Defendant with sleeping lawyer entitled to new trial, ’emerging adults’ entitled to parole possibility, top state court rules
A murder defendant whose lawyer slept during parts of the trial was denied his right to counsel under the state constitution, entitling him to a new trial, the top court in Massachusetts has ruled. Image from Shutterstock.
A murder defendant whose lawyer slept during parts of the trial was denied his right to counsel under the state constitution, entitling him to a new trial, the top court in Massachusetts has ruled.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Jan. 11 that the defendant, Nyasani Watt, was entitled to a new trial under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
Bloomberg Law, Reuters and Law.com have coverage.
Affidavits submitted by Watt, his co-defendant, his co-defendant’s lawyers, trial prosecutors and his mother all said the trial lawyer, who has since died, was asleep or had his eyes closed for at least part of the trial. One of the prosecutors said in his affidavit he saw the trial lawyer “dozing off” on multiple occasions, and in one instance, the prosecutor had to rouse the lawyer to show him a photo.
Watt’s mother said her son’s lawyer seemed ill and “did not seem alert.” She also said the lawyer had told her that he was recently hospitalized. Watt “asserts that trial counsel slept recurrently and during significant moments, such as jury selection and the testimony of two witnesses,” possibly including a central prosecution witness, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court combined two standards used by federal appeals courts in sleeping-lawyer cases evaluated under the Sixth Amendment. One approach considers whether the lawyer slept during a significant portion of trial. The other considers whether the lawyer slept during an important aspect of trial.
“Although any slumber by counsel during trial is distressing and detrimental, counsel’s constructive absence during either a significant portion of trial or an important aspect of trial so offends the constitutional protections surrounding the right to assistance of counsel that it renders the entire adversary process ‘presumptively unreliable’ and creates an uncurable error,” the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said in Commonwealth v. Watt.
Watt was convicted in 2013, along with a co-defendant, for a 2011 murder of a 16-year-old Boston youth in an alleged gang feud, according to the Associated Press.
In a second decision Jan. 11, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the co-defendant, Sheldon Mattis, is entitled to seek parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, holding that such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment when a youth’s individual characteristics are not allowed to be taken into account.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went further in 2013, holding that any sentence of life without parole for juveniles under age 18 was unconstitutional.
Mattis was 18 years old at the time of the fatal shooting and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Extending its 2013 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held on Jan. 11 that “emerging adults” ages 18, 19 and 20 are entitled to the possibility of parole under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. That case is Commonwealth v. Mattis.