Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Mommy Dearest

United States v. O’Connor, No. 08-5968-cr (2d Cir. June 16, 2011) (Kearse, Pooler, Hall, CJJ)

Linda O’Connor began sexually abusing her daughter, S.O., when S.O. was ten years old. O’Connor also allowed her friend – he was also her occasional financial benefactor and sex partner – George Lang, to do so; O’Connor even sometimes joined in. Lang died of cancer before he could be prosecuted, and O’Connor then passed S.O. on to her landlord, co-defendant Dean Sacco, in lieu of paying rent. Sacco raped S.O. many times, and also took pictures of the abuse. Finally, on two occasions, O’Connor brought S.O. to a motel in Binghamton, where strangers raped her for money, while O’Connor looked on and ordered her to follow the men’s instructions.

O’Connor and Sacco were convicted of various sex trafficking and child pornography offenses; she was sentenced to 30 years and he to life. This opinion affirms their convictions.


Sacco’s main claim on appeal was that the district court abused its discretion in denying his attorney’s motion to withdraw.

The facts are quite unusual. Sacco had a court-appointed attorney, who worked on the case for about two months. He researched and investigated the case and reviewed voluminous discovery materials. Just days before the scheduled trial date, however, the attorney moved to withdraw, saying that the intensity of his personal feelings about the case would affect his ability to zealously represent Sacco.

The attorney cited in particular the recent disclosure of a single item of evidence: a used condom recovered from Sacco’s belonging that had S.O.’s DNA on the outside. The attorney said that this evidence had caused him to shift his “moral and technical perspective” on the case such that he could no longer be effective. The government opposed the motion to withdraw, while Sacco himself took “no firm position” on it. He was largely pleased with his attorney’s performance, although he expressed frustration that they had not communicated more. Sacco also indicated that he wanted to go to trial as quickly as possible, but questioned whether his attorney was truly ready. With this as the record, the district court found that there was an insufficient basis for the attorney to withdraw and denied the motion.

The circuit found no abuse of discretion. While the attorney had tried to based his arguments in the district court on New York’s then-applicable rules of professional responsibility, the circuit noted that the attorney never argued that he would be in violation of any Disciplinary Rule if he continued representing Sacco. And the relevant Ethical Considerations actually supported the district court’s ruling. While an attorney’s personal feelings might permit him to refuse an assignment, they do not permit withdrawal. Withdrawal must be for “compelling reasons,” which “do not include such factors as the repugnance of the subject matter of the proceeding.”

Here, the DNA evidence that prompted the motion to withdraw, whether it suddenly made the subject matter repugnant to the attorney or simply made him realize that his client was guilty, could not serve as a valid basis for withdrawal. Moreover, on appeal, represented by different counsel, Sacco could point to nothing in the record to suggest that his attorney’s representation was actually impaired.


O’Connor had two main appellate claims – sufficiency challenges and the denial of her motion to be severed from Sacco for trial. The circuit disposed of these challenges with little trouble. The sufficiency claims were all quite thin. And,for the severance claim, the circuit began by noting the great deference owed to district courts’ severance decisions.

Here, the nature of the charges “made the joint trial of O’Connor and Sacco particularly appropriate,” since O’Connor was charged with selling S.O. to Sacco for the purpose of producing child pornography. The court also rejected O’Connor’s claim that her defense was antagonistic to Sacco’s, since both defendants argued that S.O.’s testimony was not worthy of belief. Nor was there any risk of “spillover” prejudice. While there was highly damaging evidence admitted against Sacco alone, the judge carefully instructed the jury that each charge and each defendant had to be considered separately.

O’Connor also raised an interesting evidentiary issue. A witness with whom S.O. stayed for two months during the charged time period testified that, when cleaning S.O.’s room she found a note in S.O.’s handwriting that said, “I hate my mother. She used me,” although the witness had not preserved the note.

The circuit found no hearsay error. The district court had admitted the contents of the note under the “state of mind” exception in Fed. R. Evid. 803(3). But that covered only the “I hate my mother” sentence, and not “She used me.” But this latter statement was covered by Rule 801(d), the “prior consistent statement” rule, which makes a statement not hearsay if the declarant testifies, is cross-examined on the statement, and the statement is used to rebut a claim of recent fabrication. Here, both defendants had argued that S.O.’s fabrications began on a date after the note was written, so the prior consistent statement was admissible.

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