Category Archives: Ineffective Assistance

Opening the Door

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In State v. Wafford, the WA Court of Appeals that a defendant’s counsel “opened the door” to suppressed evidence during opening statement, and that the proper remedy was to admit evidence that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

The incidents began years before. In 2005, T.H.’s mother heard that eight-year-old T.H. had told a friend that something inappropriate happened with Mr. Wafford. After reporting to police, T.H.’s mother took T.H. to be interviewed at Dawson Place, the Snohomish County Center for Child Advocacy. There, a child forensic interview specialist talked with T.H., and their conversation was video-recorded. T.H. did not make a specific disclosure of sexual abuse by Wafford, though she did appear to nod affirmatively in response to one question about inappropriate sexual contact. The State did not investigate further or charge Wafford.

However, Mr. Wafford continued to sexually abuse H.F. as well as her sister T.H. Eventually, the State charged Wafford with crimes against both T.H. and H.F.  As to T.H., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and first degree incest. As to H.F., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and third degree child molestation.

PRE-TRIAL SUPPRESSION OF VIDEO INTERVIEW

Before trial, the court conducted a child hearsay hearing at which it concluded that the 2005 recorded interview of T.H. was inadmissible. The court reasoned that because T.H. never actually described an act of sexual contact, her statements were not admissible under the child hearsay statute.

TRIAL

During defense counsel’s opening statement, she referred explicitly to the video of T.H.’s interview: “Mariyah brought both H.F. and T.H. to Dawson Place in 2005. Nova Robinson interviewed on video T.H., but T.H. denied that anything was happening to her.” The State did not object.

After opening remarks, the State requested that the court admit the interview video that had been previously excluded. The State argued that when defense counsel mentioned the video, she opened the door to its admission. The court found that defense counsel opened the door and admitted a portion of the video. Ultimately, the jury found Wafford guilty of first degree child molestation of T.H., but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The court sentenced Wafford to 68 months in prison.

Wafford appealed on the argument that, as a matter of law, comments made by counsel during opening statements cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that (1) a party who introduces evidence of questionable admissibility may open the door to rebuttal with evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible, and (2) a party who is the first to raise a particular subject at trial may open the door to evidence offered to explain, clarify, or contradict the party’s evidence. State v. Jones, citing 5 KARL B. TEGLAND, WASHINGTON PRACTICE: EVIDENCE LAW AND PRACTICE § 103.14, at 66-67 (5th ed.2007).

With that background, the Court addressed Wafford’s argument that because a comment made during an opening statement  is not evidence, it cannot open the door pursuant to State v. Whelchel and  Corson v. Corson.

However, the Court distinguished these cases. First, it reasoned that Whelchel does not support the broad proposition that opening statements cannot open the door because the evidence in question in Whelchel was admissible when the parties made opening statements. Second, the Corson case was distinguishable because in that case the trial court wrongfully admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in response to an improper opening statement when other more effective means of ensuring a fair proceeding are available. Consequently, the Corson case did not hold that opening statements can never open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

Next, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that comments made during opening statements cannot open the door. First, such a rule would be contrary to the general rule permitting trial courts the discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Second, whether the issue arises from the statement of counsel or the testimony of a witness is immaterial to the question faced by the trial judge: to what extent, if any, has the statement compromised the fairness of the trial and what, if any, response is appropriate:

“In answering this question, the trial judge should have a range of options at his or her disposal. A judge may admonish the jury to disregard certain statements or reiterate its instruction that opening statements are not evidence. The judge may allow testimony about otherwise inadmissible evidence, while continuing to exclude the exhibit or document which contains the evidence. Or the judge may find that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence. The appropriate response is that, which in the discretion of the trial judge, best restores fairness to the proceeding.”

Finally, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that the trial court mistakenly admitted the recording because it was inadmissible hearsay and therefore incompetent evidence.  Under ER 801(d)(1)(ii), a statement is not hearsay if “the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross examination concerning the statement, and the statement is… consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge against the declarant of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive. . . .” Here, however, the victim testified. The court concluded her affirmation of Wafford’s unlawful sexual conduct was consistent with her testimony and is thus not hearsay under ER 801(d)(1).

With that, the Court upheld Wafford’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion?

It is well settled in Washington that a party that introduces evidence of questionable admissibility runs the risk of “opening the door” to the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence by an opposing party.

For this reason, it is mandatory that attorneys exercise extreme discretion with their comments and questions during trial. Defense attorneys must avoid discussing evidence they work so hard to suppress. Not only can one “open the door” during direct and cross examination of witnesses, but also opening statements.

Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial.

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In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence that the defendant prostituted the victim was properly admitted in his prosecution for second degree assault by strangulation. These prior acts were necessary to explain to the jury why the victim was fearful of seeking help from her family or from the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

The Defendant Euran Woods and victim BrittanyEnglund began their volatile relationship in 2009. At that time, Woods and Englund sold drugs together and Englund herself was addicted to drugs. As Englund’s drug addiction grew, so did her dependency on Woods— who exploited this dependency to isolate Englund from her friends and family. In addition to being emotionally abusive, Woods physically abused Englund throughout their relationship.

In 2011, Woods began forcing Englund to prostitute herself. He conditioned Englund to comply with his demands by convincing her that her life of prostitution was only temporary and that one day they would both have normal jobs and be happy together.

Englund argued with Woods regarding the prostitution several times. On one occasion in August of 2011, Woods strangled Englund until she passed out. Englund did not inform the police or her family of the abuse or prostitution both out of fear that Woods would retaliate and because she felt that Woods loved her and was sorry.

However, Woods strangled Englund again in September of 2011 after she discovered  he had been taking suggestive pictures with other women. Woods threw Englund across the room, kicked her, stomped on her, and strangled her until she passed out. Woods later apologized to Englund, who decided to not call the police.

In April of 2012, Woods again assaulted Englund. Her mother drove her to the hospital. Englund disclosed the 2011 assaults for the first time during a subsequent interview with a police detective.

THE CHARGES, JURY TRIAL & BASIS FOR APPEAL.

Woods was charged with one count of assault in the second degree for the September 2011 strangulation, with a special allegation of domestic violence pursuant to RCW 10.99.020.

During trial, the court admitted evidence of the August 2011 strangulation and the prostitution evidence. It determined that such evidence was admissible because it aided the jurors in understanding the nature of the relationship, motive, and intent, and helped to illuminate the victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that—in matters dealing with domestic violence—testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the victim’s credibility.

The jury found Woods guilty. He timely appealed. Although his attorney filed an Anders brief on arguments that the appeal was frivolous, the WA Court of Appeals nevertheless granted review to resolve the issues presented.

THE COURT’S REASONING AND CONCLUSION.

ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals illustrated that under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s prior bad act is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character and to show action in conformity therewith. However, such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence of a prior bad act to be admissible, a trial judge must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.

Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s rulings herein werecorrect. Englund’s testimony as to how Woods forced her into prostitution and why she was unable to escape was necessary for the jurors to understand the dynamics of this domestic violence relationship. Furthermore, Woods’ forced prostitution of Englund was a source of shame and fear for Englund and was an important factor in understanding why she refused to seek help from her friends, family, and the police.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how Constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel is established only when the defendant shows that (1) counsel’s performance, when considered in light of all the circumstances, fell below an objectively reasonable standard of performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Under this analysis, the Court rejected Wood’s arguments that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the prostitution evidence.  It reasoned there was nothing objectionable about this evidence because it was properly admitted pursuant to ER 404(b). Moreover, Woods’ counsel expressly deferred an objection to the prostitution evidence after stating that he viewed that evidence as presenting a valuable area for cross examination: “Rather, the record demonstrates that a tactical decision was made.”

Woods also believed he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to request a limiting instruction regarding the prostitution evidence. However, the Court of Appeals held this was also a strategic decision on the part of Woods’ defense attorney: “Defense counsel argued to the jury that Woods did not cause Englund’s injuries. Rather, he posited, those injuries could have been a result of Englund’s prostitution.” Thus, deficient performance was not established.

With that, the COurt of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.

No Motion to Suppress?

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In Mahrt v. Beard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant may bring a pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel claim when counsel’s failure to argue a motion to suppress the fruits of a search prevents the defendant from making an informed choice whether to plead guilty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On September 3, 2012, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a residence in Petaluma, California. A neighbor had reported that a male and female subject were arguing over a gun. The Defendant Gregory Mahrt was living in a garage on the property that had been converted into a room. As the deputies approached the property, Mahrt walked out and met them at the front gate. The deputies detained Mahrt and asked about the argument, the gun and whether anyone else was inside the residence.

Mr. Mahrt was “uncooperative.” The deputies conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. As the deputies approached the garage, Mahrt began yelling that he did not want the officers to enter his room. According to the report, the deputies observed ammunition cans, ammunition, and what appeared to be an AR-15 Rifle (later determined to be a replica).

The deputies subsequently learned that Mahrt had a prior felony conviction and arrested him for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The deputies then asked Mahrt for permission to search his room.

This is where the facts differ: according to police reports, Mr. Mahrt consented. The deputies conducted a second search of the room. They found additional ammunition, rifle magazines, and two firearms. According to Mahrt, however, he did not consent to the search.

On September 5, 2012, the State of California charged Mahrt with having been a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of California Penal Code § 29800(a)(1) and § 30305(a)(1). Mahrt believed that the warrantless search (or searches) of the garage was (or were) illegal. However, neither of the two public defenders who represented him at the trial court level moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition recovered from his room.

Nevertheless, despite his defense counsel’s failure to move to suppress, Mahrt pleaded guilty to both charges and received a six-year sentence. He appealed. On appeal, Mahrt’s appointed counsel did not raise any issues. Instead, his counsel filed a Wende brief, the California analogue to an Anders brief. A Wende brief is filed when a California appellate attorney concludes that an appeal would be frivolous.  On November 27, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Mahrt’s conviction.

On April 11, 2014, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The petition alleged that Mahrt’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by his trial counsels’ failure to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition found in his room. A magistrate judge, sitting by consent, granted Mahrt’s petition. The State timely appealed.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

  1. The Defendant May Proceed With a Pre-Plea Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim.

The 9th Circuit  reasoned that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of case discussing pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress:

“The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled.”

    2. Mahrt’s Counsel Was Ineffective.

The Court held that Mahrt’s counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition. It reasoned that there was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Second, a police officer’s report mischaracterized the first search as a “protective sweep.”

The Court reasoned that a warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” Here, Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person inside the residence who could pose a danger to themselves or to others. Consequently, the Court reasoned that defense counsel should have filed and argued a motion to suppress the search of Maert’s premises.

My opinion? It’s very importnant to retain qualified defense counsel in search and seizure cases such as this. Here, the defendant accepted a plea bargain on the advice of defense counsel who, according to the court, failed to argue motions to suppress. Pretrial motions are essential. It’s imperative to hire defense counsel who know the law and argue it effectively. Contact my office if you, a friend or family matter face criminal charges where a search was involved.

The Right to Hope for Jury Nullification

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Interesting article by Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute discusses whether jury nullification could aid a defendant who is facing deportation in lieu of receiving bad legal advice.

According to Ms. Shapiro, defendant Jae Lee came to the United States legally as a child but never became a citizen. In 2009, he pled guilty to a drug crime after his lawyer assured him that he could not be deported. The lawyer was wrong, unfortunately, because the conviction made Lee subject to deportation.

When Lee learned of this mistake, he asked the court to vacate his plea so he could instead face trial, arguing that his counsel’s assistance was ineffective. The court denied this motion because of the overwhelming evidence against Lee, ruling that his conviction at trial was so certain that his counsel’s bad advice didn’t actually harm him, particularly given the much longer prison sentence he would receive if convicted after trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the law court’s ruling that a jury wasn’t needed to determine Lee’s guilt and that denying the “chance to throw a Hail Mary at trial is not prejudicial” and therefore doesn’t violate Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that that the only chance Lee had was acquittal by “jury nullification” and thus such a gambit was so irrational—and the idea of nullification so antiquated—that it is not to be allowed.

For those who don’t know, jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

According to Shapiro, Mr. Lee is now taking the matter at the United States Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear his argument, which Cato is supporting with this amicus brief.

The Supreme Court must now protect the right to pursue Mr. Lee’s potentially risky trial strategy. Although it may not be wise for Mr. Lee to seek acquittal by jury nullification, he should also have the right to decide whether the risk is worth facing as against the certainty of deportation. According to Shapiro, “It is not up to courts to pick which strategy is best for criminal defendants to follow, but judges should protect the right to choose a jury trial even when they might not make the same choice under the same circumstances.” The Supreme Court hears argument in Lee v. United States on March 28, 2017.

My opinion? This is a very relevant, timely, progressive and news-worthy development. The new administration’s goals to deport criminal immigrants puts a lot of pressure on our courts to enforce these policies.

Ultimately, I predict an increase in post-conviction Motions to Withdraw guilty pleas based on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel under Padilla v. Kentucky, a 2010 United States Supreme Court case which held  that defense attorneys must inform their clients whether his plea carries a risk of deportation.

Contact the Law office of Alexander F. Ransom if you, family or friends are not U.S. citizens, yet face possible deportation for entering past guilty pleas which were ill-advised by defense counsel. Deportation is a terrible consequence for a prior attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel.

Deported After Conviction

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In State v. Manajares, The WA Court of Appeals Division III upheld the defendant’s 2002 conviction because at the time it was unforeseeable that the plea would result in deportation.

In December 2002, defendant Jose Manajares entered an Alford plea to one count of Unlawful Imprisonment, a Class C Felony. Before accepting the plea, the court asked Mr. Manajares if he understood that his “plea of guilty to this count is grounds for deportation from the United States, … exclusion from admission to the United States and denial of naturalization,” and he answered “Yes.” The court accepted the plea and sentenced Mr. Manajares.

Shortly after he entered the plea, Mr. Manajares was removed from the United States by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Almost 10 years after his 2002 conviction, Mr. Manajares filed a CrR 7.8 motion to vacate his Alford plea. He argued he received ineffective assistance of counsel because Manjares’s defense attorney failed to advise him that his conviction could result in deportation.

The Court reasoned that when determining whether a defense attorney provided effective assistance, the underlying test is always one of “reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.”

PADILLA V. KENTUCKY.

In Padilla, the United States Supreme Court recognized that immigration law can be complex,” and that “some members of the bar who represent clients facing criminal charges … may not be well versed in it.  Because “there will, therefore, undoubtedly be numerous situations in which the deportation consequences of a particular plea are unclear or uncertain,” the Court announced the following standard for assessing a criminal defense lawyer’s duty:

“When the law is not succinct and straightforward … a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a non-citizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences. But when the deportation consequence is truly clear, … the duty to give correct advice is equally clear.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals reasoned whether Mr. Manajares’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim depended on whether truly clear adverse immigration consequences would follow from his 2002 plea that defense counsel failed to apprehend and explain.

IMMIGRATION & NATIONALITY ACT.

The Court also reviewed the Immigration and Nationality Act, “which holds that any alien convicted of, or who admits having committed, or who admits committing acts which constitute the essential elements of … a crime involving moral turpitude ( other than a purely political offense) … is inadmissible.” 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(I). Here, the court reasoned it was unclear to both Mr. Manjares’s immigration attorney and his appellate attorney whether a conviction for unlawful imprisonment was an aggravated felony or a crime of moral turpitude which automatically triggers deportation.  Additionally, the court reasoned it is not automatically deficient performance for a lawyer to permit a client to enter an Alford plea. For all of these reasons, the Court decided there was ultimately no deficient performance on the part of defense counsel.

Mr. De Long’s review with Mr. Manajares of the general statutory deportation warning was therefore competent representation.

My opinion? In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Padilla v. Kentucky set the “bright line rule” that criminal defense attorneys must warn non-citizen clients of the risk of deportation if the defendant is considering a guilty plea. Employing Strickland v. Washington‘s test for evaluating whether legal counsel was “ineffective,” the Court held that criminal defense attorneys have an affirmative duty to warn their non-citizen clients of whether their guilty pleas carry a risk of removal from the United States, If counsel fails to issue a warning, he or she violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.

Here, Padilla’s 2010 guidelines rules were not in effect because the defendant entered his plea in 2002. Therefore, defense counsel was no deficient in his performance.

“Knock & Announce” Was Too Short.

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In State v. Ortiz, the WA Court of Appeals Division III held that police violated a defendant’s rights when they forced entry into his home after waiting only 6-9 seconds of their “knock and announce” during the early morning.

In late July 2011, Wapato Police Sergeant Robert Hubbard viewed the backyard of the defendant’s property from the vantage point of a cooperative neighbor. He saw two marijuana plants. Sergeant Hubbard was granted a search warrant for the property.

on August 11, 2011, at approximately 6:4 7 a.m., Sergeant Hubbard and 11 other police officers executed the search warrant at the property. He knocked on the door three times, announced “police search warrant,” waited one to two seconds, and repeated that process twice more. Hearing nothing inside the home, the officers breached the front door and entered the home.

Upon searching the property, the officers found 41 marijuana plants in various stages of growth and other evidence of a grow operation. Mr. Ortiz was eventually charged with one count of manufacture of a controlled substance, one count of involving a minor in an unlawful controlled substance transaction, and several other counts not relevant on appeal.

At the end of trial, the jury found Mr. Ortiz guilty.

On appeal, Mr. Ortiz argued he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his defense attorney failed to challenge the execution of the search warrant for failure to comply with the knock and announce rule.

EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL.

The Court of Appeals began by explaining that effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed by both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution. First, the defendant must show he received deficient representation. Second, the defendant must show he suffered prejudice as a result of the deficient performance.

“KNOCK & ANNOUNCE” RULE.

Next, the court explained the “knock and announce” rule. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that a non-consensual entry by the police be preceded by an announcement of identity and purpose on the part of the officers. This is part of the constitutional requirement that search warrants be reasonably executed.

In WA State, the parallel requirement of article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution is codified in RCW 10.31.040. It states, “To make an arrest in criminal actions, the officer may break open any outer or inner door, or windows of a dwelling house or other building, or any other enclosure, if, after notice of his or her office and purpose, he or she be refused admittance.”

The Court explained that in order to comply with the “Knock & Announce” statute, the police must, prior to a non-consensual entry, announce their identity, demand admittance, announce the purpose of their demand, and be explicitly or implicitly denied admittance. The requirement of a demand for admittance and an explicit or implicit denial of admittance have been merged into a ‘waiting period,’ often linked to whether the police officers are refused admittance. Strict compliance with the rule is required unless the State can demonstrate that one of the two exceptions to the rule applies: exigent circumstances or futility of compliance. Finally, the proper remedy for an unexcused violation is suppression of the evidence obtained by the violation.

Here, the only disputed issue was whether the police waited long enough before they broke down the door. The answer to this question depends upon the circumstances of the case.

The Court elaborated that the reasonableness of the waiting period is evaluated in light of the purposes of the rule, which are: ( 1) reduction of potential violence to both occupants and police arising from an unannounced entry, (2) prevention of unnecessary property damage, and (3) protection of an occupant’s right to privacy.

Here, the Court believed the waiting period of 6-9 seconds was unreasonable:

“In this case, due to the early hour of the search, the occupants were foreseeably asleep. Six to nine seconds was not a reasonable amount of time for them to respond to the police, and thus no denial of admittance can be inferred. Even Sergeant Hubbard admitted it would not be a surprise that sleeping occupants would be unable to respond in that amount of time. In addition, the purposes of the rule were not fulfilled due to the property damage done by battering in the door. The police did not comply with the rule.”

Although the State presented cases where the “knock and announce” rule was adhered to after police officers breached entry quickly after announcing, the Court nevertheless reasoned that in each of those cases the defendants were both present and awake. But here, the officers did not have any indication the home’s occupants were present or awake.

Because the police violated the knock and announce rule, and there is no legitimate strategic or tactical reason for failing to challenge the search, counsel was deficient for not moving to suppress the evidence. This deficiency, reasoned the court, prejudiced the defendant.

The Court concluded that Mr. Ortiz established that he was deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. The court reversed his convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court with directions to suppress the fruits of the illegal search.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Search and seizure issues like this are incredibly interesting. For more information on the case law surrounding these issues please review my Legal Guide titled, Search & Seizure: Basic Issues Regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs, Firearms and Other Contraband.

Corpus Delicti & Murder Confessions

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In State v. Young, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s confession to murder was properly admitted because the State presented ample independent evidence of (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

On the morning of July 4, 2013, John Young entered the Desert Food Mart in Benton City and asked the cashier to call 911 because he had witnessed a shooting of a man named Jacob. Police were summoned. As the investigation proceeded, Mr. Young became a suspect. He was brought in for questioning, and consented to audio and video recording of an interview.

During the interview, an officer read Mr. Young Miranda warnings and obtained his agreement that he understood he was now a suspect and any statements he made could be used against him. Mr. Young then confessed that Jacob was involved in a drug deal gone wrong. With the assistance of an accomplice named Joshua Hunt,  Mr. Young admitted he fired one shot into Jacob’s head near the temple-cheek region, killing him.

Mr. Young also confessed that he and Mr. Hunt disposed of their shoes and gun by putting the items into a backpack and throwing the backpack into a river. Later, police recovered the shoes and gun.  The shoes matched footprints and shoe patterns that had been found in the sand near Jacob’s body. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory determined that all of the bullets recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the Charter pistol found in the backpack.

Mr. Young was charged with first degree murder.

During a 3.5 hearing, Young’s attorney lawyer stipulated to the admission of the videotaped interview, telling the court:

“We believe it’s in our interests to actually stipulate to the 3.5 hearing, and I’ve discussed that with Mr. Young, and I know the Court will make its own inquiries, but he knows and understands he has a right to that hearing, but we believe it’s in our benefit and strategic interest to proceed with the stipulation.”

The court questioned Mr. Young, who stated he understood he had a right to a hearing on the admissibility of the statements but was agreeing instead that all of his statements were admissible.

During trial, Mr. Young’s videotaped confession was played for the jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Young appeals.

Mr. Young argued his defense counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by stipulating to the admission of Mr. Young’s confession when there was no independent evidence apart from his confession, under the corpus delecti rule, sufficient to establish all the elements of first degree murder.

For those who don’t know, corpus delicti is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must be proved to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.

The Court of Appeals rejected Young’s arguments. It reasoned that in a homicide case, the corpus delecti generally consists of two elements: (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act. It can be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, which need not be enough to support a conviction or send the case to the jury. In assessing whether there is sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti independent of a defendant’s statements, the Court assumes the truth of the State’s evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in a light most favorable to the State.

Here, the corpus of the crime of murder was amply established by (1) a dead person; (2) multiple gunshot wounds that established a casual connection with a criminal act; (3) testimony eliminating the possibility of self-inflicted wounds; and (4) the recovery of the weapon miles away from the dead body.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State is not required to present independent evidence of the defendant’s mental state. It reasoned the State is not required to present independent evidence sufficient to demonstrate anything other than the fact of death and a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Young’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

“It appears from his closing argument that Mr. Young’s trial lawyer believed his client’s videotaped interview would advance that argument. Mr. Young fails to demonstrate that his trial lawyer lacked a strategic reason for the stipulation.”

With that, the Court of Appeals confirmed Mr. Young’s conviction.

My opinion? This case represents a fairly straightforward analysis of the corpus delicti defense. I’ve had great success when it applies, and have managed to get many criminal charges reduced or dismissed under this defense. However, the corpus delicti defense is extremely narrow. Aside from the defendant’s confession, there must be virtually NO independent evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Here, other evidence existed which implicated Mr. Young and the defense was found inapplicable.

State v. Keodara: Overbroad Search Warrant for Cell Phone

In State v. Keodara, the WA Court of Appeals ruled that a search warrant was overbroad in violation of the particularity requirement because it allowed police to search a cell phone “for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever.”

In 2011, the defendant Say Keodara was involved in a shooting at a bus stop.  Several weeks later, police arrested him for an unrelated incident. They searched his backpack and found his cell phone. Outside the backpack police found drugs, drug packaging and drug paraphernalia.  An officer submitted an affidavit in support of a search warrant for the contents of the cell phone. The affidavit made several generalizations about drug dealers and gang members in support of the officer’s conclusion that there was evidence of crime on the cell phone. The judge issue the warrant pursuant to the affidavit, which ultimately allowed police to search Keodara’s entire phone without any limitations.  Police searched the phone and found evidence that the State used when trying Mr. Keodara for the shooting at the bus stop.

Keodara was charged with Murder in the First Degree, three counts of Assault in the First Degree (each with a separate firearm enhancement), and Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the First Degree. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 831 months of prison (69.25 years).

On appeal, Keodara argued that the evidence from his phone should have been suppressed because the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. I, §7 of the Washington State Constitution. He also argued that his substantial prison sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

Ultimately, the court held that although the search of Keodara’s phone violated the federal
constitution, the failure to suppress the evidence was harmless. It also held that Keodara’s sentence violated the 8th Amendment because the court failed to Keodara’s youth and other age-related factors into account. Accordingly, the court affirmed Keodara’s conviction but remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that a warrant is overbroad if it fails to describe with particularity items for which probable cause exists to search. In this case, the affidavit for the warrant for Keodara’s phone contained blanket statements about what certain groups of offenders tend to do and what information they tend to store in particular places. Furthermore, the warrant’s language also allowed Keodara’s phone to be searched for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever. The court also said the following:

Here, no evidence was seized that would have linked Keodara’s phone to the crimes listed in the warrant-unlawful possession of firearms, possession with intent to deliver or sell narcotics, or assault. Nothing in the record suggests that anyone saw Keodara use the phone to make calls or take photos. In addition, the phone was found in a backpack, separate from the drug paraphernalia or the pistol. There was no indication that evidence of firearms or drugs were found with the phone. We conclude that the warrant was overbroad and failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also held that the trial court committed harmless error in admitting evidence police found on the phone:

Here, the untainted evidence of Keodara’s guilt was strong. Cellular phone tower records placed him near the location of the shooting, two eyewitnesses identified him, and another witness testified that Keodara contacted him and told him about the shooting. We find that the trial court’s denial of Keodara’s motion to suppress does not warrant reversal and, accordingly, we affirm his convictions.

The Court of Appeals also addressed the issue of whether Keodara’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. In short, the court said, “Yes.” It reasoned that the trial court did not take into account that Keodara was a juvenile at the time he committed the crimes or consider other age related factors that weigh on culpability or his capacity for rehabilitation. Based on that, the Court concluded that the sentence imposed in this case violated Keodar’s constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

My opinion? Good decision. It appears that, more and more, our courts are rightfully acknowledging a Defendant’s youth at sentencing.

State v. Afeworki: “Band It” Restraint Is Constitutional

In State v. Afeworki, the WA Court of Appeals Division I held, among other rulings, that a “Band It” prisoner restraint system worn by the Defendant during trial does not violate the Constitutional right to a fair trial or the presumption of innocence.

The Defendant Tomas Afeworki was charged with Murder in the First Degree. During pretrial proceedings, he experienced significant and ongoing conflict with each of his several attorneys. On the eve of trial, Afeworki repeatedly threatened his attorney, who was permitted to withdraw as a result. Afeworki was, thereafter, required to represent himself. He was found guilty.

On appeal, Afeworki contends that this deprived him of his right to counsel. After threatening his attorney, Afeworki was also required to wear a “Band It” physical security restraint, not visible to observers, while in the courtroom. Afeworki argues that wearing the “Band It” violated his right to a fair trial.

The court reasoned that under State v. Finch, a defendant in a criminal case is entitled to appear at trial free from all bonds or shackles except in extraordinary circumstances. This is to ensure that the defendant receives a fair and impartial trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution.”

In short, restraining a defendant during trial infringes upon this right to a fair trial for several reasons: (1)it violates a defendant’s presumption of innocence, (2) it restricts the defendant’s ability to assist his counsel during trial, (3) it interferes with the right to testify in one’s own behalf, and (4) it offends the dignity of the judicial process.

Washington case law also says that, given the constitutional implications of using restraints in a criminal trial, shackles or other restraining devices should only be used when necessary to prevent injury to those in the courtroom, to prevent disorderly conduct at trial, or to prevent an escape. That said, a trial court has broad discretion to determine which security measures are necessary to maintain decorum in the courtroom and to protect the safety of its occupants.

A trial court may consider the following factors in determining whether the use of restraints is justified: the seriousness of the present charge against the defendant, their temperament and character, age, physical attributes, past record, past escapes or attempted escapes, evidence of a present plan to escape, threats to harm others or cause a disturbance, self-destructive tendencies, the risk of mob violence or of attempted revenge by others, the possibility of rescue by other offenders still at large, the size and the mood of the audience, the nature and physical security of the courtroom and the adequacy and availability of alternative remedies.

The court described the “Band-It” restraint system as a device that essentially as a 50,000-volt taser contained in a band that is worn under a sleeve or pant leg. Unlike most restraints, which are either visible to jurors or readily perceived by jurors, the Band-It is not visible when the wearer is clothed. Also, unlike other restraints, the Band-It does not in any way directly constrain the wearer’s movements. In fact, the Band-It can cause a wearer’s movements to be constrained only when it is activated.

Here, reasoned the court, the Band-It restraint system does not implicate the presumption of innocence because it is not visible to observers. Moreover, it does not implicate the defendant’s right to the assistance of counsel because it does not physically constrain a defendant’s movements. Finally, the defendant’s antics, aggressive behavior and threats to his defense counsel justified the trail judge’s reasons for making the defendant wear the device:

“The court thereby fashioned a comprehensive order that protected both Afeworki’s constitutional rights and the safety of the people present in the courtroom for his trial. The trial court’s decision was reasonable. There was no error.”

State v. Strange: Was the Jury “Tainted” or Impartial?

In State v. Strange, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury was not violated by a prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation.

Here, defendant George Strange was accused of Child Molestation Second Degree and Voyeurism. from 2011 to 2013, Strange lived with his wife and his wife’ s children, who are juveniles. Here, juvenile J.M. was 12 years old when Strange allegedly fondled her breasts one night. He explained he was giving her a breast examination.

During jury selection, the court and attorneys asked the prospective jurors about their personal experiences with child molestation. Although most of the jurors had no personal experience with child molestation, almost one-third of the jurors knew someone who was either a victim or had been charged with child molestation. In response to the court’ s questioning, juror no. 54 stated,

JUROR: “Um — what I said before, like, I know people that I know. Like it’ s not an easy accusation to make. Like, it is hard for people (inaudible). It’ s like if accusations were made there’ s something behind that . . . I don’ t — like, I don’t have a ton of experience but it has just been my experience people don’ t make that accusation, you know, for no reason. Like, I feel like if an accusation was made there had to be something that had happened.”

Juror no. 54 was excused for unrelated hardship reasons.

During trial, other witnesses testified to Strange’s odd behavior around J.M. Additionally, the State played a recorded video of Strange being interviewed by a police detective who commented on Strange’s behavior during the interview. Finally, Strange did not call any witnesses nor did he testify. At the end of trial, Strange was found guilty on all counts.

On appeal, Strange argued that his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury was violated because of prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation, either in their families or among friends or acquaintances, which tainted the entire jury venire.

The court rejected Strange’s arguments. It reasoned that article I, § 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a fair trial by unbiased jurors.” Also, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution also guarantees the right to a fair trial by impartial jurors. Here, no prospective juror professed any expertise about sexual abuse cases. Therefore, there is no concern about a prospective juror with more credible, authoritative knowledge tainting the rest of the jury pool.

Second, most jurors were merely questioned about their experiences with child molestation and asked if they could remain impartial. Some jurors admitted to a potential bias, most said they could apply the court’ s instructions impartially, and two prospective jurors asked for individual voir dire, preferring not to talk about their experiences in front of the rest of the jury pool. Consequently, the Court of Appeals decided that Strange received a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Finally, the court rejected Strange’s argument that his defense attorney was ineffective because he failed to object to the admission of Strange’s recorded interview with police. The court reasoned that because defense counsel’s failure to object was a legitimate trial tactic, it cannot be said that Strange’ s trial counsel’ s performance was deficient. Therefore, his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel fails. The decision of Strange’s attorney to not play the video was a legitimate trial tactic, and did not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel.

My opinion? Oftentimes, during jury selection, prospective jurors say things out loud which may appear to discredit the defendant, especially when the charges are particularly galvanizing. A defense attorney must be cautious in proceeding with these jurors. A good technique is to ask the juror to extrapolate “what they mean” if the juror says they have difficulty being objective, and/or if the juror says the defendant “must be guilty of something.” The attorney can strike the juror for cause because the juror could be biased against the defendant.

Still, it’s difficult to “unring the bell,” so to speak, when a prospective juror says controversial things which may hurt the defendant’s chances at trial if the rest of the jury pool believes that juror’s statements. This is the essence of “tainting the jury,” which is reversible error and should be avoided at all costs. In response, another good tactic is to inquire if other potential jurors feel the same as the juror who aired their grievances. Find someone shaking their head “No.” Ask them why. Chances are, they’ll say something about giving the defendant a fair trial, or presumption of innocence, or something like that. Test the waters. Guide the jurors back toward their oath that they MUST presume the defendant not guilty throughout trial. Remind them that if they serve as jurors, they’re under oath to withhold their personal biases and reserve judgment until after hearing all of the evidence.