicks at him, striking him in the knee, thigh, rib, and chest area. (Id. at 326, 328-29.) The struggle resulted in all participants landing on the floor where the officers tried to restrain and handcuff petitioner, but he continuously resisted despite being instructed to stop resisting. (Id. at 334, 336.)

         Eventually, both officers handcuffed petitioner. (Id. at 183-88, 337.) Petitioner stopped resisting after he was handcuffed and was escorted out of his cell into the lobby. (Id. at 183-86, 210-12, 216, 337, 341.) Once in the lobby, petitioner tried to knock the officers off by violently thrashing from side to side and lifting his legs up and down. (Id. at 183-86, 210-12, 216, 220-21, 223, 337, 341, 459, 476.) Sergeant Davis intervened to help control petitioner, but petitioner lifted his feet off the ground and everyone lost balance and fell over. (Id. at 224-25, 341, 460, 477.) Sergeant Davis suffered an injury, but the other officers managed to subdue petitioner in the ensuing struggle. (Id. at 460-61, 478, 480-81.) At that point, petitioner stopped struggling, and, once again, the officers escorted him to the elevator cage. (Id. at 226-27, 343, 462.) Two other officers then escorted petitioner to a detention cell and to the hospital. (Id. at 229, 344.)

         b. March 2, 2009

         Incident On March 2, 2009, Corrections Officer Shawn Springstein (“Officer Springstein”) was on duty on the fourth floor southwest tier at the Riverhead Corrections Facility. (Id. at 524-25.) Officer Springstein's desk had a full view down the tier and was situated in front of the entrance to the sally port and to the right of a lock box, which controlled the cell doors. (Id. at 541-43.)

         Inmates on that particular tier get thirty minutes of recreational time in the day area where they can take a shower, make a phone call, or walk down to the end of the tier to borrow reading materials-all at the discretion of the officer on duty. (Id. at 526-27, 545.) Only one inmate would be allowed out during their recreational time and inmates cannot linger outside someone's cell. (Id. at 527.) Inmates were permitted to bring items they would be using during their recreational time, such as a towel, shampoo, and shower sandals. (Id. at 546-47.)

         On March 2, inmate Edward Lerner (“Lerner”) was released for his recreational time during which Officer Springstein observed that Lerner did not bring anything with him from his cell. (Id. at 548-49.) At the end of his recreational time, Lerner refused Officer Springstein's request to return to his cell and, instead, stood in front of petitioner's cell. (Id. at 552-53.) Officer Springstein observed petitioner and Lerner communicating with each other, which was prohibited, but he could not make out what they were saying. (Id. at 545-46, 552-53.) Officer Springstein then reiterated his command for him to go back to his cell, but Lerner refused and said, “Go get the turtles”-referring to the Sheriff's Emergency Response Team (“SERT”). (Id. at 554-55.) At that point, petitioner handed a cup of water and a bottle of lotion to Lerner, who poured the water and the contents from the bottle onto the floor between himself and the officer. (Id. at 556-58.) Petitioner then handed Lerner a sock with a block of soap inside, a prohibited weapon colloquially referred to as a “slung.” (Id. at 558, 582, 584.)

         Upon receiving the slung, Lerner hopped around swinging it in an “X” motion. (Id. at 559.) Petitioner then said to Lerner, “Do this b**** in front of my cell.” (Id. at 560, 584.) Lerner then turned to Officer Springstein, who was five to seven feet away from Lerner, and said, “Where you guys at? Bring those mother f****** up”-again referring to the SERT. (Id. at 621.) Lerner also told Sergeant Michael Ervolino (“Sergeant Ervolino”), who had come to the scene, that he wanted to fight. (Id. at 666.) After Lerner refused several orders to lock in, the SERT team entered and successfully subdued and removed Ler-ner from the day area. (Id. at 706-16.)

         c. April 28, 2009 Incident

         On April 28, 2009, Officer John Madden (“Officer Madden”) instructed a group of ten inmates, who had been walking in single file down one of the corridors, to wait behind the corridor gate until they received clearance to pass. (Id. at 867-70.) Petitioner was first in line, followed by Lerner. (Id. at 922-23.) After failing to comply with Officer Madden's commands not to touch the gates, petitioner opened the gate with his hands and peered around the corner to look at the female inmates. (Id. at 870-72, 896.) Officer Madden ordered petitioner to step back and shut the gate three times. (Id. at 873-74.) Each time, petitioner refused to comply, and, after the third command, he moved towards Officer Madden with his hands up in a boxing stance. (Id. at 874-85, 954.) In response, Officer Madden punched petitioner in the face and then grabbed his legs to trip him so he could handcuff him on the ground. (Id. at 878-79, 954.) Lerner disrupted the take-down by striking Officer Madden from behind, causing the officer to torque his knee. (Id. at 880, 955.) Petitioner stood back up. (Id. at 881-82.)

         Additional officers then came to assist Officer Madden. (Id. at 882-85, 986.) Petitioner threw punches and kicks at them, but the officers successfully brought him to the ground (Id. at 883-86, 957-58, 1033-37, 1043, 1068, 1081.) Once petitioner was on the ground, Officer Jose Berrios instructed him to “give [him his] hand” multiple times, but petitioner, who was lying on his stomach, refused to be handcuffed by tucking his arms under his chest and clenching his fists. (Id. at 887, 962-63, 986.) With Officer Mele's assistance, petitioner was finally handcuffed. (Id. at 886, 963, 990, 986, 1039, 1070-71.)

         d. Evidence of Petitioner's Gang Affiliation at Trial

         During the jury trial, the court admitted evidence of petitioner's possible gang affiliation as it relates to the issue of establishing motive. (See Id. at 1743-45.) Petitioner repeatedly denied that he was a gang member. (See, e.g., 1221, 1315, 1323.) During cross-examination, he provided non-gang related explanations for his MySpace pictures- which depicted him making a symbol with his hands-and his a letter he'd sent-which included gang-related phrases. (Id. at 1319, 1322, 1327-31.)

         In response to petitioner's testimony, the People called Investigator Gregory H. Monz (“Investigator Monz”), an expert in the fields of gang practices and identifying gang signs and symbols, as a rebuttal witness. (Id. at 1467, 1483-84, 1493.) Officer Monz worked as an investigator in the Gang Intelligence Unit of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office. (Id. at 1468, 1487.) He was familiar with the gang known as the Bloods (id. at 1494-95), which was divided into numerous sets and subsets. One such subset is known as G-Shine. (Id. at 1495.) He explained that there were different levels within a gang and that one of the ways a gang member could get promoted within the levels was to assault anybody that would be considered law enforcement, such as police officers or corrections officers. (Id. at 1507-08.)

         Investigator Monz reviewed and translated a letter written by petitioner to another inmate, dated October 21, 2008, and deduced from the contents of the letter that the author of the letter, petitioner, was a member of the Bloods, specifically G-Shine. (Id. at 1326, 1496-1507.) He also examined two photographs from petitioner's MySpace webpage and found that petitioner was making a B symbol with his hands, which signified the Bloods. (Id. at 1512, 1519, 1523.)

         At the end of the trial, the court instructed the jury on the issue of motive and petitioner's possible gang affiliation. (Id. at 1743-45.) The instructions provided:

It is on the issue of motive that I admitted evidence of the Defendant Murray's possible gang affiliation. Defendant Murray denies that he was a member of a gang. Whether you find as a jury that Mr. Murray was or was not a gang member, is not dispositive of his guilt or innocence.
If you find that Mr. Murray was a gang member, you may not consider that as evidence of a propensity to commit crimes. Such membership may or may not give rise to a possible motive as to the charges against him. And I just defined that distinction between intent and motive to you.
Likewise, if you find Mr. Murray was not a gang member, you may consider that fact as a lack of motive to commit the crimes charged.

(Id. at 1744-45.)

         e. The Verdict and Sentence

         On April 29, 2010, a jury convicted petitioner on three counts of assault in the second degree (NYPL § 120.05(3)) for the January 23, 2009 incident involving Officer Cotter, Officer Mele, and Sergeant Davis. (See T. 1939-42.) Petitioner was found guilty on one count of promoting prison contraband in the second degree (NYPL § 205.20) and one count of conspiracy in the sixth degree (NYPL § 105.00) for the March 2, 2009 incident. (See T. 1939-42.) Petitioner was convicted of three counts of assault in the second degree (NYPL § 120.05(3)) and one count of obstructing governmental administration in the second degree (NYPL § 195.05) for the April 28, 2009 incident involving Officer Madden, Officer Berrios, and Officer Polastina. (See T. 1939-42.)

         On June 22, 2010, petitioner was sentenced to three concurrent determinate sentences of seven years' incarceration followed by five years of post-release supervision for three of his assault convictions. (S.[2] at 16.) Petitioner was sentenced to concurrent determinate sentences of six years' incarceration followed by five years of post-release supervision for the other three assault convictions and one year incarceration for his obstructing governmental administration conviction. (Id. at 16-17.) The assault sentences were imposed to run consecutive to each other. (Id. at 16.) For petitioner's promoting prison ...


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