From its first days of practice, Spinella & Associates has dedicated substantial time and effort to the handling of habeas corpus matters.
Few competent lawyers practice in this intricate corner of the judicial world; yet there is no legal tool with a more noble history and tradition in realizing the civil rights of citizens imprisoned by the State.
We live in perilous times.
In periods of war or national political paranoia any citizen brave enough to raise a contrary public view is at risk of government detention without trial, or conviction without just cause after trial by an unchecked prosecutorial authority with power to manipulate witnesses and process.
This is no fantasy: one need only consider the Japanese-American interment during World War II; the decades of post-civil war white supremacist southern juries and their routine convictions of black defendants innocent of any crime; the countless numbers of innocent citizens (and non-citizens) wrongly deemed "terrorist" and imprisoned for prolonged periods without benefit of trial, victimized by the post "9-11" degradation of our system of criminal justice; and the seemingly daily news accounts of the release of wrongfully convicted citizens who, with the advent of DNA technology, have been shown to be wrongfully imprisoned for shockingly long periods of time by juries presented with cases by overzealous government prosecutors and incompetent defense counsel.
Any great system of criminal justice must provide one basic protection to its citizenry: protection against arbitrary and lawless seizures of individuals by the State; in other words, protection against jack-booted state agents snatching an otherwise law abiding citizen from his home or the street, casting him into a dark cell without resource to a fair trial conducted by ethical, unbiased prosecutors and juries.
In our system of Criminal Justice this protection is provided by a singular legal institution with a storied history: the Writ of Habeas Corpus. In recent times even a conservative United States Supreme Court has acknowledge the central importance of the writ in a series of opinions according the right to a habeas hearing to foreign nationals held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as alleged terrorists.
Commonly described as "The Great Writ", the Petition for Habeas Corpus is a cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon, and more important, of American democratic jurisprudence.
Habeas corpus- Latin for "you have the body"- is the most important legal instrument for safeguarding individual freedom from lawless government action. For centuries it has provided protection to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals by requiring the government to justify any form of detention whenever a Writ is filed, thereby forcing the government to prove the legality of a prisoner's detention or bring about his immediate release.
With roots in english common law, the "Great Writ" is guaranteed today by federal statute and the U.S. and State Constitutions.
Although the primary function of the Writ remains that of challenging custody based on wrongful convictions, such as those based on lack of jurisdiction of the presiding Court, it has been expanded to include constitutional defects in the process by which the defendant has been interned. Moreover, the Writ may now be applied to non-criminal circumstances, such as confinement in a mental hospital; to obtain custody of minor children, as well as to request an order for support contingent to a decision on the custody issue; and to challenge pre-trial detention arising from extradition proceedings among many other forms of wrongful detention.
The United States and Connecticut Supreme Court has also gone so far as to suggest that an inmate released from jail (or one not subject to immediate release even if his petition is successful) may have grounds for habeas relief when there are collateral consequences flowing from the conviction which impose significant restraints on liberty (for example the inability to engage in certain activities as a result of a criminal conviction).
In almost all cases, however, the principal use of the Writ is to challenge a criminal conviction. Aside from the few cases where a claim is made that the court had no authority to convict the defendant, almost all habeas cases are based on a single limited claim: that of ineffective assistance of counsel.
More simply put, a citizen held in jail following a criminal conviction will be successful in filing a habeas petition in almost all cases only if he can show that he had an incompetent lawyer.
To be successful in bringing an ineffective assistance claim the petitioner must show two things: a) that his attorney's representation was not within the range of competence displayed by lawyers with ordinary skill and training in the criminal law; and b) that there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel's unprofessional errors the ultimate result would have been different.
Over the past years we have handled innumerable habeas petitions, most of which began the same: a visit to our offices by troubled family members with a loved one in jail as a result of a distressing story of uncaring, incompetent legal representation.
A recent case, involving a young man in his early 20's (we will call him "John Smith" here for privacy reasons) was serving a sentence of close to 10 years on numerous robbery / burglary convictions none of which involved violence or the use of a weapon. During the initial interview with his parents I was struck first by the severity of the sentence (a total of on effective 12 year sentence) for a first time offender involved in non-violent crimes all of which occurred in one brief period approximately two months.
As we became more deeply involved in this story as recounted by this young man's parents we were advised of the usual litany of complaints arising from ineffective legal representation in cases of this type: absence of attorney client communication; failure to conduct any factual investigation; no legal motion practice of any kind, including discovery of the prosecution case or attempt to limit or dismiss the state's theory of the case; or any attempt to build or pursue a legal defense, particularly based on mental disease or defect which could be used not only in argument to a jury but alternatively to bring about a successful plea agreement; application to a pre-trial diversionary program offering treatment in lieu of prosecution; or a minimal sentence after a negotiated plea.
After agreeing to take the case, our first step was to obtain John Smith's entire medical and academic records, particularly after learning that there may have been an early diagnosis of autism, along with all prison and court records and court reporter transcripts of every court appearance particularly the transcript of his guilty plea and convictions.
All of these records were then submitted for review to two expert witnesses: an attorney with an accomplished history as an academic and practicing lawyer in the area of criminal defense; and a neuropsychologist with distinguished credentials and much practical experience treating and diagnosing psychological issues.
In the ensuing habeas corpus trial, with the assistance of expert testimony from these two experts and multiple fact witnesses, we successfully established that John Smith suffered from a significant case of autism which, coupled with other medical issues including drug addiction (a consequence of his untreated autism), that not only provided him with a defense to his criminal prosecutions but prevented him from fully comprehending either his court proceedings or what little advice had been provided to him by his attorney.
After a lengthy trial that included a comprehensive focused attack on the State's rebuttal case, the habeas proceeding case was successfully concluded.
For reasons of confidentiality the specific means by which this case was concluded cannot be discussed. Suffice to say that John Smith was released from jail shortly after his trial was concluded. With his psychological disabilities now fully recognized, aided by a supportive family and his own commitment to obtain treatment and began his life anew, he is ready and able to begin his life as a successful citizen.
Spinella & Associates has a long and successful history in bringing Habeas Corpus actions in a wide-range of matters, in particular in cases where criminal defendants have been wrongfully accused.
To learn more about our experience and how we can assist you, call us at 860 728-4900.