Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Circuit grants habeas relief to robbery convict

Convicts like to blame their lawyers. So they become experts at habeas corpus and use the prison law library. Most of these cases fail. This one succeeded.

The case is Lynch v. Superintendent Dolce, decided on June 18. Lynch was convicted of first-degree robbery. To convict someone of that crime, the prosecution has to prove the defendant possessed a dangerous instrument at the time of the crime. Lynch's lawyer asked the trial judge to charge the jury on that element, but the trial court declined to do so. After Lynch was found guilty, he took up an appeal.

Things went awry on appeal. Lynch's lawyer did not argue on appeal that the verdict was wrong because the trial court did not properly charge the jury. Lynch lost the appeal, and brought this habeas corpus action, which the federal district court denied. The Court of Appeals said Lynch's appellate counsel denied him effective assistance of counsel, and that the habeas petition should have been granted.

Some interesting backstories to this case. First, Lynch did bad things. He robbed a woman and threatened her life in the presence of her children outside a Family Dollar store. Lynch's alibi was that he was somewhere else buying a gun which the police found on his person upon arrest for the robbery. That's quite an alibi.

In addition, for reasons that no one can explain, it took five years for Lynch's appellate counsel to perfect the appeal. Was the file sitting in a corner in counsel's office gathering dust while counsel found a more interesting case to work on?

Rather than assert a winning appellate argument about the elements of dangerous-instrument robbery, counsel raised weaker arguments. Lynch then filed the habeas action in state court to throw out the verdict before filing the habeas petition in federal court. Although the New York Court of Appeals had issued a ruling on point on the dangerous-instrument issue, the State Appellate Division affirmed the appeal.

Like I said, Lynch did bad things. The Second Circuit (Lynch [no relation], Leval and Droney) notes that Lynch's other convictions for second and third degree robbery were "well deserved" in light of evidence that he forcibly stole from a young mother and assaulted her in front of her children.

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