Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tattoo you

What say you, tattoo? It can say a lot. In this case, a guy was convicted of murder after the prosecution introduced evidence that the defendant had a tattoo that said "Enforcer."

The case is Vega v. Walsh, decided on February 17. This case has two noteworthy rulings, both governed by the watered-down habeas corpus standard of review that federal courts apply under the mid-1990's law that allows state-court criminal convictions to stand so long as the state courts do not unreasonably apply the U.S. Constitution.

The victim was found lying in a park in Queens, shot to death. Vega was convicted of murder and weapons possession. Among other things, in establishing that he had solicited a murder-for-hire, the prosecution presented evidence that Vega's tattoo on his abdomen said "Enforcer." Trial court evidentiary rulings are usually no basis to grant habeas relief, and the Second Circuit (Kearse, Leval and Chin) says that the "evidence at issue here was at least arguable relevant, and even assuming there was error, this evidence was not so extremely unfair that its admission violated fundamental conceptions of justice."

Vega's other argument is that it was unfair for the trial court to allow the medical examiner to testify about the contents of the autopsy report, which itself was not admitted in evidence. The medical witness was not the one who prepared the report, which corroborated the prosecution's theory that Vega was guilty. Vega argues that, following the trial in his case, the Supreme Court made it harder for the prosecution to get away with this, that autopsy reports are testimonial and testimony from a medical witness who did not prepare the report violates the Confrontation Clause. Even if Vega is technically correct, his argument fails. Habeas corpus law allows the state courts to interpret the Constitution as they see fit, even if a federal court would have done so differently, so long as the state court interpretation is not clearly unreasonable. The state court appellate ruling that affirmed Vega's conviction predated the Supreme Court cases invoked by Vega, and they were consistent with existing Supreme Court authority interpreting the Confrontation Clause. His habeas petition is denied.

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