Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Habeas grants: giveth and taketh

The district court granted a habeas petition for an inmate who was convicted of murder without being able to thoroughly cross-examine the chief witness. That witness had implicated the defendant-inmate only after she learned that the defendant had accused of her participation in the crime. The Court of Appeals reverses and allows the state court conviction to stand.

The case is Corby v. Artus, decided on October 10. Inmates file habeas petitions to challenge their criminal convictions in federal court on constitutional grounds. This case is unique because the federal district court granted the habeas petition after the New York Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. But the inmate remains in jail.

Here's what happened. Burnett allowed Corby to sell drugs from her apartment. The buyer was later found dead. The detective later questioned Burnett about this, telling her that Corby had told him that Burnett might have been involved in the murder. Burnett then implicated Corby in the murder for the first time. At trial, Burnett was the key witness against Corby. But the judge restricted Burnett's cross-examination. Corby's lawyer wanted to get Burnett to admit that she blamed Corby for the murder only after the detective told Burnett that Corby had implicated her before she then threw Corby under the bus. This line of questioning would allow Corby to argue that Burnett killed the victim and that therefore she had a strong motive to lie and blame Corby for it. In preventing Corby's lawyer from pursing this cross-examination, the criminal court judge said that, for various reasons,  Corby's implication of Burnett was unreliable. In addition, allowing the jury to hear that Corby had implicated Burnett was unduly prejudicial to the government because the prosecution could not cross-examine Corby, who was protected by the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Yes, there is a right of cross-examination under the Sixth Amendment. No, that right is not absolute. The Court of Appeals (Walker, Winter and Cabranes) says the criminal court did not abuse its discretion in limiting the cross-examination. Corby had other ways to show that Burnett had a motive to lie in testifying at trial the Corby killed the guy, as Burnett herself had some involvement in the murder in that it took place in her apartment and helped remove the body and clean up the blood. There was also evidence of Burnett's hostility toward Corby in that, among other things, Corby had threatened Burnett's family. "To the extent she would falsely accuse anyone, Corby was 'the most plausible candidate.'" Any additional evidence of Burnett's motive to frame Corby would have had little probative value, but would have been unfairly prejudicial to the prosecution.

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