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Second Circuit: Federal Habeas Relief Warranted Where State Trial Court’s Evidentiary Rulings Deprived Defendant of Right to Present a Complete Defense

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit instructed a district court to issue a conditional writ of habeas corpus based on a state court’s erroneous application of evidentiary rules that resulted in the denial of the defendant’s right to present a complete defense.

Paul Scrimo was convicted of murdering Ruth Williams based on the testimony of John Kane. Kane testified that the three of them were in the kitchen of Williams’ apartment when Scrimo strangled Williams because she told Scrimo to “go home to his fat, ugly wife.” Scrimo’s defense was that Kane was the killer.

The DNA evidence, including the skin recovered from beneath Williams’ fingernails, belonged to Kane. To further establish his defense, Scrimo sought to introduce evidence from three witnesses who would testify that Kane sold cocaine to Williams and one of the defense witnesses on the night of the murder. Additionally, Kane had, years earlier, choked one of the defense witnesses after the witness had tried to retrieve money from Kane for some diluted cocaine he had sold to her.

Scrimo clearly explained to the court that the testimonial evidence was for the purpose of establishing the identity of Kane as the perpetrator, i.e., Kane killed Williams as a result of a drug deal gone bad. The trial court excluded the testimony on the ground that it was collateral evidence of unrelated prior bad acts. Scrimo was convicted.

On appeal he argued, inter alia, that the trial court erred when it excluded his evidence. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals denied his leave to appeal. Scrimo then sought relief via a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court denied Scrimo’s petition, and he appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

The Court observed that a federal court may grant habeas relief to a prisoner convicted in state court if the state court’s decision was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as established by the U.S. Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). An unreasonable application of federal law occurs if the state court’s “application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). It is clearly established federal law that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to present a complete defense. Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683 (1986). The right to call witnesses for the defense is a fundamental right. Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973). But the testimony of witnesses is subject to rules “designed to assure both fairness and reliability in the ascertainment of guilt and innocence.” Id.

An error in an evidentiary ruling based on the state’s rules won’t provide grounds for federal habeas relief unless that ruling deprived a defendant of a fair trial. Washington v. Schriver, 255 F.3d 45 (2d Cir. 2001). Errors in evidentiary rulings are subject to the lenient harmless error test and won’t provide the basis for habeas relief unless the error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993).

In the instant case, the Second Circuit concluded that the trial court’s erroneous application of New York’s evidentiary rules by excluding the testimony of the defense witnesses as collateral evidence of unrelated prior bad acts violated clearly established federal law that a defendant has a constitutional right to a complete defense. Defense counsel clearly told the trial court that the evidence was being introduced to establish the identity of Kane as the killer and was not being introduced to impeach Kane or show he was a bad person. Consequently, the trial court was adequately apprised that the witnesses’ testimony was relevant to his defense. And since the State’s evidence against Scrimo was weak while the DNA evidence implicated Kane, it was a reasonable conclusion that the excluded evidence had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury’s verdict. The Court explained that “the wrongfully excluded testimony would have introduced reasonable doubt where none otherwise existed.”

Accordingly, the Second Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and remanded with instructions to issue the writ by the 20th calendar day after the Court’s mandate unless the State had by then taken concrete steps to retry Scrimo. See: Scrimo v. Lee, 935 F.3d 103 (2d Cir. 2019).

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Scrimo v. Lee



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