The New York Court of Appeals has unanimously reversed an appellate division decision and upheld the decision of a trial judge to relieve a defendant’s assigned counsel despite the defendant’s objections to having new counsel. The case arose when the defendant’s assigned counsel from New York County Defender Services (NYCDS) learned that another lawyer in his office was representing a man who had fled from the scene when his client was arrested for possession of a weapon found nearby. The attorney discovered the potential conflict when he sought to track down the other man to call him as a witness in the hope of casting doubt on who had possessed the gun. The attorney’s supervisors at the NYCDS had prohibited him from looking for, calling the other man as a witness, or cross-examining him if the prosecution called him to testify. The trial judge removed the attorney despite the client’s desire to keep him as counsel. The defendant was represented by someone else and convicted. He was sentenced to 20 years to life as a persistent violent felony offender.
The appellate division held that removal had been an abuse of discretion, but the appellate division was reversed. The Court of Appeals held that removal is appropriate where institutional defense organizations represent more than one defendant in the same criminal matter, particularly here, where the lawyer’s supervisors prohibited him from calling a prior client as a witness. It also held that the client had not effectively waived the conflict because, while he insisted on his right to retain his attorney of choice, he also continued to insist on calling the other defendant as a witness.
- Joel Stashenko, Judges Find Removal of Counsel Over Possible Conflict Was Proper, NYLJ (Feb. 16, 2016) (may require log-in) (also on the front page).
- People v. Wattson, No. 2016-19, 2016 Slip Op. 00998, ___ N.E.3d ___, 2016 WL 527046 (Feb. 11, 2016) (Court’s PDF copy).
- People v. Wattson, 124 A.D.3d 95, 998 N.Y.S.2d 27 (App. Div. 1st Dep’t Dec. 2, 2014), rev’d 2016 Slip Op. 00998, ___ N.E.3d ___ (N.Y. 2016).