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SJC Holds Attorney’s Failure to Investigate Alibi Witness to be Ineffective Assistance

air-soft-gun-1-1500175-300x189In Commonwealth v Diaz Perez, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the allowance of the defendant’s motion for a new trial, agreeing with the trial court judge that the failure of the defendant’s successor trial counsel to investigate a crucial alibi witness, who had testified at an earlier mistrial, constituted ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

The background was as follows. “The victim … was fatally shot at a baby shower. The [event] was attended by roughly one hundred guests (including the defendant)…. As midnight approached and the event concluded, the guests began to gather outside. An argument then broke out” and “escalated into physical violence.” “[The victim] was shot in the back and later died of his injuries.” The defendant was indicted for murder. “His first trial began in May of 2006. A mistrial was declared because, after more than a week of deliberation, the jury were still unable to reach a verdict. After the first trial, the defendant was appointed new counsel.” A year after the first trial, the defendant was tried again and was convicted of first-degree murder. “The principal factual issue at each trial was whether there was sufficient evidence to identify the defendant as the shooter.” “At both trials, the Commonwealth relied on the testimony of two eyewitnesses to identify the defendant as the” perpetrator. During the first trial only, however, an alibi witness [Sanchez] testified that he had been inside a building with the defendant when the shooting took place on a street outside the building.” After his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, “arguing that his second attorney’s failure to call [Sanchez as a witness] or even [to] investigate [him] amounted to constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel.” The motion was allowed and the Commonwealth appealed.

In its decision favorable to the defendant, the SJC noted that “although successor counsel was aware of Sanchez and that he had testified at the first trial” — counsel possessed the transcripts of that trial — “she made no attempt to locate or to speak with [Sanchez], either personally or through a private investigator, nor did she discuss his testimony with the defendant’s previous counsel. As a result, successor counsel lacked the ability to determine whether calling Sanchez as a witness [at the second trial] might have bolstered the defendant’s case, or weakened that of the prosecution.” In the Court’s view, where “Sanchez provided testimony contradicting the Commonwealth’s theory of the case at the defendant’s first trial, and a mistrial was declared,” “at least some credible explanation from successor counsel was required as to why Sanchez was not called at the second trial. [However,] [n]o such explanation was given” by successor counsel at the hearing on the defendant’s motion for a new trial. The Court concluded that if Sanchez had been called as a witness at the second trial, his “affirmative testimony that the defendant could not have been the shooter might have had a significant impact on the jury’s deliberations,” especially where the Commonwealth’s identification evidence was far from overwhelming.

A comprehensive and thorough investigation is the cornerstone of a high quality defense in any criminal matter.  If you or a loved one is charged with a crime, you will need an experienced attorney to act on your behalf. Attorney Daniel Cappetta knows how to properly investigate a case, build a defense, and zealously advocate on behalf of his clients. Call him for a free consultation today.

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