What really happened moments after the gunshot in the Zimmerman case

June 22, 2013

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Good morning:

Don West impeached his client with the legal document he filed yesterday titled, Defendant’s Specific Response to State’s Motion in Limine Regarding Self-Serving Hearsay Statements of Defendant.

He said at pages 2-3.

Witness 13 and his wife heard a commotion in the back of their townhome. They heard yelling and then heard a shot. Witness 13 grabbed a flashlight and went outside to see what had happened. Within seconds of the shooting, W13 approached Mr. Zimmerman who was staggering, bleeding and breathing hard. The witness observed blood on Mr. Zimmerman’s face and the back of his head consistent with someone having been injured in a fight. Mr. Zimmerman asked W13 if he was bleeding? Witness 13 said “Yes” and W13 asked Mr. Zimmerman what had happened? Mr. Zimmerman told W13 that the other person was “beating me up” and he shot him.

Within a minute or so, Sanford Police Officer Tim Smith arrived on foot at the location where Mr. Zimmerman and W13 were standing. Officer Smith spoke with Mr. Zimmerman at the scene upo his arrival. Mr. Zimmerman acknowledged being the person who fired the shot and that he had a firearm on him. Mr. Zimmerman spontaneously stated that he had yelled for help and that no one helped him.

With that fresh in your mind, please watch what the defendant told the police about those moments during his walk-through for the Sanford Police Department a little less than 24 hours after he killed Trayvon Martin.

Thank you to LLMPapa for preparing these two clips from the walk-through.

Clip 1

Clip 2

Congratulations, Mr. West.

You have succeeded in proving that your client lied.

Can you pass the straight-face test when you argue to Judge Nelson that the defendant’s “spontaneous” statements to W13 are reliable and accurate?

What is she going to think about your credibility and professionalism when the State shows her the walk-through video?

By the way, was his statement to the person he called on his cell phone another “spontaneous” utterance?

As long as you are spillin’ the beans, why don’t you tell us who he called and what he said.

FYI: A few minutes after I posted this article, I reversed the order of the two clips because #2, which is now #1, is more directly relevant given the focus of the article. I apologize for any confusion that may have caused.


Zimmerman: The defense must retain its own experts

May 5, 2013

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Good morning:

Amsterdam1234 provided the inspiration for this post with this comment:

@xena

About the contents of Trayvon’s phone. I listened very carefully to what was requested by the defense, and how the state responded to the requests concerning data on Trayvon’s phone.

The state gave defense 2 reports that listed some information found on Trayvon’s phone. They also gave all the raw data they were able to retrieve, to the defense.

During the hearing West was whining about not being able to read the data without special software. That defense team is an embarrasment. It is very obvious they haven’t hired a forensic digital data expert yet, and they are hoping to find out what was on that phone through the state’s forensic analysis of the data.

Bernie said “we’ve given them the data in the format they requested it, they can hire their own expert to analyze it.

Maybe one of you legal minds can explain what is work product and what is discovery that needs to be given to the defense.

For the following reasons, I believe the defense is committing malpractice by not employing its own team of experts to review all of the raw data and bench notes generated by the State’s experts.

The defense asked the State to turn over the raw data generated by all of the State’s experts and I believe the State has complied with that request.

This was an appropriate request that I would have made.

I specialized in forensics and I was more interested in the raw data and bench notes rather than an expert’s opinion, or interpretation of the raw data, because I was used to seeing interpretations that conflicted with or were not supported by the raw data and bench notes. If the lawyer does not have the raw data and bench notes to compare to the expert’s report, the lawyer has no way of evaluating the accuracy of an expert’s conclusions.

Literally, an expert’s report is worthless without the raw data and bench notes to support it.

Since the vast majority of criminal defense lawyers do not know squat about science and forensics, they would have no idea how to interpret raw data and bench notes. Most do not even know what bench notes are.

Given the alarmingly high rate of forensic fraud in public and privately owned and operated crime labs in this country, I believe every criminal defense lawyer absolutely must have the assistance of their own experts to review all of the raw data and bench notes generated by the State’s experts. This is so important that I believe a criminal defense lawyer cannot provide effective assistance of counsel to a client unless he does so. In other words, the failure to do so would potentially constitute a Sixth Amendment violation pursuant to the test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1984).

I say, “potentially,” because counsel’s failure to secure the assistance of an expert would have to have materially affected the outcome of the trial. That is, that it is more probable than not that the jury verdict would have been different if defense counsel had retained an expert.

Murder trials differ significantly from regular criminal trials in many ways. One of the most significant differences is the prosecution’s heavy reliance on forensic evidence to prove its case. This heavy reliance means that the forensic evidence will almost always qualify as material evidence that more probably than not affects the outcome. For this reason, I believe a criminal defense lawyer commits malpractice in a murder case, if he does not retain experts to review all of the raw data and bench notes generated by the State’s experts.

That is the only way to effectively evaluate the validity of the conclusions and opinions expressed by the State’s experts. Asking them to interpret their own data is worthless because they are not going to admit that the raw data does not support their conclusions.

This is why I said the defense did the right thing by requesting the raw data.

Of course, it’s useless to them, if they do not know how to interpret it.

This is why the defense should have assembled its own team of experts last summer to review all of the raw data and bench notes generated by the State’s experts. Of course, the assistance of its own expert would ordinarily not be necessary, if the conclusions and opinions of the State’s expert are exculpatory.

However, the defense has no reason to believe that any of the State’s forensic evidence is exculpatory since Bernie de la Rionda did not advise the defense that it was. Therefore, the defense has to assume that the evidence is not exculpatory and this means that it must retain its own experts to review all of the raw data and bench notes generated by the State’s experts. Obviously, that includes the raw data retrieved from Trayvon’s phone.

For this reason, I consider West’s whiny request for assistance from the State in understanding the raw data on Trayvon’s phone to be an admission of malpractice.

Aside from ignorance, the obvious problem for the defense is lack of money. However, the defense created that problem by not setting aside sufficient funds for experts.

The solution is to admit the egregious and grossly negligent mistake and apply to the court for the relief that the defendant is entitled to pursuant to Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 US 68, 105 S. Ct. 1087, 84 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1985). However, that would require a finding that the defendant is indigent. Apparently, he has too much pride to do that and his lawyers have too much pride to admit that they screwed up.

That brings us to where we are today, a little over 30 days before a murder trial with a stubborn defendant represented by two lawyers who do not know what they are doing.

Finally, Amsterdam1234 specifically asked about discovery violations.

The State has not committed a discovery violation and the defense should STFU and get its own expert instead of whining about not being able to comprehend the raw data retrieved from Trayvon’s phone.

_________________________________________________

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Probable cause in arrests, initial appearances, informations, and grand jury indictments

April 27, 2013

Saturday, April 27, 2013

I write today to clear up some confusion that I may have caused regarding the purpose of an initial appearance in a federal criminal case. I think I caused the problem by failing to mention that all federal court felony prosecutions must be by grand jury indictment. I cover a lot of basic material that most people do not know about our criminal justice system. This information will help you understand why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s initial appearance happened on Monday. I also provide basic information about grand juries, including when and why they were created. Finally, you will have a more thorough understanding of probable cause and its role in our criminal justice system.

In tomorrow’s post I will look ahead to Tuesday’s hearing in the Zimmerman case and express some choice words to describe the new low in sleaziness achieved by Mark O’Mara.

Do not confuse an initial appearance with an arraignment. An initial appearance is a judicial review of a complaint and affidavit for probable cause to determine whether the affidavit actually establishes probable cause or reasonable grounds to believe the defendant committed the crime(s) charged in the complaint. The defendant does not enter a plea at the initial appearance for the simple reason that he cannot be arraigned unless he has been indicted by a grand jury.

The Fifth Amendment provides in pertinent part:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger;

Many states, including Florida, permit prosecution by information. The Zimmerman case is a good example. Florida permits felony prosecution by information except in capital cases, which must be prosecuted by grand jury indictment. Therefore, State Attorney Angela Corey could have prosecuted the defendant for second degree murder by grand jury indictment or by information. She opted to charge Zimmerman by information thereby avoiding the cumbersome and time consuming effort required to persuade a grand jury to indict him.

Prosecution by grand jury indictment originated in England in order to prevent the king from initiating bogus criminal prosecutions against political enemies for political reasons. Transferring the power to charge people with crimes from the king to a group of citizens was a remarkable accomplishment at the time and a very important step in the long evolutionary process from governance by an unchecked monarchy to governance by elected officials.

We live in a different world where grand juries have become little more than rubber stamps signing off on indictments proposed by prosecutors. This is not surprising since grand juries meet in secret without a judge to supervise the proceedings. Hearsay is permitted because the rules of evidence do not apply and the targets of their investigations are not present. The absence of judicial oversight and the exclusion of suspects and their lawyers from participation in the process permits prosecutors to rig the outcome.

A suspect cannot be arrested or charged with a crime unless there is probable cause (i.e., reasonable grounds) to believe he committed the crime.

In the case of an arrest, the police decide whether they have probable cause. However, police are not lawyers. They can and do make mistakes even when they are acting in good faith. Although prosecution by information transfers the power to charge a suspect with a crime from the police who arrested the suspect to a prosecutor, the test remains the same. The prosecutor must have probable cause to believe the suspect committed the crime. The same is true when the prosecution is by grand jury indictment only now the grand jury is making the decision instead of the prosecutor. Finally, in our legal system we have judicial review of police decisions to arrest and prosecutor’s decisions to charge suspects with crimes. The test is still probable cause but now a judge is making the decision.

Judges also review the issue of detention after police have arrested a suspect and booked him into a jail pending a decision to charge or release a suspect by a prosecutor or the grand jury. Judicial review of probable cause and detention in federal court takes place at the initial appearance.

An arraignment is a judicial hearing that occurs after a person has been charged, whether by information or grand jury indictment. The purpose of the arraignment is to formally notify the defendant that he has been charged with a crime(s) and to record his plea. In both federal and state courts, defendants are required to plead “not guilty.”

There is a good reason for this requirement. Arraignment calendars in state and federal courts are busy affairs. Judges cannot accept a guilty plea unless they are satisfied that the defendant knows what rights he is forfeiting by pleading guilty. The defendant also must provide a statement under oath regarding what he did that is legally sufficient to support the plea. Guilty pleas can take up to 15 or even 30 minutes to complete. Therefore, they are scheduled for a different time.

Magistrate judges in each federal district conduct the initial appearances and arraignments in federal court. Initial appearances are typically scheduled in the afternoon to allow sufficient lead time for federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors to prepare the formal charging document, which we call the complaint, and the supporting affidavit (i.e., sworn statement) for probable cause. The complaint and affidavit are filed in the clerk’s office at the United States Courthouse. In turn the clerk’s office notifies the federal public defender regarding the new arrest and that office assigns the case to a lawyer in the office.

The Pretrial Supervision section of the United States Probation Office also is notified about the new case and they assign it to one of their officers. Their job is to prepare a report for the magistrate judge regarding the defendant and to recommend whether he should be released pending the outcome of the case. They also recommend the conditions of the release.

The United States Marshal’s Office is responsible for transporting the person to court for the hearing.

If this process works smoothly, the defense attorney receives his copy of the complaint and affidavit for probable cause with sufficient time to review and discuss it with the defendant in the lockup at the courthouse before the hearing.

At the beginning of the hearing, counsel for the government and the defendant identify themselves for the record and the magistrate judge informs the defendant of the charge(s) against him in the complaint and the maximum sentence that could be imposed, if convicted. He also advises the defendant of the following rights:

1. Right to remain silent

2. Anything he says can be used against him

3. Right to be represented by the lawyer he chooses, if he can afford the fee and the lawyer files a notice of appearance confirming representation

4. Right to have the court appoint counsel to be paid at public expense, if he cannot afford counsel.

5. Right to be presumed innocent.

6. Right to a jury trial

Most defendants cannot afford counsel and for that reason the clerk’s office routinely assigns the case to the Federal Defender, unless retained counsel contacts the clerk’s office and confirms that he will represent the defendant.

In a multiple defendant case, each defendant is entitled to his own lawyer because acting in the best interests of one client often is not in the best interest of the other client. Assume, for example, that you are representing both defendants. Also assume that the prosecutor contacts you and offers a benefit to one client in exchange for a guilty plea and his agreement to testify against the other client. Congratulations! You now have a conflict of interest and have to withdraw from the case, if it would be in the best interests of the first client to advise him to accept the offer because you cannot advise him to do that without violating your duty to act in the best interests of your other client.

Since your conflict of interest would extend to your law partners, the law firm that employs you, or every other lawyer employed by the Federal Public Defender if you work for them, the district courts maintain a list of experienced and qualified lawyers in private practice who have agreed to accept appointments with financial compensation at the rates set by the court. This list is called the Criminal Justice Administration Panel or CJA Panel.

In multiple defendant cases, the clerk’s office appoints the Federal Public Defender to represent the first defendant. Additional defendants in the same case are each assigned to a CJA Panel attorney. I was a CJA Panel attorney in Seattle for 20 years, so I am familiar with the process.

The process I have described is the same in every federal district in the United States.

This process would have been followed in the Boston Marathon bombing case. Since the Federal Public Defender Office would have known that it would be formally appointed to represent Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Monday, I am reasonably certain that they assembled a team over the weekend to work on the case. The team would have included at least one or two lawyers, an investigator, and possibly a mitigation specialist.

Subsequent news reports have confirmed that a defense team was assembled over the weekend.

I imagine the lawyer or lawyers attempted to meet with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the hospital over the weekend, but were denied access. Law enforcement officials can do that absent a request from the suspect in custody to meet with counsel. I doubt he made that request, if he were intubated, unconscious and unable to speak.

The Magistrate Judge also would have known that she would have to conduct an initial appearance for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Monday, assuming he survived until then.

I am relatively certain that arrangements were made on Monday morning to conduct the hearing in the hospital at the patient’s bedside with notification to all parties concerned.

I doubt defense counsel were permitted to meet with their client before the FBI’s interrogation team completed its work.

The Fifth Amendment issue is whether the defendant’s statements will be admissible against him, since he provided them during a custodial interrogation without advice and waiver of his rights per Miranda. The government will argue that the public emergency exception exempted it from having to Mirandize the defendant. The defense will argue that the exception has not been judicially approved and did not apply.

A closely related issue is whether the defendant’s statements were voluntary or coerced, given his medical and mental condition. Was he competent to answer questions?

The Sixth Amendment issue is whether he requested a lawyer at any time before or during the interrogation. We know he could not speak and the interrogation team would have known that. Was he denied pencil and paper at the team’s request before the interrogation? Did he scribble out a request that was ignored?

The remedy for a failure to Mirandize the defendant prior to a custodial interrogation is to exclude his statements from being admitted into evidence.

________________________________________

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How and when to present an ineffective assistance of counsel claim

April 17, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Good afternoon to all.

Searching Mind has asked a series of good questions in comments to my article yesterday regarding whether a defendant can raise an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim (IAC) on direct appeal. Xena also asked me to discuss the experts I would contact about the case. I will not identify anyone by name, but I will mention the subject matter that I would want to discuss with an expert suitably qualified in that area.

First, let’s take a look at whether an IAC claim can be raised on direct appeal.

I agree with Searching Mind that IAC claims can be raised on direct appeal, if the record unequivocally supports the claim such that there are no disputed material facts and therefore no need to remand the case to the trial court with instructions to conduct an evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed facts. This is equivalent to saying that the DCA can decide the issue as a matter of law on a set of undisputed facts.

This situation does not happen very often. For example, one of the elements of an IAC claim requires a defendant to plead and prove the standard of practice at the time the alleged error was committed by defense counsel. The defendant also must plead and prove that defense counsel violated that standard, that the violation was material and not merely a tactical decision. In most cases, the parties dispute one or more of those issues and the DCA cannot determine whether the defendant has a valid IAC claim by reviewing the transcript on appeal. The answer isn’t there.

Therefore, the rule is the DCA will not review an IAC claim on direct appeal when material facts are disputed, the answer is not in the record, and the disputed facts cannot be resolved without an evidentiary hearing.

Every rule has an exception and the exception to this rule is that the DCA will consider an IAC claim on direct appeal when there is no genuine dispute of material facts and the DCA can resolve the claim as a matter of law.

Now let’s take a look at the defendant’s case and assume that O’Mara does not file a motion asking Judge Nelson to find the defendant indigent and authorize the appointment and compensation at public expense of an investigator and such experts as may be reasonably necessary to assist defense counsel in presenting a defense.

Let’s further suppose that O’Mara does not call any expert witnesses and the jury convicts the defendant.

Can the DCA decide an IAC claim on direct appeal?

Answer: Probably not, because an evidentiary hearing would have to be conducted to determine if the outcome of the trial probably would have been different, if the defense had presented the testimony of certain expert witnesses, who I am assuming would exist for the purpose of this demonstration. The identities of those witnesses and their testimony would not become known unless habeas counsel did what O’Mara did not do.

Under this set of circumstances, the IAC claim would have to be raised in a state habeas petition after the conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. The habeas petition would be granted, if we assume for the sake of argument that the standard of practice would have been to obtain an order of indigency appointing experts at public expense, that expert testimony would have materially supported the defendant’s claim of self-defense and the defendant probably would have been acquitted if the experts had testified.

At this point there are too many unknowns to predict an outcome, except to say that a murder conviction appears likely, given the evidence that has been released to the public.

Now, let’s tackle Xena’s question about which experts I would consult, if I were representing the defendant.

I would consult with a pathologist to review the autopsy report and the AME’s findings regarding the entry wound, trajectory of the bullet, and the distance between the muzzle of the gun and the entry wound when the shot was fired. I also would discuss what the evidence shows relative to the positions of the victim and the shooter when the shooter fired the fatal shot. I also would want to know if the pathologist disagrees with anything in the autopsy report and whether the defendant’s statement to police describing the shooting is consistent or consistent with the autopsy report. Finally, I would ask about the length of time the victim would have remained conscious after the shot, whether he could have said anything, and positional asphyxiation as a contributing factor to cause of death.

I would want to consult with a firearms expert to discuss the weapon used, the fatal shot, and whether the defendant’s statement about how he fired the fatal shot is consistent with the evidence. I also would want to review the crime lab analyst’s report and bench notes regarding the bullet holes in the sweatshirts and whether they align with the entry wound.

I would follow Lonnie’s advice and look for a kinesiologist or someone in a related field to discuss the relative positions of shooter and victim when the fatal shot was fired.

Next up, I would want to discuss the defendant’s injuries with a trauma surgeon, blood spatter expert, and DNA expert.

Consulting with an expert on GPS tracking would be high on my list as would consulting with an audiologist about identifying the person who uttered the shriek.

I probably also would have the defendant undergo thorough psychological testing because I suspect he may suffer from some kind of organic brain disorder that may affect perception and functioning.

I probably would consult with other experts, but that is all that comes to mind right now. This post has reached 1,000 words, so I am going to wrap it up and reserve further discussion for the comments.

The steps I have described here regarding consultations with experts in a case like this are what I would consider to be the standard of the profession. A failure to pursue and document this line of inquiry would fall below the standard and constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. To establish a valid IAC claim, however, the defendant would still have to establish that the result of the trial would probably have been different if counsel had done these things, discovered material evidence in his favor, and presented it at trial.

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O’Mara out of time in Zimmerman case

April 16, 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Abbyj said,

Omar will ride the PayPal buckaroo to the bitter end in an effort to squeeze out every last cent. He is hoping for a massive windfall, as fogen received early on. Without any hope of a great fortune appearing, O’Mara will then stand before Judge Nelson, wring his hands, and whine, “I haven’t had the financial resources to hire experts . . . ” Could fogen use this as grounds for an appeal?

Good question.

We begin at the beginning. Appellate courts hate piecemeal appeals. With one notable exception, they will refuse to review a case unless the circuit court has entered a final judgment terminating it. The exception is the writ procedure that permits a party to seek extraordinary relief from a specific order issued by a judge in the circuit court that, in effect, functions as a final order in a case depriving the losing party of an opportunity to present its case and argument in the circuit court.

The defense used the writ procedure to recuse Judge Lester (mandamus) and is now using it (certiorari) in an attempt to get an order vacating (setting aside) Judge Nelson’s order denying the defense motion to depose Benjamin Crump. I do not believe this effort will be successful because I think Judge Nelson made the correct legal decision. Since other witnesses were present when Crump interviewed Dee Dee to determine the cause of Trayvon’s death on behalf of his clients, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, his efforts constitute protected attorney work product that is not subject to disclosure. Moreover, the defense team cannot show they were prejudiced by Judge Nelson’s order because they can interview Dee Dee and the witnesses who were present. Therefore, Judge Nelson’s decision is not a final judgment or order that functioned like a final judgment by depriving the defense of its only opportunity to discover potentially favorable information for the defense.

With regard to your specific question, the defense would have to file a motion requesting some form of financial assistance from the court to pay for something that the defense has a right to do, but cannot afford to do. The defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at public expense, if he cannot afford counsel. The right to effective assistance of counsel at public expense, includes paying reasonably necessary expenses for investigators and expert witnesses.

Mark O’Mara and Don West have agreed to work pro bono, so they will not be asking the court to compensate them for the time they spend working on the case. However, their agreement to work pro bono does not mean that they also have agreed to pay the costs that will be incurred to defend their client. Specifically, the court cannot require them to pay experts and investigators.

The internet donations were supposed to cover those costs. According to O’Mara, however, the defense is underwater by approximately $10,000. I doubt that includes the $28,000 claim for services rendered by the security company, unless O’Mara has paid down the balance. Therefore, the defense may be in more serious financial trouble.

Judge Nelson cannot do anything unless O’Mara files a motion. An appropriate motion would be to ask her to enter an order declaring the defendant indigent and entitled to the reasonably necessary assistance of investigators and experts at public expense. Such a motion would have to be supported by a detailed financial statement or tax return submitted under oath. Given the substantial sum of money donated to the defendant via the internet (possibly approaching $500,000) that somehow disappeared and the defendant’s “potted plant” behavior at his bail hearing last summer when his wife under oath denied knowing that he had any assets just a few days after she transferred over $100,000 from the internet account into her personal account via his personal account pursuant to his specific instructions, I think Judge Nelson would refuse to accept anything at face value. I think she would insist the prosecution review the documentation or she might appoint a special master to review it, if the defense were to object. I think the defendant and his lawyers could safely assume that any irregularities would result in additional criminal charges.

If Judge Nelson were to deny the motion to declare the defendant indigent, her denial could be challenged on appeal. The issue would be whether she abused her discretion in denying the motion. In turn that would depend on the sufficiency of the documentation supplied by the defense.

To properly preserve this issue for appeal, the defense would have to ask Judge Nelson to reconsider her denial of his motion to appoint an investigator or an expert at every available opportunity. A failure to provide a road map in the trial transcript of requests to reconsider supported by specific reasons why an investigator or expert was reasonably necessary at that particular time might be fatal. For example, the DCA might agree that Judge Nelson abused her discretion by denying the request for indigency, but find that the error was harmless absent sufficient documentation of the harm to the defense caused by the denial.

If Judge Nelson were to grant the motion, O’Mara would have to submit ex parte motions to appoint specifically named individuals to do specific things. She would probably appoint one investigator. The number of experts she would be willing to appoint would depend on the relevance of their area of expertise to the subject matter at issue in the case. The rate of compensation would be at the reduced rate that the court has established for appointed cases.

If the jury were to convict the defendant and O’Mara failed to hire an investigator or an expert to assist in preparing for trial and putting on a defense, his failure to do those things could be raised in a state habeas petition after the appeal is unsuccessful. Habeas petitions are based on evidence that is not in the record and typically are based on defense counsel’s failure to do something that he should have done. The failure asserted in this instance would be the failure to hire an investigator or expert. If that happened due to lack of money and O’Mara did not ask Judge Nelson to find the defendant indigent, the claim would be that he provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to make the request.

In order to prevail, habeas counsel would have to convince the court that O’Mara’s conduct was deficient according to prevailing standards of conduct and that, but for the deficiency, the result of the trial probably would have been different.

It takes time to assemble a team of experts and investigators and it takes additional time for them to complete their assignments. O’Mara should have assembled his team before Thanksgiving. The trial is scheduled to begin in less than 60 days and the defense fund is underwater $10,000.

Even if Judge Nelson were to enter orders tomorrow finding the defendant indigent and appointing an investigator and experts, all financial compensation would be limited to services provided in the future.

Given that dire financial situation, plus one unhappy creditor having already sued O’Mara alleging that he has refused to pay $28,000 for services provided, I doubt anyone will invest any time or effort to help O’Mara without a substantial retainer up front.

Such is the nature of the criminal defense business.

Just like his client, he is out of time.

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Combining the immunity hearing with the trial in the Zimmerman case is a terrible idea

March 6, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Several of you, including Xena, Southern Girl and Towerflower, have asked me to comment on the possibility of combining an immunity hearing with the trial. I do not believe that is a workable solution because it would violate the defendant’s right to remain silent and the presumption of innocence.

Let us use the defendant’s case as an example.

In a typical immunity hearing, a defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely so than not so) that he acted in self-defense. He puts on his case first, since he has the burden of proof, and the prosecution goes second. If the judge concludes that he satisfied his burden, she will enter an order granting him immunity from civil suit and dismiss the criminal case.

A defendant is not required to testify at the immunity hearing, but if he testifies, and most will since they have the burden of proof, he does not waive his right to remain silent at a subsequent trial, if the judge denies his motion for immunity.

If the hearings are combined in GZ’s case, the prosecution will go first because it has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not kill Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the defense manages to poke some holes in the prosecution’s case such that the defendant and his lawyers are pretty confident about winning the trial without putting on a defense. They do not believe the defendant needs to testify and he does not want to testify.

The defense moves for a judgment of acquittal and for an order granting immunity.

For the purpose of the criminal case and ruling on the motion for a judgment of acquittal, the judge would be required to decide whether a rational trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty based on the evidence introduced during the prosecution’s case. Let us further suppose that the judge decides that a rational trier of fact could convict the defendant and denies the motion for a judgment of acquittal.

For the purpose of ruling on the immunity issue, the judge would be required to decide whether the defense had met its burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he had acted in self-defense. There is little likelihood that the judge would grant the motion because the defense has not put on its case and the defendant has not testified. Therefore, the judge would deny the motion.

Now what happens?

If this were “just” a trial, the defense would rest without introducing any evidence or putting the defendant on the stand to testify. I won about 80% of my trials by employing this strategy, including some self-defense cases by relying on the presumption of innocence and arguing reasonable doubt.

The defense cannot use that strategy, however, if it wants a shot at immunity. Since it has the burden of proof, it must put on a case and the defendant has to testify.

Do you all see the problem now?

The defendant has to give up his right to remain silent to have a shot at immunity, but if he testifies, he risks not only losing the motion for immunity, he also risks being convicted by the jury, if the jury does not believe him.

In other words, in order to exercise his statutory right to an immunity hearing, he is forced to give up his right to remain silent and be presumed innocent in the criminal case.

Notice that combining an immunity hearing with the trial only hurts a defendant.

There is a very long line of SCOTUS cases that prohibit forcing a defendant to give up one constitutional right to exercise another.

That is the problem with combining a pretrial immunity hearing with a trial.

It is also the reason why pretrial suppression hearings in criminal cases are not combined with trials.

I realize that this procedure has been followed in other cases in Florida, and Judge Nelson could decide to follow it in GZ’s case, but I think she would be unwise to do so.

For example, if the defendant were to testify, the jury found him guilty, and Judge Nelson denied his motion for immunity, you can bet that he will claim that he was forced to waive the presumption of innocence and his right to remain silent in order to exercise his statutory right to an immunity hearing and that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel by waiving his right to a pretrial immunity hearing.

I believe that the case will be reversed and remanded for a new trial, if the scenario that I have described takes place.

The scenario is not far fetched.

Frankly, I am shocked that defense counsel would even consider combining the immunity hearing with the trial. Either they are incompetent or simply using this idea as a smokescreen to conceal that they know they have no case.

They may be unwilling to admit publicly that they do not really intend to pursue the request for an immunity hearing during the trial for the simple reason that they fear financial contributions to the defense would wither away to nothing.

I regard that as theft by misrepresentation.

GZ’s supporters should be screaming bloody murder about this latest turn of events.

Instead, his supporters, including some criminal defense lawyers who should know better, are calling yesterday’s decision a victory for the defense.

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The Defendant Should Claim He is Indigent in the Trayvon Martin Murder Case

January 30, 2013

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I write today to comment on the defense team’s financial situation in the Trayvon Martin murder case. I wrote about this recently in What Happens if the Defendant Claims Indigence and his Lawyers Ask to Withdraw?

As everyone here knows, internet donors have contributed more than $200,000 to the defendant for his defense costs via Paypal and that money has been deposited into a trust account that is being managed by an independent third-party trustee. I believe approximately $200,000 has been paid for the defendant’s and his wife’s living and security expenses.

The defendant’s two lawyers, Mark O’Mara and Don West, claim they are working pro bono. This means they are not billing for the time they spend working on the case.

This does not mean that they are not billing for their costs, however, which will include money spent for investigation, expert witnesses, court reporters and transcripts of depositions. These costs could exceed $100,000 before this case is done.

Associated Investigative Services (AIS) filed suit in December against Mark O’Mara, the defendant and his wife for breach of contract alleging that they had refused to pay AIS approximately $27,000 for security and investigation services rendered pursuant to a contract negotiated and agreed to by O’Mara on behalf of the defendant. O’Mara filed an answer to the complaint apparently admitting the contract, but claiming that he advised AIS in August that a trustee was managing the account and conserving funds to pay substantial anticipated defense expenses.

The failure to pay AIS necessarily raises concerns regarding the solvency of the defense trust account and the ability of the defense to pay the “substantial anticipated defense expenses” that O’Mara mentioned.

In addition to comments about the significance of the AIS lawsuit, many of you have asked whether the donations to the account are nontaxable gifts or taxable as income to the defendant. I wrote about this back in May or June and said I believed they were nontaxable gifts, but I am not an expert in tax law, so I could be mistaken.

Grey Winter Sky provided this link in a comment this morning to an article in Forbes Magazine last June that reached the same conclusion that I did. Since the decision is up to the IRS, subject to the outcome of any appeals, we could both end up wrong.

Jun quoted Wikipedia to support his conclusion that the donations are taxable income. He said,

“According to wikipedia, Fogenhats’ defense fund does not count as a gift, so he has to pay taxes

“In the United States, the gift tax is governed by Chapter 12, Subtitle B of the Internal Revenue Code. The tax is imposed by section 2501 of the Code.[2] For the purposes of taxable income, courts have defined a “gift” as the proceeds from a “detached and disinterested generosity.”

For the time being, I am going to stick with my initial opinion that the donations are nontaxable to the defendant.

(The donors may have to pay a tax, depending on the amount they donate, but that is a different issue and beyond the scope of this article.)

Regardless whether the defendant has to pay an income tax on the donations, and if he does it would be a substantial amount, I am concerned whether there is enough money in the account to pay “the substantial anticipated defense expenses.”

O’Mara recently estimated the balance in the account had dropped to around $15,000 and there is no way that that amount will cover “the substantial anticipated defense expenses” as well as the continued living and security expenses.

I suspect the civil suit against NBC was filed with the hope that NBC would settle the case quickly and the settlement amount would be added to the trust account to give some breathing room to the defense team. I doubt the case will settle because the claims against NBC and its reporters, even if true, do not establish that they caused any compensable harm to the defendant. He, and not the reporters, called Trayvon Martin a “fucking asshole” and a “fucking coon.” That is what I hear on the NEN recording and I am not alone. Therefore, that lawsuit is going nowhere.

I do not know if the defense continues to receive donations, but if they have slowed to a trickle as I imagine they have, then the defense is going to have to make a very important decision soon.

Hoping that future donations will be sufficient to pay “the substantial anticipated defense expenses” is not a viable and responsible strategy. It’s called gambling.

Sooner or later and preferably sooner rather than later, I believe the defense is going to have to claim indigency and seek an order permitting the defendant to proceed in forma pauperis. If granted, the court would appoint and compensate defense investigators and experts at substantially reduced rates.

No doubt such a move would cause an enormous loss of face for the defense, but that is infinitely more preferable than proceeding to trial without the assistance of defense investigators or experts.

Moreover, a conviction obtained without the assistance of defense investigators and experts might be reversed for ineffective assistance of counsel and that is a result that no one, except a convicted defendant, would desire.


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