Monday, November 23, 2015

Habeas challenge fails to upset murder conviction

This case was big news in Orange County in the late 1990s, involving a marijuana dealer who was accused of killing someone who had ratted him out to the police. The body was never found. The case has gone through many appeals, first through the state system and then in federal court, where the defendant brought a habeas corpus action. The Court of Appeals rejects the habeas petition, and that's probably the end of the line for this guy.

The case is Chrysler v. Guiney, decided on November 19. The facts represent your typical murder case. Chrysler vowed revenge against the snitch, and the murder victim disappeared one morning. But Chrysler's car had the victim's blood in it and his glasses were found at the victim's house, where he was last seen. The victim's DNA was found in Chrysler's car, and so on. There was quite a bit of other circumstantial evidence that linked Chrysler to the murder. The prosecution called witnesses who had implicated Chrysler in one way or another.

There was a second defendant, Weygant, who testified in the Grand Jury and offered testimony that did not help Chrysler. But Chrysler agreed to a consolidated criminal trial with Weygant, and his trial lawyer did not object when the prosecution read Weygant's Grand Jury testimony to the jury, even though Chrysler's lawyer was not able to cross examine this testimony. Although that created a Confrontation Clause problem, Chrysler's appellate lawyers did  not raise that issue on appeal from the conviction. So Chrysler brings this habeas petition challenging the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, which is a recognized basis to challenge your conviction and to demand a new trial.

At first glance, appellate counsel should have raised the Confrontation Clause issue on appeal. At the Supreme Court had just issued the Crawford ruling, and as the Second Circuit says in this case, "we assume that the admission of [the Grand Jury testimony] implicated Chrysler's Confrontation Clause rights." But the analysis goes beyond that. First, this issue was not preserved for appeal because trial counsel did not object to the Grand Jury testimony. Second, while the appellate courts in New York can still take up an unpreserved issue, it probably would not have done so unless the trial errors were quite egregious and deprived the defendant of a fair trial. In this case, the evidence of Chrysler's guilt was overwhelming, and a fairminded jurist on the Appellate Division could have thought the Grand Jury evidence merely corroborated the remaining evidence of Chrysler's guilt. As appellate counsel was entitled to proceed with the strongest arguments on appeal and not clutter up their brief with weaker arguments, the Second Circuit (Livingston, Kearse and Carney) finds they were not ineffective as Chrysler's lawyers.

What do we learn from this case? We learn that some constitutional errors are not enough to win the appeal. If the defendant is so guilty that the constitutional error would not have made a difference, then the habeas petition will fail. This case also reminds us that state courts have some leeway in interpreting the Constitution as it sees fit, and that it is not enough for the Second Circuit to disagree with the state courts. A habeas petition must only be granted if the state courts unreasonably interpreted the Constitution; a mere violation is not enough.

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