New Trial Ordered for Mom of Strangled Child

     CHICAGO (CN) – A woman convicted of strangling her 4-year-old son deserves a new trial because the court barred potentially exculpatory evidence, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Nicole Harris was living in an apartment on Chicago’s West Side with her boyfriend and two children, Jaquari and Diante, in 2005.
     On May 14, Harris went to the laundromat, leaving her sons alone for approximately 40 minutes. While her clothes were drying, Harris returned home and discovered Diante and Jaquari playing outside. She claims to have disciplined the children, sent them to their room and returned to the laundromat.
     When Harris’ boyfriend Sta-Von Dancy went to check on the children a few minutes later, he discovered Jaquari unconscious and blue with the elastic band of a bed sheet wrapped almost 10 times around his neck.
     The couple attempted CPR and took Jaquari to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.     
     Under police questioning, Harris admitted to strangling Jaquari with a telephone cord and then using the elastic band to make it look like an accident.
     Police had questioned the mother intermittently over 27 hours. At some point she recanted the first confession, which the autopsy had disproved, and gave another confession in which she said she strangled Jaquari with the bedsheet. Harris had been read her Miranda rights but had not met with a lawyer.
     The second confession, which had been videotaped, formed the basis of the prosecution’s case against Harris.
     At trial, Harris claimed that she gave the confession after being denied food and sleep. She denied killing Jaquari and argued that he had most likely asphyxiated himself. Dancy and several of Harris’ family members testified that Jaquari was a curious child and had been known to wrap the band around his neck before.
     But Diante, the only person in the room at the time, was central to Harris’ case. Diante spoke to investigators shortly after his brother’s death and corroborated Harris’ theory of accidental strangulation.
     Diante’s account of the incident matched physical evidence and the initial determination of the medical examiner, who had originally believed the cause of death to be accidental.
     Harris asked to call Diante to the stand, but prosecutors challenged his competence to testify. After a hearing, the testimony was excluded because of doubts that Diante understood his duty to be truthful in court and worries about discrepancies in the story.
     But this determination erroneously required Harris to prove that Diante’s competency. Under Illinois law, the party challenging a witness’ competence bears the burden of proof.
     A jury convicted Harris and sentenced her to 30 years in prison. After Harris appealed, the trial judge said that he would have prevented Diante from testifying even if the correct burden had been applied.
     Harris, who has served about eight years of her sentence, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. She claimed that the decision to exclude Diante’s testimony violated the compulsory process clause of the Sixth Amendment and that her lawyer’s performance was insufficient.
     The 7th Circuit sided with Harris.
     “A court’s exclusion of defense evidence violates the Compulsory Process Clause of the Sixth Amendment where the evidence is material to the outcome of trial and the application of the evidentiary exclusion is arbitrary or disproportionate to the state’s legitimate interests promoted by the rule,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for a three-judge panel.
     “Although Diante and his testimony posed challenges, the complete exclusion of this critical exculpatory evidence in this case was arbitrary and disproportionate to the truth-seeking and reliability concerns advanced by witness competency restrictions.”
     Because Diante’s testimony was central to the theory of Harris’ case, and consistent with other evidence in the trial, any reasons for excluding him should have been very convincing.
     “By excluding Diante’s testimony altogether, the trial court denied Harris the opportunity to present the strongest evidence of her innocence and impeded the jury in its search for truth,” Wood wrote.
     “Here, we do not ask whether Diante’s testimony would have overwhelmed the probative value of Harris’s videotaped confession. … Our task is simply to ask whether, if Diante had testified, there is a reasonable probability the jury would have returned a different verdict. We are confident that the answer is yes.”
     Though some aspects of Diante’s testimony – including his age and ability to articulate what transpired – might have raised concerns, a jury should have been allowed to assess the testimony’s credibility.
     “By finding Diante to be an incompetent witness, the trial court short-circuited that process and excluded Harris’s best evidence of her innocence,” Wood wrote.
     Furthermore, the failure of Harris’ attorney to properly prepare for the competency hearing denied her effective assistance of counsel. The lawyer failed to interview Diante before the hearing, failed to secure the presence of an investigator who would have shown that Diante’s account had remained consistent, and failed to challenge the incorrect burden of proof assessment.
     Despite the admitted significance of the confession video, these errors denied Harris a fair trial.
     The appeals court granted the habeas petition and ordered the state to release Harris or retry her within 120 days.
     In a concurring opinion, Judge Daniel Manion expressed concern over the ruling.
     “If the government chooses to retry the case … when Diante testifies, he will be 13 or 14 years old. No doubt he has reflected on what he saw (and did not see) ever since, especially during his visitations in prison with his mother during the intervening years,” Manion wrote. “His reflections will be much more precise, and in all likelihood beneficial to his mother.”
     “Regardless of the decision whether or not to retry, or the subsequent testimony if it is tried, nothing will override the tragedy of Jaquari’s death.”

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