Friday, June 24, 2011

The Harvey Note doesn't support a Habeas petition

I would imagine that all inmates dream about winning their habeas petitions in federal court. They get to one-up the state court judges who convicted them and, of course, the charges are dropped or a new trial is ordered. That's what happened to this guy, but the Court of Appeals reinstates the conviction.

The case is Watson v. Greene, decided on May 17. Watson was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting Morris. Watson admitted participating in the robbery in which Morris was shot, but he claimed that someone else, Harvey, pulled the trigger. The jury said that Watson shot Morris. The jury didn't know that something happened that was a defense lawyer's dream: he got his hands on a note that suggested that Harvey and not Watson shot Morris. For some reason, defense counsel got the note during the second day of jury selection, but the trial court said it could not come in at trial because it was hearsay.

The note was written by a police officer, Pierce, who was not involved in the murder investigation. Pierce happened to know Harvey's family and she overheard them talking about the case, that Harvey had a gun the night of the killing and it went off accidentally. What were the odds that a police officer would know Harvey's family? Anyway, the detective on the case did not follow up on this lead, and the trial court would not let Watson's lawyer exploit this note at trial, i.e., he could not cross-examine the detective, Bond, about his failure to further investigate the information in the note which may have exonerated Watson.

Habeas petitions are hard to win. There are too many barriers. Harmless error is one problem when convicts try to argue that the excluded evidence would have made a difference. A 1996 federal law also gives state courts some leeway in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, so long as their erroneous interpretations are not unreasonable. You read that right. In some cases, state courts are allowed to get it wrong and the convicted defendant still does not get a new trial.

The federal trial court granted the habeas petition because the precluded cross-examination went to the thoroughness of the police investigation. Great news for Watson. I would imagine Watson's attorney would have a field day with this note at trial, had he been able to put Detective Bond on the stand and quizzed him about his shoddy investigation. That cross-examination, however, will not happen.

The Court of Appeals (Lynch, Chin and Korman [D.J.], reverses, and the conviction stands. While the Confrontation Clause guarantees defendants to cross-examine their accusers, a trial court has "broad discretion" to restrict cross-examination. While the Harvey Note had some relevancy, the restriction on cross-examination does not entitle Watson to a new trial. The Note contained multiple hearsay, "and the jury reasonably could have determine that Bond's decision not to follow up on unreliable information that Harvey was the shooter -- particularly in light of the strength of the evidence then available to Bond -- did not reflect a serious lack of thoroughness of the police investigation." Also, the trial court could have found that the hearsay note would confuse and mislead the jury. In light of the broad discretion that criminal court judges have in managing their trials, exclusion of this note was not an unreasonable application of settled Supreme Court Confrontation Clause doctrine.

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