Thursday, May 19, 2011

Court of Appeals grants habeas petition, grants defendant a new trial

Ellis Wood was charged with hiring someone to kill the guy who owned a travel agency. When the police took Wood into custody, they began asking him questions, before he said, "I think I should get a lawyer." The police a few minutes later resumed questioning Wood on video, when he made some incriminating statements that he probably would not have made had an attorney been present to tell Wood to shut his mouth. The jury convicted Wood, and the state appellate courts affirmed. Hence the habeas corpus petition in federal court.

The case is Wood v. Ercole, decided on May 4. This case presents a battle of the titans. Judge Lynch wrote the majority opinion. Judge Livingston wrote the dissent. Both were former Assistant U.S. Attorneys who taught at Columbia Law School. Lynch wins out because district judge Sessions signs onto his opinion. Wood gets a new trial because the police should have stopped questioning Wood after he said he wanted a lawyer, prompting Judge Lynch to write a lengthy footnote about the linguistic meaning of the word "think" and whether it is too ambiguous to place the police on notice that they they had to honor the Sixth Amendment.

While the police violated the Sixth Amendment in ignoring Wood's request for counsel, the question is whether this was harmless error. It was not. The admissions that Wood made on video most likely got him convicted, the Court of Appeals says, because the two corroborating witnesses at trial were shaky and had serious credibility problems. One witness, the triggerman, was "the archetypal miscreant" with a long criminal record who lied to the investigators in this very case and committed perjury in a prior case. He also escaped life in prison for his testimony against Wood. His testimony about his agreement with Wood to kill the victim was therefore shaky. The other corroborator was Wood's ex-girlfriend, who claimed that Wood told her he played a role in the killing. She also had credibility problems; she testified to avoid prosecution for her role in a criminal dispute that allegedly motivated Wood to kill the travel agency owner in the first instance. She also faced deportation as a nonlegal resident and she lacked direct knowledge of the murder and did not even think Wood had a role in the killing.

So, it was Wood's confession that got him convicted, not the corroborators who were easy targets on cross-examination. While the Court of Appeals does not even think Wood's confession is that convincing to start with, it did bolster the prosecution's case, and the prosecutor highlighted the video confession in summation. On this record, the Sixth Amendment violation was not harmless at all, and the habeas petition is granted.

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