Sunday, May 01, 2005

Second Circuit reverses Monroe County murder conviction

I'm a few days late on this one, but the Second Circuit reversed John Howard's Monroe County murder conviction last week. Howard and two other men were accused of burglarizing an old lady's home. When the old lady was found dead the next day of a heart attack, the burglars were charged with her murder, accused of essentially scaring her to death. Statements were taken from all three men. One of the co-defendant's statements was damaging to Mr. Howard's case at trial, but (pursuant to the United States Supreme Court decision in Bruton v United States, 391 US 123 [1968]) the statement was ruled inadmissible.

The People at trial called an expert medical witness, who opined that the stress of the burglary caused the victim's heart attack and subsequent death. The expert's opinion was based in large part on her review of the co-defendant's statements regarding Howard's interaction with the victim during the burglary. The trial court allowed the expert's testimony, and also "established parameters for the defendant's cross-examination of [the expert]. It ruled that, if Howard attacked the basis for [the expert's] opinion through cross-examination, the State would be permitted to present to the jury all of the evidence [the expert] consider, including the [co-defendant's] statement." (Id. at *2.) The defense also indicated it wanted to call its own expert to testify that there was no way to tell for sure what caused the victim's heart attack; the trial court ruled that, if the defense put on its expert, the People could put the co-defendant's statements before the jury. (Id. at *3.)

In reversing Howard's murder conviction, the Second Circuit found that "the trial court's limitations on cross-examination of the State's expert witness and its denial of Howard's ability to call an expert witness were contrary to clearly established federal law and were not harmless." (Howard v Walker, 2005 WL 954884 [2d Cir 2005].) The Court further found that the trial court "offered Howard a constitutionally impermissible choice between his Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine [the People's expert], and his Sixth Amendment right to exclude the unreliable hearsay confession of a co-conspirator. The Supreme Court has recognized that a court may not subject a defendant to such a sacrifice." (Id. at *14.)

The Fourth Department had previously passed on Howard's legal claims, and gave them short shrift, noting only that the court had "considered the other contentions raised by defendant . . . and conclude that they are without merit.'" (Id., citing People v Howard, 661 NYS2d 386 [4th Dept 1997].)

The Second Circuit was not kind to the Fourth Department's treatment of the facts of Howard's trial. The Second Circuit noted that, in its decision affirming Mr. Howard's conviction, the Fourth Department reasoned that reversal was not necessary because the People's expert's testimony "would have been the same even without information obtained from the statement of one of the accomplices." (Howard, 241 AD2d at 921.) The Second Circuit disagreed with this conclusion, explaining in its decision:

[The People expert's] opinion regarding [the victim's] death consisted of two parts. The first, that [the victim's] death was caused by a cardiac arrythmia, was not seriously contested by the defendant. Howard did, however, contest the second part of [the People's expert's] opinion, that the cardiac arrythmia was caused by stress resulting from the burglary. In the course of voir dire, Howard's counsel questioned [the People's expert] regarding the impact of the three men's statements on her opinion:

[Howard's Counsel:] Is your opinion as to cause of death in this case contingent to some degree upon the representation in [the co-defendant's] statement being true?
[People's expert]: Yes.
Q: Okay. If those representations were not true, would that possibly change your opinion as to cause of death?
A: As to cause of death, I don't think so.

When pushed to specify to what she understood 'cause of death' to refer, however, [the People's expert] defined cause of death to mean 'cardiac arrythmia, due to arteriosclerosis.' The fact that the immediate cause of [the victim's] death was cardiac arrythmia was not contested. Asked, on the other hand, whether she could, without relying on the Bruton-infected statements, 'give an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to whether, in fact, the house robbery brought about the cardiac arrythmia,' [the People's expert] testified that she could not do so.

There exists 'clear and convincing evidence', indeed it is indisputable, that [the People's expert's] testimony that the burglary caused [the victim's] death relied on the Bruton-infected statement. On the basis of that statement, [the People's expert] testified before the jury that the burglary 'was an important factor on [the victim's] death. The appellate division's ruling 'was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'

There is more good stuff to be found in the Second Circuit's opinion, and Mr. Howard is undoubtedly pleased with the outcome. Of course, he's been in jail or prison since 1991, so its a little disheartening that it took 14 years for a court to get the facts and law right.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has an article about the Second Circuit's decision here. You can access the Howard decision at the Second Circuit's web site here (click "Decisions", "this month", and then scroll down).