Friday, July 15th, 2016

Second Circuit Updates – July 15, 2016

The Record of the Psychiatric Evaluation of a Rape Complainant was Material Under Brady and State Court’s Ruling to the Contrary was Unreasonable Application of the Kyles standard.

(Full disclosure: Colleen Cassidy, today’s blogger, briefed and argued this case)

In Fuentes v. Griffin, Docket NO. 14 – 3878, the Second Circuit (KEARSE, J.), held that the state prosecutor’s suppression of the rape complainant’s psychiatric evaluation (the “Record”) violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and that the state court unreasonably applied the materiality standard of Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995), in rejecting that claim. The state trial was a closely contested rape case with a consent defense, in which a sexual encounter on the roof of the complainant’s building was undisputed and the only issue was whether it was rape or consensual. The only witnesses to the encounter were the complainant and the defendant-petitioner and there was no forensic evidence of rape. Op. At 3-4.

The complainant testified that petitioner was a stranger who followed her home from the subway late at night, attacked her at knife point in her elevator, and raped her on the roof of her building. Op. at 5-6.  Petitioner testified that he met the complainant in a bar in Manhattan and they left together to go to her building for consensual sex. Op. at 9-10. Both testified that after the encounter, they walked together to the subway. Op. at 5-6, 10.  According to petitioner, the complainant became upset, acted  erratically, and cursed at him when he declined to make plans to meet again. Op. at 10. Several details of the complainant’s testimony were inconsistent with her previous statements and other details were more consistent with petitioner’s account, like the facts that petitioner told her his name and that she shared with him some personal information about herself.  Op. at 27-28.

The Record of the complainant’s psychiatric evaluation was part of her examination at the hospital where she reported the rape the next day, but the prosecutor removed it from the medical file disclosed to the defense. It recorded the complainant’s own report that she had suffered from depression with thoughts of suicide for two years, that she had frequent crying spells, felt withdrawn, lacked energy, and felt mistreated by her mother. Op. at 10-11.She was diagnosed with dysthymic disorder and referred to a psychiatric clinic. Op. at 11. When this was revealed at the end of trial, petitioner moved for a mistrial on Brady grounds and appealed the denial of that motion to the New York Court of Appeals. That court held in a split decision (5-2) that the Record should have been disclosed but that it was not material.

The Second Circuit concluded that the New York Court of Appeals majority’s ruling was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, the materiality standard for Brady claims established in Kyles. “Entirely missing from the Majority’s reasoning is any analysis of how the [record] might have benefitted the defense.” Op. At 24. This failure stemmed most basically from the majority’s  misreading of the document as “unclear” on the issue of whether the complainant’s suicidal ideation predated the alleged rape or resulted from it, when the record was unambiguous that this persisted for two years prior to the incident. Op. at 24. The majority’s assessment of the record’s value to the defense as “at best, minimal” was based on this  misreading. It undertook no analysis of how the complainant’s reported mental state before the incident might have affected her behavior. Op. at 25. Second, the majority overstated the strength of the prosecution case, which depended entirely on the testimony of the complainant, and disregarded evidence supporting petitioner’s defense, including some of the facts in the complainant’s own testimony. Op. at 25-28. The case was in fact very close, the verdict hinged on credibility,  and the jury struggled with the evidence. Op. at 28. Third, the majority illogically relied on the fact that some statements in the Record were consistent with the complainant’s story to reject the entire Record as not helpful to the defense. Op. at 29. Finally, the Majority failed to consider the unique importance of the statements in the Record to the facts of this case and the defense at trial. Op. at 29.

Magistrate Judge Blum had recommended granting the writ of habeas corpus in this case. Judge Townes subsequently rejected that recommendation and denied the petition on the ground that there was no clearly established federal law specifically applying Brady to records of a witness’s mental health. Judge Kearse rejected this crabbed interpretation of “clearly established federal law,” holding that Brady and Kyle apply to any evidence that is favorable to the accused because it provides impeachment of a crucial witness. That includes psychiatric evidence raising questions about the witness’s biases and reliability. Op. at 22. Moreover, Judge Kearse noted that the Supreme Court had applied Brady principles to the failure to disclose a report of the psychiatric examination of the main witness, in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420(2000).

Judge Wesley filed a dissent.

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Categories: Brady, Kyles, sex offenses
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