Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Singleton v. Commissioner of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 19, 2017

RONALD M. SINGLETON, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTIONS, Respondent.

          RULING AND ORDER

          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge.

         This is a federal habeas petition, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, for which the respondent, the Commissioner of Corrections for Connecticut, and the petitioner, Ronald M. Singleton, have cross-moved for summary judgment (doc. # 15 & # 23). Singleton's petition raises three grounds for relief, all centered around his claim that the trial court's erroneous jury charge on self-defense/ justification violated his constitutional right to due process.

         For the following reasons, I GRANT Singleton's petition, DENY the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, and REMAND to the Superior Court for the Judicial District of New Haven for a new trial consistent with this Order. Unless Singleton is retried within 60 days of this Order, he shall be released from custody.

         I. Background

         Based on the evidence at trial, the jury reasonably could have determined the following facts: Singleton and Leonard Cobbs were friends who had used illegal drugs together. On one occasion, Cobbs purchased those drugs with Singleton's money, but failed to reimburse Singleton for Cobbs' share, which was $180. On December 18, 2002, Singleton asked Cobbs to pay him. Cobbs indicated that he did not have the money, but agreed to bring the money to Singleton's apartment later that day.

         Cobbs was under the influence of cocaine when he arrived at Singleton's apartment, and he appeared angry and frustrated. When Singleton asked him about the money, Cobbs began “babbling” and using profanity in response to which, Singleton moved toward Cobb and stated that he was “going to fuck [him] up.” There was some testimony that Cobbs offered to compensate Singleton with oral sex in lieu of payment, and that Singleton rejected that offer and was angered by it.

         At approximately 6:45 p.m., an altercation between the two men commenced.[1] Cobbs removed a screwdriver from his pocket, prompting Singleton to back away. Cobbs stabbed Singleton in the chest with the screwdriver, and then Singleton grabbed him, causing him to drop the implement. After a further struggle, Cobbs and Singleton separated and Cobbs grabbed a knife from a knife block on Singleton's kitchen counter. Singleton told Cobbs he was going to call the police on Cobbs and that Cobbs was “going to jail.” Cobbs then came at him with the knife. Singleton testified that there was a struggle over the knife, during which he “grabbed” and “bent” Cobbs' wrist in an effort to take the knife away from him. At some point, Cobbs stopped resisting and staggered over to the wall. Singleton helped Cobbs up and he sat down on Singleton's bed. Singleton testified that he initially thought Cobbs “was kidding, ” but when he rolled off the bed and onto the floor, Singleton saw a bloodstain on Cobbs' sweater and discovered that he had been stabbed by the knife during the struggle. In fact, it was ultimately discovered that Cobbs had sustained several injuries, including a cut through his chest, a cut on his back, and three small puncture wounds on the back of his head that could have been caused by the screwdriver.[2] The chest wound that caused Cobbs' death was seven and one-half inches deep, running from left to right, and caused by a downward strike. That wound penetrated the chest wall, a portion of the left lung, the pericardium and the heart, the diaphragm, and terminated in the liver.

         Singleton did not immediately call for help, which delay he explained as the result of a combination of shock as well as a fear of the police as a result of his criminal record. Instead, he initially disposed of the knife blade-which had broken off from the handle at some point during the struggle-by throwing it down the garbage chute. Singleton also attempted to clean the apartment. At 7:22 p.m., roughly thirty minutes after the altercation, Singleton called his girlfriend, Victoria Salas, who came over to the apartment. On arrival, she attempted to revive Cobbs and called 911. At approximately 8:51 p.m., Singleton used Salas' phone to call the building maintenance supervisor, who then helped him retrieve the blade from the chute. At 9:06 p.m., Salas called the police department, and officers arrived shortly thereafter. The officers observed blood throughout the apartment. The knife had Cobbs' blood on it. The screwdriver had DNA from Cobbs on the handle, Singleton's blood on the shaft, and a mixture of both men's blood on the tip with Singleton's DNA as the major contributor. One officer observed that Singleton was bleeding from the middle of his chest, from a wound that was later determined to have been caused by the screwdriver.

         In his initial statement to the police and at every subsequent opportunity continuing through trial, Singleton admitted that Cobbs had been wounded in the course of a struggle with Singleton over a knife, but denied any intent to harm or kill him. Instead, he raised a species of self-defense argument, asserting that Cobbs' fatal injuries resulted from a physical altercation in which: (i) Cobbs grabbed a knife; (ii) Singleton responded by grabbing Cobbs' wrist, thereby using “nondeadly” force to disarm him; and (iii) during the struggle over the knife, Cobbs was accidentally stabbed in the chest. Singleton did not concede at any point that he had intentionally stabbed the victim, or used deadly physical force against him.

         Singleton was charged with murder as well as the lesser included offense of intentional manslaughter in the first degree. Throughout the presentation of evidence, Singleton's counsel described his client as claiming that he acted in “self-defense.” At the close of evidence, both parties requested jury instructions on the concept of self-defense. The State's proposed instructions referred to “deadly physical force, ” in contrast to Singleton's proposed instructions, which referred to “reasonable physical force” and the use of a “dangerous instrumentality.” See Singleton, 292 Conn. at 740. The trial court adopted the State's proposal that the jury should be instructed only on the use of deadly physical force in self-defense.

         Despite losing the argument over the self-defense instruction, Singleton's counsel repeatedly referred to the concept of “self-defense” during his closing. He also apparently tried to indicate, however, that the issue of intent was not conceded. Instead, in keeping with Singleton's testimony throughout the trial, defense counsel's primary argument was that Singleton had used nondeadly force to defend himself during the struggle, which use of force inadvertently resulted in Cobbs' death-that is to say, although he argued that Singleton acted in “self-defense, ” defense counsel did not argue that Singleton intentionally stabbed Cobbs because he feared for his life. The State's closing and rebuttal also stated explicitly that Singleton's defense was one of “self-defense, ” and did not take up the distinction between deadly and nondeadly physical force, nor Singleton's claim that Cobbs' stabbing was an accidental result of the struggle.

         The final instructions given to the jury began with a short introduction to the role of the jury, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence, the State's burden of proof as a general matter, and issues of credibility. The trial court then launched into lengthy instructions on the question of self-defense / justification before instructing the jury on the elements of the crimes charged. Throughout the self-defense instructions, the court repeatedly used phrases suggesting that Singleton had, in fact, used deadly physical force, which it defined as: “physical force which can be reasonably expected to cause death or serious physical injury.”[3] Tr. At 100 (Dec. 12, 2003). For instance, the court's instruction began as follows:

The defendant claims that he acted in self-defense. In claiming that he acted in self-defense, the defendant is claiming that his use of deadly physical force was reasonable.
Deadly physical force means physical force which can be reasonably expected to cause death or serious physical injury.

Tr. at 100 (Dec. 12, 2003). Similar language is used repeatedly in the instruction. Id. at 100-04. During the self-defense instructions, the trial court did not direct the jury that Singleton's use of deadly force was not admitted, or that the justification defense itself should be considered only if the jury first found that Singleton had, in fact, intentionally used deadly physical force. It also did not explain that Singleton's counsel's references to “self-defense” during his closing argument were intended as an explanation of Singleton's nondeadly conduct during the struggle, rather than as a reference to a justification defense, which would require an admission that Singleton had intentionally used deadly physical force against the victim in a protective and justified use of force.

         Later on in the instructions, the trial court instructed the jury on the question of intent, stating: “Under our law a person acts intentionally with respect to a result when his conscious objective is to cause such result.” Tr. at 106 (Dec. 12, 2003). The court went on to explain that intent is generally inferred from other evidence, and distinguished intent from motive. It did not, however, state that Singleton's defense involved a claim of accident or give any instructions on how a successful claim of accident would negate a finding of intent.

         Finally, the trial court instructed the jury on the elements of the crimes charged. With respect to the murder charge, the court stated:

A person is guilty of murder when, with intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of a person.[4] This means the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, one, that the defendant specifically intended to cause the death of a person; two, acting with that intent, the defendant caused the death of [the victim] by stabbing him with a knife; and, three, the defendant was not justified in using deadly physical force.

Tr. at 108 (Dec. 12, 2003). The court went on to explain those elements in more depth. The requisite intent was explained as follows:

[T]he State has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, acting with that specific intent, caused the death of [the victim]. This means, of course, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the death of [the victim] was caused by the action of the defendant by stabbing [the victim] with a knife.

Tr. at 109 (Dec. 12, 2003).

         With respect to intentional manslaughter in the first degree, the court stated:

A person is guilty of intentional manslaughter in the first degree when, with intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person.[5]
In order to prove the defendant guilty of intentional manslaughter in the first degree, the State has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, one, the defendant had the specific intent to cause serious physical injury to a person and, two, acting with that specific intent, the defendant caused the death of [the victim] by stabbing him with a knife; and, three, the defendant was not justified in using deadly physical force.

Tr. at 110-11 (Dec. 12, 2003). Explaining the third “element” of that crime, the court stated:

Also, the State has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not justified in using deadly physical force. You will recall and apply the instructions I have given you regarding justification.

Tr. at 111 (Dec. 12, 2003). The court provided no direct explanation of Singleton's primary theory of defense, which was effectively accident or a lack of intent, nor the proper order in which to evaluate the elements of the charged offenses and a justification defense.

         The jury deliberated for several days, during which time it asked the court for clarification on, among other things, the meaning of “intended.” After conferring with the parties, the trial court stated: “[T]he word intend means to have in mind some purpose or plan.” Tr. at 120 (Dec. 12, 2003). The jury also asked that the trial court re-read the jury instructions in full. Tr. at 4 (Dec. 15, 2003). Shortly thereafter, the jury announced that it was deadlocked, prompting a “Chip-Smith” instruction[6] from the trial court. Tr. at 31 (Dec. 15, 2003).

         The jury ultimately acquitted Singleton of murder, but found him guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree. Thereafter, the court rendered judgment, sentencing Singleton to a total effective term of 20 years' imprisonment.

         A. Singleton's Appeal to the Connecticut Court of Appeals

         Before the Connecticut Court of Appeals, Singleton claimed that the trial court's instructions were improper because the trial court had failed to submit to the jury the factual question whether Singleton had used deadly or nondeadly force during his struggle with the victim prior to the stabbing. See Singleton, 97 Conn.App. at 687. The Appellate Court agreed, concluding that:

The defendant testified that he grabbed the victim's wrists and that during this physical encounter, the knife ended up wounding the victim. We cannot conclude, as a matter of law, that such actions constituted deadly physical force. The defendant was entitled to have the jury, rather than the court, make that factual determination . . . . Simply put, the jury did not have the opportunity to consider the factual issue of whether the defendant used deadly or nondeadly physical force.

Id. at 696 (internal quotation marks, citations, and footnote omitted).

         The Appellate Court further held that because the jury had been deprived of the opportunity to consider whether Singleton had used appropriate, nondeadly force in the struggle, “the improper instructions prejudiced the defendant by making it easier for the state to disprove the claim of self-defense.” Id. at 697. Because the evidence against Singleton was not “so overwhelming ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.