Monday, March 25, 2013

Ineffective criminal assistance makes defendant a free man

This poor guy was convicted of a crime because he did not present alibi witnesses at his trial to show that he was somewhere else when the crime was allegedly committed. Federal courts don't like to overturn state-court convictions, but they will grant a habeas corpus petition if the attorney did not provide competent counsel at trial. That's what happened here.

The case is Harrison v. Cunningham, a summary order decided on February 21. Harrison was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon. Harrison had two alibi witnesses who could tell the jury that Harrison was leaving a party when the crime took place. Harrison's lawyer did not comply with the rules requiring him to timely notify the prosecution about these alibi witnesses. So the jury was left with a credibility fight between Harrison -- who said he did not commit the crime -- and the arresting officer, who said he was certain that Harrison was guilty as sin. There was no physical evidence tying Harrison to the scene of the crime, so these alibi witnesses were the potential tiebreakers. But since Harrison's lawyer dropped the ball and did not produce these witnesses, the jury went with the police officer's account and convicted Harrison.

The lawyer said he did not comply with this obligation because he was new to the case and the alibi witness deadline had passed. That excuse does not work. Although the State Appellate Division, in upholding the conviction, said that "defendant failed to demonstrate good cause for his untimely alibi notice," the Second Circuit says there are ways to file a late alibi witness notice under state law.

As the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Lynch and Mauskopf [D.J.]). writes, "After Harrison testified, at the relevant time, he was leaving a party with two friends, his credibility depended on the presentation of supporting testimony by the two friends to whom he had referred. His counsel's failures prevented the presentation of such testimony, thereby suggesting to the jury that his friends declined to support his story because it was false." In all likelihood, the Court of Appeals says, Harrison would have won the criminal trial had these alibi witnesses testified. So the Second Circuit affirms the district court's ruling granting habeas corpus to Harrison, making Harrison a free man.

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