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Stephenson v. Connecticut

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 8, 2018

JOSEPH STEPHENSON, Petitioner,
v.
CONNECTICUT, Respondent.

          RULING AND ORDER

          Robert N. Chatigny United States District Judge

         Petitioner was convicted in state court of robbery in the third degree and two counts of larceny in the fifth degree. After the judgment was affirmed on appeal he brought this habeas case raising various claims. The claims were dismissed on the merits and petitioner's request for leave to amend his petition to add new claims was denied on the ground that the new claims were procedurally defaulted. The Court of Appeals has remanded for a determination of whether the new claims, although procedurally defaulted, can be adjudicated on the merits based on petitioner's claim that he is actually innocent of third degree robbery. After considering petitioner's evidence of actual innocence in light of the evidence in the record as a whole, I conclude that he has not met his burden of establishing a credible, compelling claim of actual innocence and therefore dismiss the petition.

         I.

         On petitioner's direct appeal, the Connecticut Appellate Court summarized the relevant events shown by the state's evidence:

On August 23, 2006, at approximately 1 p.m., Donovan Sinclair, a store detective for the Macy's department store in the Stamford Town Center Mall, received notice regarding a suspicious individual in the Polo department at the store. Sinclair then observed, on the security camera, an individual later identified as the defendant in the Polo department. The defendant was carrying a white shopping bag under his arm and was picking out a variety of items. Sinclair monitored the defendant for approximately forty-five minutes and observed him taking items of clothing from the racks, folding them and bending down as if putting the items into the bag. The defendant appeared nervous and was looking around. Although Sinclair did not see a tool in the defendant's hands, it looked like he had something in his hands. While observing the defendant, Sinclair called upon store manager Steve Johnson for assistance. Johnson remained in the security office to monitor the security camera while Sinclair followed the defendant as he exited the store. When Sinclair reached the defendant, he identified himself as a Macy's store detective and indicated that he wanted to talk to the defendant about the merchandise in the bag. A “heated argument” between Sinclair and the defendant ensued, during which some pushing and shoving took place. Sinclair attempted to handcuff the defendant but was only able to get one handcuff on him. Johnson and two other individuals from Macy's came outside and assisted Sinclair in pinning the defendant against a wall until the police arrived and placed the defendant in a police car. When Sinclair returned to the store, he identified six items from Macy's that had been recovered from the shopping bag. The total cost of these items was $356.49. In addition to these items, the police recovered three pairs of eyeglasses, totaling approximately $600, from the Macy's bag. Stephen Singer, the retail manager at a LensCrafters store in the Stamford Town Center mall, later identified the three pairs of eye-glasses as belonging to that store. Singer checked the store records and determined that the eyeglasses had been accounted for when the store had closed the night before, and that they had not been sold by any-one at the store on August 23, 2006. Singer also re-called that the defendant had been in the store between approximately 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. that morning.

State v. Stephenson, 131 Conn.App. 510, 513-15 (2011).

         Petitioner's claim of actual innocence derives from a letter signed by Sinclair, the Macy's store detective. At the jury trial, Sinclair testified that he saw petitioner leave the store with a bag containing stolen merchandise, followed him and asked him to stop so he could inspect the contents of the bag. Petitioner angrily denied stealing and continued walking. Sinclair pinned him against a fence across the street from the store and a heated argument ensued. Trial Transcript, Oct. 27, 2008, at 88-90 (ECF No. 78). Sinclair noticed that petitioner had his hand “in a ball” and asked him if he was armed. Id. at 89. Petitioner responded that he was carrying a knife. Id. at 88-89. There was some “pushing and shoving” because petitioner was trying to leave and Sinclair was trying to recover the merchandise. Id. at 88, 90. If Sinclair had been able to recover the merchandise, he would have let petitioner leave. Id. at 90. Sinclair attempted to calm petitioner and handcuff him for his own safety but Sinclair was only able to get one handcuff on him prior to the arrival of the police. Id. at 90-91.

         Sinclair's testimony that there was some pushing and shoving as he tried to stop petitioner from leaving with the merchandise proved to be important to the state's case. Initially, petitioner was charged with second degree robbery, which requires proof that the accused “display[ed] or threaten[ed] the use of .. . a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-135. After the state presented its case, the trial judge granted a motion to dismiss the second degree robbery charge but permitted the state to proceed on a charge of third degree robbery, which requires use or threatened use of physical force.[1]A motion for judgment of acquittal on the charge of third degree robbery was denied. Referring to Sinclair's testimony, the trial judge stated that there was evidence of “some pushing and shoving between [Sinclair] and the defendant after Mr. Sinclair followed the defendant outside the store.” Trial Transcript, Oct. 29, 2008, at 51-58.

         The letter that provides the genesis for petitioner's claim of actual innocence was submitted to the state trial judge after the trial but before petitioner's sentencing. The lengthy letter, ostensibly written by Sinclair, makes it appear that petitioner is innocent of all the charges and blames the police for encouraging Sinclair to exaggerate or lie about what happened.

         With regard to the larceny convictions, the letter explains that the items of clothing found in the bag were not stolen. The letter states:

I was working as a security guard for Macy's store in Stamford when I received a call about someone acting suspiciously. I watched [petitioner] on the camera but I did not record everything I actually saw him do. I told the court that I saw when [petitioner] entered the Polo department and went to the sales counter where he took out some polo clothes and a belt out of a bag he had brought in but then put some of them back in the bag when he appeared that he could not find the receipts. Even though I told the court that I later did find some Macy's receipts in the pockets of one of the pant [sic], I should have told them that those receipts did match up with the clothes that were assumed stolen. I did not mention it at the time because the police had already did [sic] their report and I had not searched the clothes until later on when they left. The police had also told me to exaggerate the incident in my report. * * * Even though I saw [petitioner] put back the clothes that he appeared to be messing with in the vide [sic], I did not record it when he put those clothes, including a blue and white stripe shirt that he had folded, back on a clothing shelf before he exited. I only went outside to apprehend him just to check the bag. I could not see what he was doing behind the clothing rack in the store so I just wanted to check him out. It was only when he argued with me outside on the street and said he would sue me that I became very angry and went along with the police. I was worried about my job at the time and wanted to make sure that the man would be convicted. I was later let go from Macy[‘s] as a result of this and another incident because Macy's did not want to get sued for mistaken arrests.

         With regard to the third degree robbery conviction, the letter states:

I admit now that the man did not touch me in any way at all. In fact it was I that pushed and shoved him against the fence across from the store. He only pulled his hand away so I could not handcuff him properly. He gave me the bag he had when I asked for it and I thought the Jury would understand that there was only arguing involved and no force whatsoever. Even though we had a heated argument I remember clearly that the man did not fight with me. I feel very badly now that the man was convicted for something that he did not do and I cannot sleep properly knowing that I may have said something that was taken in the wrong way and sent someone to jail.

         According to the letter, when Sinclair testified before the jury, it was his intention “to convey the fact that there was no fighting whatever and that it was a minor incident.” (“I did not realize that the jury would take my statement as seriously as they did.”).

         The letter closes with the following statement:

Please understand that nobody has asked me or pressured me to write this letter to you but I am really bothered by the whole incident. I have kids to take care of and even though I may not know that man, he is somebody's child and just as I would not like my kids to go to jail for a lie or mistake, this is the same way I feel about what has happened here. I hope that you will understand that I have to set the record straight and clear my conscience. I believe that there is a God and that we will have to give an account to him one ...

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