Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

Second Circuit Grants Habeas Relief in State Murder Case Based on Right to Present a Complete Defense

In Scrimo v. Lee, No. 17-3434 (2d Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), the Second Circuit ordered the grant of a writ of habeas corpus, undoing the defendant’s 2002 second-degree murder conviction.

Defendant Paul Scrimo was convicted of second-degree murder following trial in New York state court and sentenced to 25 years to life. Briefly, the defendant was charged with strangling a woman in her apartment early in the morning, after drinking with her and a man named John Kane at various bars. The chief evidence against the defendant was the testimony of John Kane. Kane admitted that he was with the victim and the defendant on the night of the murder, and in the victim’s apartment during the crime. Kane claimed that he saw the defendant strangle the victim after she insulted him.

There was little to corroborate Kane’s account of the murder and, in fact, other evidence pointed to Kane as the killer. In particular, Kane’s DNA was “under the victim’s fingernails,” Slip Op. 3. Kane also admitted that he had been at the scene of the killing, that he helped try to cover it up, and that he had a prior sexual relationship with the victim.

At trial, the theory of defense was that Kane killed the victim. In support of this theory, the defense sought to offer evidence that Kane was a drug dealer; that he had previously sold drugs to the victim; that Kane and the victim had a dispute over the drugs he sold her; and that, some years earlier, when Kane had a dispute with a female drug customer, he choked her. That former customer survived and was proffered as a defense witness. For various reasons, the state trial court excluded a substantial portion of this evidence.

The Second Circuit held that the exclusion of this evidence violated the defendant’s clearly-established constitutional right to present a complete defense.

The decision features a helpful discussion of standards for granting habeas relief, particularly when there are issues involving state evidentiary rulings. It also contains a strong affirmation of a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense, including evidence tending to establish third-party culpability.

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