Once upon a time in Connecticut
there was a Court
which, to Constitutional errors,
gave much thought
it matters not, the Court said
if an error wasn’t preserved
if certain conditions are met
we’ll give it the review it deserved
And so the court issued
its seminal holding
in the case of
State v. Monica Golding
The State huffed and puffed
and fumed and schemed
to get the court to ignore these errors
it daily dreamed
In every case
the State cried foul
“but that precise claim wasn’t raised”
it bleated with a scowl
And then the Court changed
as members came and went
the State continued to try
to put in Ms. Golding a dent
And as the years went by
the Court became less receptive
to these pleas of error
the State considered defective
If you do not object
or even stand silently by
as erroneous instructions
the jury must apply
If you do not state
with exacting precision
the specific problems
with the court’s instruction
The court will deem that you have waived
the client’s right
Due Process? Fair trials?
you cannot seek this constitutional might
The court can err
confuse and mislead
but for this Constitutional infirmity
only you will bleed
You must be prescient
You must be attentive
because the Court has become
And now that Ms. Golding’s
been sent to the Kitchens sink
What are we to do?
What are we to think?
Ask for copies
and then ask for time
and if you forget
just remember this rhyme
One thing is certain
One thing is sure
For our clients’ ills
We are the only cure.
And now the prose version for those who either tl;dr-ed the above or who just didn’t understand what the hell it meant:
We’ve all been there: the trial has just concluded, you’ve delivered the closing argument that you spent many nights working on and frankly, you’re exhausted. The judge starts giving the long, boring instructions to the jury – you know what I mean – which they’ll rely on to analyze the evidence and apply it to the law of the land. You tune out, your eyes glaze over, you just want a damn drink.
And in the midst of your reverie, the judge instructs the jury that the defendant has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt to prove his innocence. Since you were preoccupied with visions of a drunken sleep, you didn’t notice. The jury, obviously, convicts, since there was no defense case in chief. You are upset, the client is led away and you go home to curl up in the fetal position and bemoan juries predisposition to convict.
Then your client appeals and the sharp, astute, awake appellate attorney notices the erroneous instruction. Oh no! This was instructional error! The judge gave the jury incorrect instructions! But you didn’t object! And so the error wasn’t preserved! Are we doomed?
Recognizing the problems that would arise with turning a blind eye to this obvious mistake of Constitutional magnitude that impacted the right to due process and a fair trial, the appellate courts in Connecticut issued a decision back in 1989: State v. Golding. The Golding decision created a 4-pronged test to deal with scenarios like these:
- The record is adequate to review the alleged claim of error;
- The claim is of constitutional magnitude alleging the violation of a fundamental right;
- The alleged constitutional violation clearly exists and clearly deprived the defendant of a fair trial; and
- If subject to harmless error analysis, the state has failed to demonstrate harmlessness of the alleged constitutional violation beyond a reasonable doubt.
(note that Golding applied to all errors of constitutional magnitude, not just jury instructions). This test worked – albeit not perfectly – but it worked. Obvious errors that implicated constitutional rights received the appellate review they deserved. But the State, cloaked in its self-righteous veneer of finality over justice, was unhappy. It fought for years to reverse Golding, because dammit any trial is a fair trial. And if your lawyer is asleep at the wheel, or just plain misses something, you must pay for it.
Most defense lawyers weren’t that worried about the Court overturning Golding because, well, how could they? How could they justify punishing a defendant for an obvious Constitutional error? How could they justify depriving a defendant of his/her right to due process and a fair trial?
Blame the lawyer, that’s how. This year, in a trio of cases – State v. Kitchens, State v. Akande and State v. Mungroo – the Connecticut Supreme Court made jaws drop by holding that if a lawyer fails to object to the exact same language of a jury instruction that is later challenged on appeal, the defendant is deemed to have waived the right to appeal that error. Part of the reasoning is that it will be considered a tactic on the part of the lawyer to not object to that erroneous instruction. Like we’re all that smart.
Yes. So under my scenario above, the appellate lawyer cannot argue that the defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated, because the lawyer did not object to the incorrect reasonable doubt instruction. Think of it as that portion of a wedding vow where the officiant looks at the crowd and asks if anyone objects to the union and warns them to speak now or forever hold their peace.
Now, the example I gave is an extreme one – hopefully no matter how asleep you are, you would notice that the defendant doesn’t have to prove a damn thing. But what of other less noticeable errors? What of erroneous instructions that a particular lawyer just wasn’t aware of? But that’s apparently a tactical decision.
The burden this places on the defense lawyer is tremendous – and misplaced. The court has an independent obligation to ensure that the jury is instructed correctly. This removes that obligation on the trial court, which, after all, is in charge of courtroom procedure, evidence and instructions, and places it on the shoulders of the defense lawyer. And what if the lawyer is just plain wrong and incorrectly agrees to the erroneous instruction? How do you make a defendant pay for that lawyer’s mistake? And why must that defendant wait years and years for vindication that may never come? Why has the Supreme Court abrogated its basic function: to ensure that justice is delivered in Connecticut courtrooms and to preserve the Constitutional right to due process and fair trials? The Court seems more interested in arguing that defense lawyers will choose to knowingly ignore Constitutional errors so as to set up appellate claims – something that is highly unethical and detrimental to the client.
I refuse to cite from the majority opinion because it is just so vile. But, in the interest of making this post somewhat productive and instructive, I will cite only this one paragraph that provides some sort of guideline:
We conclude that, when the trial court provides counsel with a copy of the proposed jury instructions, allows a meaningful opportunity for their review, solicits comments from counsel regarding changes or modifications and counsel affirmatively accepts the instructions proposed or given, the defendant may be deemed to have knowledge of any potential flaws therein and to have waived implicitly the constitutional right to challenge the instructions on direct appeal.
As far as I can see, here’s what we need to do:
- File a motion with the trial judge for a written copy of the proposed jury instructions prior to the start of jury selection. In fact, demand them. Cite Kitchens over and over again.
- Make a record every time you ask the Court for the written instructions.
- Ask for a continuance of at least 48 hours if you receive the instructions during the evidence portion of the trial. Realistically, you need that much time to absorb, understand and critique the instructions.
- Make a record of what else you have to do in the midst of trial and why you need that time.
- Demand the time. Make a record and use the words “I will not have had a meaningful opportunity to review the instructions if you do not grant this continuance, Your Honor”.
- The court will not usually grant you this time; expect that.
- Share the instructions with other lawyers. Ask them to read them and provide feedback.
- Start keeping a repository of your own instructions.
- Always submit your own proposed instructions in writing.
- Always ask the Court to give your version of the instructions, no matter how closely they track the Court’s.
- Always object to the Court’s instructions and suggest that the Court give yours instead.
- Make sure you don’t have something stupid or wrong in your proposed instructions.
- Make a record that you have not shared your proposed instructions with your client, that he is not trained in the law and he is relying on you to get it right.
- State on the record that your client is not waiving any right to review of errors contained in the jury instructions.
- State on the record that you have perused the Court’s proposed instructions to the best of your ability and that there are no errors that you are intentionally not bringing to the Court’s attention.
- Pray that the Court gets it right.
The State and the courts of this State don’t seem to give a damn about its citizens Constitutional rights. Now, more than ever, we defense lawyers are the only ones that stand between the individual who has all the might of a government thrown against him and a summary, lawless judgment being pronounced. This is not the time to tuck our tails between our legs and scamper off. Fight. Stand up and assert our rights. Your rights. My rights. Because if we don’t, soon, there won’t be any left.
And because every post of this length needs a video, here’s a song about rhymes (language decidedly adult):