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Habeas Corpus Upheld - NYS Court Violated Defendants' Right to Examine Detective

This is the appeal of a decision of the SDNY to grant Petitioner-Appellee Julio Alvarez a writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 based on the New York state trial court’s violation of Alvarez’s Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause right. The State trial court prohibited Alvarez from questioning a detective as to whether the police had pursued provided leads contained in an investigative report. The Second Circuit finds this to be error and, by doing so, “the trial court effectively denied Alvarez the opportunity to develop his only defense.” The Second Circuit noted that this was not harmless error because there were competing eyewitness accounts of the story, there was no forensic evidence, ballastics, DNA or fingerprints and a suggestive line-up.

During the State trial, the leads that Petitioner-Appellee Julio Alvarez (former Defendant) requested were not provided to him after Jury Selection. At that point, both were unavailable and could not be located. Defense counsel sought to question the detective about this information at trial on the grounds that it would remedy the state’s Brady violation and it would show that the police had not tried to track down the person responsible for the supposed suspect (Alvarez arguing it was not him). The Judge denied this line of questioning and the Court ruled that “such questioning was barred by a state evidentiary rule requiring a ‘clear link’ between evidence implicating a culpable third party and the defendant’s charged crime.” The Second Circuit found that the State Court incorrectly interpreted precedent, the ‘clear link’ standard being inapplicable. The jury acquitted Petitioner-Appellee Julio Alvarez of murder but convicted him of manslaughter and two counts of assault which Judge Davidowitz sentenced Alvarez to 45 years’ imprisonment: 25 years for manslaughter and two 10-year terms for assault, each to run consecutively.

Confrontation: A criminal defendant must have “a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against him.” Brinson, 547 F.3d at 392 (citing Pennsylvania v. Ritchie, 480 U.S. 39, 51 (1987))…The trial court has “broad discretion ‘to impose reasonable limits on…cross examination based on concerns about…harassment, prejudice, confusion of the issues,…or interrogation that is repetitive or only marginally relevant.’” Brinson, 547 F.3d at 394 (quoting Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. at 679)… “On habeas corpus,…we do not sit to review the trial judge’s exercise of discretion, but rather to assess whether the state court’s denial of [the defendant’s] Confrontation Clause claim was reasonable.” Id. at 511. Moreover, for habeas to be warranted, the trial court’s denial must not have been harmless, that is, it must have had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Brinson, 547 F.3d at 395 (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Alvarez filed a habeas petition in the SDNY claiming that (1) the government’s delayed disclosure was a violation of Brady v. Maryland; (2) that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause right when it barred all cross-examination of the Detective at trial; and (3) that the jury instruction on “transferred intent” violated his right to due process under the fourteenth amendment.

The Second Circuit concluded that (1) The State Court’s finding that the Report Petitioner-Appellee Alvarez wished to cross-examine the detective would have led to impermissible hearsay ignored the purpose of the examination – the strategy was “to show that the NYPD’s incomplete investigation indicated that the NYPD had prematurely concluded that Alvarez was the guilty party…”; (2) The State court’s ruling on the “clear link” evidence rule was “clearly unreasonable under established Sixth Amendment law.” In contrasting precedent, the Second Circuit found that the “trial court’s exclusion left [Petitioner-Appellee Julio] Alvarez without any support for his theory of the case.” Lastly, after an evaluation, the Second Circuit found that this was not harmless error. The District Court’s order is affirmed – the case is remanded to the District Court.

The case is Alvarez v. Ercole, 13-2828-pr (2d Cir, Aug. 18, 2014) - Confrontation Clause; Sixth Amendment; Federal Criminal Defense.

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