Thursday, August 16, 2012

Circuit rejects another intentional/depraved indifference murder habeas distinction

For you habeas corpus junkies, the Second Circuit has ruled once again on the tension between intentional and depraved indifference murder. Cases like this arise when someone is convicted of depraved indifference murder but acquitted of intentional murder, and they argue on appeal that the facts could only support a conviction for intentional murder. The Second Circuit is not going to let these guys go free.

The case is Epps v. Poole, decided on June 21. Writing for the Court, Judge Cabranes says:

This is the fourth in a series of recent cases to come before us challenging New York State second-degree murder convictions on grounds that the evidence presented to the jury could support only a conviction for intentional murder under N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(1), and not “depraved indifference” murder under § 125.25(2). In each of these cases, the petitioner advanced the somewhat perverse argument that he should be released from state custody because the evidence suggests he is in fact more culpable than the jury had found him to be. In each case, the New York courts rejected that argument, and in each case, we affirmed the dismissal of the petition for habeas corpus, recognizing that it is not our place to tell New York courts that they do not understand evolving New York law.

It all started when Darnell Epps was outside a convenience store. Darnell heard that someone nearby, Derek Warren, called him a "pussy." Darnell and his brother, Darryl, later came after Warren. After a struggle involving these guys, Darrell shot and killed Warren. Darryl pleaded guilty to second degree intentional murder. The jury found Darnell guilty of depraved indifference murder. He argues now that since Darrel's actions were intentional and not reckless, the evidence was insufficient to convict Darnell as an accomplice to depraved indifference murder, and that he was therefore denied a fair trial in violation of the Constitution. Creative argument.

Here's the twist. In 2003, the New York Court of Appeals reversed a depraved indifference murder conviction based on accomplice liability where the attack on the victim was intentional. That case was People v. Hafeez. That case helps Darnell, right? But after losing this argument in the New York appellate courts, Darnell uses that groundbreaking decision to vacate his conviction in this habeas petition in federal court. The Second Circuit rejects the argument. Federal courts defer to state court interpretations of state law. The New York Appellate Division held in 2008 that the Hafeez decision did not completely abrogate prior cases that were in effect when Darnell was convicted. Those cases make Darnell's conviction in state court more justifiable. And that does it for the Second Circuit, which is not going to tell the state courts how to interpret state law. The habeas petition is therefore denied. 

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