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Papas v. Chappius

United States District Court, E.D. New York

February 22, 2018

MICHAEL PAPAS, Petitioner,
v.
PAUL CHAPPIUS, JR., Superintendent, Attica Correctional Facility, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          BRIAN M. COGAN, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner pro se seeks habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 from his state-court conviction for first-degree attempted assault. The facts will be set forth below as they relate to each of petitioner's points of error, but to summarize, plaintiff assaulted a worker at a construction site with a hammer. Petitioner stood out because he was wearing a white hooded sweatshirt and two construction workers saw a person wearing a white hooded sweatshirt strike the victim with a hammer. One of those construction workers alerted others, who chased and apprehended petitioner until the police arrived and took him into custody. After his conviction, petitioner was sentenced as a mandatory persistent violent felony offender to 23 years to life imprisonment.

         Petitioner raises two points of error in his habeas corpus petition. First, he contends that the trial court improperly dealt with the issue of motive by (1) precluding his counsel from arguing lack of motive in his summation; and (2) instructing the jury that motive was not an element of the crime without also instructing them that they could consider absence of motive in determining whether petitioner actually committed the crime. Second, petitioner contends that his trial counsel was ineffective because he (1) failed to move for dismissal on the ground that the verdict was against the weight of evidence and legally insufficient to support the verdict; (2) failed to object to certain statements in the prosecutor's closing; and (3) failed to adequately investigate the case. Neither of these points have merit and, accordingly, the petition is denied.

         I. Improper Treatment of Lack of Motive

         During his summation, defense counsel stated that “[m]issing from this case . . . is some kind of motive.” The prosecution objected and the trial court sustained the objection, instructing the jury that motive was not an element of the crimes charged. As part of its final charge to the jury, the trial court repeated that instruction in similar words. (There is no dispute that motive was not an element of the charged crimes.)

         In his represented brief on direct appeal, petitioner contended that the trial court's sustaining of the objection, and the reformulation of its instruction on motive in the final charge, without also advising the jury that it could consider lack of motive in determining whether it was petitioner who attacked the victim, was error. The Appellate Division held that

While we agree that the Supreme Court improvidently exercised its discretion in sustaining the prosecutor's objections to the argument, the error was harmless, as the evidence of the defendant's guilt was overwhelming, and there is no significant probability that the error contributed to the defendant's conviction. The defendant's contentions that the Supreme Court gave incomplete instructions with respect to the issue of motive and that the errors deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial are unpreserved for appellate review.

People v. Papas, 110 A.D.3d 1102, 1102, 974 N.Y.S.2d 262, 262-63 (2nd Dep't 2013) (internal citations omitted), leave to appeal denied, 22 N.Y.3d 1201, 986 N.Y.S.2d 422 (2014). Because the Appellate Division resolved the summation objection differently than the objection to the jury charge, they must be analyzed separately under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         A. Summation Objection

         The Supreme Court has outlined the standard for federal habeas corpus review of state-court findings of harmless error in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112 (2007), and, more recently, in Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187 (2015). When a federal court reviews a state-court finding of error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under AEDPA, “a federal court may not award habeas relief under § 2254 unless the harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable.” Fry, 551 U.S. at 119. And a state-court decision is not unreasonable if “‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)).

         Thus, it is not enough to afford relief in this situation if the federal habeas court merely finds a “reasonable possibility” that the error was harmful. Davis, 135 S.Ct. at 2198 (quoting Brecht, 507 U.S. at 637). Rather, relief is only available “if the federal court has grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.” Id. at 2198 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436 (1995)). This conclusion, in turn, must be supported by a finding that the petitioner “was actually prejudiced by the error.” Id. (quoting Calderon v. Coleman, 525 U.S. 141, 146 (1998) (per curiam)).

         The record before me does not raise a “grave doubt” about the trial court's ruling. The construction-site superintendent saw petitioner in a white hooded sweatshirt at the site while the superintendent was talking to the victim; moments after he walked away, two other construction workers saw a person wearing a white hooded sweatshirt attack the victim with a hammer. One of those two workers testified that he saw the attack from about 50 feet away from where he was standing at the base of the crane. He testified that he saw the assailant's whole body and face; he identified petitioner as the assailant at trial.

         The other worker who saw the attack testified that he had seen a person wearing a white hooded sweatshirt at the site around the same time that the superintendent was talking to the victim. He testified that from his vantage point 50 feet away in the crane he was operating, he could see the assailant's white hooded sweatshirt but not his face. He identified petitioner as the assailant at trial based on his height and build. He testified that, when he realized what was happening, he yelled at his men to “get this guy, ” and petitioner, wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, ran into the housing project across the street from the construction site. Other construction workers apprehended petitioner and turned him over to the police. Petitioner had on a white hooded sweatshirt and was wearing a tool belt with a hammer at the time of his apprehension and arrest. The emergency-room doctor who treated the victim testified that the victim had been struck multiple times with a blunt object that was consistent with a hammer.

         I agree with the Appellate Division that the trial court should have allowed defense counsel to ask the jury to think about why petitioner would have attacked the victim, since there was no evidence of any relationship between them or an attempted robbery. The absence of a reason for the attack would have supported petitioner's defense of misidentification or tended to show reasonable doubt. It seems that defense counsel's use of the word “motive” rather than saying “there was no reason” caused ...


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