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Spirles v. Kaplan

United States District Court, W.D. New York

January 14, 2020




         On October 24, 2011, a New York State Court jury found the pro se petitioner, Michelle Spirles, guilty of manslaughter in the first degree in connection with the death of Andre Biggs in Rochester, New York, on April 2, 2011. Docket Item 12-2 at 1496. The judge sentenced Spirles to twenty-five years' imprisonment and a five-year period of post-release supervision, the statutory maximum penalty. Id. at 1513-14, 1524.

         On December 1, 2016, Spirles filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Docket Item 1, which was transferred to this Court on December 8, 2016, Docket Item 4. On June 30, 2017, the state responded, Docket Items 12, 13; and on July 13, 2017, Spirles replied, Docket Item 14.

         Read liberally, the petition raises claims under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. Because Spirles's Fourth and Sixth Amendment claims lack merit, and because any Fifth Amendment error was harmless, the petition is denied.



         Deborah Kerley, an emergency room physician at Rochester General Hospital, testified that she treated Andre Biggs in February 2011-about a month and a half before his death on April 2. Docket Item 12-2 at 947-48. He “had several lacerations on his left side of his scalp and on his ear.” Id. at 948. Biggs told Kerley that “he had been cut by his girlfriend at home.” Id. at 949.

         Spirles's next-door neighbor testified that Biggs had been Spirles's boyfriend but that they had broken up some time before April 2, 2011. Id. at 1295, 1307. Until then, the neighbor said, Biggs was at Spirles's home at 123 Evergreen Street in Rochester “every day” and lived “next door . . . with [Spirles].” Id. at 1293, 1295. The neighbor testified that at about 12:30 a.m. on April 2, 2011, he looked out his window because of “some commotion outside.” Id. He saw Biggs in a vehicle and Spirles reaching into the vehicle. Id. at 1296. And he heard Spirles “screaming” at Biggs: “I'm gonna fuck you up.” Id. at 1297.

         The neighbor called the police because he thought he saw a drug transaction. Id. at 1300. He testified that after the police arrived, Biggs exited the car and walked up the street. Id. at 1298, 1300. Spirles followed him, repeating that “she's gonna fuck him up.” Id.

         Biggs's brother-in-law, Eddie Thomas, testified that he lived in Rochester with his son, his stepdaughter, and his wife-Biggs's sister. Id. at 542-43. Biggs sometimes would stay with them but usually stayed with Spirles. Id. at 543-44.

         Thomas said that on April 2, 2011, Biggs arrived at his house at about midnight or 1:00 a.m. and left at about 3:10 a.m. Id. at 545-46. When he left, Biggs told Thomas that he was going to Spirles's house to pack up his things because he was breaking up with her. Id. Biggs told Thomas that he needed something to put his clothes in, so Thomas gave Biggs a black gym bag. Id. at 546-47. Thomas said that Biggs asked for the bag “so, he could put his clothes, items in [it], so [that] he could leave her.” Id. at 547.

         The prosecutor showed Thomas a photo of a bag taken from the scene of the crime. Id. at 549. When asked if that was “the way [the] gym bag looked when you gave it to [Biggs] on April 2nd, ” Thomas said it was not because when he gave it to Biggs, “there wasn't nothing in it.” Id. But “[b]esides there being clothes in it, . . . that [was] the way it appeared.” Id.

         Thomas testified that when Biggs left his home, Biggs was wearing an “Elmer Fud-like hat” that had “floppy ears and fur inside.” Id. at 547. He also was wearing “a gray sweater that [Thomas had] loaned to him, a white T-shirt, [and] a black jacket.” Id. at 548. And he carried the gym bag across his body. Id.

         Thomas identified Biggs on surveillance videos walking back toward the area where Spirles lives at about 3:22 a.m. Id. at 552-53. In the video, Biggs was walking alone. Id. at 553. Video surveillance also showed Biggs walking unharmed outside a pawn shop about a ten-minute walk away from 123 Evergreen Street during the early morning hours of April 2, 2011. Trial Exhibit 80.

         A police dispatcher with Monroe County 911-David Mossworth-testified that he was working during the early morning hours of April 2, 2011. Id. at 1102-04. He received an incoming 911 call at 4:05 a.m. from a man who said that he was calling from 123 Evergreen Street. Id. at 1104. Mossworth dispatched police and an ambulance to the address after the caller “mentioned someone was stabbed and he mentioned they [sic] weren't breathing.” Id. at 1105.

         A Rochester police officer-Wilfredo Carbonel, Jr.-testified that on April 2, 2011, at 4:09 a.m., he was the first police officer to arrive at Spirles's apartment in response to a call about a stabbing. Id. at 573-74. Carbonal saw a lot of blood on the porch of 123 Evergreen Street. Id. at 577. When he entered the building, he found Spirles frantically yelling for help. Id. at 575, 577. She was standing over Biggs who was bleeding profusely from the neck and chest. See id. at 578-79. Spirles was applying pressure to his neck to stop the bleeding. Id. at 579.

         Spirles's son, James Torrance, also was in the apartment. Id. at 578, 585. Carbonel identified Torrance as the 911 caller. Id. at 585. After emergency medical services arrived, Carbonel and Spirles went to her bedroom so that Spirles could get dressed. Id. at 592-93. Carbonel observed that there was no blood in Spirles's bedroom. Id. at 593.

         Carbonel had a short conversation with Spirles after she was dressed. Id. at 620. Spirles told Carbonel that she was sleeping when she heard someone knocking on her door. Id. at 594. When she answered the door, she found Biggs there, and he immediately stumbled into her arms and then fell to the floor. Id. at 594. Spirles told Carbonel that Biggs had a key to her place despite the fact that “they had been broken up for a period of time.” Id. Spirles never asked for an attorney. Id. at 596. After their conversation in the bedroom, Spirles washed up and Carbonel had her sit in the back of a police car. Id. at 596.

         Mark Gestring, M.D., a trauma surgeon at Strong Memorial Hospital, testified that Biggs arrived at the hospital on April 2, 2011, with CPR in progress. Id. at 820, 823. Dr. Gestring said that Biggs “had a stab wound to his left neck and had apparently bled out at the scene.” Id. at 823. He testified that “reports from the scene was that there was a lot of blood loss” and that this was “consistent with the amount of blood that was covering him when he arrived.” Id. at 824. Biggs's “heart had stopped prior to his arrival at the hospital.” Id. Doctors at the hospital were able to restore Biggs's heartbeat, but then the “wound began to hose blood.” Id. at 825-26. Dr. Gestring testified that he was unable to save Biggs's life that day. Id. at 828.

         Police Investigator John Penkitis testified that on April 2, 2011, he arrived at Spirles's home at about 6:20 a.m. Id. at 1119-20. Torrance let him and another police investigator-Cathy Lucci-into the apartment at about 7:15 a.m., id. at 1124-25, and then was taken to a Rochester police station for further questioning while the officers remained at the apartment for about another hour. Id. at 1130. Later, Penkitis and Lucci went to the Rochester police station and spoke with Torrance and another individual. Id. at 1131.

         Penkitis and Lucci also interviewed Spirles at the police station. Id. at 1131-32. That extensive interview, addressed in some detail below, was videotaped, and most of the interview was played for the jury. Docket Item 12-2 at 1179-88.

         Spirles's landlord testified that he had replaced the lock on the front door on March 30, 2011. Id. at 1278. Spirles had

called [him] and said that she lost the keys or somebody took her keys from the property and she was uncomfortable with that fact and asked [him] to replace the dead bolt on her front door, which is what we did. I came over there. I took the old lock and installed the brand new one and gave her the keys for it.

Id. at 1278.

         Finally, Penkitis and several other police officers who searched Spriles's apartment testified that they saw a duffel bag on Spirles's couch just like the one that Thomas gave to Biggs. Id. at 1163. And the bag had “some clothing that was packed in it that was folded and placed inside of it.” Id.


         A. Spirles's Statements Between 11:07 a.m. and 11:34 a.m.

         After Lucci and Penkitis read Spirles her Miranda rights at about 11:07 a.m., Spirles agreed to be interviewed. Spirles said that she had known Biggs for about nine months and at one time had a romantic relationship with him. She said that she and Biggs once lived together during their relationship, but he “just disappeared” about two weeks before his death and Spirles did not know where he went.

         Spirles said that about two days before Biggs's death, his uncle came to Spirles's house with some of Biggs's belongings, including some sheets. Spirles told Biggs's uncle that she did not want Biggs to come back. Nevertheless, Biggs “just popped up” on the night of his death.

         Spirles said that when Biggs showed up at her house, “he came in the room, he stood for a minute, then he walked back.” He then collapsed and said something about being stabbed. When Biggs fell, Spirles screamed and Torrance ran downstairs. She was putting pressure on the stab wound, ...

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