One of our firm partners, Attorney Dan Lage, recently won a habeas case for a client. Below, Dan talks about the case, some of the challenges he faced with it, and his hope for future cases. If you or a loved one need help with a habeas corpus case, contact our office for more information.
The Home Invasion Case
State v. Lascelles Clue involved a home invasion occurring in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2009, a 78 year-old woman was alone in her home and in a wheelchair. She heard a knock at the door. When she answered the door, a man in a ski mask and hooded sweatshirt had a knife in his hand, put it to her throat, and demanded money. He saw a laptop on the kitchen table as well as some cash in her purse, grabbed them, and fled. No physical description was given by the victim other than the assailant “sounded black.” Mr. Clue was arrested the following day, because he was found with the laptop in his possession. Mr. Clue tried to tell law enforcement that he purchased the laptop a day earlier from a drug addict in the street, to no avail.
In 2011, Mr. Clue, with no prior criminal record, elected to exercise his right to have a trial by jury. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He appealed the case unsuccessfully and later filed a writ of habeas corpus.
Habeas Corpus Process
At Ruane Attorneys, we handle habeas corpus cases, which are, in a sense, appeals of criminal conviction. In 2015, Mr. Clue filed for habeas corpus and challenged the constitutionality of his conviction. These cases are very tough to win – some would say close to impossible.
Mr. Clue claimed in his habeas petition that he had his lawyer should have presented certain alibi witnesses as well as evidence pointing to a different person as being responsible for the crime. Amongst those alibis were his wife, Kelly, who claimed at the habeas trial that on the day of the crime, she and Mr. Clue spent the vast majority of the day together at home with their children.
Another alibi witness named Rob Mabowicz owned a local studio in Danbury where he and his friends would record music together. Mr. Mabowicz testified that in the afternoon on the day of the crime Mr. Clue was at the studio attempting to record music. These people were never called as witnesses, despite the fact that Clue’s trial lawyer knew about them and their version of events.
At the habeas trial, Mr. Clue’s wife and Mabowicz testified, credibly, that they tried to reach out to the lawyer, or that the lawyer never reached out to them. But, Mr. Mabowitz had something else to say: while at the studio that afternoon, he had seen another man named Ricky Lee. Ricky Lee had a little bit of blood on his shirt, and he was trying to sell a laptop to anyone who would offer to buy. Mr. Mabowicz testified that Mr. Lee did not have a good reputation and the laptop was likely stolen. Mr. Lee was somebody who Mr. Clue’s trial lawyer had been told about several times as perhaps being the actual perpetrator. He never followed up on that investigation so he never pointed the case toward Mr. Lee, which would have been an additional defense Mr. Clue never had the chance to employ.
The judge ultimately decided that was “deficient performance” on behalf of the trial lawyer. This is because these two alibi witnesses could have placed him somewhere else and since the actual evidence tying Mr. Clue to the crime was thin, this deficient performance prejudiced Mr. Clue. Thus, Mr. Clue was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Because of that, he deserves a new trial. A fair trial. So the case was overturned.
And so that’s where we are. The convictions have been vacated, and Mr. Clue will have another chance, if he prevails on appeal, to have an actual jury trial where he can call his alibi witnesses and actually put on a proper defense.
I believe he’s innocent. I’ve always believed that, and he’s always expressed that. He’s always professed his innocence. Nothing has changed on that front. Mr. Clue is ready to try this case, and he’s ready to have his fair day in court, and we want to give that to him. He deserves a fair chance to defend himself against all the power and might of law enforcement and prosecutors. And so, I think given a fair shot, he’ll come out of this with a not guilty verdict, because I trust that a jury will agree that there is nowhere near enough evidence to convict this man of this crime.
Dan’s Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge I faced in Lascelles Clue’s case is the same as in every habeas case. Habeas cases typically challenge the decisions made by the original defense lawyer, and the law that governs habeas cases affords those lawyers a large amount of latitude. Courts generally do not want to overturn convictions, and The Supreme Court of the United States made it extremely difficult to get a new trial based on the trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness. They said that not only does the lawyer need to be found deficient in accordance with the prevailing standards at the time, but also that the deficiency had a materially damaging effect on the case. That’s a huge burden to overcome. This is because lawyers are given a large degree of deference. Strategic decisions are at the purview of the trial lawyer and to the extent that they omit some strategy in favor of another is not something that courts want to go back and second guess.
But in addition to demonstrating the the lawyer was deficient, it must also be proven that the deficiency caused an unjust conviction. And the reviewing court can decide either one without deciding the other. And so that in and of itself is the challenge for every single case. Plus, you’ve got witnesses that don’t want to cooperate, memories fade, and then there’s the practical consideration that isn’t written down in any case or textbook – but it’s still true – people want convictions to be upheld. Society tends to want to keep people in prison. It’s a sentiment in this country defense lawyer constantly grapple with.
Challenges Going Forward
Going forward, the challenge will be the risk – the risk that if my client loses again, he has to relive that nightmare. Dealing with that reality is a challenge. But in actually trying the case, he is in a better position today than he was 10 years ago. He now has a more formidable defense to be presented than he had available to him in the past. And, given the passage of time, the prosecution’s case wouldn’t be as strong as it was back then, and even back then it wasn’t that strong.
How Are We Changing the System?
A typical problem with habeas cases is that a significant amount of time has passed between the underlying conviction and the habeas case.The intervening time may or may not have seen positive changes in the criminal justice system. So, in a case like Marquis Jackson’s, which is 20 years old now, police policy and practice looked very much different then than it might today. Obviously, there are still hurdles that need to be overcome, but these things certainly happened on a larger scale back then. And because cases have been overturned and verdicts have been found to be untrustworthy, I think some police departments have attempted to change their policies and practices for the better. But those flaws still exist. One hopes that they will continue to identify where the problems are and make the appropriate changes.
The same is true with respect to prosecutors. Some prosecutors will now refuse to take cases that in the past they might have prosecuted much more vigorously. But that problem still exists as well. Sometimes prosecutors pursue cases that they shouldn’t. And so, we want to keep making news. We want these cases to get press and get in front of the public so that they understand that just because someone has been arrested does not mean that they are guilty of anything, at all. And hopefully as these cases come in and lawyers successfully correct bad convictions, more positive changes take effect. Not only are we trying to bring justice to the individual that was wrongfully accused or convicted, but we’re trying to bring justice to the system itself.