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).
While the jury deliberation process remains safely secret in our system, there are limits to what jurors can do and say to each other in the deliberative process when that process spills over into the courtroom. Federal District Judge Kimba Wood recently granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to a defendant in a case where a Bronx trial judge refused to investigate claimed racial bias among the deliberating jurors that was brought to his attention during deliberations.
In the underlying murder trial, the jury was in its third day of deliberations when a juror sent a note to the judge saying he had been called a racial epithet and felt as if he were being forced to agree with the other jurors. A second juror asked to have deliberations suspended until the following Monday due to overwhelming tension in the jury room. On Monday, the first juror sent another note saying he was exhausted and could no longer be objective. The judge declined defense counsel’s request for an in camera interview of the individual jurors, encouraged the jurors to continue deliberating, and sent them back. Three days later the jury convicted the defendant of manslaughter and he was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the error had not been preserved, and the court of appeals denied leave. The magistrate judge issued a report advising that the habeas petition be denied because of the same procedural default.
Judge Wood disagreed. She held that defense counsel’s objection placed the trial court on notice of the constitutional basis for his objections. Thus, the state’s contemporaneous objection rule “served no legitimate state purpose.” On the merits, the Court found that the case was one of first impression in the Circuit – Whether Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) which bars inquiry into the validity of a verdict, prohibits jurors from testifying about statements during deliberations. The court found that the policy behind the rule – preventing the badgering of jurors by a losing party and endless litigation – does not bar the reviewing court from considering such statements when they are brought to the court’s attention before the verdict is returned. The court held that the defendant was denied a fair trial because, on the basis of a verbal racist assault, which was evidence of actual bias – deprived the defendant of his right to an impartial jury.