The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday reversed the conviction of an inmate at the Hampden County House of Correction who allegedly assaulted a guard, after determining that his attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hampton.
The defendant was charged with assault and battery on a correctional officer. On the date in question, he was scheduled to go to court, but his appearance was canceled. He was preparing to return to his cell but first needed to be strip searched in the “strip room.” Three jail guards testified at trial that the defendant was asked to put down some of his personal papers so he could be searched. When one of the officers picked up the papers, according to the guards, the defendant told him not to read them, ripped them out of the guard’s hand, and punched him repeatedly. The defendant testified that he was beginning to undress when the guard picked up his papers. After asking the guard several times not to read the paperwork, the defendant grabbed the documents from the guard’s hand. The defendant then followed a guard’s instruction to turn around and put his hands on the wall, and one of the guards pushed him three times from behind. The defendant turned around and swung his fist at the officer, causing both men to fall to the ground where the officer hit the defendant in the eye.
Before his trial, the defendant told his lawyer that another inmate, Deven Gallop, had seen the incident. However, when the prosecutor provided a list of witnesses to the defendant’s attorney, Gallop’s name was not included. Accordingly, neither the defendant’s attorney nor her investigator interviewed Gallop.
Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that his attorney had not competently represented him. At the hearing, Gallop testified that he was in a holding cell a few feet across from the strip room. Through the holding cell’s open door, Gallop saw a guard push the defendant three or four times and might have seen the guard take a swing at the defendant. The Commonwealth attacked Gallop’s credibility by highlighting inconsistencies between his testimony and the testimony of the defendant. The Commonwealth also pointed out that Gallop had given an inaccurate description of the strip room. The defendant’s trial attorney testified at the hearing that she had never been to the Hampden County House of Correction and was not familiar with the layout of the strip cell. She also conceded that she did not interview Gallop, despite knowing about him, because she relied on the prosecutor’s representation that Gallop did not witness the event. A superior court judge denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial and the Appeals Court reversed.
The Appeals Court began its analysis by pointing out that federal and state law require defense attorneys to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations of a case. By not interviewing Gallop, the attorney had not satisfied her duty to conduct an independent investigation. The Court said it was “manifestly unreasonable” for her to fail to interview someone who had allegedly witnessed the crime. The Commonwealth argued on appeal that because Gallop was not credible, the defendant was not prejudiced by his attorney’s failure to call him to testify. The Court rejected that argument, noting that the issue of witness credibility is to be determined by a jury, not a judge. Therefore, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the superior court for a new trial.
As the Appeals Court makes clear in this case, one of the most basic responsibilities of a defense attorney is to conduct his or her own investigation. Blindly relying on a prosecutor to provide accurate and complete information about a case is incredibly dangerous.