Monday, October 18, 2010

Conviction upheld after excited utterance at police station

Shortly after a fatal shooting in New York City, one of the survivors (Pierre-Louis) saw the defendant, Richardson, at the police station and immediately shouted out that Richardson was the killer. This was not during a police lineup but, instead, Richardson and the other defendants were standing around in handcuffs. At more formal line-ups, Pierre Louis again identified Richardson as the killer. The question in this habeas corpus action is whether Richardson's conviction was the product of an "unduly suggestive" lineup?

The case is Richardson v. Superintendent of Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, decided on September 20. A few principles need to be clarified here. Many defendants are convicted after the jury hears that the crime victim picked the defendant at a police-lineup, which means that the lineups cannot be unduly suggestive, or the result of a police set-up. However, you cannot win a federal habeas corpus petition unless the state courts that affirmed the conviction unreasonably applied settled constitutional law. While Richardson won his habeas petition at the federal trial court, the Second Circuit Jacobs, Lynch and Restani [D.J.]), reverses, and Richardson's conviction stands.

Under the 1996 habeas corpus law, since the Supreme Court has never addressed any case quite like this one, the state courts have some leeway in interpreting the Constitution on their own in resolving this habeas action. So that even though a federal judge ruled in Richardson's favor on the suggestive lineup, that ruling is tossed out because the state court's ruling was not "unreasonable" (even if many federal judges are more experienced in applying the Constitution than state judges). The police station identification (when a very tall Richardson and other defendants were standing around in handcuffs) was not an unduly suggestive but, instead, an "accidental, unarranged viewing." No one told Pierre-Louis that Richardson was a suspect when Pierre-Louis saw him at the station house, and it is not unusual to see people in handcuffs there. As the Second Circuit notes, "every Supreme Court case addressing the suggestiveness of pretrial identifications in the due process context has involved police-conducted identification procedures."

I know what you're thinking. Richardson's fate was sealed precisely when Pierre-Louis shouted out, "He did it!" upon seeing Richardson. What the Court of Appeals is saying is that this was not quite a police-lineup, although it did in the end serve the same purpose. The Court of Appeals says, "while the police could have been more careful in coordinating the placement of the suspects and the arrival of the witnesses, it is too much of a stretch to say that the circumstances of Pierre-Louis's initial viewing are equivalent to 'the practice of showing suspects singly to persons for the purpose of identification' that 'has been widely condemned.'"

One last point. The Second Circuit has to also decide if the police station identification is sufficiently reliable to support Richardson's conviction. It was. One of the reasons for this is that another shooting victim (Ruiz) nearly jumped off his gurney and yelled at Richardson when Richardson presented to Ruiz in the hospital emergency room. This, and the fact that Richardson was at the crime scene, makes the spontaneous police-station identification all the more reliable.

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