Tagged: criminal trials

NY Court of Appeals Addresses Cross-Racial Identification Jury Instruction

As NYLJ reports in an article titled Ex-Judges and Prosecutors Ask to Join Case on Cross-Racial Identification written by Andrew Danney, the NY Court of Appeals, sitting in White Plains courthouse starting noon today through Thursday, is to hear a case addressing jury instruction on cross-racial eyewitness identification and number of members of the New York legal community seek to become amici parties to the case.

As the legal representative for the group stated:

We tell juries everyday that they should scrutinize testimony carefully, so it’s not a great leap to ask a trial judge to tell a jury that they should look at cross-race identifications with special care.

 

SCOTUS: Vacated Conviction in Mixed Verdict Case Does not Bar Retrial

Today, the Supreme Court decided Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, affirming the First Circuit’s affirmance of the defendants’ convictions. The question presented was whether an appellate reversal of a conviction in a mixed verdict case, i.e., where the jury had acquitted on some counts and convicted on others, barred a retrial where the same facts that were necessary to the acquittal were necessary to the conviction, under Ashe v. Swenson’s collateral estoppel rules. The Court held that retrial is not barred by an appellate reversal on unrelated grounds where the trial verdicts are simply inconsistent.

Interestingly, the Court left open the possibility that an appellate reversal of inconsistent convictions might bar retrial where the reversal is on a related ground that permits the court to explain the inconsistency in a way that would give the acquittals preclusive effect.

Justice Thomas filed a separate decision, suggesting that the Court should reconsider Ashe v. Swenson and its progeny, Yeager v. United States, but concurring on the ground that the Court had not extended either decision.

Related Readings:

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:

New NYCA Decision on Attorney Disqualification

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.

Related Readings:

An Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim Divides the NYCA

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.

On November 23, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals issued a decision in People v. Harris, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 08607 (Nov. 23, 2015) that split the Court 4-2 on application of the law of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC).

The facts of the case were that in 2002 a man surreptitiously entered a dwelling where a woman was sleeping. The man masturbated nearby the woman and fled when she awoke. The woman subsequently noticed that a pair of her earrings was missing. Based on DNA evidence processed several years later, the prosecution identified defendant as the man involved and indicted him on a misdemeanor count of petit larceny (for theft of the earrings) and a felony count of second-degree burglary (for unlawfully entering a dwelling with intent to commit a crime therein).

There was just one problem with the prosecution’s case: the limitations period for the petit larceny count, even allowing for tolling, had expired more than a year before the indictment.

Nevertheless, the prosecution pursued the petit larceny charge at trial and used its underlying facts to support the burglary charge, the prosecution’s theory being that defendant had an intent to steal when he entered the dwelling. This decision would lead the Court of Appeals to comment on the need for “responsible charging practices.” But on appeal, focus would not be on the prosecutor’s decision but on the question: Why did defense counsel not seek dismissal of the time-barred larceny count?

At trial, defendant was convicted on both charges. On appeal, the defendant argued that his attorney was ineffective by failing to obtain dismissal of the larceny count. The issues were (1) whether counsel had a reasonable strategy in letting this charge go forward and (2) whether this singular error – if indeed it was such – could support an IAC claim.

As to the first issue, the majority stated that a finding of guilt on the larceny count would “as a practical matter have dictated a finding of guilt on the burglary count as well,” and so failure to obtain dismissal of the larceny count was “objectively incapable of enabling any compromise verdict.”

The dissenters noted, however, that even had the larceny count been dismissed, evidence relating to this uncharged crime would still have been admissible to support the intent element of the burglary charge – a possibility the majority did not deny. Accordingly, the dissenters concluded that counsel might have wanted to provide opportunity to convict only on this misdemeanor charge – an opportunity that would have been precluded were the charge dismissed.

As to the second issue, the Court’s precedents state the rule that an IAC claim requires assessment of counsel’s overall representation. So the question was whether a single error in otherwise unquestioned performance could support the IAC claim in Harris. The Court relied on its earlier decision in People v. Turner, 840 N.E.2d 123 (N.Y. 2005), in which it held that a singular error to obtain omission of a time-barred charge was prejudicial in a case where the time-barred count was the only one on which the jury convicted. Writing for the Court, Judge Robert Smith noted that Turner “may be the first [case] this Court has encountered” in which a singular error required a finding of constitutionally deficient performance.

The Harris majority understood Turner to create a “freestanding” exception to the overall assessment rule for cases where counsel’s only error was omission to seek dismissal of a time-barred charge. The dissenters interpreted Turner as instead upholding the overall assessment rule, while allowing that a single questionable decision of whatever sort can sustain an IAC claim only if that decision discloses ineffectiveness in overall performance.

This disagreement also implicated the issue of remedy. The majority interpreted Turner broadly to apply wherever unreasonable omission to obtain dismissal of a time-barred charge results in conviction on that charge. Accordingly, in Harris the majority granted only partial relief, reversing the larceny conviction but not the burglary conviction. The dissenters found this partial relief, grounded in “charge by charge analysis,” unprecedented. Given their understanding that focus must be on counsel’s overall performance, the dissenters stated that the proper remedy, assuming IAC is found, would have to have been comprehensive.

Related Readings: