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Little v. Commissioner of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 5, 2017

TROY M. LITTLE, Petitioner,



         Petitioner Troy Little brings this action pro se for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. On May 21, 2003, following a jury trial in Connecticut state court, Little was convicted on charges of first-degree manslaughter and unlawful carrying of a pistol without a permit. Little now challenges his conviction on three grounds: (1) that the trial court unfairly marshaled the evidence in its charge to the jury, (2) that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing arguments, and (3) that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Because it is clear to me that the Connecticut state courts did not unreasonably apply federal law in rejecting all of these claims, I will deny the petition.


         On August 17, 2000, one of the occupants of a house at 25 Lilac Street in New Haven found the body of Kishawn Council on the back steps of the house. The cause of death was a gunshot. Little surrendered himself to the police on April 1, 2001, and he was arrested and charged with murder and carrying a pistol without a permit. The jury trial began on May 12, 2003, in the Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, and the trial lasted six days, concluding on May 20, 2003.

         The prosecution's evidence included the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, and a firearms examiner. This evidence established that on the night of August 16, 2000, Little was walking with four young women along Lilac Street, and Council drove a black car alongside the group as it walked. Council called out to the women to get their attention, and Little and Council soon began to argue. Council continued to follow alongside the group as the two men argued. Council then got out of his car and punched Little in the face, while Little tried to hit Council with a stick. A bystander broke up the fight and separated the two men. Council returned to his car, and Little ran across the street to a friend and asked him for a gun. Little's friend initially refused, but subsequently gave him a black nine millimeter handgun after he saw Council reach inside the car. Armed with the gun, Little chased Council in between two houses on Lilac Street and then fired at Council from the driveway between the two houses. See State v. Little, 88 Conn.App. 708, 709-11 (2005). Little's theory of defense at trial was that there were inconsistencies in the testimony of the State's witnesses, that the State's witnesses were not credible, that the forensic evidence did not support the State's case, and that the State had not proved its case.

         The jury found Little guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree and of carrying a pistol without a permit. The trial court rendered judgment accordingly and sentenced Little to a total effective sentence of 32 years in prison.

         Little subsequently appealed his conviction to the Connecticut Appellate Court. He raised two grounds: (1) the trial court violated his Due Process rights by marshaling the evidence in favor of the state, and (2) the prosecutor committed misconduct that resulted in a denial of his Due Process rights to a fair trial. The Appellate Court rejected these claims and affirmed the conviction in May 2005. See Little, 88 Conn.App. at 720. The Connecticut Supreme Court denied discretionary review. See State v. Little, 274 Conn. 916 (2005).

         About five years later, Little filed a state habeas corpus petition in the Connecticut Superior Court on December 20, 2010.[1] Little alleged that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel prior to his criminal trial, at his criminal trial, and on appeal from his conviction. He alleged that his trial counsel, Thomas Farver, failed to: (1) communicate to him a plea bargain made by the state, (2) properly examine a key witness, and (3) request balancing language in the court's consciousness-of-guilt charge. Little further alleged that his appellate counsel, Richard E. Condon, Jr., failed to adequately address the consciousness-of-guilt charge on appeal.

         On May 13, 2011, the state habeas court held an evidentiary hearing and heard the testimony of five witnesses. The court also reviewed Farver's notes of a conversation with the prosecutor, the transcripts of the trial in the underlying criminal case, documents related to Little's appeal, and the notice and transcript of Condon's deposition. The court denied the petition on August 26, 2011. See Little v. Warden, State Prison, 53 Conn.Supp. 236 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2011). Little appealed this decision to the Connecticut Appellate Court, which dismissed the appeal on January 14, 2014. See Little v. Comm'r of Correction, 147 Conn.App. 520 (2014). Little subsequently sought certification from the Connecticut Supreme Court, which denied the petition for certification on March 12, 2014. See Little v. Comm'r of Correction, 311 Conn. 928 (2014).

         On May 9, 2014, Little filed this federal habeas corpus action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Little first claims that the trial court improperly marshaled the evidence against him and in favor of the State in its instructions to the jury. He contends that the court repeatedly referenced the State's evidence on motive and the State's theory of the case, but ignored his evidence and defense theory throughout the jury charge. Second, Little alleges that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing arguments by improperly appealing to the jury's passions, emotions, and prejudices. Finally, he argues that he suffered ineffective assistance of trial counsel and appellate counsel. He alleges that trial counsel failed to: (1) communicate pre-trial settlement information to Little, (2) adequately question a key witness, and (3) object to the trial court's instruction on flight and consciousness of guilt. Little also contends that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise any issues relating to consciousness of guilt and flight on direct appeal.


         Federal courts have very limited authority to overturn state court convictions. A state court defendant seeking relief by way of a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus must show that his state court conviction was rendered by means of a clear violation of clearly established federal law-i.e., that the state court's adjudication of his claims “(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or that it “(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)(1)-(2).

         A state court decision involves an “unreasonable application” of federal law under § 2254(d)(1) if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but “unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 182 (2011). Alternatively, a petitioner may prevail under § 2254(d)(2) by showing that a state court's decision was “contrary to” federal law by demonstrating either that the state court reached a conclusion of law that directly contradicts a holding of the Supreme Court, or that, when presented with “facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent, ” the state court arrived at a result opposite to the one reached by the Supreme Court. Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 453 (2005).

         This is a “highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Cullen, 563 U.S. at 181. As the Supreme Court has more recently explained, “[w]hen reviewing state criminal convictions on collateral review, federal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by overturning their decisions only when there ...

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