In May 2019, in a New York robbery case, a state appellate court issued a written opinion discussing an important issue that may arise in any case in which there is more than one person named as a defendant. Specifically, the case required the court to determine if the defendant was deprived of a fair trial when the court allowed a codefendant to testify against the defendant after the codefendant negotiated a deal directly with the trial judge. Ultimately, the court found in favor of the defendant, ordering a new trial.
According to the court’s opinion, both the defendant and codefendant were arrested and charged with first-degree robbery. While some of the crime was captured on video, the faces of the robbers were not visible. Before trial, the codefendant entered an open guilty plea to each charge. The court informed the codefendant that the range of his sentence would be between nine and 15 years, and that the codefendant’s specific sentence would depend on the “level of cooperation in the prosecution” against the defendant. The court explained that “one of the primary touchstones” of its determination would be whether the codefendant’s testimony at trial was consistent with his statements to police in which he identified the defendant.
At trial, the codefendant testified that he was one of the people who committed the robbery and the defendant was also involved. The codefendant identified the defendant as the other person who committed the robbery on the surveillance footage. The prosecution questioned the codefendant, eliciting testimony that there was no deal between the prosecution and the codefendant. The court later informed the jury that the court had entered into an agreement with the codefendant. The jury convicted the defendant, and the defendant appealed.
On appeal, the defendant claimed that by negotiating a deal with his codefendant, the judge stepped into the role of a prosecutor and was no longer an unbiased arbiter. The court explained that it was improper for the judge to tell the codefendant that his sentence would be contingent on how “truthful” he was when it came to corroborating his previous statements to police. The court explained that the judge could not be sure that the codefendant was truthful in his statements to police and “essentially directed the codefendant on how the codefendant must testify in order to receive the benefit of the bargain.” The court explained that this conduct violated the defendant’s Due Process rights and deprived him of a fair trial. Thus, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction.
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