Woods v. Lavalley, 12-CV-2339 (RRM)

Decision Date28 March 2019
Docket Number12-CV-2339 (RRM)
PartiesLEE WOODS, Petitioner, v. THOMAS LAVALLEY, Superintendent, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York

ROSLYNN R. MAUSKOPF, United Slates District Judge.

Petitioner Lee Woods brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his March 16, 2009, conviction for aggravated murder in the first degree, attempted aggravated murder in the first degree, and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree in New York State Supreme Court, Kings County. (Pet. (Doc. No. 1) ¶ 2.) On May 16, 2012, this Court ordered the Attorney General of the State of New York or the District Attorney of Kings County to show cause why a writ of habeas corpus should not issue. (Doc. No. 4.) The District Attorney of Kings County filed a response to the petition on August 8, 2012.1 (Doc. No. 8.) For the reasons that follow, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.


Petitioner was convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree, attempted aggravated murder in the first degree, and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree for his involvement in the shooting of two police officers during a traffic stop. People v.Woods, 914 N.Y.S.2d 682 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011). On April 1, 2009, the trial court sentenced petitioner to life without parole for the aggravated murder conviction, to be served consecutively to a term of forty years to life for the attempted aggravated murder conviction, and to be served consecutively to two concurrent sentences of twenty-five years to life on the remaining counts. (Pet. ¶ 2.) The New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, affirmed petitioner's conviction and sentence on January 18, 2011. Woods, 914 N.Y.S.2d at 682. The New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on June 15, 2011. People v. Woods, 952 N.E.2d 1106 (N.Y. 2011).


In the early morning on July 9, 2007, two police officers were patrolling Lefferts Avenue in Brooklyn when they came upon a BMW bearing a license plate registered to a different vehicle. (Resp't's Resp., Exs. 1-2 (Doc. Nos. 8-1 & 8-2) ("Trial Transcript") at 79.) The officers, Herman Yan and Russel Timoshenko, signaled the vehicle to pull over. (Id.) The vehicle did not immediately comply, turning instead onto a less populated street before pulling to the side of the road. (Id. at 82-83.) As Officers Yan and Timoshenko approached the vehicle, they were struck by shots fired from its interior. (Id. at 86-88.) Officer Timoshenko fell to the ground and the BMW sped away from the curb, more shots emanating from the rear of the vehicle as Officer Yan returned fire. (Id.) Both officers were treated for their injuries; although Officer Yan recovered after undergoing surgery, Officer Timoshenko never regained consciousness. (Id. at 350.) The BMW was later found abandoned. (Id. at 200-04.)

The investigation led police to petitioner, whom they found at the apartment of the sister of a suspect in the shooting. (Id. at 628-32.) Petitioner initially gave several statements denying his presence in the BMW at the time of the shooting and disclaiming any involvement. (Id. at660-70.) Confronted with the falsity of certain portions of his statements, however, petitioner eventually admitted that he had driven the BMW during the shooting but insisted that he had not fired any shots. (Id. at 677.) Petitioner maintained that the other individuals in the vehicle had forced him to drive away and stated that they separated after abandoning the BMW. (Id. at 677-78.)

Surveillance cameras captured the initial stop of the BMW, the shooting, and the perpetrators' flight from the vehicle. (Id. at 227-31.) Additionally, police located three guns in a garage near the site of the shooting, a food container, and a few items of clothing. (Id. at 738. 743.) Petitioner's fingerprints were found on the BMW and the food container, and his DNA was found on two of the guns and some of the clothing. (Id. at 497, 617, 857.) The Kings County District Attorney's Office subsequently charged petitioner with one count of aggravated murder in the first degree, one count of attempted aggravated murder in the first degree, and three counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. (Pet. ¶ 7.) He was tried with two co-defendants before separate juries, however that proceeding ended in a mistrial after a juror became ill during deliberations. (See id. at 3 n.1.) Petitioner was subsequently retried and convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree, attempted aggravated murder in the first degree, and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Woods, 914 N.Y.S.2d at 682. On March 1, 2007, the trial court imposed sentence. (See Pet. ¶ 2.)


Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996), federal courts may grant a petition for habeas corpus to a state prisoner for a claim "adjudicated on the merits" in state court only where the adjudication of the claim "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonableapplication of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Conversely, claims that have not been adjudicated on the merits are subject to de novo review. Washington v. Schriver, 255 F.3d 45, 55 (2d Cir. 2001). A state court's factual findings are presumed to be correct and may be overturned only if a petitioner offers "clear and convincing evidence" that the findings were in error. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

A state court adjudicates a petitioner's federal constitutional claims "on the merits" when "it (1) disposes of the claim 'on the merits,' and (2) reduces its disposition to judgment." Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 312 (2d Cir. 2001). The "state court need not mention the argument raised or cite relevant case law in order for its ruling to constitute an 'adjudication on the merits.'" Brown v. Artuz, 283 F.3d 492, 498 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Aparicio v. Artuz, 269 F.3d 78, 94 (2d Cir. 2001)). For instance, a state court ruling simply that a claim is "without merit" constitutes an adjudication on the merits of that claim. See Jimenez v. Walker, 458 F.3d 130, 146 (2d Cir. 2006) (citing Fama v. Comm'r of Corr. Services, 235 F.3d 804, 810-11 (2d Cir. 2000)). Moreover, "[w]hen a state court rejects a federal claim without expressly addressing that claim, a federal habeas court must presume that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits . . . ." Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. ___ (2013), slip op. at 10; cf. Castaldi v. Poole, No. 07-CV-1420 (RRM), 2013 WL 789986, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2013). "[W]hen a state court fails to articulate the rationale underlying its rejection of a petitioner's claim, and when that rejection is on the merits, the federal court will focus its review on whether the state court's ultimate decision was an 'unreasonable application' of clearly established Supreme Court precedent." Sellan, 261 F.3d at 311-12.

Lastly, a federal court may review a petition for a writ of habeas corpus only to the extent that the petitioner has "exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A); see also Caballero v. Keane, 42 F.3d 738, 740 (2d Cir. 1994). Exhaustion "mandates a habeas petitioner to have 'fairly presented' in state court the claims that are raised in the habeas petition." Bohan v. Kuhlmann, 234 F.Supp.2d 231, 243 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), aff'd, 66 F. App'x 277 (2d Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1213 (2004) (quoting Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971)). This means that each legal and factual allegation underlying a claim must first have been fairly presented to a state court. See Rodriguez v. Hoke, 928 F.2d 534, 538 (2d Cir. 1991).


Petitioner claims that he was deprived of a fair trial because the trial court (1) improperly permitted the prosecution to "bolster" the testimony of a witness and (2) failed to properly instruct the jury. Respondent counters that petitioner's claims are procedurally barred, unexhausted, or otherwise meritless.

I. Procedural Bar and Exhaustion

Generally, federal habeas review is not available if the state courts' rejection of a federal claim rested on a state law ground independent of the federal issue that is adequate to support the state courts' decision. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991); Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207, 210 (1935). However, "in the habeas context, a procedural default, that is. a critical failure to comply with state procedural law, is not a jurisdictional matter." Trest v. Cain, 522 U.S. 87, 89 (1997); see also Zarvela v. Artuz, 364 F.3d 415, 417 (2d Cir. 2004). Moreover, "[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of theState." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2); Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269, 277 (2005) (observing that a "district court would abuse its discretion if it were to grant [a petitioner] a stay when his unexhausted claims are plainly meritless"). Because the Court finds that petitioner's asserted grounds for relief lack merit, it need not consider whether each claim is unexhausted or procedurally barred. Accord Zarvela, 364 F.3d at 417; Lopez v. Lee, No. 11-CV-2706 (JG), 2011 WL 6068119, at *11 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2011). Accordingly, the Court addresses petitioner's arguments on the merits below.

II. Admission of Prior Consistent Statement

Petitioner first claims that he was deprived of a fair trial because the trial court improperly permitted "bolstering" of the testimony of Tamika Buggs, a prosecution...

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