Thursday, July 8, 2021

Manslaughter defendant wins new trial on habeas challenge to state-court conviction.

Habeas corpus petitions filed in federal court challenging state court convictions became much harder to win after Congress enacted a law in 1996 that said only state court convictions that violate clearly-established constitutional law (as determined by the Supreme Court) may be overturned in a habeas proceeding. That meant that actual but arguable constitutional violations in state court are not enough. To win, you have to show a clear constitutional violation. The inmate in this case overcomes that hurdle in the Court of Appeals, and he gets a new trial.

The case is Garlick v. Lee, issued on June 11. Garlick was convicted of first-degree manslaughter after someone was found stabbed and beaten to death in a Bronx apartment building. The detective ordered an autopsy of the victim. The report stated the victim was stabbed in the heart. The defendant claimed he was trying to defend himself and his girlfriend during a fight. At trial, the state called a witness to introduce the autopsy report, but this witness did not author the report and was not involved in the autopsy. Defendant objected on Sixth Amendment grounds that he was unable to confront the author and autopsy doctor. This report played a huge part of the state's strategy at trial, and defendant was convicted. 

On appeal to the First Department in the state appellate system, the Appellate Division said there was no Sixth Amendment violation because the report did not actually link defendant to the commission of the crime, and the report was not testimonial. On the habeas petition to federal court, the EDNY said the First Department's ruling violated clearly-established constitutional law, and the Second Circuit (Wesley, Sullivan and Menashi) agrees. Defendant wins the appeal.

Defendant wins because settled Supreme Court authority, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305 (2009), said forensic reports cannot be admitted in evidence at trial without an opportunity to cross-examine the person who wrote them. That case did not involve an autopsy report; it concerned forensic tests showing the defendant possessed drugs. A few years later, the Court said that even forensic reports that were prepared by "mere scriveners of machine-generated results" are inadmissible without cross-examination. These cases help defendant because (1) the First Department did not honor the principle that the autopsy report is testimonial and therefore needs confrontation at trial; (2) it was prepared in support of an active police investigation; (3) the report was used at trial to exclude someone else as the attacker; and (4) the Supreme Court has held that even forensic reports that do not directly accuse the defendant of committing the crime are still subject to cross-examination under the Sixth Amendment. This error was not harmless because the report excludes someone else as the attacker and there was no other medical evidence to pin the crime on defendant. Nor were there any witnesses who claimed that defendant stabbed the victim to death. The autopsy report was the strongest evidence against defendant. 

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