Alston & Bird won a major victory for a pro bono murder defendant when the New York State Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial, ruling unanimously that the trial court erred in prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors with respect to their views on involuntary confessions.
“Under the circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion when it entirely precluded questioning on the issue of involuntary confessions and refused to make its own inquiry of the potential jurors on the issue,” said Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr., writing for the court. “Defense counsel's request to question prospective jurors about their ability to follow the law and disregard an involuntary confession went to the heart of determining whether those jurors could be impartial and afford defendant a fair trial.”
Charged with murder in 2007, defendant James Miller gave verbal, written and videotaped statements to the police admitting his involvement. In addition to the inculpatory statements, the prosecution’s case included two purported eyewitnesses to the crime.
During jury selection, defense counsel sought to ask potential jurors if they would be able to follow the law and disregard a confession if they found it was involuntary. The court denied the request, concluding that the issue should not be addressed at the jury selection stage because the prosecution had not yet determined whether it would introduce defendant's statements at trial. The court said it was unclear what, if anything, might be made of the statements at trial and that allowing questioning regarding the jurors’ views on involuntary statements would improperly invite jurors to speculate as to the existence and nature of the statements if they were not ultimately used at trial.
The statements were presented to the jury during trial, and Miller testified that they were coerced and untrue.
Miller was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He appealed to the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court abused its discretion by precluding defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors during voir dire as to their ability to follow and apply the law regarding the use of involuntary statements at trial. The Appellate Division rejected Miller’s argument and unanimously affirmed the conviction.
Emphasizing the constitutional and public policy issues for review, Miller sought leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, which granted his request – a rare action taken by the court in only 3.7 percent of criminal cases that year. The court then unanimously reversed Miller’s conviction and ordered a new trial. In so holding, the court noted that defense counsel’s proposed questioning “went to the heart of determining whether those jurors could be impartial and afford defendant a fair trial,” that Miller was “facing the most serious charge of murder” and that his defense was “premised … on the involuntariness of his inculpatory statements.”
Representing James Miller on both appeals is Alston & Bird attorney Daniella Main, who has devoted three years and more than 1,000 hours to the case pro bono in conjunction with the New York Office of the Appellate Defender.
The case is People v. James Miller, No. 208, 2016 WL 7389244 (N.Y. Dec. 22, 2016).