14 June 2012

Fourth Department upholds confession produced by continuous 49-hour interrogation

People v Guilford, 2012 NY Slip Op 04475 [4th Dept 2012] [available here]

Syracuse police detectives took James Guilford into custody at about 11:30pm on March 20, 2007, on suspicion of murdering his ex-girlfriend. He was then interrogated non-stop by a rotating team of detectives for the next 49 hours, with no sleep and little food, at the end of which he told a detective, "I'll give everybody what they want" in exchange for a plea deal and an attorney. As described by the dissenters,

The interrogation occurred inside a locked room that was 10 feet by 10 feet. Except for bathroom breaks, during which defendant was accompanied by a detective, defendant spent the entire 49 1/2-hour period in the interrogation room. As the suppression court noted in its findings of fact, the only food consumed by defendant during his continuous interrogation was a single sandwhich, which he consumed early in the evening on March 21. That was approximately 20 hours after he was taken into custody and 40 hours before he confessed on the morning of March 23, a point that bears emphasis. From early Saturday evening to Monday morning when he confessed, defendant ate not a morsel of food.

In addition, as the suppression court further stated in its findings of fact, there is no evidence that defendant slept during his 49 1/2 hours in the interrogation room. [...] The suppression court set forth in its findings of fact that defendant had an "opportunity to sleep" in th holding cell, but there was no evidence adduced at the hearing that defendant actually slept or that the conditions in the holding cell were such that it was even possible for defendant to sleep. Thus, it appears that defendant may have been awake for 50 hours immediately preceding his confession. That does not take into account the fact that defendant was picked up by the police at 10:30 p.m. on March 20 and probably had been awake for quite some time on that day.

(People v Guilford, 2012 NY Slip Op 04475 (Lindley and Martoche, JJ, dissenting.)

After talking with a lawyer and being held in a holding cell for 8 hours, defendant confessed to killing his ex-girlfriend. A majority of the Fourth Department upheld the confession, holding that the 8 hours in the holding cell and the chance to speak with an attorney was enough to cure the illegal marathon interrogation. In so holding, the Court attributed almost super-human powers to the attorney appointed to represent the defendant, and in whose presence the final confession was taken. From the majority's decision:

In particular, we note that, once an attorney was appointed for defendant and defendant had the opportunity to consult with the attorney before again speaking with the detectives, in the presence on an attorney, it cannot be said that the statements were involuntary or the "product of compulsion."

(Id. at __.)

As a criminal defense attorney, I can assure you that it is sometimes impossible to convince even well-fed, fully rested clients not to do stupid things (like confessing to murder), never-mind attempting to reason with a client who just endured almost 50 hours of quasi-torture. The investigators in this case spent an entire weekend breaking the defendant down, depriving him of food and sleep, and in the end convinced defendant to "give everybody what they want" in exchange for an attorney and a few years off his sentence. It is naive and a bit disingenuous to think that an hour or two talking to a defense attorney would be enough to repair the psychological fracture that was the intended and inescapable result of draconian police conduct. As the dissenters note, "the presence of defense counsel did nothing to improve defendant's cognitive functioning, which necessarily was adversely affected by the prolonged lack of food and sleep." (Id. at __.)

Justice Scudder filed a separate concurrence, and would have found that the presence of the attorney alone was enough to validate the confession, even without the 8 hour break in the holding cell from almost 50 straight hours of Geneva-convention-violating interrogation. I can only assume this was done to lend a patine of reasonableness to the majority's holding.

01 June 2012

The Corasanti verdict backlash

I usually do not keep up with the news out of Buffalo, but I found myself driving to court last night in a loaner car, without my usual array of podcasts and audiobooks to pass the miles, and had to resort to the radio. Buffalo's main news station, WBEN, was dominated by the verdict in the trial of Dr. James Corasanti. This case has not received much play in Rochester, so here's a quick recap for those (like me) who have not been following the case (the Buffalo News has an entire section dedicated to the trial here, and a (arguably slanted) summary of the trial testimony here):

Dr. Corasanti had dinner and drinks at his Country Club, played a few holes of golf, had a few more drinks, and then got into his BMW and drove home. It was about 11pm when he left the Country Club. Alix Rice. an 18-year old skateboarder, was on her way home from working at a local pizza place. She was on her long-board, skating on the side of the road. Dr. Corasanti hit Alix with his car and killed her, drove home, called his attorney, and about an hour and a half later turned himself in to the police. Dr. Corsanti was charged with second-degree manslaughter (recklessly causing death), leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and driving while intoxicated.

The trial ended Wednesday with the jury's verdict: not guilty on manslaughter and leaving the scene charges, guilty of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated.

Given the optics at play in this case--rich doctor returning from a night of drinking at the Country Club, a quirky teen cut down before her prime, the doctor leaving the teen on the side of the road to die and immediately lawyering up--the backlash to the verdict was inevitable and expected. Two views seem to dominate: the jurors were gullible idiots, and the judge should whack Dr. Corsanti with the maximum possible 1-year sentence on the DWI. This column in the Buffalo News is typical of the type of overwrought rhetoric that has followed the verdict.

The jury foreman was interviewed (here), and it appears that the jury did exactly what it was supposed to do: set aside the overwhelming emotion of the case, view the facts in an objective light, and hold the prosecutor to its very high (and very appropriate) standard of proof in a criminal case. From the interview:

"We did our very best," Nixon said. "We took the law and tried to apply it to this case. It was a very emotional case. We tried to keep emotion out of it as best we possibly could.
We tried to our best to weigh the evidence and the testimony."

Most of the callers to WBEN were of the opinion that the system was broken; that lay jurors should be replaced with trained professionals; and that the defense should not be allowed to "confuse" the jury with "hired-gun" experts. It begs the question: what exactly do these people expect out of a criminal justice system? That the prosecutor's evidence and theories go unchallenged? That the defense be prohibited from calling its own witnesses, its own experts? How many of us would be content with such a system if we were the ones standing in Dr. Corsanti's shoes?

Based on the summaries of the proof I have seen, the defense had a solid argument against the manslaughter charge: that even if Corsanti was drunk, there was no evidence that he was driving erratically, and given the fact that Alix was skateboarding, apparently in a crouched position, on the side of a dark highway at 11pm at night, and there was little or no evidence to establish if she was in the lane of travel at the time of impact, there was no way for the jury to determine whether Dr. Corsanti did anything to cause the accident, or whether it would have happened to any motorist who happened to be driving on that road, at that particular time.

As to the defense's "hired gun" experts, they were called to rebut the testimony of the prosecution's own "expert," a police investigator "trained" in accident reconstruction, who opined that Dr. Corsanti was traveling at up to 52mph in a 35mph zone at the time of impact. His opinion was based on the damage to the vehicle and the position of the body--hardly the stuff of hard science. The "expert" also testified that Alix was visible at the time of impact, and Dr. Corsanti "could have or should have" seen her in time to avoid the accident--again, not exactly the type of opinion that hews closely to the scientific method.

In the face of such junk science and rank speculation, the defense was obligated to call its own experts to challenge the prosecution's version of the incident, and to de-mystify and discredit the prosecution's "accident reconstruction" expert. To do less would be malpractice. To suggest that the defense did something wrong in calling its own experts, or that the defense experts misled or bamboozled the jury into an unjust result, at once betrays a dermis-deep understanding of the adversarial system and a child-like faith in the strength of the prosecutor's proof.

Equally disturbing are the open calls to the judge to sentence Dr. Corasanti to the maximum one-year sentence on the DWI to, in the words of one particularly facile columnist, "inject into the case a measure of justice." (Here.) The point here should be too obvious to mention: you can't punish somebody for criminal conduct if they have not been found guilty. Under any definition of justice or fairness, hitting Dr. Corsanti with a maximum sentence on the DWI because he should pay for killing Alix--when the jury acquitted him of that crime--would be simply substituting the judge's opinion on what the outcome should have been for the jury's verdict.