A defendant's homicide conviction in the Bronx was overturned after he was denied a fair trial. Julio Alvarez was accused of manslaughter and assault in connection to the 2002 shooting death of Bronx drug dealer Daniel Colon. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. However, because of the trial judge's "unreasonable interpretation" of the defendant's 6th amendment right to confront witnesses against him, the defendant was granted a writ of habeas corpus. What went wrong during this homicide trial?
Apparently, during the initial investigation, witnesses provided tips to the lead detective that pointed to the shooter being someone other than the defendant. The witness' tips were written down in the detective's notes and in an investigative report. The problem was that no one pursued those leads.
Naturally, during the detective's testimony at trial, the defendant's attorney began questioning the detective about his lackluster investigation. However, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Edward Davidowitz barred the defense from asking those questions, holding that the detectives' answers would contain improper hearsay. Briefly, hearsay is a statement made out of court that is offered for the truth of the fact asserted in it. A justification for the objection to hearsay is that the person who made the statement is not in court and thus is insulated from cross examination. However, there are many exceptions to the rule against hearsay. In particular, where the questioner is intending to offer the mere fact that a statement was made, as distinguished from the truth of that statement, evidence that the statement was made is not hearsay. In this case, the defense attorney sought to cross examine the detective about the report "to show that the police had not pursued known leads," not to show that the tips were true.
The Appeals Court said that by prohibiting these questions, the Judge denied the defendant the opportunity to develop his only defense to these violent felony charges. This case highlights the importance of hiring a criminal defense lawyer who has a strong grasp on the rules of evidence, and the ability to convey those legal principles to the judge. If not, one legal ruling could dramatically alter the verdict in a criminal trial.
Also, this case is a prime example that even after a guilty verdict, an effective appellate lawyer can skillfully analyze the legal issues that arose during the trial and occasionally discover improper rulings that will result in a new trial.
By Michael Jaccarino, Esq. of Aidala & Bertuna, P.C.
Source: New York Law Journal 8/19/14