This week’s installment is a little different.
Our case study will be presented by New York Law student, Soultana Toskos. Soul was our firm’s office manager until one day she decided that the law was her path.
Soultana will be analyzing a case where 36-year-old Jermaine Butts, from Harlem, was arrested and charged with fatally shooting one man and injuring three others in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The case interested Soul because it involves a concept that is extremely confusing. But it is important to understand for lawyers, judges, professors, and people watching television shows involving trials -- HEARSAY!
Let’s see what Soultana has to say about a case where the courts ruled that the trial judge made a mistake when hearsay was NOT allowed.
Wait, that can’t be right! Hearsay allowed in a courtroom?! Before we knee-jerk and object in a Law & Order type fashion, we must remember that judges may exercise discretion when permitting second-hand information during trials. In this week’s Cup of Joe we discuss People v. Jermaine Butts, where the trial court’s decision to prevent hearsay resulted in an unfair trial.
What Is Hearsay, Anyway?
Hearsay is testimony about an out of court statement which is not certain to be fact, and is typically disallowed in courtrooms for fear of verdicts being based on gossip or lies. But what if you heard something directly from a key witness that could discredit the testimony they gave on the stand? What if what you were told supports a defendant’s innocence? Shouldn’t a jury consider any and all information pertinent to a case before deciding the fate of a defendant?
All these questions flooded my mind as I read the appellate court’s opinion on Jermaine Butts’s convictions for murder in the second degree, burglary in the second degree, assault in the second degree, and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree.
In November of 2013, William Jordan and Walter Lindsay were in Jordan’s Brooklyn apartment when four masked intruders entered, displayed guns, and demanded money and marijuana. After Lindsay was shot in the back and Jordan was fatally shot in the head, the intruders fled.
The night of the incident, Lindsay told law enforcement that he did not identify any of the intruders, but eleven days later admitted that he recognized three, one of which he claimed was defendant, Jermaine Butts. After Lindsay testified at trial, his brother Elliot Boyd contacted defense counsel to express how on multiple occasions Lindsay had confessed his inability to recognize any of the intruders because their faces were concealed.
So which was it? Was Jermaine Butts the intruder, yes or no?
Well, the answer to those questions was for the jury to decide. They ultimately convicted the defendant without hearing Boyd’s testimony about his brother’s inconsistencies, because the court deemed it hearsay and thereby inadmissible.
However, had the precluded evidence been allowed it could have discredited Lindsay and possibly created enough reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds to acquit Butts!
The Ruling On Appeal:
The key issue the court considered on appeal was whether the preclusion of Boyd’s testimony deprived Jermaine Butts of a fair trial.
The defendant’s presence at the scene of the crime was a material and contested element of the case. If the sole witness identifying the defendant can be discredited, then such exculpatory evidence should be heard and considered by the court! Jermaine Butts had the right to offer and compel all testimony to best present a strong defense and he was prevented from doing so, which resulted in an inequitable trial.
The judges entered a final judgment in favor of Mr. Butts, and remitted the matter back to Kings County Supreme Court for a new trial where Boyd’s testimony would be shared in court.
Soultana was bothered by the case because it seemed so unfair that the trial judge would not allow testimony as to whether Lindsay told Boyd that he did not see the intruders' faces. That information went directly to the heart of the most contested aspect of this case: — WHETHER THE DEFENDANT WAS ONE OF THE INTRUDERS.
But that is why we have appeals courts – to correct mistakes so that everyone gets a fair trial.
Here, the appeals court determined that the hearsay evidence was not only relevant to Lindsay's credibility, it was also relevant to the very issues that the jury had to decide.
Remember, we are entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial.
Thank you for the great case, Soultana. We look forward to your next contribution.