ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - The sheriff's deputy who urged a defendant to "confess your sins ... [or] spend eternity in a prison called hell" did not hamper the fair-trial right, a New York appeals court ruled.
The claim was one of several raised on appeal by Charlie Robles, who was convicted of tying up a 91-year-old Albany woman in her home and robbing her of the $30,000 in cash she had been saving for 60 years.
As Robles was being transported from the courtroom to the jail after the second day of trial, a sheriff's deputy slipped a religious tract into the defendant's pocket.
Ten-Four Ministries, an Oklahoma-based group that offers "spiritual support to the law enforcement community," had created the tract, according to the ruling.
The message conceded that Robles had a legal right to remain silent, but "exhorted him to forgo that right and confess," the court noted. It contained biblical quotations that Robles knew well, "making defense counsel concerned that he was peculiarly susceptible to the exhortation made."
Since the jury never learned of the incident, however, the judge refused to declare a mistrial.
Robles ultimately chose not to testify and he was sentenced to 18 years for first-degree burglary and robbery.
On appeal Robles contended the deputy's sleight of hand amounted to government interference with his constitutional right to testify in his own behalf.
A four-judge panel with the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division in Albany affirmed the conviction Thursday.
"Despite the unusual - and perhaps unprecedented - circumstances presented in this case, we cannot say that defendant's right to a fair trial was compromised or that reversal is otherwise warranted on the basis of the indefensible conduct of the deputy sheriff," Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote for the court.
Federal and state constitutions guarantee criminal defendants the right to testify in their own defense, but precedent has determined that a trial court "does not have a general obligation to sua sponte ascertain if the defendant's failure to testify was a voluntary and intelligent waiver of his [or her] right," according to the ruling.
Precedent also says, however, that "in exceptional, narrowly defined circumstances," a conversation with the defendant may be needed "to ensure that the defendant's right to testify is protected," the decision continues.
"We believe that such a colloquy was critically necessary here," Peters added.
A court need not be concerned with pressure to confess from sources outside official government circles, according to the ruling. "But here, the deputy's actions in foisting the religious tract upon defendant constituted an effort by law enforcement to 'interfere with the free and unhampered decision of [defendant] to testify,'" Peters wrote.
Though she deemed the mistrial motion "properly denied," Peters said that "the appalling conduct" by the deputy necessitated a discussion of Robles' right to testify.
That conversation occurred on the third day of the trial, after the prosecution rested and the defense indicated that Robles would not testify, according to the ruling.
The opinion includes a two-page interrogation of Robles - out of the presence of the jury - in which the trial judge pointedly asked Robles about his knowledge of his rights.
"Do you understand that the decision as to whether you testify as a witness in your own behalf at this trial or don't testify as a witness in your own behalf at this trial is your decision and your decision alone," the judge asks. "I understand, your honor," Robles answers in one of the quoted exchanges.
"In our view," Peters wrote, "this thorough and detailed colloquy concerning defendant's rights as they relate to his decision to testify was both adequate to safeguard the sanctity of defendant's fundamental right to testify and sufficient to ensure that his ultimate decision not to testify represented an 'unfettered exercise of his own will' untainted by governmental interference."
Justices John Lahtinen, Leslie Stein and John Egan Jr. joined the opinion.
Two other issues that failed on appeal involved whether the evidence at trial supported the verdict and whether Robles' public defender had a conflict of interest.
On appeal, Robles was represented by Matthew Hug of Troy. Assistant District Attorney Steven Sharp argued for the Albany County District Attorney's office.
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