Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Actual Innocence

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that summary judgment was improperly granted to two criminal defense attorneys who had been sued for legal malpractice. The defendant was charged with arson and other offenses in federal court. His conviction at a first trial was overturned based on a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. A second trial led to a jury verdict of not guilty on all charges.

The client then sued his lawyers from the first trial. The court found summary judgment improper because there was sufficient evidence of actual innocence:

The government's evidence regarding Correia's role in the setting of the fire was, as the Federal judge described it, a "patchwork of circumstantial evidence" that, as is apparent from the evidence at the second trial, was largely based on two highly disputable premises: first, that Correia was suffering from severe financial woes and set the fire to recover insurance money; and, second, that Correia purposefully disarmed his fire alarm, resulting in much greater damage to the property. The testimony of defense witnesses at the second trial seriously questioned, if not flatly refuted, both premises. In addition, Correia testified at the first trial and at his deposition in this proceeding that he played no role in setting the fire.

In this posture, the question to be resolved is whether to credit the circumstantial evidence suggesting Correia's guilt, or the evidence suggesting his innocence. That determination is a "factual one, properly delegated to the jury ... rather than being decided by a judge ... based on the judge's impression of how guilty or innocent the plaintiff appears to be." Where questions of triable fact remain, "the determination of actual innocence is rooted in the goal of reliable factfinding," best left to the jury. (citations omitted0

The case is Corriea v. Fagan & others, decided August 5, 2008. (Mike Frisch)

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