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The seventh International Legal Ethics Conference took place last week at Fordham Law School’s Stein Center for Law and Ethics. The conference is supported by the International Association of Legal Ethics and was sponsored, in addition, by a variety of  law firms and law schools, including our own law school. We were proud to sponsor this provocative and informative conference.

One of the panels at the conference was devoted to current ethical issues in criminal advocacy from an international and comparative perspective. Panelists addressed a variety of fascinating issues arising in Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, Chile, Australia and the United States. The panel was moderated by Prof. Lissa Griffin, of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law. A summary of the presentations follows:


CURRENT ISSUES IN DEFENSE ETHICS 

Anat Horovitz, Hebrew University, Israel
Re-trials are the procedure prescribed under Israeli law through which a person who claims to have been wrongfully convicted can try to reverse his conviction. From a legal perspective, the chances of success in an application for re-trial are extremely limited. Since 1948, the Supreme Court has granted a re-trial in only 28 cases, which resulted in the exoneration of 21 convicts. Thus, one of the important challenges that the Public Defender’s Office has focused upon in recent years is the need to bring about change within Israeli society and its legal system in respect to recognition and treatment of wrongful convictions.

Under the Israeli Public Defender Law, the National Public Defender can file a request for re-trial on behalf of a convict, if he or she “determined that there is room to file a request for re-trial on his behalf”. Over the past few years, the Re-trial Department in the Israeli Public Defender’s Office has received between 30-40 applications a year, and following a long and tedious process, filed on average one request a year.

In my presentation, I intend to focus on the extent to which the Public Defender’s Office may take into account its institutional role and aspirations when deciding upon the cases it chooses to pursue and the manner in which these cases should be presented. Examples for dilemmas that can arise in each of these two stages include 1) whether or not to file a request on behalf of inmates who raise only partial claims of innocence, and 2) to what extent a Public Defender’s Office should attempt to prove another person’s guilt as a means to secure its client’s innocence. Had it been a legal clinic, in the first example, or a private attorney, in the second example, I doubt if these issues would have been regarded as problematic, but in the context of a Public Defender’s Office it is unclear how they ought to be approached and to what extent strategic and ideological considerations should impact the way these applications and cases are handled.


Stephanie Roberts, University of Westminster, UK
My presentation looks at the role of defence lawyers in wrongful convictions in England and Wales. I am currently doing an empirical study on our Court of Appeal and I will be using a sample from that where the grounds of appeal have been lawyer errors to see which ones will result in the conviction being overturned. We have had a large number of cases here where asylum seekers have been wrongly convicted of criminal offences such as arriving with a false passport because their lawyer has not explained to them that there is a statutory defence available and they have pled guilty to the charge. The Court of Appeal has now dealt with a number of these and quashed the conviction so I can link the discussion of defence lawyer ethics.  In the limited time for presentations, I will go through the empirical findings of what errors result in an overturned conviction.


CURRENT ISSUES IN PROSECUTION ETHICS 

Shawn Marie Boyne, IU McKinney School of Law, US
For decades, German prosecutors were bound by the principle of mandatory prosecution that mandated that they prosecute any case in which sufficient evidence exists to suspect that a crime has occurred. Beginning in the 1970s however, changes in the legislative code and changes in prosecutorial practice began to erode the force of that principle.  As a result, in the vast majority of “minor” crime, cases are settled with a fine, a deferred sentence, or a dismissal.  At first glance, this practice appears to be consistent with American plea bargaining. However, in contrast to American practice, the crimes that fall into the “minor” crimes category include crimes that are considered to be felonies in the United States, notably rape and corruption. Though those classification decisions are made by the German legislature, they are compounded by the organizational incentives in German prosecution offices that favor efficiency over painstaking investigation and prosecution. These factors, plus the German system’s comparatively lenient sentencing practices, play a large role in explaining why German prosecutions have not fueled an American-style incarceration explosion. In domestic violence and rape cases, these factors prevent German prosecutors from using the criminal justice system to reinforce the goal of gender equality.  Indeed, German prosecutors’ turn towards efficiency has undermined what Damaska labelled as the role of the activist state in the criminal justice process.

Because lay jurors in Germany seldom affect a case’s judicial outcome, there are three main “checks” on prosecutorial decision-making. To begin, victims may appeal a prosecutor’s dismissal decision to the General Public Prosecutors Office. Also, assuming that a sex crimes case makes it to trial, German law allows victims to be represented by a private prosecutor (Nebenklager) who functions like a party in the American system. Finally, if a prosecutor’s work product falls below standards or if a prosecutor breaks the law, the prosecutor may face administrative sanctions.

In this presentation, I argue that taken together, these checks on prosecutorial discretion do not adequately protect victims of sex crimes and domestic violence. As I point out the deficiencies of these systems of control, I will address the question: Why aren’t prosecutors more assertive in prosecuting these types of cases? Is it simply a matter of resources or is it attributable to larger issues in German society?


Marny Requa, Georgian Court University, US

This talk focuses on decisions to pursue criminal cases against police officers and members of the military in Chile for torture and mistreatment. The Chilean criminal justice system has undergone significant reform since 2000. Incidents that arose before the reforms are still dealt with under the old system, generally with magistrates investigating and making prosecutorial decisions after private parties have initiated a case. In the past 15 years, magistrates have been more willing to prosecute these cases. Recent incidents are most commonly prosecuted by a new, independent public prosecutor’s office (Ministerio Público), although a vast number of these are not pursued. Decision-making in both types of cases raises political as well as ethical considerations that have changed over time, a point emphasized in empirical research conducted as part of an ongoing research project titled Lawyers, Conflict and Transition, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. The talk will cover key points from that research impacting on prosecutorial decisions as well as formal and informal forms of accountability.


Lawrence Hellman, Oklahoma City University School of Law, US

Prosecutorial misconduct is now understood to be widespread in the American criminal justice system.  Official misconduct was a factor in half of the 1800+ known wrongful convictions in the United States that have been corrected by post-conviction remedies since 1989.  However, existing accountability systems provide insufficient deterrents to misconduct by prosecutors, and they do little to motivate and enable prosecutors to deter official misconduct on the part of other state actors involved in prosecutions.

I propose consideration of a new approach to prosecutorial accountability that draws on the successful transition to a proactive management-based regulatory system that has been adopted in Australia for incorporated legal services providers.  I will describe how a proactive management-based model of prosecutor accountability might function and suggest how it might be implemented without necessarily applying it to the entire American legal profession.  The proactive model would supplement, not replace, the current reactive system.  It would be designed to reduce not only the misconduct of prosecutors themselves, but also misconduct of other state actors, such a police, investigators, and laboratory scientists.  By reducing official misconduct in the criminal advocacy process, wrongful convictions should become less common and meritorious prosecutions should reach more reasonable outcomes.


Kellie Toole, University of Adelaide, Australia

In Australia, a prosecutor must be satisfied of a ‘reasonable prospect of conviction’ before prosecuting a person for a serious crime. The assessment of the reasonable prospects often involves a relatively objective assessment of available evidence. However, ethical issues arise where witness credibility is critical, as with sex offences, and jury decisions can be unpredictable or even undesirable. Prosecutors have to decide whether to proceed where they assess that a jury might convict but should not, or might not convict but should. This situation raises issues about the prosecutorial role of the community (through the jury) and the State (through the prosecutor), and the fine line between prosecutors properly exercising their discretion, and improperly usurping the decision-making role of the jury.

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WRITTEN BY: Anjelica Cappellino, Esq. & Prof. John Meringolo, Esq.

On Monday, June 27, 2016, politicians and their friends breathed a collective sigh of relief when the United States Supreme Court unanimously vacated the conviction of former Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell. The decision, authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., narrowed the definition of an “official act” and what it means in the context of bribery and honest services fraud. As a result, ostensibly politicians will be able to more freely provide favors to others.

McDonnell and his wife were convicted on charges of honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion in connection with their acceptance of $175,000 in loans and gifts from the chief executive officer of a nutritional supplement company. In exchange for the monies, the government alleged that McDonnell committed “official acts” in his capacity as governor, to facilitate Virginia’s public universities to perform research studies on the CEO’s nutritional supplements. The government alleged these “official acts” included hosting and attending events, and contacting and promoting the CEO’s products to other government officials. McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. __ (2016) at 10. Although McDonnell was found guilty at trial, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction, which hinged on the definition of an “official act.”

Under 18 U.S.C. § 201, the statute that proscribes the bribery of public officials, an “official act” is defined as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.”

First, the Court concluded that the terms “cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” “connote a formal exercise of governmental power, such as a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination.” McDonnell, 579 U.S. __ at 20. The Court held the terms “question” and “matter” are similar in nature to a “cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” and therefore, cannot be broadly applied. Second, the Court held that the requirement in 18 U.S.C. § 201(a)(3), stating that the question or matter must be “pending” or “may by law be brought,” before “any public official,” suggests that it is a matter “that is relatively circumscribed – the kind of thing that can be put on an agenda, tracked for progress, and then checked off as complete.” Id. at 22. Therefore, the Court held that “[u]nder that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.’” Id. at 19.

What does this mean for the future of political bribery and honest services fraud cases? It narrows the reach of the statute. If an “official act” must be a formalized exercise of power, on a question or matter that can be tracked for progress, arguably a politician may now provide favors in a more informal, tempered way. Therefore, McDonnell is likely to positively impact politicians and other government officials who dole out favors to those who provide them gifts and other benefits. Understandably, and especially in our currently unstable political climate, lax interpretations of bribery statutes are not likely to go over well with the public.

On the other hand, however, McDonnell does tenuously open the doors for more honest and free-flowing communications between government officials and the individuals they represent. As Chief Justice Roberts states:

[t]he basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns – whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm…. Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic recourse.

Id. at 22. While it is safe to say bribery and honest services fraud are exactly what keeps ordinary citizens from “participating in democratic recourse,” McDonnell nonetheless gives politicians and government officials a chance to rise to the occasion. If these types of “unofficial” favors are truly as innocuous as politicians claim, now is the time for them to prove it. Prove it is not simply a quid pro quo. Prove it is not a quick cash grab. Prove it is not only those with wealth and influence that you seek to help. Prove it, as Chief Justice Roberts states, embodies that you genuinely want to appropriately help all constituents.

Related Readings:

POST WRITTEN BY: Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law at Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, Scholar, and Renowned Expert on Prisoners’ Rights.

All felony defendants convicted of a felony in New York are assessed a non-waivable $375 surcharge upon conviction. When they are sent to prison their prison accounts are assessed to pay these charges which depletes the meager amounts that inmates are able to earn in prison which otherwise might be used to buy supplies that can ease the burden of incarceration and also to maintain essential contact with their families through phone calls and visits. Theoretically, judges can defer these charges while the defendant is in prison, but the standard for doing so is hard to satisfy and the procedure for doing so has been made so enormously difficult by a recent restrictive decision  of the New York State Court of Appeals, People v. Jones26 N.Y. 3d 730 (2016), that it almost never happens. Ironically, the law governing these matters involving small sums of money is as complex as the law that controls major securities transaction.

In People v. Tookes, __ N.Y.S. 3d __, 2016 WL 3221208 (Sup. Ct. NY County June 8, 2016), (attached) Judge Daniel Conviser of the New York State Supreme Court sensitively addresses this issue and in his analysis indicates why a legislative fix is needed to address this problem. Judge Conviser in his opinion demonstrates powerfully why something that seems so insignificant to so many is so critical to people in prison. Judge Conviser in the conclusion of this opinion notes that:

[s]entencing for a trial court is not an abstract exercise. A sentence is pronounced on a human being, who, no matter what crime he or she has committed, stands in the well, often in custody, and often with family members close by, who upon a sentence to state prison will suffer a significant punishment … as the one human being who is most directly responsible for sending a fellow human being to be confined in a correctional facility where much of what makes a life worth living is taken, the sentencing court should have the ability to provide the extra soap or deodorant, the postage stamps which might make communicating with family easier or even the extra food which might make prison life more bearable.

Id. at 14. These words demonstrate a humanity and understanding that is rare to find in a judicial opinion. I hope that this decision will lead to change in the law to allow judges in appropriate cases to defer these charges at least during the period of a prisoner’s incarceration. It certainly deserves wide circulation and attention.

Prof. Bennett L. Gershman of Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, in his most recent Huffington Post blog titled Judge Drops Ball in “Grid Kid Slaying” Casecomments on yet another instance of blatant prosecutorial misconduct. This one involves a Brooklyn prosecutor who failed to reveal information about circumstances surrounding the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness.  As Prof. Gershman suggests, it appears that there was in fact a quit pro quo between the prosecutors office and Avitto, which the Judge chose to ignore.

This was the defendant John Giuca’s second try at a new trial.  Prof. Gershman focuses on the court’s misplaced acceptance of the testimony of a career criminal, John Avitto (Giuca’s cell-mate), who claimed Giuca had confessed to him and who also claimed he had not received anything in return for his testimony.   Prof. Gershman articulates the test that should be applied and concludes that the court failed to engage in the appropriate analysis.

But Judge Chun missed the point. The test is not whether there was any formal agreement; the test – and the law is very clear on this – is whether there is any reasonable basis in fact for the informant to believe that he is gaining special treatment from the prosecution because of his cooperation, and whether that special treatment might reasonably have motivated him to falsify his testimony.

Prof. Gershman asks:

… Is this a tactic that a prosecutor – the most powerful official in government and sworn to serve justice – should be allowed to embrace when there is the chance that revealing these facts to the jury might destroy the credibility of her star witness?

 

Related Readings:

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

The “mode of proceedings error” doctrine created by the NY Court of Appeals recognizes that some errors committed by a criminal trial court are so harmful to the integrity of the process that they are subject to appellate review even if defense counsel did not lodge an objection. The doctrine’s procedural safeguard is powerful because when it is held to apply, harmless error analysis is barred and the conviction must be reversed.

In a decision issued on June 7, 2016, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether a trial court committed such error when it accepted a jury’s guilty verdict on a charge of first-degree gang assault before the court had responded to certain notes from the jury requesting review of a court instruction and of testimony by a witness. On appeal, a divided panel of the Fourth Department found this to be a mode of proceedings error requiring reversal and a new trial. People v. Mack, 117 A.D. 3d 1450,  984 N.Y.S.2d 768 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014). The People sought review by the Court of Appeals.

At issue was NY Criminal Procedure Law § 310.30’s requirement that a trial court receiving a note from a deliberating jury must provide counsel with notice of the content of the note and provide a meaningful response to the jury. Also at issue was the scope of the Court’s precedents in cases such as People v. O’Rama, 78 N.Y.2d 270, 579 N.E.2d 189, 574 N.Y.S.2d 159 (1991), in which the Court applied the mode of proceedings doctrine in the context of a court’s response or failure to respond to juror requests for further instruction.

In People v. Mack, it was undisputed that the trial court fulfilled its responsibility to inform counsel of the contents of the jury’s notes. The Court’s precedents also made clear that a court’s failure in that responsibility would constitute a mode of proceedings error. Six judges of the Court of Appeals considered that the issue presented was a new one: whether a mode of proceedings error was committed by a trial court that, although properly informing counsel of the content of jury notes, erred by not providing a response to the jury before accepting the verdict.

A 6-1 majority of the Court found against the defendant. The majority’s review of the Court’s precedents persuaded it that in the juror note context the mode of proceedings doctrine did not apply when, as in this case, defense counsel had sufficient notice, information, and opportunity to lodge an objection. In the majority’s view, the powerful force of the doctrine should not be deployed in such circumstances and where the thought of its applicability might provide perverse incentives to defense counsel to forego objecting.

Judge Rivera authored a forceful dissent. She disagreed with the majority’s statement that the issue presented was novel. In her view, a proper reading of the Court’s precedents indicated that the trial court committed a mode of proceedings error when it defaulted on its “core responsibility under CPL § 310.30” by accepting the jury’s verdict without first responding to its questions “or without alternatively asking the jurors whether they had withdrawn their requests.” With respect to the majority’s comment about perverse incentives, Judge Rivera argued that

[d]efendant’s preference or acquiescence is irrelevant because the duty [to comply with CPL § 310.30] works on the court, not the defendant.

Related Readings:

The New York State Assembly will soon vote on Assembly Bill No. 9939, which would establish independent oversight of NY’s prisons.  Prof. Michael B. Mushlin drafted a letter in support of the Bill, which he sent to the Speaker Heastie on June 7, 2016.

The purpose of the 2015 Assembly Bill No. 9939 is summarized as follows:

[This Bill] creates the office of the correctional ombudsman to achieve transparency, fairness, impartiality, and accountability in New York state correctional facilities; relates to reports by coroners; designates investigators of the office of the correctional ombudsman as peace officers; authorizes the attorney general to investigate the alleged commission of any criminal offense committed by an employee of the department of corrections and community supervision in connection with his or her official duties; relates to the confidentiality of certain records; and includes the office of the correctional ombudsman records within the definition of public safety agency records; makes related provisions.

Prof. Mushlin concludes his letter with a quote from the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy from his 2003 speech to the American Bar Association:

It is no defense if our current prison syste is more the product of neglect than of purpose. Out of sight, out of mind is an unacceptable excuse for a prison system that incarcerates over two million human beings in the United States.

Related Readings:

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

The lead editorial in the New York Times of June 6, 2016 addresses an important issue: the all-too-frequent failure or resistance of prosecutors to comply with their constitutional obligation to produce to the defense evidence in their possession that is potentially exculpatory or mitigating for a defendant. To address this issue, the editorial suggests that the United States Department of Justice should monitor the practices of district attorneys’ offices in which such problems have arisen in the past.

This proposal may have merit, but it contains at least one troubling issue indicated in the editorial’s title: “To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds.” This title and the editorial’s text suggest that the problem at issue is entirely or primarily the fault of local district attorneys’ offices and that such problems are absent or de minimis in the offices of federal prosecutors.

The editorial’s concern for fairness to individuals facing state criminal charges is to be applauded, but its proposal raises questions regarding federal prosecutors, who themselves are members of the Department of Justice, the department that would conduct the oversight. Will federal overseers, eager to advance their careers, monitor prosecutors in their own department as carefully as they review prosecutors in state offices? Will the Department’s oversight mandate be limited to local district attorneys’ offices? If so, will this foster an idea that federal prosecutors are exempt from scrutiny regarding their compliance with Brady v. Maryland?

In considering the editorial’s proposal, it is perhaps worth remembering an old question asked by the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians?

Related Readings:

On May 23, 206, the Supreme Court decided Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349 (U.S. 2016), a thirty-year old death penalty case raising Batson claims of racial selection of the trial jury. The court remanded the case, presumably for a new trial. You can read an analysis by Professor Bennett Gershman in his latest titled How Prosecutors Get Rid of Black Jurors

Related Readings:

Interestingly, the federal court has postponed Sheldon Silver’s surrender date pending the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. McDonnell. Read a recent post by Prof. Bennett L. Gershman on the pending appeal titled Corrupt Acts, Political Favors, and the McDonnell Case. Virginia Ex-Governor McDonnell appealed his bribery conviction after jury found him guilty of receiving frequent and multiple gifts from Jonnie Williams, head of a dietary supplement company. The statute requires that a public official “corruptly received anything of value personally in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act.”

McDonnell appealed the conviction citing routine political conduct, being accessible to its constituents, lending a friendly ear, and even arguing that “political favors were political speech protected by the First Amendments.” Prof. Gershman comments on the Justices’ behavior during the arguments pointing out that although Justice Breyer appeared “troubled by the statutory term ‘influence’”, its definition, meaning and application, Justice Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared to “buy McDonnell’s arguments.”

How will the Court’s decision in McDonnell, a decision watched by many across the country, affect the results of Sheldon Silver’s pending appeal?

Related Readings:

Earlier this month, the New York Court of Appeals issued its decision in People v. Elliot Parrilla, in which the defendant was convicted of possession of a gravity knife under NY Penal Law § 265.02(1). That provision states that a person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree when

…[s]uch person commits the crime of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree as defined in subdivision one…of section 265.01 and has been previously convicted of any crime.

NY Penal Law § 265.01 defines Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree as follows:

A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when: (1) he or she possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, plastic knuckles, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or “Kung Fu star”; …

Both sides agreed that, to be convicted, the defendant had to knowingly possess a knife. The defense argued that the defendant also had to know that the knife he possessed was capable of being a “gravity knife.” The Court of Appeals held that he did not, and affirmed the conviction.

Interestingly, when the defendant was arrested he possessed a knife that he had bought at a large retail store in the Bronx  for use in his work as a contractor/ carpenter to cut sheet rock. He testified that on the day of his arrest, he had used the knife to cut tiles, but that he opened it with two hands and had never opened it with one hand by flicking his wrist, which is what makes a knife a gravity knife. The court charged the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found he knowingly possessed a knife, did not have to find that he knew it fit the “legal description of a gravity knife,” but had to find that it did in fact fit that description. Under NY Penal Law § 265.01(5) a gravity knife is

any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.

The Court did not engage in any extended analysis: it relied on the plain language of the statute to find an intent to criminalize possession of weapons that are per se particularly dangerous. It supported this holding by pointing out that knowledge of a firearm’s operability is not an element of criminal possession of a weapon.

Arguably, under the Model Penal Law, the result would be different. Since no mens rea is specified in the statute, the MPC would require that a conviction be based on evidence that the defendant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly possessed a gravity knife, and it would apply not only to the possession element but to the attendant circumstance that what is possessed is a gravity knife.

Interestingly, again, this was one of the cases argued at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, when the Court of Appeals heard cases at the Judicial Institute. It was a fascinating argument, partly because of the fact that the knives had been legally sold by a major store chain until that chain agreed with the office of the NY County District Attorney to stop selling that item; partly because the defendant apparently did use the knife in his work, and partly because he was only arrested and charged with the weapon after he caused a ruckus with the police. Of course, those are the kinds of facts that you can learn from an oral argument or a trial, but that rarely make it into a written decision on a question of law.

Related Readings:

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