Tag Archives: Larry Cunningham

Suazo: Where We Go From Here

Yesterday, the New York Court of Appeals held that, as a matter of federal constitutional law, a noncitizen has a right to a jury trial for a petty offense if he or she can show that the charged crime may result in deportation. The majority’s reasoning boils down to the following. A person has a right to a jury trial when he or she is facing a “serious crime,” which has mostly been measured by the potential length of the sentence; “seriousness” should also consider other types of consequences; and deportation or removal is one such type of serious consequence, thus requiring a jury trial on demand. In this post, I’ll analyze the Court’s decision and predict where we’re headed in this area.

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Appeal Waivers

I have a piece in tomorrow’s New York Journal arguing that waivers of the right to appeal serve a valid and important purpose in the criminal justice system.  Here is an excerpt:

The settlement of a case signifies the end—not the beginning or continuation—of litigation. This is true in both civil litigation and criminal cases. By pleading guilty, the accused is conceding that the People have the requisite proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that a trial is unnecessary. Typically, the relinquishment of trial-based rights is given in exchange for some benefit at sentencing. The parties have reached a mutual agreement, and the case should end.

Appellate litigation is not without costs. The indigent defendant is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer, the People must assign an assistant to write and argue a brief, and the intermediate appellate court must take the time to hear and decide the case. Doing all of this in the context of where the parties have come together to reach an agreement is a waste of resources for all sides and the court.

And so, it is no wonder that district attorneys and some judges insist on appeal waivers as part of guilty pleas. But the choice to accept or reject such a waiver always remains with the defendant, a point the Court of Appeals emphasized in People v. Seaberg, 74 N.Y.2d 1, 8-9 (1989), when it upheld the constitutionality of appeal waivers. People v. Batista, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 7445 (2d Dept. Nov. 7, 2018), reminds plea courts that they must not conflate appeal waivers with the litany of rights that a defendant gives up by pleading guilty.

Thus, it is immaterial whether such waivers are asked for “across-the-board”; an individual defendant is always free to reject it.

At a time when our courts—particularly our intermediate appellate courts—are stretched thin (see Andrew Denney, “NY Appeals Judges Say Trial Courts Should Act to Quell Appeal Waiver Challenges,” N.Y.L.J., Nov. 9, 2018 (noting the delays in the overburdened Second Department)), precious judicial resources should be reserved for those cases where there are meritorious arguments in live cases, not ones where the parties have concluded that litigation should end. If the defendant in a particular case disagrees, he or she should reject any plea offer that contains an appeal waiver, proceed to trial, and, if convicted, litigate an appeal, as is his or her constitutional right.

 

The Importance of Jury Note Readings, as Shown by a Pro Se Defendant

In People v. Timmons (4th Dept. 10/5/18), the Fourth Department allowed for a reconstruction regarding whether the trial court did not provide adequate notice to defense counsel when it did not read out a jury note verbatim.

The defendant in this case was tried and convicted by a jury of Murder 2º.  He appealed to the Fourth Department, and it affirmed the conviction. However, the defendant filed a writ of error coram nobis, because he contended his appellate counsel failed to raise an issue on appeal that may have merit: a violation of CPL § 310.30 in regard to a note from the jury in its deliberations.

CPL 310.30 requires the jury to return to the courtroom after notice to both the People and counsel for the defendant and give instruction as the court deems proper. When there is a substantive note from the jury, the court must provide counsel with meaningful notice of the content of the note, and the court must provide a meaningful response to the jury. This means actual, specific content of the jurors’ request must be disclosed. The Court of Appeals has held that a trial court’s failure to read a jury’s note verbatim deprives counsel of the opportunity to analyze accurately the jury’s deliberations and frame intelligent suggestions for the court’s response.

The defendant here contended that the trial court failed to read the note from the jury verbatim, and the transcript shows that instead in the reading both in front of and outside the presence of the jury, omitted to read the jury’s request to have a read back of the medical examiner’s testimony, and to have that testimony read first.

The People contended that it was the transcript that was in fact incorrect, and that the trial judge did read verbatim the jury note. They relied upon an affidavit from the court reporter that was submitted in response to the defendant’s writ. The affidavit stated that a stenographic error may have resulted in a transcript that did not accurately reflect whether the court read the entire content of the note verbatim in open court prior to responding to the jury.

The Fourth Department held that the alleged error in the transcript of the court’s on the record reading of the note was subject to a reconstruction hearing because the trial judge is the final arbiter of the record certified to the appellate courts. Therefore, the case was reversed and remitted to the County Court for the reconstruction hearing. (JC)

 

Request to Proceed Pro Se Untimely If Made After Start of Jury Selection

When must a defendant invoke his or her right to proceed pro se in order for the request to be considered “timely”? In People v. Crespo (Ct. App. 10/16/2018) (4-3), the Court of Appeals held that a request to proceed pro se is timely if made “before the commencement of trial,” defined as before the start of jury selection. After the start of jury selection, the right to proceed pro se is “severely constricted,” but the trial court may grant such an application in its discretion. Judge Rivera authored a lengthy dissent, joined by Judges Fahey and Wilson. Continue reading

Rare AD2 Reversal for Factual Insufficiency

Under its factual review power, the Appellate Division sits as a “thirteenth juror” to determine whether the factfinder—the jury or, in a bench trial, the judge—was justified in finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This assessment does not permit the court to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, as is required in a legal sufficiency review.  Since the Court of Appeals can only review questions of law, “weight of the evidence” decisions cannot be reviewed by that higher court.

Recently, the Second Department reversed a conviction on weight of the evidence grounds—a rare move.  In People v. Herskovic (App. Div. 2d Dept. 10/10/2018), the court reversed the defendant’s conviction for Gang Assault 2º and related charges, which stemmed from a 2013 attack upon the victim by a group of 20 Hasidic Jewish men in Brooklyn. The victim was not able to identify the defendant as one of the attackers.  The victim and eyewitnesses also gave conflicting accounts of the attack.

The People relied principally on DNA recovered from the defendant’s sneaker, which one of the attackers had taken off of him and thrown on a roof.   However, the DNA sample was small (97.9 picograms, short of the 100.0 picograms needed for a traditional DNA analysis) and was a mixture of two or more individuals’ DNA.   A criminologist testified to a procedure that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had developed to analyze such small and mixed samples to determine a “likelihood ratio.”  However, even with these “tweaked” protocols, the court found the DNA evidence lacking:

The analysis also found that it was 133 times more likely that the DNA sample originated from the defendant and the complainant than from the complainant and an unknown unrelated person. The FST analysis of the DNA was based upon a Caucasian population, and failed to take into account the genetic history of the defendant, a member of the Hasidic population. Moreover, the likelihood ratio result was only 133, a relatively insubstantial number.

Based on the weak testimony and “less than convincing” DNA analysis, the court reversed on the facts.  As a result, the defendant may not be retried.  For more on this case, see this article from the New York Law Journal (subscription required).