People v. Cortez

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The appeal addressed two issues: (1) the constitutional right of a criminal defendant to have conflict-free representation at trial, and (2) the use of a defendant’s state of mind months and years before perpetration of the crime as propensity evidence. Defendant Paul Cortez was convicted after a jury trial of the murder of Catherine Woods. On the night of the crime, Woods was found stabbed to death in her bedroom and after a crime scene analysis, detectives were able to find the impression of a bloodied hand on the wall and a latent fingerprint was discovered. Also among the evidence were cell phone records of Cortez, showing calls made in a progression from Cortez’s residence towards Woods’ apartment.

In his defense, Cortez was represented by two attorneys with the co-counsel being retained for her expertise in forensic evidence. Before trial, co-counsel was charged with a crime by the same office that was prosecuting her client. Further, at trial the State entered into evidence entries from Cortez’s journals concerning relationships with women from as early as six years prior, in which he described his growing rage and thoughts of revenge. Cortez contended on appeal that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because of co-counsel’s conflict, and that the receipt of evidence regarding his prior thoughts were irrelevant to proving the crime he was charged. Both of his arguments were rejected by the appellate division.

On the theory of conflict-based ineffective assistance of counsel the Court of Appeals held that there were no deficiencies in Cortez’s defense that were traceable to co-counsel’s conflict of interest. The Court acknowledged that the trial judge had conducted a Gromberg hearing to determine whether Cortez knowingly elected to continue with representation by co-counsel in light of the conflict. 379 N.Y.S.2d 769 (1975). At the hearing, Cortez stated that “she has not compromised this case on account of her own,” and the inquiry was thus ended. 2014 WL 210890 at 2.

The Court recognized that the trial court relied heavily upon this assertion and Cortez’s statement that co-counsel had spoken to him about the conflict. However, the trial judge failed to inform Cortez of all the possible consequences of his waiver and the court concluded that his statement regarding his waiver was indeed deficient. Yet the court declined to reverse the conviction because the fact that co-counsel was being prosecuted by the same office raised only a potential conflict, and although Cortez pointed several instances he felt co-counsel was deficient, those deficiencies could not be attributed to co-counsel’s alleged conflict.

Lastly, on the issue of admitting evidence relating to Cortez’s state of mind in years prior to the crime, the court found that this evidence was improperly admitted. Although the prosecutor had argued that this evidence was probative of a growing state of mind or a progression, the court found that this evidence by itself was simple propensity evidence which was forbidden because it asks for an inference of guilt from evidence that only shows a propensity to act in a certain manner. The court reasoned that evidence about mental thoughts only was particularly dangerous. However, even finding that this evidence was irrelevant to the murder of Woods, the court declined to reverse because it found the rest of the evidence presented to the jury overwhelmingly demonstrated that Cortez was the assailant.

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2014 WL 210890, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op. 00293

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