If you listen to the Podcast Serial – a broadcast that addresses the conviction (or wrongful conviction) of Adnan Syed in Baltimore, you probably already know that the court has granted a hearing on his claim of ineffectiveness of counsel. Syed claims his trial attorney failed to communicate a willingness to discuss a plea to the prosecution and failed to investigate an alibi witness.
Art meets reality once again. Last week we discussed the film, The Newburgh Sting, about the terrorist prosecution arising out of Newburgh involving a claim of entrapment. What is the role of journalism and art in addressing a claim of injustice?
In Serial, Syed claims he was innocent, as he has claimed all along. Sara Koenig, the journalist who produces and hosts the show, reaches no conclusions. Now the court is going to hear evidence on his claim that he was willing to plead guilty. What could be more complicated?
Some thoughts about the intersection of life and art in this case:
First, one has to think that the tremendous publicity this case has garnered had a role in the court’s willingness to look at it. Post-conviction claims of ineffectiveness are almost routinely rejected.
Second, to what extent will Syed have to explain his very public innocence claim in relation to his claim he was interested in pleading guilty before trial? The evidence that he always claimed to be innocence is now recognized worldwide. How, if at all, should or will that play out in the litigation?
Third, for those litigators who listened to the defense attorney’s cross-examination on the show, we all must have had second thoughts about the condition of the attorney. She became ill and was disbarred and then died after the trial. While hindsight is 20-20, and knowing what happened after, her performance in court, at least, doesn’t seem like she is functioning well.
On February 27, 2014, the NY Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously affirmed a prior judgment entered in Bronx County of New York (Clark, D.), vacating Tyrone Hicks’ conviction for Attempted Rape in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.35) and Attempted Sodomy in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.50), based upon his presentation of DNA evidence that had been unearthed by his lawyer, Professor Adele Bernhard of New York Law School. At trial, the only evidence linking Hicks to the crime was the uncorroborated eyewitness identification by the victim. The jury rejected Hicks’ alibi defense, which consisted of testimony from his son-in-law, who claimed that Hicks was home when the attack occurred.
In 2009, Professor Bernhard, who directs the NYLS Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, successfully obtained testing of genetic material found under the victim’s fingernails that had been collected shortly after the crime. The results of such testing concluded that there was male genetic material recovered from the victim’s fingernail scrapings that did not match the defendant’s DNA. Professor Bernhard petitioned the court to vacate Hick’s conviction based upon both the DNA results, and the likelihood that Hicks had been misidentified as the assailant.
In vacating Hicks’ conviction, the Bronx County Court concluded that a new trial was warranted under CPL § 440.10 (1) (g), since the results of the DNA testing “could not have been discovered prior to [Hicks’] trial,” and were “unquestionably material to the issues of identity” – undermining the “sole evidence connecting [Hicks] to the crime.” The court observed that “the DNA test results ruling out the defendant’s genetic profile [had] pronounced forensic value where there [was] multiple differing descriptions of the perpetrator by the sole identifying witness and no physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime.” Id. at 4. The court explained that the jury may have seen it to be “a particularly powerful piece of evidence, especially where the identity of [the] attacker was the primary issue at trial.”
The Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s decision to vacate the conviction based upon the defendant’s showing that the DNA results created a “reasonable probability that he would have obtained a more favorable verdict.” The Court also concluded that “the DNA evidence [was] material and exculpatory because it support[ed] identifying someone other than defendant as the attacker.” Notably, the Court rejected the government’s claim that the DNA results were cumulative, and not newly discovered under CPL 440.10 (g). Specifically, the Court noted that given the recent amendments to CPL 440.10, namely CPL 440.10 (1) (g-1), the defendant “no longer ha[d] to show that the results of [DNA] testing is newly discovered evidence in order to seek vacatur of a judgment of conviction.”