Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Murder defendant wins new trial in habeas proceeding

I am fascinated by habeas corpus cases where the federal court grants the criminal defendant a new trial, because it means the state court convicted someone and sentenced him to jail for unconstitutional reasons. The state court process was broken and the federal system fixed it. In this case, the defendant was convicted of murder and has already spent quite some time in the big house, but the Second Circuit finds the state trial court denied him a fair trial.

The case is Scrimo v. Lee, issued on August 20. This is a sad story that results in a murder. It involves three people: the victim, Ruth Williams, strangled to death in her apartment; Paul Scrimo, who was convicted of murder; and John Kane, who was present at the time of the murder. At trial, Scrimo pointed the finger at Kane, who in turn said that Scrimo strangled Williams with a wire. The story also involves drugs (Kane was accused of being a cocaine dealer), gratuitous insults (the prosecution said Scrimo killed Williams because she rejected his sexual advances and said Scrimo had a "fat and ugly" wife) and Kane's DNA under Williams' fingernails, the byproduct of Williams performing unconsummated oral sex on Kane. The fourth player in this story is the state court judge who prevented Scrimo from putting on evidence that Kane was a drug dealer and that he may have killed Williams because they had a "drug relationship" and a drug deal went bad. The trial judge prohibited this evidence, finding that Scrimo was merely attacking Kane's credibility. Kane was a chief witness against Scrimo. Since the murder happened in 2000, if Scrimo is actually innocent of this crime, he has spent a long time in jail for something he did not do.

The Appellate Division affirmed and did not even address the issue that wins Scrimo a new trial in the Second Circuit, and the New York Court of Appeals declined to take up the case. As a last resort, Scrimo filed a habeas petition in the Eastern District of New York, which said Scrimo's conviction was not a constitutional violation. The Second Circuit was really the final stop for Scrimo, and the Court (Jacobs, Newman and Droney) finds the criminal court denied defendant a fair trial because he was disallowed from putting on relevant witnesses who could have proven that Kane had a motive to kill Williams (over a drug deal). This holding stems in part from the Second Circuit's recognition that the case against Scrimo was fairly weak to start with, and entirely circumstantial. Ultimately, defendant wins the habeas petition because the testimony about Lee's drug dealing "went to the obvious and decisive question of whether Kane committed the murder rather than Scrimo." Describing bad oral sex in the most lawyerly fashion imaginable, the Second Circuit states, "Scrimo's defense was that Kane was a drug dealer who strangled the victim over a drug deal. The jury could have inferred non-payment, or payment in kind (oral sex) that failed to give satisfaction."

This was not harmless error. As noted above, the case against Scrimo was weak, and the forensic evidence against him was inconclusive, "though it pointed in Kane's direction," probably because of the DNA evidence. The sole motive at trial for Scrimo killing Williams -- chivalry -- "was weak if not riseable." And, Judge Jacobs writes, "the state's supplemental explanation -- that Scrimo committed the murder because he was 'trying to get lucky,' and failed -- lacks firm evidentiary support."

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