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Court Discusses Whether Defendant Was Deprived of a Fair Trial


People v. Garcia

The Court Discusses Whether the defendant was deprived of a fair trial because the Prosecution’s Cross-examination

The defendant was arrested after he sold two glassine envelopes stamped “Brainbuster,” to an undercover police officer. The defendant was also found with $324 in cash and a glassine envelope marked Brainbuster and two glassine envelopes marked Yoya. The envelopes were submitted for testing revealed heroin was found Brainbuster and no controlled substance was found in Yoya. A Sandoval hearing was requested and it was concluded that the defendant could be cross-examined on prior convictions where the defendant was to testify. During the defendant’s testimony he stated that he did not give the undercover police office any heroin as envelope contained fake drug filled with milk and sugar as the officer did not act like a drug user.

During the defendant’s testimony he spoke about his two prior convictions for various felonies between March of 1982 and April 1986. The defendant pled guilty to his prior convictions before the commencement of the trial. The defendant testified that he pled guilty to his prior convictions because he was guilty of them, but, he was not guilty of selling controlled substance to the officer in the instant case. On cross-examination the defendant was questioned about his previous conviction as permitted by the Sandoval ruling. The prosecution impeached the defendant about his dishonesty in entering a plea of guilty at his arraignment for his prior convictions then changing his plea to guilty before trial. The defendant’s New York City Criminal Attorney objected to the prosecution’s line of questioning but it was overruled by the trial court. The defendant was convicted of criminal possession of controlled substance with intent to sell by the jury. The defendant appealed the conviction on the basis of the prosecution’s cross-examination deprived him of a fair trial.

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court held that the defendant suffered prejudice with the cross-examination of the prosecution as it led the jury to draw an unfair interference. The prosecution had a duty to give the defendant a fair trial according to the People v. Feretti, 85 A.D.2d 40. There was an obligation not to mislead the jury concerning the defendant’s prior pleas. A plea of not guilty is not equated to innocence but it simply informs the government that it has the burden to prove the facts and element of the charge against the accused person and to preserve the accuse right to defend the matter. A conviction in a criminal case is the only significant event that equates to guilt.

The People contended that there was an open door policy to question the defendant on evidence given during direct examination according to the People v Melendez 55 N.Y.2d 445. However, the Court disagreed that there was an open door policy that justified the cross-examination. The defendant during direct examination made an inference that when he was guilty of a crime he pleaded guilty. It could further be inferred that the defendant wanted the jury to believe that because he did not plead guilty he was innocent. The defendant’s testimony opened the door for the prosecution to refute the inferences made while cross-examining him. But the prosecution did not exercise caution in refuting evidence to order to ensure that the defendant does not suffer any prejudice while he was being impeached.

The Court concluded that the prosecution’s cross-examination was impermissible as it had no probative value but served to mislead the jury. The defendant’s direct testimony concerning prior criminal distribution record implied, in substance, that when he was guilty of crime he had pleaded guilty before trial did not open door to the prosecutor’s repeated questioning of defendant regarding his not guilty pleas at arraignments in prior cases. The prosecutor’s persistence in seeking to obtain affirmative acknowledgment by the defendant that when he had pleaded not guilty at his arraignment he was “lying in court” was improper.

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