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New York Court of Appeals Reverses Conviction Where Trial Court Negotiated Cooperation Agreement with Codefendant

by Anthony Accurso

The Court of Appeals of New York reversed a defendant’s conviction for robbery because the trial court entered into a plea agreement with a codefendant that required the codefendant to testify against the defendant in exchange for sentencing leniency.

Agade Towns was convicted of six counts of first-degree robbery after he and a codefendant robbed three restaurant employees at gunpoint. While a portion of the robbery was caught on surveillance video, the robbers’ faces were covered, and the victims could not identify their assailants. During interviews with police, the codefendant identified Towns as one of the robbers.

The trial court entered into a plea agreement with the codefendant in which he would testify on behalf of the People in accordance with information he had so far provided to police, and he would be granted a sentence on the low end of the recommended range of nine to fifteen years in prison. For his testimony linking Towns to the robbery, the trial court ultimately sentenced the codefendant to seven years in prison.

On appeal, Towns claimed that the trial court abandoned its role as a neutral arbiter, but the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction because it could not conclude that Towns was deprived of a fair trial or that the trial court vouched for the truth of the codefendant’s testimony.

The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal and reversed the decision of the lower court, concluding that, as the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Rippo v. Baker, 137 S. Ct. 905 (2017), “the risk of bias was too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”

The Court recognized that trial courts “are not categorically precluded from initiating or facilitating plea agreements.” Trial courts also commonly make sentencing commitments and evaluate a defendant’s compliance under cooperation agreements. However, the trial court here engaged in an advocacy role traditionally reserved for defense counsel when it “procured a witness in support of the prosecution” in a quid pro quo agreement tied to a sentence reduction, the Court explained. It stated that such a deviation deprived the defendant of “a fair trial in a fair tribunal,” and this error was not subject to harmless error review.

Also notable is the fact that the trial court attempted to prevent cross examination by defense counsel on the details of the agreement between the defendant and the trial court, insisting that it did not matter with whom the deal was made.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division and remanded to County Court for a new trial before a different judge. See: People v. Towns, 125 N.E.3d 816 (N.Y. 2019). 

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Related legal case

People v. Towns

 

 

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