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New York’s Seminal Case On Ineffective Assistance Of Counsel

People v. Joseph Baldi

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on October 20, 1981

54 N.Y.2d 137

Issue:  Whether the reversal of the convictions on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel should be upheld where there were five areas of alleged inadequacy by defendant’s lawyer:

1)    the failure to pursue Defendant’s claim of actual innocence in the first trial;

2)    the handling of both defense and prosecution expert witnesses;

3)    defendant’s lawyer testifying at the two trials and the Huntley hearing, as well as his summations;

4)    defendant’s lawyer role in bringing about the July 7 and 14, 1972 interrogations;

5)    the quality of effort made to suppress defendant’s June 21 confession.

Whether the reversal of the convictions on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel should be reversed where the defense attorney’s conduct was innovative?

Holding: The right to the effective assistance of council is guaranteed by both the Federal (6th amendment) and State (NY Constitution article 1 and 6) constitutions. It is always easy with hindsight to point out where the trial council went wrong with his/her strategy. But trial tactics that do not work will not automatically indicate ineffectiveness. So long as the evidence, the law, and the circumstances of a particular case, viewed in totality and as of the time of the representation, reveal that the attorney provided meaningful representation, the constitutional requirement will have been met.

Facts:  On 9/5/1971 police responded to a prowler complaint in Queens. While the police were investigating the complaint they saw Joseph Baldi and proceeded to ask him what he was doing in the area.  The police were dissatisfied with Baldi’s response and asked for his identification. Baldi instead of pulling out his wallet he pulled at a pistol and attempted to shoot one of the police officers. The gun misfired and the police officers wrestled him to ground and put him under arrest.  After arresting Baldi, the police officers searched him and found a wallet that had an identification and social security card belonging to a woman who lived nearby. The police officers also found the woman’s handbag in a trashcan nearby. Further investigation revealed the handbag was stolen from her dinning room table earlier that night.

Defendant was charged with burglary and possession of a weapon. The defendant, however, was found incompetent to stand trial and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. In February, 1972 defendant was released from the hospital without notice to the District Attorney. In February1972 a 15 year old girl was stabbed by the defendant, however, before the police knew it was the Defendant they went to his apartment. Defendant mentioned to the police officers the previous charge of attempted murder and burglary to the police officers. No further inquires were made into those statements or whether he had an attorney.

Defendant was brought down to the police stationed and confessed. Sparrow was assigned as council and then assumed the defense for the earlier charges. On July 7 and 14 Defendant was questioned by the police in the presence of Sparrow. Defendant was found competent to stand trial and Sparrow accepted these findings without demanding a hearing.

At trial for the attempted murder and burglary he plead not guilty by reason of insanity.  The defendant took the stand and denied the events. Sparrow took the stand himself, with the consent of the DA and the court, and testified in detail to what he observed, recounting his client’s admissions to the murders and assaults. Testified also to what he observed at the hospital, which defendant was making unusual sounds. Defendant was convicted for the attempted murder of the police officer, burglary,  and felonious possession of a weapon.

At the non-jury trial for the murder charge, there was a pretrial Huntley hearing to determine whether any of defendant’s statements at the three examinations would be admissible at his murder trial. The confession before Sparrow was assigned was deemed voluntary and thus admissible. As to the other statements, although the court did not find there was agreement, it noted Sparrow’s expertise in criminal law and reliance on his understanding of the arrangement in ruling that defendant’s constitutional rights would be violated if his July, 1972 statements were used against him. The court found him sane at the time of murder and guilty of second-degree murder.

The People appeal the order of reversal of both convictions from the Appellate Division, Second Department, on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The people argue that Sparrow’s conduct at both trials was innovative defense tactic, not an incompetent or ineffective performance.

Legal Analysis: The Appellate Division erred in reversing defendant’s convictions on the ground of ineffective assistance of council based on the first 4 areas of alleged inadequacy. The last area, defendant’s waiver of council in the absence of his attorney, may have been ineffective. Therefore, there are factual issues that cannot be resolved as a matter of law and must be remitted for such review.

First alleged area of inadequacy: the failure to pursue Defendant’s claim of actual innocence in the first trial. Sparrow could have argued the factual innocence claim, but the defense was weak. An attorney is not required to argue factual innocence at the expense of a stronger defense. In addition, Sparrow did argue the innocence defense to the jury, pointing out the weaknesses in the people’s case.

Second alleged area of inadequacy: the handling of both defense and prosecution expert witnesses. All of the expert witnesses agreed that to some degree defendant was mentally unfit, if not legally insane. Sparrow’s handling of the expert’s testimony was not unreasonable.

Third alleged area of inadequacy: Sparrow testifying at the two trials and the Huntley hearing, as well as his summations. By him taking the stand it strengthened the insanity defense. By testifying, Sparrow was able to introduce evidence not only his client had committed a large number of sexual based assaults and murders, re-enacting crimes while in a trance, and thereby manifesting a lack of moral sensibility. While it may have been wiser as a matter of tactics to produce an expert, Sparow’s conduct of the hearing certainly does not evince an inadequate effort to suppress the June 21 confession. All in all, it cannot be said that Sparrow’s omission, which at worst was a questionable tactical decision, established an inadequate attempt to suppress.

Unlike previous cases where the court deemed there was ineffective assistance of council when the court requested the attorney to testify because the defendant was left without council at critical stages. Here, the council decided to take the stand to further the defense. At all times, he remained in the courtroom and was seeking to protect his client’s interest.

Fourth alleged area of inadequacy: defendant’s lawyer’s role in bringing about the July 7 and 14, 1972 interrogations. These raise a serious question of effectiveness. Given the resulting controversy as to what occurred, undeniably it would have been better for Sparrow to obtain from the Assistant District Attorney a written agreement not to use defendant’s against him. Defense council should be diligent in safeguarding a client’s rights, but it would be remiss to declare that an attorney is ineffective if he assist the police by permitting the interrogation of a client who is promised immunity with respect to other crimes.