Free-Standing Actual Innocence Claims and Guilty Pleas

In People v. Tiger, (Ct. App. 6/15/2018) (DiFiore, C.J.) (4-1-2), the Court of Appeals held that claims of actual innocence can not be brought under CPL 440.10(1)(h) after a defendant voluntarily pleads guilty.

This case involved a licensed practical nurse and caregiver who was charged with various crimes after she allegedly burned a disabled 10-year-old girl while bathing her. Following the incident, there was confusion as to whether the girl’s injuries were skin conditions caused by an allergic reaction to her medication or if they were in fact caused by scalding water. After plea negotiations, the defendant pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a vulnerable elderly person or an incompetent or physically disabled person in the first degree. During the plea colloquy, the defendant affirmed that “she was pleading guilty because she was, in fact, guilty.” Following the guilty plea, the family of the injured girl filed a civil lawsuit against Ms. Tiger. Based on the conflicting medical evidence as to the source of the girl’s injuries, the civil jury found that the nurse’s actions were not a substantial factor in causing the girl’s injuries but found instead that the injuries in question were caused by an allergic reaction to her medication.

At around the same time as the civil trial, the defendant moved to vacate the judgment under CPL 440.10(1)(h), relying on People v. Hamilton. CPL 440.10 (1) (h) allows a defendant to move to vacate where the judgment was obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional right. In Hamilton, the Second Department allowed for a free-standing actual innocence claim to be brought pursuant to 440.10(1)(h). The People opposed defendant’s motion, arguing Hamilton’s holding was limited to situations where a defendant was found guilty after trial, and therefore did not apply to guilty pleas which were voluntarily entered into by defendants.

The defendant’s actual innocence claim was based on her contention that she did not cause physical injury to the child, as the child’s injuries were attributable to a skin condition. In support of this claim, defendant provided the hospital medical records and a pathology report of the biopsy results, which existed at the time of the guilty plea, her own affidavit, and an affirmation from a medical expert retained in connection with the civil action. In her own affidavit, defendant denied her guilt notwithstanding her guilty plea.

County Court denied the motion, holding that even if the defendant could raise a claim of actual innocence, the defendant did not meet the requisite evidence warranting such relief. The Appellate Division reversed County Court’s decision, recognizing that the court in Hamilton held that the defendant could raise an actual innocence claim under CPL 440.10(1)(h).

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division, holding that CPL 440.10(1)(h) does not provide for such relief after a guilty plea. The majority’s decision, driven by statutory analysis, reviewed CPL 440.10 in its entirety and noted the statute’s comprehensive nature, and focusing on its ten specific grounds in which a defendant can move to vacate a judgment. This review led the Court of Appeals to conclude that allowing an actual innocence claim under section (1)(h) would impermissibly broaden the scope of the statute, a power the court has found previously not to be within its power.  

The court then focused on the New York State Legislature’s enactment of CPL 440.10(1)(g) which allows a defendant to move to vacate a judgement when “[n]ew evidence has been discovered since the entry of a judgment based upon a verdict of guilty after trial”  (emphasis added).  In order to succeed on such a claim, the appellant must show: “1) that the evidence could not have been produced at trial with due diligence; and 2) the motion ‘must be made with due diligence after the discovery of [the] alleged new evidence.’” The court then noted that in 2012, the New York State Legislature amended the statute and created CPL 440.10(1)(g-1) to allow appellants to use DNA evidence to collaterally attack guilty pleas and vacate judgments. The court distinguished sections 440.10(1)(g) and (1)(g-1) noting the heightened burden attached to guilty pleas, which required a showing  of ‘“substantial probability” that a defendant is actually innocent, whereas a defendant convicted after trial is held to the lesser standard that there be a “reasonable probability” that the verdict would have been more favorable.

The majority noted that section (1)(g-1) “carved out a basis to vacate a guilty plea where new evidence of DNA demonstrates actual innocence lends support to the conclusion that CPL 440.10 does not contemplate a separate constitutional claim to vacate a guilty plea based on new evidence as to guilt or innocence.” Additionally, the court emphasized that the “plea process is integral to the criminal justice system and we have observed that there are significant public policy reasons for upholding plea agreements, including conserving judicial resources and providing finality in criminal proceedings.” Further, the court opined that permitting a “collateral attack on a guilty plea obtained in a judicial proceeding that comported with all of the requisite constitutional protections on the basis of a delayed claim of actual innocence would be inconsistent with our jurisprudence and would effectively defeat the finality that attends a constitutionally obtained guilty plea.”

Judge Garcia, in a concurring opinion, agreed with the majority’s holding, but wrote separately to state that the defendant’s “freestanding” claim, even if allowed, would not have prevailed. Judge Garcia started the opinion by discussing the procedures and mechanisms available to an individual to “ensure that guilt or innocence is fairly and reliably determined.” When analyzing 440.10, he found that “[t]he CPL’s exhaustive list of specified remedies (which already includes a limited ‘actual innocence’ claim) negates any suggestion that the Legislature intended to create an additional unenumerated and undefined ground for relief.” Judge Garcia explained that doing so would  allow a defendant to circumvent each section and would serve as a catch-all provision, negating the purpose of the statute.

Additionally, Judge Garcia wrote that the defendant’s claim of actual innocence was inconsistent with the defendant’s “admission of factual guilt.” Judge Garcia continued, explaining that  “allowing a defendant to strategically relitigate culpability—at a time when the prosecution’s evidence has grown stale, or may be entirely undeveloped—would undermine critical notions of fairness, finality, and sanctity of the legal process, and would ‘turn the “solemn act” of pleading guilty into a mere device for maintaining innocence while avoiding trial.’”

Judge Wilson in a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Rivera, argued that the Appellate Division and the majority unnecessarily decided the issue of whether a guilty plea may be vacated pursuant to 440.10(1)(h) based on an actual innocence claim. Instead, Judge Wilson claimed that the question was “whether Ms. Tiger [was] entitled to an evidentiary hearing.” The dissent ultimately disagreed with the contention of the majority that “short of legislative or gubernatorial mercy, no innocent person who pleads guilty, lest exonerated by DNA evidence, may vacate a conviction.” Judge Wilson stated that “Ms. Tiger is neither the first nor last innocent person to plead guilty” citing to various publications which showed many individuals who have been exonerated had in fact pled guilty.

The dissent focused on a variety of reasons why innocent defendants may be persuaded to plead guilty such as being offered release from pre-trial detention, the sometimes large disparity between a plea deal and the potential post-trial sentence, and “concerns about the defendant’s lawyer or the availability of evidence that would conclusively demonstrate innocence.”

Lastly, Judge Wilson argued that while concerns of  “the finality of the plea process, and the appropriate conservation of judicial resources” are important considerations, they are not fundamental constitutional rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that the court should be able to “provide a formal mechanism to exonerate the innocent post-plea” in a similar way to in which a remedy has been created for when DNA evidence is found post-plea.

While the court’s decision will affect how future plea bargains are negotiated and whether they are accepted, it is important to note that the court has explicitly mentioned in footnote 9, that this decision does not bar claims of actual innocence when a defendant is found guilty after trial. In addition, the decision does not affect claims of actual innocence that are intertwined with alleged constitutional violations, such as Brady violations or ineffective assistance of counsel claims.  (PT/LC) 

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