Tagged: confrontation clause

Recent New York Court of Appeals Decisions on Bruton

In two cases, People v. Assad Cedeno and People v. Keith Johnson, the NY Court of Appeals recently held that the defendants were deprived of their Sixth Amendment rights to be confronted with the witnesses against them by inadequately redacted statements of non-testifying co-defendants that were admitted at trial. Because the inadequately redacted statements remained facially incriminating, the convictions were reversed.

In People v. Cedeno, No. 24, 2016 NY Slip Op. 02281 (Mar. 29, 2016), which arose out of a gang fight, the lower court dealt with a statement by a co-defendant describing the defendant as “one of the Latin Kings wearing red and white trunks…[who] pulled out a knife and rushed the whole crowd and then ran over to the victim and started punching him with a small knife.” The statement was redacted to remove the description of the defendant’s clothing.

Judges Piggott and Garcia dissenting, the Court held that despite the redaction the statement remained facially incriminating and violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. The oral statement did not do so, because it contained a reference to a generic Latin King. However, the written version, which also went to the jury,  replaced the description with a  large blank space.  The Court concluded that since the defendant was one of the three co-defendants sitting at the table with the declarant, the statement powerfully implicated him. Presumably the Court was saying that the fact that it could have implicated one of the other defendant “latin kings” at the table did not change the result.

The dissenters would have held  that despite the blank spaces and clear signs of alteration the statement did not cause the jurors to realize that it specifically referred to the defendant.

In People v. Johnson, No. 25, 2016 NY Slip Op. 02282 (Mar. 29, 2016), the co-defendant had testified in the grand jury and gave a false exculpatory statement about what had occurred during the crime, which included a description of the defendant’s role in trying to rob an undercover officer in a buy and bust operation. The grand jury testimony was read into evidence. The Court rejected the People’s argument that the statement could not be inculpatory under Bruton because it offered “perfectly innocent explanation of the evening’s events.” The Court held that the co-defendant’s explicitly incriminating the defendant in possession of the robbery proceeds and in the initial stages of the drug transaction violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, even if the statement was ultimately exculpatory.

Related Readings:

Justice Antonin Scalia and His Legacy in Criminal Law

WRITTEN BY: Anjelica Cappellino, Esq. & Prof. John Meringolo, Esq.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent passing has shocked the public, to say the least. The 79-year old Supreme Court Justice died in his sleep on February 13, 2016, while staying at a Texas resort during a hunting trip. The first Italian-American to serve on the Supreme Court, Scalia leaves behind his wife of fifty-five years and nine children.

Scalia’s death has already caused political chaos and derision as to who will appoint his successor and whether said appointment can be postponed until next year when the succeeding United States president takes office, even though President Obama is constitutionally beholden to choose the appointment and

[t]he historical record does not reveal any instances since at least 1900 of the president failing to nominate and/or the Senate failing to confirm a nominee in a presidential election year because of the impending election.  In that period, there were several nominations and confirmations of Justices during presidential election years.

It is no secret that Justice Scalia’s passing immediately furthered the divide between political parties, as Scalia was considered a staunchly conservative linchpin for many right-leaning opinions and his successor could tilt the direction of the Supreme Court. Interestingly, however, Scalia’s record on criminal law issues is quite diversified and does not prescribe to the values of only one political side.

Scalia was oftentimes a protector of Fourth Amendment rights, as evinced in several different opinions. In Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), Scalia wrote the majority opinion which held that a thermal-imaging device used to detect amounts of heat emanating from a private home – which uncovered the defendant’s homegrown marijuana operation – constituted a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. As Scalia writes,

in the case of the search of the interior of homes – the prototypical and hence most commonly litigated area of protected privacy – there is ready criterion, with roots deep in the common law, of the minimal expectation of privacy that exists, and that is acknowledged to be reasonable. To withdraw protection of this minimum expectation would be to permit police technology to erode the privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

In other majority opinions penned by Scalia, he has evoked similar rhetoric, holding that GPS tracking in vehicles, United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), as well as the use of drug sniffing dogs on a person’s front porch, Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409, both constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Scalia has always stressed the manifest importance of the Sixth Amendment to all defendants. In the seminal case Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), which held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial prohibited judges from using facts that were not presented to a jury or admitted by the defendant to sentence a defendant above the maximum penalty, Scalia writes that the “right is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure.”

A strong proponent of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, Scalia wrote for the majority in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), which held that defendants have the right to live testimony in order to cross-examine the witnesses against them. Scalia articulates that, “the Clause’s ultimate goal is to ensure reliability of evidence, but it is a procedural rather than substantive guarantee. It commands, not that evidence be reliable, but that reliability be assessed in a particular manner: by testing in the crucible of cross-examination.” Similarly, in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305 (2009), which held the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated when a forensic analyst’s lab report was admitted against him without him having the opportunity to cross-examine the individual who prepared the report, Scalia states

[a] forensic analyst responding to a request from a law enforcement official may feel pressure – or have an incentive – to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution. Confrontation is one means of assuring accurate forensic analysis.

The above cases are just a few examples of the myriad of ways Scalia has shaped criminal law throughout his three decades on the bench. While the appointment of his successor is undoubtedly a hot button, partisan issue, Scalia’s own opinions, particularly on issues of criminal law, are that of a jurist with allegiance not to one political view but to one document – the Constitution.

Related Readings:

Oh My Brady! Who Art Thou?

Although the New York State Court of Appeals decision in People v. McCray, will likely not be a hot topic of conversation in many legal circles, it will definitely have a palpable impact on prosecutorial practices regarding the handling of Brady disclosures in New York.

In McCray, the defendant was accused of raping an 18-year-old female acquaintance. At trial, the prosecution alleged that the defendant and the complainant had gone on a date and that the defendant physically forced the complainant to engage in sexual intercourse while inside an abandoned building. The defense claimed that the sexual encounter was consensual, and an altercation arose when the complainant demanded money in exchange for having sex with the defendant. The defense also contended that a physical struggle occurred when the defendant attempted to stop the complainant from running off with his “pants.”

Unquestionably, the case presented a “classic he-said she-said credibility determination.” And “[t]he outcome of the case obviously depended on which witness the jury believed.”

Prior to trial, the prosecution requested that the court conduct an in-camera review of the complainant’s mental health records. The prosecution didn’t believe that all of the reports were discoverable, and sought the court’s guidance as to which documents were Brady-Giglio material. The trial court found that only 28 pages out of the thousand records it reviewed should be disclosed to the defense –although the undisclosed records referenced, among other things, the complainant’s tendency (1) to confuse dates of events or misunderstand events, (2) to have hallucinations or distorted perceptions, (3) to misrepresent the truth in an effort to please her mother, (4) to engage in wishful thinking about relationships with males with whom she is recently acquainted, and (5) to fabricate occurrences of sexual assault and attempted rape by her father –allegations which were ultimately deemed “unfounded.”

The Court of Appeals observed that “[t]his case differs from the typical Brady case in that it involves confidential mental health records, and the decision to deny disclosure was made not by a prosecutor, but by a judge after an in camera review of the records sought.”  Nevertheless, it concluded that the key inquiry remained whether there was a “reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The Court held that the undisclosed records were “either cumulative or of little if any relevance to the case.” The Court explained that they “contain other examples of what could be called hallucinations or distorted perceptions, but the other examples were no clearer or more dramatic than the ones the defense already had….” The Court also found that any prior fabrications would be immaterial because the “accusation [against] her father was far removed in time and quite different from the[se] accusation[s]…” The Court concluded that “[i]t is hard to imagine, however, a juror who could attribute the complainant’s testimony here — a claim of rape, made immediately after what defendant testified was consensual sex followed by a dispute over payment — to a failure of recollection or a misunderstanding, however susceptible to those failings the complainant may have been.”

Dissenters were critical of the Court’s failure to protect the defendant’s right to consider and explore all legitimate avenues of information relevant to his defense and to the victim’s testimony and potential cross-examination. (Dissenting Judges: Jenny Rivera, Jonathan Lippman, Eugene Pigott).  They explained that “[w]ithout access to documents concerning reliability of the witness, the defendant cannot properly develop and pursue questioning favorable to the defense or address facts and related issues important to the truth finding process.”

Unfortunately, the long-standing importance of the Brady-Giglio rule has not been fully appreciated by all members of the Court and decisions like McCray reaffirm the need for legislative reform in order to address the stark imbalance in discovery practices.  Likewise, the result-affecting test conducted by the Courts to determine Brady violations is simply a farfetched and imperfect process -as “[w]hat influences juries, courts seldom know.” (Chief Judge Jerome Frank). The imperfection of this process is further illustrated by the illogical fact that the majority in McCray found it “hard to imagine” that a juror might reach a different outcome–while members of its own bench implicitly found that they would have reached a different outcome in this case had they know of the undisclosed reports.

The McCray decision simply fails to recognize that the right to disclosure of exculpatory and impeachment evidence under the Brady-Giglio rule is the cornerstone to ensuring a defendant the right to a fair trial, and ensuring that the “goals of seeking the truth through the trial process” is legitimate.  Without access to favorable evidence, a defendant is unable to either effectively prepare for trial, or present facts important to the “truth finding process.”

All the parties in McCray, except the defense, were permitted to decide how the complainant’s mental health records may be useful to the accused. In my opinion, such a vetting process is unsound, and should not be representative of how future Brady-Giglio materials should be handled by prosecuting offices. As an alternative,  these Brady-Giglio materials, even if  referencing “private matters” of the complainant, should have been turned over to the defense under a protective order, or subject to preclusion after the court heard arguments from both sides. Of course, such an alternative process would at least respect the fundamental principle that the right to favorable evidence is one of constitutional dimension -and the “privacy concern” of a witness is not.

To decide what may be favorable to a defendant, while keeping him blindfolded in his prison cell, does not comport to the notions of fairness and justice for all.