Please come and join the Criminal Justice Society at Pace and the Pace Criminal Justice Institute for a film screening on February 8, 2017 at 4:00 pm – 6:00 PM at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, Pace University, in Room G-02 in the Ottinger Classroom Building.
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 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.
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 July 1, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals issued a 5-1 ruling regarding a prosecutor’s comments on summation that may overstate the probative value of DNA evidence presented at trial and defense counsel’s obligation to object to such comments. People v. Wright, No. 109, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 05621 (July 1, 2015).
The case involved the murder and alleged rape of a woman in Rochester, N.Y., who was found dead of strangulation by means of a ligature, shortly after she had sexual intercourse. A Monroe County prosecutor pursued charges of intentional murder, felony murder, and rape. Defense counsel admitted in opening statement that defendant had intercourse with the victim around the time in question, but argued that this intercourse was consensual. Counsel also vigorously opposed the murder charges.
In its case in chief, the prosecution called three expert witnesses who testified about the potential scientific value in general of the different methods of DNA testing they employed. The experts also carefully explained the limited probative value that could be deduced from their analysis of the ligature and items relating to the victim’s sexual intercourse.
The jury rejected the rape and felony murder charges, but convicted the defendant of intentional murder, pursuant to Penal Law § 125.25(1). The trial court imposed a sentence of 25 years to life. By a 3-2 vote, the Appellate Division affirmed. People v. Wright, 982 N.Y.S. 2d 219, 115 A.D. 3d 1257 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014).
In the July 1 ruling, all six Court of Appeals judges who participated in the case (including especially dissenting Judge Eugene Pigott) credited defense counsel for effectively eliciting from the prosecution’s expert witnesses during cross-examination the limited probative value their testimony provided regarding identifying the defendant as the person possibly responsible for the murder. The appeal therefore focused decisively on statements made by the prosecution on summation and defense counsel’s response (or lack thereof) to such comments.
Upon review of the record, the Court’s majority held that during summation the prosecution prejudicially overstated the probative value of the DNA evidence its own witnesses provided relating to the circumstances of the case. The Court identified several instances in which the prosecutor told the jury that expert testimony conclusively showed that defendant’s DNA was a match for that found on the ligature. The Court noted that these comments contravened what the experts had in fact stated: that DNA analysis was only able to show that the defendant’s DNA could not be excluded from that found on the ligature.
The Court determined that the prosecutor’s “apparent intent was to persuade the jury that the DNA established that defendant had committed the rape and murder, when the evidence did not, and could not, dispositively establish his guilt.” The Court further held that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance because it could not identify any tactical reason to excuse counsel’s “multiple failures” to object to the prosecutor’s “numerous misrepresentations of the evidence.”
In support of its ruling, the majority noted the significant impact that DNA evidence may have on a jury’s deliberations. It further concluded that aside from the expert testimony, evidence produced at trial was insufficient to support defendant’s conviction for second degree murder. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the case for a new trial.
POST WRITTEN BY: Maureen F. Schnepf (’17), Pace Law School
On Tuesday February 3, 2015, some of my classmates and I attended The Newburgh Sting event – an event our professors had encouraged us to attend, assuring us it would be a great time. I had never heard of this case prior to the event and was interested in finding out whether this was “a classic case of entrapment.” As an American, I have always had faith in our criminal justice system. However, on Tuesday, that faith was somewhat shaken. Fortunately, there were many other valuable takeaways making up for it.
The film portrays the story of four poor black men, James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payan, who, as the movie portrays it, were all entrapped by an FBI undercover informant, Shahed Hussein. The FBI agency is tasked with the responsibility to combat terrorism, especially in the post 9/11 world. But at what cost do we as Americans support this goal? In order to turn these men into terrorists, Shahed Hussein approached James Cromitie, a low level marijuana dealer who worked at Walmart, to recruit him to bomb synagogues in Riverdale, NY and a military base near Newburgh, NY. Hussein kept pushing Cromitie to find more “brothers” to come along. Hussein needed involvement of more than one person for a conspiracy charge to stand since Hussein was a government agent. Even after Mr. Cromitie temporarily disappeared, he was nevertheless pulled back in by the false sense of security that Hussein promised. Mr. Cromitie convinced three other men to help: one needed money to pay for his brother’s medical bills that had resulted from a surgery removing a tumor; another one was enticed by the promise of sustenance and financial stability which he so needed for his family; and the last one hoped this to be his ticket out of poverty-stricken Newburgh. All four men had exactly one thing in common – they all needed money. Hussein skillfully lured all four men, taking advantage of their low intelligence while promising financial security.
When the plot was being formulated (in Hussein’s living room with hidden cameras), Hussein was the one giving instructions. It was Hussein who suggested using two bombs in a backpack and a stinger missile. Coincidentally, the use of a stinger missile triggers a mandatory 25 year sentence in prison. It was Hussein who continuously reminded the men that this was a jihad – a holy war for Allah. Mr. Cromitie and David Williams demanded reassurance from Hussein that they were only targeting property and that no one would get hurt. Hussein kept inciting the men to believe that this mission was for Allah; however, Mr. Cromitie always responded that “[t]hey can use the money.”
On the night of the attack, the whole group drove to Connecticut to pick up the – unbeknownst to the participants – fake bombs and the stinger missile. Interestingly enough, crossing state lines triggered federal jurisdiction. When the men returned to New York to switch the cars, they were apprehended by the police and FBI agents. The scene was flooded with an excessive number of police officers who claimed to be thwarting four “terrorists” – who they knew had two fake bombs that would never detonate. To top it all off, the FBI made public statements about this thwarted attack, stating that the FBI had been watching these four Muslim men who had allegedly met in prison for over a year. However, the men did not meet in prison; nor did I get the feeling from the video that they were devout Muslims because only one Quran was discovered when their homes were searched. The FBI put on a great show for the public. The four men pleaded not guilty but were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. They lost their appeal, and their last resort, the U.S. Supreme Court, denied their writ of certiorari.
On one hand I can see how they were convicted since they followed through on the plan of committing a terrorist attack on innocent people. However, can we call this “justice”? The defendants were convicted for a crime they would have never had the ability to pull off had it not been for the government planting this idea in their minds. The defense attorneys who spoke at Pace on Tuesday shared that the trial judge, Judge McMahon, in her opinion, appeared to be setting these four men up for a successful appeal, even after the jury found the entrapment defense baseless and convicted them. That boggled my mind. In her 54 page opinion, the judge opines as if she is to find the defendants not guilty but in the last two pages she found the four defendants guilty, even Payan who clearly exhibited diminished mental capacity.
This entire situation was very sad to learn about. The families of these men who will forever be labeled as terrorists will not see them for 25 years. I can’t help but ask: would they have ever done this without the FBI? I don’t think so.
And so, what’s the lesson? Ms. Susanne Brody, Onta Williams’ defense attorney, shared that integrity is key – one must remain grounded in what is right and what is wrong – that is the key to being an attorney. Don’t just blindly follow, and stand up for what you believe is right. Another valuable lesson was to learn about the amount of time and effort invested into this case. Sam Bravermen, defense counsel for Mr. Payan, shared that his team spent close to 10,000 hours working on this case in just a few months, demonstrating the diligence, commitment, hard work, and team cooperation needed to take on a case such was this.
If there was one truth throughout the film that stuck with me the most, it was that fear is among the most potent motivators. It motivated a jury to convict these men. It motivated the FBI to plan and incite this entire “attack” in the name of security, and it appears to motivate all of us today. But perhaps we should be more fearful about the fact that our system isn’t always working as intended. Having integrity and thus ensuring the integrity of the system we are all going to very soon be a part of, perhaps, should be our focus. Whether working as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, or for the FBI, we all should try our best to act with candor, do the right thing, and remember why we came to law school in the first place.
I urge all of you to watch this film. It speaks for itself. You may be surprised at how you feel once the credits begin to roll.
The following is a story written by a current Pace Law School student who has been working in the Pace Criminal Justice Clinic during his third year of law school. He describes the trials and rewards of representing real clients and shares with all of us what he learned – a lesson to all criminal practitioners.
POST WRITTEN BY: Christopher James Di Donna ’14
Unlike many third-year law students, I am, thankfully, not helping to keep alive that old adage about one’s final year at law school (You know the part about how your professors bore you to death after they have scared and worked you to death.). My third year has been far from boring. Instead, I have spent my final year at Pace Law School working as a student-attorney under the supervision of Professors David Dorfman and Robin Frankel at the Barbara C. Salken Criminal Justice Clinic. I still have regular classes in addition to the clinic; however, the clinic has been my primary focus.
It took my family and friends some time to understand that my peers and I at the clinic are not just doing “mock trials” with “mock clients.” Instead, we work for real clients with real problems in real court facing real consequences in the Bronx. This clinic gives us the unique opportunity to learn about and practice law before we graduate and sit for the bar exam.
Case in point (the pun was intended): I had the privilege of representing a man charged with Driving While Ability Impaired under New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (V.T.L) section 1192(1). For over three years, this man made countless court appearances professing his innocence. This case was transferred to us from Bronx Legal Aid Society at the suggestion of Professor Frankel. I worked the case for three and half months. I reviewed the case-file numerous times, especially the Intoxicated Driver’s Testing Unit (IDTU) video, investigated the scene of the alleged crime with my client and fellow students, and corresponded with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
The true highlight of this case was representing my client in a Dunaway/Johnson (probable cause for arrest) and Huntley (voluntariness of defendant’s statement) hearings. Here I was a third-year law student cross-examining a veteran highway officer of the NYPD; impeaching him on his own omissions and the inconsistencies between his testimony and his memo-book and arrest report. My cross-examination of the arresting officer and his demeanor throughout the hearings convinced the judge to suppress all the DA’s evidence. The DA’s Office was forced to dismiss the case and my client received the justice he sought after more than three years.
My work on this case and my overall experience at the clinic has had a profound effect on me. I realized the importance of persistence. To be an effective advocate you have to work a case hard. You have to think about the case often and play out all the approaches and possibilities in your mind. I thought about this case when I grocery shopped, drove, showered, and at countless other times of the day and night. The more hours I put into his case, the more sense I made of it. I learned the strengths and the weakness of the case and the law and the people involved in it. My strategy morphed over those months with each realization. Even during the suppression hearing, with the help of Professor Frankel and a fellow student-attorney at the clinic and my second seat on the case, Alexandra Ashmont, I tweaked and adjusted my cross examination of the arresting officer on the spot. Without persistence from day one to the day you go to court, I do not believe that one will achieve a palpable and just result for his or her client. And neither will you feel good about the result if you did not invest the necessary time into the case.
This experience taught me that the law, especially criminal law, is about real people in really bad binds. You as the advocate are sometimes the one person holding up the walls from crashing down on your client. You have a duty, within the confines of the rules of professional responsibility and ethics, to get the best results for your client. You have to listen to the client, chase down leads and documents, and beat your head on your desk until the best strategy falls out. The Pace Criminal Justice Clinic gave me the opportunity to learn, to help others, and to avoid being bored to death in my final year of law school.