Tagged: criminal procedure

Welcome to the New Pace Criminal Justice Blog

We are excited to introduce our newly re-designed Pace Criminal Justice blog. Our blog now lives at http://pcjc.blogs.pace.edu and we welcome you to update your bookmarks, favorites, and any website listings.

This revision was part of a larger updating effort at the University. The only major difference from the prior web address is that our new URL does not contain the word ‘law.’ Everything else is and will remain the same. We will continue to bring you criminal law and procedure posts on domestic and international issues. And we will be returning to our regular blogging schedule as of September 1, 2016. As we did in prior years, we followed a more abbreviated summer schedule this year.

We welcome you to get involved by either leaving us a comment about what you think or even considering to submit a post. We very much appreciate your readership, and we look forward to continue this important online resource.

NYCA Addresses the Mode of Proceedings Error Doctrine

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

The “mode of proceedings error” doctrine created by the NY Court of Appeals recognizes that some errors committed by a criminal trial court are so harmful to the integrity of the process that they are subject to appellate review even if defense counsel did not lodge an objection. The doctrine’s procedural safeguard is powerful because when it is held to apply, harmless error analysis is barred and the conviction must be reversed.

In a decision issued on June 7, 2016, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether a trial court committed such error when it accepted a jury’s guilty verdict on a charge of first-degree gang assault before the court had responded to certain notes from the jury requesting review of a court instruction and of testimony by a witness. On appeal, a divided panel of the Fourth Department found this to be a mode of proceedings error requiring reversal and a new trial. People v. Mack, 117 A.D. 3d 1450,  984 N.Y.S.2d 768 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014). The People sought review by the Court of Appeals.

At issue was NY Criminal Procedure Law § 310.30’s requirement that a trial court receiving a note from a deliberating jury must provide counsel with notice of the content of the note and provide a meaningful response to the jury. Also at issue was the scope of the Court’s precedents in cases such as People v. O’Rama, 78 N.Y.2d 270, 579 N.E.2d 189, 574 N.Y.S.2d 159 (1991), in which the Court applied the mode of proceedings doctrine in the context of a court’s response or failure to respond to juror requests for further instruction.

In People v. Mack, it was undisputed that the trial court fulfilled its responsibility to inform counsel of the contents of the jury’s notes. The Court’s precedents also made clear that a court’s failure in that responsibility would constitute a mode of proceedings error. Six judges of the Court of Appeals considered that the issue presented was a new one: whether a mode of proceedings error was committed by a trial court that, although properly informing counsel of the content of jury notes, erred by not providing a response to the jury before accepting the verdict.

A 6-1 majority of the Court found against the defendant. The majority’s review of the Court’s precedents persuaded it that in the juror note context the mode of proceedings doctrine did not apply when, as in this case, defense counsel had sufficient notice, information, and opportunity to lodge an objection. In the majority’s view, the powerful force of the doctrine should not be deployed in such circumstances and where the thought of its applicability might provide perverse incentives to defense counsel to forego objecting.

Judge Rivera authored a forceful dissent. She disagreed with the majority’s statement that the issue presented was novel. In her view, a proper reading of the Court’s precedents indicated that the trial court committed a mode of proceedings error when it defaulted on its “core responsibility under CPL § 310.30” by accepting the jury’s verdict without first responding to its questions “or without alternatively asking the jurors whether they had withdrawn their requests.” With respect to the majority’s comment about perverse incentives, Judge Rivera argued that

[d]efendant’s preference or acquiescence is irrelevant because the duty [to comply with CPL § 310.30] works on the court, not the defendant.

Related Readings:

N.Y. Court of Appeals Judge Robert Smith Hears His Last Oral Arguments

POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

On November 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in four cases, two of which presented criminal procedure issues relating to whether a defendant can employ a post-verdict, pre-sentence CPL § 330.30 motion to raise issues based on facts not discovered until after the verdict was rendered and have such facts considered as part of the record for purposes of direct appeal. In response to probing questions from the Court, all attorneys involved made forceful and well-informed arguments.

The November 19 arguments were the last that Judge Robert Smith will hear prior to his retirement from the Court. In accord with Court of Appeals tradition, at the conclusion of the arguments the other members of the Court rose and applauded Judge Smith. Chief Judge Lippman expressed his thanks and admiration to Judge Smith for his dedicated service to the Court before an audience that included the Judge’s family and virtually all members of the Court staff.

One of the most important legacies of Judge Smith’s tenure regarding criminal justice issues is the strong and thoughtful stance he took in many cases to curb prosecutors’ unfounded employment of a depraved indifference murder charge pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2).  Section 125.25(2) provides for a second degree murder charge in cases where a defendant, without intent, causes the death of another person “[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life [when the defendant] engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death ….”

Dissenting in a case in which the Court majority upheld three depraved indifference murder convictions, Judge Smith stated that

experience shows that juries, especially in cases with inflammatory facts, will often find depraved indifference where the evidence does not support it, and as a result we have reversed many convictions in recent years because the proof of this mens rea was insufficient.

In the cases in question, Judge Smith found that the facts showed at most a basis for conviction on a lesser charge of second degree manslaughter. He cautioned the majority that its affirmance of the murder convictions “departs from the rigor we have previously shown [in depraved indifference murder appeals] and makes it more difficult to attain our long-sought goal of reserving convictions of this crime for the very few cases that warrant them.”

This writer was one of the clerks employed by Judge Smith when he took the bench in January 2004. After oral arguments one day during the winter of 2004, my co-clerks and I met with the Judge to discuss that day’s oral arguments. In a criminal appeal argued that day, when the Court pressed the defense attorney on a secondary argument he made for his client, the attorney responded in a sheepish way and declined to pursue that argument. Judge Smith asked us what we thought about this: he wanted to convey that the attorney’s response was unacceptable. He told us that the attorney had a basis to support this argument and that he should have presented it, prefacing his argument by saying: “It is my responsibility to fight for my client’s liberty with everything I have.”

Cases:

  • People v. Heidgen, 3 N.E.3d 657 (N.Y. 2013) (Smith, J., dissenting)

Extradition: An International Perspective on US Plea Bargaining

A British couple, Paul and Sandra Dunham, recently fought extradition to the United States for trial on a Maryland indictment accusing them of fraud. The extradition was sought under the US-UK Extradition Treaty of 2003. Interestingly, the basis for their opposition to extradition was that they would be forcibly sent to “America to face trial in a justice system where plea agreements are effectively forced upon people.”  The European Court of Human Rights dismissed their petition this week.

In a recent blog, Pace Professor Lissa Griffin discusses the case and the fact that the unfairness of our plea bargaining system, long accepted by the US courts, may well be getting needed international attention.

Read the full blog: Lissa Griffin, Extradition: A New Perspective on the US Plea Bargaining Process, Comparative Law Prof Blog (May 29, 2014).

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.

References