Basagoitia v. Smith

Decision Date30 September 2012
Docket Number09-CV-01768 (CBA)
PartiesJUAN BASAGOITIA, Petitioner, v. JOSEPH T. SMITH, Superintendent, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York



AMON, Chief United States District Judge.

Juan Basagoitia, proceeding pro se, petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He seeks to vacate his New York state conviction following a jury trial in the Supreme Court of New York, Queens County, of attempted murder, burglary, conspiracy, and assault. Basagoitia challenges his convictions claiming that evidence was admitted in violation of the Confrontation Clause, the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, the prosecutor engaged in misconduct, counsel provided ineffective assistance, and the court-appointed interpreters were ineffective. For the reasons stated below, Basagoitia's petition is denied.

I. Trial and Conviction

In the early hours of March 4, 2003, David Robles and Daniel Machuca broke into the apartment of William and David Lavery, two tenants in a rent-controlled apartment building in Queens owned by Basagoitia. Upon entering the apartment, Robles and Machuca attacked the Lavery brothers with hook knives, inflicting wounds on the brothers' heads, necks, and limbs. Another tenant in the building called the police, and the Lavery brothers were taken to ElmhurstGeneral Hospital where they both underwent extensive surgeries. Both were left with permanent, disfiguring injuries. Robles and Machuca were arrested shortly thereafter.

On March 8, 2003, the police asked Basagoitia to come to the precinct for questioning. Basagoitia was advised of his Miranda rights and gave a video-taped statement. Basagoitia admitted that he had agreed to pay Robles $2,500 to scare the Lavery brothers into vacating their apartment, so that Basagoitia could charge a subsequent tenant a higher rent. Basagoitia claimed to the police that Robles never told him how he was going to scare the Laverys, and that Basagoitia was not aware that it would rise to the level of life-threatening violence. Basagoitia was subsequently arrested and charged with hiring Robles and Machuca to break into the Laverys' apartment and kill them.

Machuca entered a guilty plea to attempted murder for his participation in the attacks, and at Basagoitia's trial, he testified for the State pursuant to a cooperation agreement. Machuca testified that in February 2003, Robles asked Machuca to help him intimidate the Laverys. According to Robles, Basagoitia was trying to sell the building and was having difficulty because the Lavery brothers were paying under-market rent. Robles initially told Machuca that Basagoitia wanted them to intimidate the Lavery brothers by beating them up.

On a Saturday later that month, Robles told Machuca that he was going to ask Basagoitia for some of the money in advance. When Machuca saw Basagoitia later, Basagoitia told him to tell Robles that "he had that." (Tr. 579-81.) Machuca relayed this message to Robles, and Robles left their room and returned with $700.

That Sunday, Robles and Machuca had a conversation while on a trip to New Jersey, during which Robles told Machuca that the plan had been "upgraded" in that they were no longer just going to beat up the Lavery brothers but were going to kill them. (Tr. 583.) According toMachuca, Robles explained that the Laverys had been intimidated in the past and had not left the apartment, so they had to resort to more extreme measures. Robles also told Machuca that it was Basagoitia's idea to upgrade the plan, and that Basagoitia wanted them to get rid of the Lavery brothers by "any means necessary." (Tr. 585.)

Machuca also testified that after he was arrested and arraigned, he was taken to jail on a boat in the Bronx. Robles was also there, and, about one and a half weeks later, Basagoitia also came onto the boat. When Basagoitia arrived, Machuca observed Robles approach him pointing to an article in the Daily News about the Lavery incident. Robles angrily asked Basagoitia, "Where is the money you were supposed to have given us?" (Tr. 614-15.) Machuca overheard Basagoitia reply, "If the job would have finished, if you would have done the job right, we wouldn't be sitting down here having this conversation." (Tr. 615.)

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Basagoitia of two counts of Attempted Murder in the First Degree, N.Y. Penal Law §§ 110; 125.27(1)(a)(vi); two counts of Attempted Murder in the Second Degree, N.Y. Penal Law § 140.25(2); two counts of Burglary in the First Degree, N.Y. Penal Law §§ 140.30(2),(3); Burglary in the Second Degree, N.Y Penal Law § 140.25(2); Conspiracy in the Second Degree, N.Y. Penal Law § 105.10(1); Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree, N.Y. Penal Law § 105.10(1); and four counts of Assault in the First Degree, N.Y. Penal Law § 120.10(1),(4). Basagoitia was sentenced to an aggregate indeterminate prison term of from forty-four years to life.

II. Direct Appeal

Basagoitia timely appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, Second Department. He argued that the trial court, in violation of his due process right to a fair trial and the Confrontation Clause, improperly admitted Machuca's testimony concerning his conversationswith Robles, which he claimed was inadmissible hearsay; that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction; and that the sentence imposed was excessive. In a pro se supplemental brief, Basagoitia raised three additional claims: that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to disclose a favorable plea offer and for failing to alert the trial court that Basagoitia could not understand the court-appointed interpreters; that his inability to comprehend the interpreters rendered his trial fundamentally unfair in violation of the Due Process Clause and the Fifth and Sixth Amendments; and that the trial prosecutor committed various instances of misconduct, particularly in the statements made during the prosecutor's summation.

On October 7, 2008, the Appellate Division affirmed Basagoitia's judgment of conviction. People v. Basagoitia, 865 N.Y.S.2d 313 (2d Dep't 2008). The court held first that the trial court properly declined to strike portions of Machuca's testimony and properly received the testimony under the co-conspirator exception to the hearsay rule. Id. at 314-15. The court then determined that Basagoitia's right of confrontation was not violated because the statements at issue were "not testimonial in nature." Id. at 315. In addition, the court rejected Basagoitia's evidentiary insufficiency claims, finding that the evidence was legally sufficient to support his conviction for attempted murder in the first degree and that his remaining evidentiary challenges were "unpreserved for appellate review and, in any event, without merit." Id. The court, moreover, determined that Basagoitia's sentence was not excessive. Id. at 316.

The court also rejected each of the claims raised in Basagoitia's supplemental brief. The court determined that, insofar as Basagoitia's ineffective assistance of counsel claim involved matters contained in the record, it was without merit. To the extent the claim relied on matters not contained in the record, the court declined to reach it. Id. at 316. The court held further that the challenged comments in the prosecutor's summation "were either fair comment on theevidence, were a fair response to the defense summation, or [did] not warrant reversal." Id. Finally, the court stated that the remaining contentions raised in Basagoitia's pro se supplemental brief were "unpreserved for appellate review and, in any event, without merit." Id.

On January 28, 2009, the New York Court of Appeals denied petitioner's application for leave to appeal the Appellate Division's affirmance of his judgment of conviction. People v. Basagoitia, 874 N.Y.S.2d 7 (2009).

III.Federal Habeas Petition

Basagoitia subsequently filed this timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus on April 24, 2009. With the exception of the challenge to the severity of his sentence, he asserted all of the claims that he presented to the Appellate Division, including those raised in his supplemental brief.

On October 8, 2009, Basagoitia filed a pro se motion for a stay of this habeas proceeding, stating his intention to file a motion in state court challenging his judgment of conviction pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law § 440.10. (DE #10.) In its Order of September 14, 2010, this Court denied the motion without prejudice because it failed to specify the nature of the claim he wished to pursue in state court, but also afforded him the opportunity to re-file by October 15, 2010. (DE #14.) Basagoitia filed a letter dated September 24, 2010 purporting to respond to the Court's Order, explaining that he intended to pursue a claim of prosecutorial misconduct in state court. (DE #15) The Court denied this request in its September 29, 2011 Order, stating that Basagoitia failed to demonstrate good cause for his failure to exhaust and that the proposed claim was meritless in any event. (DE #21.)

In an Order dated February 9, 2012, the Court directed the parties to address what appeared to be an unexhausted claim in Basagoitia's petition, relating to his alleged inability tounderstand the court-appointed interpreters during his state court proceedings. (DE #22.) The Court explained that because a stay was likely inappropriate, it appeared that Basagoitia's only viable courses of action were either to withdraw the unexhausted claim or to request that the entire petition be dismissed without prejudice. In a submission dated March 1, 2012, the respondent stated that the claim was in fact unexhausted, that a stay was not appropriate, and that the petition should either be dismissed in its entirety or the unexhausted claim withdrawn. (DE #23.) Following a letter submitted on behalf of...

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