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Chin v. Graham

United States District Court, E.D. New York

August 29, 2017

LUCIEN CHIN, Petitioner,
v.
HAROLD GRAHAM, SUPERINTENDENT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          Pamela K. Chen United States District Judge.

         Petitioner Lucien Chin (“Petitioner”), appearing pro se, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his conviction and sentence entered on July 14, 2006, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Nassau County. Following a jury trial, Petitioner was convicted of one count of manslaughter in the first degree, one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. He was sentenced to concurrent terms in prison amounting to twenty-five years' imprisonment with five years of post-release supervision.

         Petitioner challenges his conviction on several grounds. For the reasons stated below, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         I. FACTS

         Viewing the facts presented at Petitioner's trial in the light most favorable to the prosecution, United States v. Riggi, 541 F.3d 94, 96 (2d Cir. 2008), a reasonable jury could have found the following.

         In the spring of 2005, Petitioner and his friends, one of whom was William Sheppard, had a series of altercations with another group of young men who lived in their neighborhood, including Christopher Grant and Matthew Cunningham. (Trial Tr. (“T.”) 407-29, 521-33, 540-60, 703-05, 734-36, 822-24, 845-46, 849-50, 885-96, 910-11, 923-36.) These altercations escalated to threats of violence, violence, and destruction of property, which generated animosity between Sheppard and Petitioner, on the one hand, and Grant and Cunningham, on the other. (Ibid.) On at least two occasions, Petitioner expressed an interest in fighting Grant or Cunningham, and, in that context, attempted to obtain a gun from a friend. (T. 407-29, 540-60.)

         On July 5, 2005, around 7:00 p.m., Grant, Cunningham, and two of their friends, David Croal and Michael Hamilton, were standing in the front yard of Hamilton's house in Uniondale, New York. (T. 445-50, 613-21.) Sheppard and Petitioner drove by in Sheppard's car, and Petitioner, recognizing Grant and Cunningham, told Sheppard that he wanted to fight Cunningham. (T. 436-45, 476-77, 597-611.)[1] Sheppard and Petitioner then drove to the home of one of their friends, where Petitioner obtained a revolver. (T. 448-49.) Sheppard and Petitioner drove back to Hamilton's house, and Petitioner, from the passenger seat of the vehicle, fired a single shot from the revolver, which struck Hamilton in the chest. (T. 450-53.) Sheppard and Croal both witnessed Petitioner fire the shot. (T. 450-53, 838-39.) Hamilton died from the gunshot wound later that evening in the hospital. (T. 685-86.)

         After the shooting, Sheppard and Petitioner fled to Delaware, where they remained in hiding for several days before returning to New York the following week. (T. 457-60, 517-21, 645-52, 1026-38.) During that time, Petitioner told Sheppard's girlfriend, Ashley Armstrong, and one of Sheppard's friends, Roland Knight, that he had shot someone. (T. 993-1025, 1036.) Petitioner was arrested on July 11, 2005, and was indicted for two counts of murder in the second degree, one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.

         II. PRE-TRIAL RULINGS

         The trial court held a Wade-Dunaway hearing on March 23, 2006, to determine the admissibility of photo and lineup identifications made by Grant, Croal, and Cunningham, and to determine whether the police had probable cause to arrest Petitioner based on those identifications. (Hr'g Tr. (“H.”) 51-53.) The court denied Petitioner's motion to suppress the identifications and ruled that the witnesses could make in-court identifications of Petitioner at trial and that evidence regarding the lineup identifications would be admissible as well. (H. 53.)

         The trial court also considered Petitioner's pre-trial motion to exclude evidence of Petitioner's prior altercations with Grant and Cunningham in the months leading up to the shooting. (T. 3.) The trial court ruled that certain evidence of particular events was barred from admission as improper propensity evidence, but allowed most of the prior-acts evidence into the trial as evidence of Petitioner's motive and to complete the narrative surrounding the shooting. (T. 6-28.) Specifically, with respect to the prior acts evidence, the trial court ruled that:

(i) the prosecution could not introduce evidence of a purported fistfight involving Petitioner and Grant that allegedly occurred four months before the shooting, but instead could elicit testimony that Petitioner, Grant, and their respective groups of friends were acquainted with one another and had been in altercations in the past (T. 6-8);
(ii) the prosecution could introduce partial evidence of an altercation between Petitioner and Grant outside a convenience store on May 8, 2005, including the testimony that Petitioner, after the altercation, placed a phone call to another friend and asked for a “ratchet, ” which is slang for a gun (T. 14-16); and
(iii) the prosecution could introduce evidence that, three days before the shooting, Sheppard, Petitioner, Grant, and Cunningham had an altercation outside a fast-food restaurant in Uniondale, during which Sheppard attempted to hit Grant with his car, Grant smashed Sheppard's car window with a hammer, Petitioner smashed a window of Grant's family's car, and Petitioner placed a phone call to ask another friend for a gun (T. 18-28).

         III. TRIAL, VERDICT, AND SENTENCING

         Petitioner was tried before a jury in an eight-day trial that began on June 28, 2006 and ended on July 12, 2006. (T. 1, 1319.) With respect to identifying Petitioner as the shooter, the prosecution's primary witnesses were Sheppard, Grant, Cunningham, and Croal. (T. 322-26.) The prosecution also called Ashley Armstrong and Roland Knight to testify about Petitioner's admissions of guilt in the days after the shooting. (T. 993, 1026.) Petitioner did not take the stand and did not introduce any evidence in his defense, other than through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. (T. 1162, 1168.)

         The principal witness against Petitioner was William Sheppard, Petitioner's friend and the driver of the vehicle from which Petitioner purportedly fired the shot that killed Hamilton. (T. 407-682.)[2] Sheppard testified extensively concerning the altercations between himself and Petitioner, on one the hand, and Grant and his friends, on the other hand, in the months leading up to the shooting. (T. 414-30.) Sheppard also testified about Petitioner's attempts to obtain a gun before the shooting, the shooting itself, and Petitioner's admissions of guilt after the shooting. (T. 460-678.) Sheppard unambiguously identified Petitioner as the person who shot Hamilton from the passenger side of Sheppard's vehicle on July 5, 2006. (T. 450-453.) In a lengthy cross-examination, Petitioner's counsel impeached Sheppard's testimony on numerous grounds, including by emphasizing inconsistencies in Sheppard's account of the events on different occasions, his record of lying to police officers, his interest in shifting blame for the shooting away from himself, and his interest in obtaining leniency in exchange for his testimony. (T. 477-677.) In response, Sheppard maintained that, although he had lied previously to police officers in an effort to minimize his own culpability for the shooting, he was giving truthful trial testimony that was not influenced by his prospective plea bargain with the prosecution. (E.g., T. 670-75.)

         Testimony from Cunningham, Croal, and Grant also contributed to the case against Petitioner. (T. 322-26.) Cunningham and Grant gave testimony that corroborated, albeit with some discrepancies, Sheppard's description of the escalating tensions in the spring of 2005 between Sheppard and Petitioner, on one side, and Grant and his friends, on the other. (T. 708, 892.) All three men also gave testimony that placed Petitioner in the vehicle from which Hamilton was shot around the time of the shooting. (T. 730, 770, 837-38, 897, 910.) Specifically, although he did not claim to have seen the shooting itself, Cunningham testified that he saw Petitioner in the passenger seat of Sheppard's vehicle ten or fifteen minutes before the shooting, and again just moments before the shooting. (T. 730, 770.) Similarly, Grant testified that, although he did not see the shooting itself, he saw Petitioner in the passenger seat of Sheppard's vehicle around the time of the shooting. (T. 897, 910.) Finally, Croal testified that he was standing near the victim during the shooting, and personally saw Petitioner use a revolver to fire the shot that killed Hamilton from the passenger side of Sheppard's vehicle. (T. 837-38.)

         As he had done with Sheppard, Petitioner's counsel impeached the testimony of Grant, Cunningham, and Croal on several grounds, including by pointing to discrepancies in their description of events, prior inconsistent statements, and their failure to identify Petitioner as the shooter in their initial interviews with the police. (T. 733-820, 844-84, 910-64.) In response, Grant, Cunningham, and Croal explained, among other things, that they were initially reluctant to cooperate with the police but ultimately agreed to testify because their friend had died. (T. 733-820, 844-84, 910-64.) With respect to Croal in particular, Petitioner's counsel emphasized that Croal was standing about ninety feet away from Petitioner when Croal supposedly recognized Petitioner as the shooter. (T. 864, 1205.)

         The prosecution also presented the testimony of Sheppard's girlfriend, Ashley Armstrong, and one of Sheppard's friends, Roland Knight. (T. 993, 1026.) Armstrong testified that, in the days after the shooting, Sheppard and Petitioner fled New York and stayed with her in Delaware, where, according to Armstrong, Petitioner admitted to having shot someone but “wished he didn't hit the wrong person.” (T. 1036.) Knight testified that, while he was giving Petitioner a ride in his car several days after the shooting, Petitioner told Knight that he had “caught a body, ” which Knight understood to be slang for killing someone. (T. 1003.) On cross-examination, Petitioner's counsel impeached Armstrong's credibility based on a cooperation deal she purportedly received in exchange for her testimony, and impeached both Armstrong and Knight based on their ties to Sheppard, whose plea deal could have been affected by the outcome of the trial against Petitioner. (T. 1008, 1046.)

         After the close of the prosecution's case in chief on Tuesday, July 11, 2006, Petitioner chose not to present any evidence. (T. 1162, 1168.) The jury was charged and began its deliberations during the afternoon of Wednesday, July 12, 2006. (T. 1284-1318.) The next day, July 13, 2006, the jury sent a note to the trial judge, asking for “a measurement of ninety feet”. (T. 1323-24.)[3] In response to that request, the trial court, with the prior agreement of both sides' counsel, told the jury that the length of the courtroom was 60 feet, and that they could “calculate another half of [the] room, add it on and that's 90 feet.” (T. 1324.)

         The jury did not reach a verdict on Thursday, July 13. (T. 1325.) According to Petitioner, after being released for the day, several members of the jury independently measured the distance of ninety feet in an attempt to assess the plausibility of Croal's identification of Petitioner from that distance. (Dkt. 7 (4/18/12 Mem.) at 34-46.) According to Petitioner, during the evening of July 13, 2006, these jurors conducted “tests” of their abilities to identify a person from a distance of 90 feet and then reported their findings to the rest of the jury when deliberations resumed the next morning. (Id.) The next day, July 14, 2006, the jury returned a verdict convicting Petitioner of one count of manslaughter in the first degree, one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. (T. 1337-42.)

         After the trial, a number of the jurors spoke with both sides' counsel. (Dkt. 7 at 4.) In those conversations, Petitioner's counsel learned about the home experiments conducted by the jury. (Id.) Petitioner thereafter filed a motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to N.Y. Crim. P. Law § 330.30, arguing that his conviction should be set aside based on the “misconduct” of those jurors who conducted home experiments to assess the credibility of Croal's ninety-foot identification of Petitioner and then reported the results to the rest of the jury. (Dkt. 7.) Among other things, Petitioner argued that the jurors' misconduct violated his “substantial right to confrontation as well as his ability to cross-examine witnesses and evidence as allowed under the United States Constitution's Sixth Amendment . . . .” (Dkt. 7.) The trial court denied Petitioner's motion, ruling that the juror's conduct was “no more than the application of everyday perceptions and common sense, ” which “does not taint the subsequent verdict.” (Dkt. 7 (quoting People v. Brown, 48 N.Y.2d 388 (1979).)

         The trial court held a sentencing hearing for Petitioner on December 6, 2006. On the count of manslaughter in the first degree, the court sentenced Petitioner to a determinate term of imprisonment of 25 years with five years of post-release supervision. (Sentencing Tr. 13.) On the count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, the court sentenced Petitioner to a determinate term of imprisonment of 15 years with five years of post-release supervision. (Id.) On the count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, the court sentenced Petitioner to a determinate term of imprisonment of seven years with three years of post-release supervision. (Id. 13-14.) The court ordered that all of these terms would run concurrently. (Id. 14.) Petitioner was also ordered to pay $14, 925.07 in restitution by civil judgment. (Id.)

         IV. EXHAUSTION OF STATE REMEDIES

         Petitioner appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department (“Appellate Division”). (Dkt. 7.) Petitioner argued that his conviction should be vacated because (i) the trial court improperly admitted Sheppard's testimony concerning Petitioner's out-of-court statements requesting a “ratchet” from a friend (Dkt. 7 (Def.-Appellant's Br.) at 39); (ii) the trial court improperly admitted “other acts” evidence of prior altercations between Sheppard and Petitioner, on the one hand, and Grant and his friends, on the other (id. at 39-46); (iii) the “tests” conducted by members of the jury concerning Croal's ninety-foot identification of Petitioner violated Petitioner's constitutional rights (id. at 56-61); (iv) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence (id. at 62-63); and (v) the trial court failed to give “due consideration” to all facts relevant to Petitioner's sentence of 25 years' imprisonment, which Petitioner argues was overly severe (id. at 47-55).

         The Appellate Division rejected each of Petitioner's arguments and affirmed his conviction. New York v. Chin, 897 N.Y.S.2d 106 (App. Div. 2010). With respect to the other acts evidence admitted at trial, including Sheppard's testimony about Petitioner trying to get a “ratchet” before the shooting, the Appellate Division held that Petitioner had not preserved his objection for appeal, and, in any event, the admission was unobjectionable because the trial court gave “an appropriate limiting instruction.” Id. at 107. With respect to Petitioner's weight of the evidence argument, the Appellate Division held that, “although the main prosecution witness . . . had an unsavory and criminal background, and testified pursuant to a cooperation agreement, these facts raised an issue of credibility which the jury resolved in favor of the prosecution.” Id. The Appellate Division also noted that, “[u]pon reviewing the [trial] record, we are satisfied that the verdict of guilt was not against the weight of the evidence.” Id. With respect to sentencing, the Appellate Division held that Petitioner's “contention that he was not afforded an opportunity to address the court at the time of his sentencing . . . is unpreserved for appellate review, ” that “the trial court . . . substantially complied with the statutory [sentencing] requirements, ” and that “[t]he sentence imposed was not excessive.” Id. at 108. Finally, with respect to the alleged juror misconduct, the Appellate Division held that Petitioner's rights had not been violated because, “[i]n this regard, the jurors not only made a ‘casual observation of a common, everyday experience which was readily available to any of the[m] without the benefit of any special expertise, ' but there was additional evidence presented to connect the defendant with the crimes, including, inter alia, the testimony of several eyewitnesses.” Id. at 107-108.

         Thereafter, Petitioner filed an application for discretionary review by the New York Court of Appeals. (Dkt. 7 (3/17/2010 Letter).) In the application, Petitioner asserted the same grounds for vacating his conviction as he had asserted in his submissions to the Appellate Division. (Id. at 2-4 (hearsay statements and other-acts evidence), 4-6 (juror misconduct), 7-14 (weight of the evidence), 15-18 (excessive sentence).) By order dated July 21, 2010, the Court of Appeals denied Petitioner's application for review. New York v. Chin, 907 N.Y.S.2d 461 (2010) (Table). Petitioner's 90-day window to seek a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States closed on October 19, 2010.

         V. ...


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