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Hunter v. Chappius

United States District Court, W.D. New York

November 15, 2017

PAUL CHAPPIUS, JR., Respondent.



         I. Introduction

         Pro se petitioner Christopher D. Hunter (“petitioner” or “Hunter”) seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on the basis that he is being unconstitutionally detained in respondent Paul Chappius, Jr.'s (“respondent”) custody. Petitioner is incarcerated pursuant to a judgment entered against him on December 17, 2007, in Monroe County Court of New York State (“Monroe County Court” or the “trial court”), following a jury verdict convicting him of murder in the second degree. Petitioner was sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of 25 years to life.

         Petitioner asserts that the following claims in his petition: (1) the prosecutor's remarks in summation regarding mercy deprived him of a fair trial; (2) the trial court erred when it told the jury that mercy was an element of the defense of extreme emotional disturbance; (3) petitioner was deprived of the right to be present at all material stages of his trial; (4) trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the prosecutor's summation remarks and for failing to provide notice of a psychiatric defense; and (5) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call an expert to support petitioner's extreme emotional disturbance defense. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that petitioner has not shown he is entitled to federal habeas relief.

         II. Factual Background and Procedural History

         A. The Underlying Crime

         Petitioner met Melissa Hammond in 2000; they began a romantic relationship and ultimately married in 2005 and had three children. Between 2001 and 2006, petitioner was twice convicted of driving while intoxicated (“DWI”) and once convicted of aggravated unlicensed driving. Petitioner served nine months in jail for his second DWI offense, and was released on September 12, 2006. While in jail, petitioner came to believe that Ms. Hammond was seeing other men. He sent her several letters in which he discussed his jealousy, and these letters were admitted into evidence at trial. Sometime between petitioner's release from prison and October 5, 2006, Ms. Hammond and her children left the marital home and moved in with Lisa Kildorf, a coworker of Ms. Hammond's at a company called TenCate.

         On October 5, 2006, petitioner came to Ms. Hammond's workplace. Ms. Hammond was with Kimberly Whisonant, a male coworker, when she spotted petitioner. Ms. Hammond fled, while Mr. Whisonant ordered petitioner to leave the premises. Petitioner and Mr. Whisonant had a verbal confrontation, during which petitioner accused Mr. Whisonant of engaging in sexual relations with Ms. Hammond. The two men exited the building and walked to petitioner's car, where they had a fight. Petitioner tried to reach inside his trunk and Mr. Whisonant picked him up and threw him to the ground. Petitioner then drove away, and Mr. Whisonant called the police. Ms. Hammond subsequently obtained an order of protection against petitioner.

         Petitioner testified at trial that he was drinking heavily during this time period and that, on October 16, 2006, he tried and failed to end his own life. Petitioner moved in with his mother and found a job, but was laid off on November 16, 2006.

         On November 17, 2006, petitioner wrote a letter to his mother in which he stated, among other things: “I feel like I have no choice but to take her life”; “I swear I thought me and her was going to be together forever”; “I can't live with the fact of another man with my wife. So I did what I had to do”; “I know you'll never forgive me for what I'm gonna do, but I couldn't live like this”; and “so just letting you thank you [sic] for trying, but my life is over and so is hers. Till death do us part.” Petitioner testified at trial that he was drunk when he authored this letter.

         At roughly 4:00 p.m. on November 18, 2006, Robert Moore, Jr. was driving past petitioner's mother's house when he saw a man and a woman, whom he did not recognize, in a yard. Mr. Moore saw the man, whom he would later identify as petitioner, throw the woman to the ground and stab her in the torso. The woman screamed and Mr. Moore yelled repeatedly for petitioner to stop. Mr. Moore did not have a charged cell phone, so he called police from a pay phone. Mr. Moore saw petitioner stab the woman in her body and neck, ultimately leaving the knife in her neck, where it made a pulsating motion and eventually stopped moving. Petitioner then removed the knife from the woman's neck, leaned close to her, and said something to her that Mr. Moore could not hear.

         Rochester Police Department (“RPD”) Sergeant Gustavo Venosa reported to the scene of the stabbing. At the scene, Sergeant Venosa saw petitioner, who had smudged blood on his shirt and blood dripping from his right hand. Petitioner did not flee, but instead held his hands up and allowed Sergeant Venosa to secure them. Sergeant Venosa asked petitioner if his hand was okay and petitioner responded “that was my wife, ” at which point Sergeant Venosa saw Ms. Hammond's body lying approximately 50 feet away. Sergeant Venosa called an ambulance. Emergency medical personnel arrived and cut away Ms. Hammond's clothing, revealing multiple puncture wounds to her neck and torso. Sergeant Venosa found a large knife lying five or six feet from Ms. Hammond's body.

         At trial, petitioner testified that he had awoken at 7:00 a.m. on November 18, 2006, still drunk from the previous evening. He further claimed that he had been drunk and eaten no food for three days. According to petitioner, he was using a knife to repair a window in his car when Ms. Hammond arrived at his mother's house. Petitioner claimed that, as she was leaving, he asked Ms. Hammond who she was staying with and she told him that she was staying with another man. At that point, petitioner testified, he “lost it, ” “went into a rage, ” “flipped out, ” “blanked out, ” and “snapped.” He stated that he did not recall stabbing Ms. Hammond, but did recall her asking him “why did you do this to me?” He also recalled having thrown the knife into the street.

         Sergeant Venosa took petitioner to the hospital to obtain stitches for his hand. Sergeant Venosa testified that he did not believe that petitioner was intoxicated because he did not smell of alcohol, walk off balance, or slur his speech. At the hospital, RPD Investigator Gary Galetta joined Sergeant Venosa and petitioner. Investigator Galetta also testified that he did not notice any signs that petitioner was intoxicated. Unprompted, petitioner told Investigator Galetta that he was “looking at 25" and that he had “cried . . . a river every day” regarding his marital problems.

         After the hospital, Sergeant Venosa drove petitioner to the public safety building. While in the car, petitioner asked Sergeant Venosa if he was “the only one that has ever done anything this stupid before?” Sergeant Venosa did not respond to this unprompted remark.

         At the public safety building, petitioner waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak with the police. Investigator Galetta interviewed petitioner for 45 minutes, after which petitioner agreed to provide a written statement. Petitioner reviewed and signed the written statement, which he told the officers was truthful and accurate. The statement, which was read into the record at trial, indicated that Ms. Hammond had come to drop off their children, that petitioner had asked if they could get together, to which Ms. Hammond had replied “we'll see, ” and that petitioner “snapped” because he “just couldn't let her go.” The statement further indicated that everything had gone blank for a moment, then Ms. Hammond was on the ground asking petitioner why he had done what he did, whereupon petitioner laid down on top of her and prayed for her. Petitioner's statement also said that petitioner had seen blood and cuts and knew that he had plunged a knife into Ms. Hammond.

         While petitioner was at the hospital and public safety building, RPD Officer Tomesha Angelo investigated the scene of the stabbing and spoke to petitioner's mother. Petitioner's mother gave Officer Angelo the letter petitioner had written the previous night and showed Officer Angelo petitioner's room. Officer Angelo testified at trial that she did not recall seeing any signs of drinking alcohol in petitioner's room or elsewhere in his mother's home.

         Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Scott LaPoint performed an autopsy on Ms. Hammond. Dr. LaPoint testified at trial that Ms. Hammond had 59 stab wounds on her body, as well as some incise wounds (wounds that are wider than they are deep). All the wounds were consistent with the knife recovered from the scene, which Ms. Hammond's brother-in-law, Calvin Miller, Jr., identified at trial as a filet knife belonging to petitioner. Dr. LaPoint further testified that Ms. Hammond had sustained injuries to her heart, both lungs, her liver, one kidney, her stomach, her colon, her esophagus, and her genitals. One cut had severed her left ear. Ms. Hammond's death was caused by the internal and external bleeding caused by the stab wounds, any number of which could have individually caused her death.

         B. Pre-trial Proceedings

         A Monroe County Grand Jury charged petitioner with second-degree intentional murder. Prior to petitioner's trial, the prosecution sought a ruling, pursuant to People v. Sandoval, 34 N.Y.2d 371 (1974), and People v. Molineux, 168 N.Y. 264 (1901), permitting the use at trial evidence of petitioner's five prior misdemeanor and felony convictions and six letters that he had written to his wife. Petitioner's trial counsel, Michael Doran, Esq. (“trial counsel”) agreed on the record to a proceeding whereby the trial court would render a decision on the parties' written submissions, rather than holding a hearing. Prior to opening statements, the trial court called the prosecutor and defense counsel to the bench to apprise them of its Sandoval and Molineux rulings; petitioner was not present at this bench conference. The trial court thereafter, in petitioner's presence, announced the substance of its rulings in open court.

         C. Trial, Verdict, and Sentencing

         Petitioner's jury trial commenced on October 23, 2007. On October 30, 2007, the jury found petitioner guilty of second-degree murder. On December 17, 2007, the trial court sentenced petitioner to an indeterminate prison term of 25 years to life.

         D. Post-conviction Motion to Vacate

         Prior to perfecting his direct appeal, petitioner moved pro se to vacate the judgment on the ground that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. In particular, petitioner argued that trial counsel was ineffective for having failed to file a notice of intent to present a psychiatric defense pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law § 250.10. The Monroe County Court denied the motion, holding that petitioner had failed to demonstrate the absence of a strategic reason for counsel's failure to file a § 250.10 notice, and explaining that psychiatric ...

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