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Martin v. Lee

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 26, 2018

ELVIS MARTIN, Petitioner,
WILLIAM LEE, Respondent.



         Petitioner Elvis Martin ("Petitioner" or "Martin"), proceeding pro se, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Petition ("Pet."), ECF No. 1.) On November 1, 2006, a New York State Supreme Court jury convicted Martin of murder in the second degree. (Id. at 1-2.) The court sentenced Martin to twenty-five years to life in prison. (Id.) After filing a direct appeal, Martin sought a writ of habeas corpus on July 15, 2010. (See id.) On January 5, 2017, Respondent filed an Opposition. (Respondent Opposition ("Resp't Opp'n"), ECF No. 17.) On February 3, 2017, the Court referred this matter to United States Magistrate Judge James C. Francis. (Order of Reference, ECF No. 21.) On May 16, 2017, Petitioner filed a timely Reply. (Reply, ECF No. 27.) On June 2, 2017, Respondent filed a Supplemental Opposition. (Respondent Supplemental Opposition ("Resp't Suppl. Opp'n"), ECF No. 28.)

         On June 20, 2017, Judge Francis issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report") recommending that this Court deny Martin's Petition. (See Report and Recommendation ("R. & R."), ECF No. 29.) On September 11, 2017, Martin filed a timely Objection to the Report. (Objection ("Obj."), ECF No. 35.) For the following reasons the Court adopts the Report in full.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Martin's conviction arose out of the murder of Miguel Littlejohn by a group of gunmen outside of LittleJohn's Bronx apartment on March 18, 2003. (R. & R. at 2-3.) The Court assumes familiarity with the remaining facts and relevant procedural history of the case as set forth in the Report. (Id. at 2-8.)[1] Martin's habeas petition articulates two claims: (1) the trial court improperly admitted statements of non-testifying co-defendants ("statements") in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation under Crawford v. Washington, 54 U.S. 36 (2004); and (2) the admission of these statements violated his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation under Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). (Pet. at 2-3.)

         At issue is the admission of statements at trial that co-defendants Jackson and Reid made to the police. (R. & R. at 6; see Tr. at 632, 641.) At this stage of the proceedings, the parties do not dispute that an error occurred but only the Appellate Division's finding of harmlessness. (R. & R. at 11.) After a de novo review of the claims on the merits, Judge Francis likewise found the error harmless and denied all of the claims in Martin's habeas petition. (Id. at 34.)


         In reviewing a Report and Recommendation, a district court "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). When timely objections have been made to the report, "[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); United States v. Male Juvenile, 121 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 1997). However, when a petitioner objects by simply reiterating previous arguments or making only conclusory statements, the court should review such objections for clear error. See Genao v. United States, No. 08 CIV. 9313, 2011 WL 924202, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2011); see also Edwards v. Fischer, 414 F.Supp.2d 342, 346-47 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2006) ("where objections are merely perfunctory responses, argued in an attempt to engage the district court in a rehashing of the same arguments set forth in the original petition, reviewing courts should review a report and recommendation for clear error."). Further, because "new claims may not be raised properly at this late juncture," such claims "presented in the form of, or along with, 'objections,' should be dismissed." Pierce v. Mance, No. 08 Civ. 4736, 2009 WL 1754904, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 22, 2009).

         Pro se objections to a report are "generally accorded leniency," and a court should construe them to "raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Milano v. Astrue, No. 05 Civ. 6527 (KMW)(DCF), 2008 WL 4410131, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), aff'd, 382 Fed.Appx. 4 (2d Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, "even a pro se party's objections to a Report and Recommendation must be specific and clearly aimed at particular findings . . . such that no party be allowed a 'second bite at the apple' by simply relitigating a prior argument." Pinkney v. Progressive Home Health Servis., No. 06 Civ. 5023, 2008 WL 2811816, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 21, 2008) (citing Camardo v. Gen Motors Hourly- Rate Employees Pension Plan, 806 F.Supp. 380, 381-82 (W.D.N.Y. 1992)) .


         In the instant case, Martin objects generally to the Report's conclusions and application of the four-factor Zappulla standard. (Obj. at 8-11; R. & R. at 12.) This Court may only reverse the state appellate court's harmless error determination on the ground that it was objectively unreasonable. Zappulla v. New York, 391 F.3d 462, 467 (2d Cir. 2004). By "distilling . . . Supreme Court precedents," the Court of Appeals in Zappulla found the following factors to be relevant in determining whether the erroneous admission of a statement was harmless error: (1) the overall strength of the prosecution's case; (2) the prosecution's conduct with respect to the improperly admitted evidence; (3) the importance of the wrongly admitted testimony; and (4) whether such evidence was cumulative of other properly admitted evidence. Id. at 468. The strength of the prosecution's case is "the most important factor in our inquiry." Perkins v. Herbert, 596 F.3d 161, 179 (2d Cir. 2010).

         Martin's Objections only merit review for clear error because they merely restate claims raised in earlier petitions, are conclusory, or are new claims that may not be raised at this point. The Court has reviewed the Report's findings concerning all of Martin's claims and adopts the Report in its entirety.

         1. The Strength of the Prosecution's Case

         Construed liberally, Martin objects to the Report's findings that the strength of the prosecution's case favors Respondent on two grounds: (i) the jury's review of the statements during deliberations reveals the role of the statements to the strength of the prosecution's case; and (ii) the suspicious ...

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