Howard v. Walker

Citation406 F.3d 114
Decision Date26 April 2005
Docket NumberDocket No. 01-2471.
PartiesJohn HOWARD, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Hans G. WALKER, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)

Randa D. Maher (Jeffrey G. Pittell, on the brief), Great Neck, N.Y., for Petitioner-Appellant.

Loretta S. Courtney, Assistant District Attorney, Rochester, N.Y., for Respondent-Appellee.

Before: JACOBS and POOLER, Circuit Judges, and HALL, District Judge.*

JANET C. HALL, District Judge.

Petitioner, John Howard, appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (Feldman, M.J.) denying his application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Howard was convicted of various charges, including Murder in the Second Degree and Burglary in the First Degree, on August 26, 1994 in the County Court of the State of New York, Monroe County. Howard claims that the trial court erred by allowing the State's expert witness to base her testimony on statements otherwise inadmissible pursuant to Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 20 L.Ed.2d 476 (1968); limiting Howard's ability to cross-examine the state's expert; and denying Howard the right to present a defense. Because we find that the trial court's limitations on cross-examination of the State's expert witness and its denial of Howard's ability to call an expert witness were contrary to clearly established federal law and were not harmless, this Court reverses the district court's ruling and vacates Howard's convictions for Murder in the Second Degree and Burglary in the First Degree. In light of these findings, we decline to reach the remaining issue raised by Howard, the admission of the State's expert's testimony based on Bruton-infected statements.


Howard is currently incarcerated in New York State pursuant to a judgment of conviction on Burglary in the First Degree, Petit Larceny, Criminal Mischief in the Fourth Degree, and Murder in the Second Degree, entered on August 26, 1994. The 1994 trial followed the reversal of his first conviction of these same charges. Howard has been incarcerated in connection with these offenses since 1991.

The charges at issue in this petition arose out of the burglary of the home of Joanna Metz in the early morning hours of April 13, 1990. Later that day, Ms. Metz was found dead in a chair located in an upstairs bedroom in her home. The prosecution claimed at trial that, as a result of the stress caused by the burglary, Ms. Metz, an 89-year old woman with a history of heart problems, suffered a heart attack and died.

Howard, along with his two co-conspirators, Eric Williams and Daniel Williams, was arrested in connection with the incident. Upon their arrests, each provided a statement to the police admitting his involvement in the burglary. Each statement verified that all three men participated in the burglary of Ms. Metz' home, but relayed different details regarding what occurred. In his statement, Howard admitted taking part in the Metz burglary, but he claimed he did not go upstairs and denied he had any contact with Ms. Metz. He further claimed that he left the house after hearing Ms. Metz yelling and that Eric and Daniel Williams left the house later, some time after Howard had already started walking away.

Eric Williams' statement, which was not allowed in evidence, provided a more detailed, and significantly different, account of the events. In his statement, Eric Williams claimed that he and Howard went upstairs and encountered Ms. Metz. Eric Williams said that Ms. Metz slapped Howard three times, after which encounter Howard grabbed Ms. Metz and put her in a chair. Eric Williams claimed Ms. Metz, crying, asked for her medicine but that Howard yelled at her and would not let her get it. Shortly thereafter, Eric Williams claimed Ms. Metz' body started jumping and then was still. By this time, according to Eric Williams' statement, Howard had gone back downstairs. Eric Williams followed Howard downstairs and told Howard and Daniel Williams about Ms. Metz' seizure.

Daniel Williams' written statement, which was likewise not admitted into evidence, indicated that Howard and Eric Williams had gone upstairs while he had remained downstairs. He also stated that Eric Williams stayed upstairs for a few minutes after Howard came back downstairs. In his statement, Daniel Williams recounted hearing Ms. Metz say something while the three men were in her house and claimed that both Howard and Eric Williams told him that Ms. Metz had slapped Howard while the two were upstairs.

Prior to Howard's first trial, Daniel Williams pled guilty and agreed to testify against Howard and Eric Williams. At the 1994 trial, however, Daniel Williams testified that he could not remember what had occurred during the evening in question, that his prior statements about that evening had been based on Eric Williams' statement, and that he would lie if he thought it would help him. Daniel Williams, at times, stated that he could not remember whether Howard went into Ms. Metz' residence, whether Howard went upstairs, or even if there was a second level in the house.

The State introduced no evidence tending to show Howard's presence on the second floor of Ms. Metz' house. His own statement did not indicate that, and neither did the state's physical evidence. The State recovered sneaker prints from the residence, but the prosecution's forensic chemist could not reach a conclusion regarding which shoes had left the prints. Howard's sneaker prints were only found in the kitchen.

The State also offered the testimony of Dr. Jacqueline Martin, a county medical examiner, in support of its case. Dr. Martin testified that Ms. Metz had died of a heart attack, which was induced by the stress of the burglary. Prior to her testimony, defense counsel conducted a voir dire examination of Dr. Martin in which she revealed that she based her opinion in relevant part on information obtained from the statements of the defendant and his two co-conspirators. The defendant objected to Dr. Martin's testimony on the ground that it was based in part on unreliable, inadmissible statements otherwise precluded pursuant to Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 20 L.Ed.2d 476 (1968). The trial court denied Howard's motion to exclude Dr. Martin's testimony.

In connection with its ruling to allow the admission of Dr. Martin's testimony, the court also established parameters for the defendant's cross-examination of Dr. Martin. It ruled that, if Howard attacked the basis for Dr. Martin's expert opinion through cross-examination, the State would be permitted to present to the jury all of the evidence Dr. Martin considered, including the statement by Eric Williams.

Defense counsel then inquired of the court whether two specific potential questions would "open the door" to the court's admission of Eric Williams' statement. Howard's attorney indicated his desire to ask: (1) Can you say to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that, if Ms. Metz had taken a Nitrostat pill, she would not have had a heart attack?; and (2) Can you say to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that if Ms. Metz' house had not been burglarized or broken into on April 13th, that she wouldn't have had the heart attack that evening?

The defense designed the first question to address the State's claim in its opening statement that Ms. Metz had medication in her purse, but that the purse was removed from her possession during the burglary. The trial court noted that, if the defense were to mention the medication, the State would be entitled to establish that Ms. Metz may have experienced additional stress because the medication, according to Eric Williams' statement, had been deliberately withheld.

With regard to the second question, the defense expressed its interest in establishing that there was a possibility Ms. Metz would have died that day, even in the absence of a burglary. The trial court again held that, if the defense were to so inquire, the State would be entitled to present the otherwise-inadmissible evidence relied upon by Dr. Martin, including Eric Williams' statement. The court explained that the defense's proposed question would "change dramatically the view of what occurred that morning in the eyes of the jury" and that since Dr. Martin had considered information that demonstrated that this was "much, much much more" than just an ordinary burglary, the state would be entitled to introduce such information as evidence. Trial Tr. at 543. The court also ruled that the defense would not be permitted to ask general questions intended to establish that sometimes individuals have heart attacks even in the absence of a precipitating event. Again, the court found that this line of questioning would entitle the state to present the full version of what occurred on the night in question, as relied upon by its expert, Dr. Martin.

The defense also indicated its intent to call its own expert, Dr. Richard E. Abbott, who would testify that he could not conclude to any degree of certainty that Ms. Metz' heart attack was induced by stress or any particular event.1 Indeed, he would testify that no medical examiner could say with certainty whether the burglary of Ms. Metz' home caused her to suffer a cardiac arrythmia. The trial court ruled that, if the defense called Dr. Abbott, the State would be able to cross-examine Dr. Abbott using Eric Williams' statement and the particular information contained within it.

On direct examination, Dr. Martin testified that the burglary of the home was "an important factor on Mrs. Metz' death." Trial Tr. at 574. More specifically, Dr. Martin testified that she believed that "the break-in and ransacking on both floors" would have "caused fear in Joanna Metz in her condition," and that that fear...

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