Relief Justified After Botched Witness Cross

     MANHATTAN (CN) – A convicted murderer was properly awarded habeas relief because he was barred from questioning a detective about the police’s pursuit of other leads, the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday.
     Judge Edward Davidowitz presided over the jury trial of Julio Alvarez after a 2002 shooting left Bronx drug dealer Daniel Colon dead and two others injured.
     Acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter and two counts of assault, Alvarez was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2004.
     While cross-examining the lead detective at trial, Alvarez’s attorney had sought to show that police did not investigate all possible leads.
     Davidowitz barred Alvarez from doing so, however, and called such evidence impermissible hearsay that might confuse the jury.
     U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon found that this bar justified granting Alvarez a writ of habeas corpus, saying that the decision was an “unreasonable application” of Supreme Court precedent, and that the error “prevented Alvarez from receiving a fair trial.”
     A three-judge panel with the 2nd Circuit affirmed Monday..
     “By cutting off this line of questioning through an alternative ‘clear link’ ruling, the trial court effectively denied Alvarez the opportunity to develop his only defense,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the court. “Taken together, the trial court’s evidentiary rulings unreasonably applied clearly established Sixth Amendment law and drastically impaired Alvarez’s ability to present that defense.”
     It is clearly established that, “under the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, a criminal defendant must have a ‘meaningful opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against him,” Calabresi wrote.
     Barring cross-examination of the detective “was clearly unreasonable under established Sixth Amendment law,” Calabresi said. “Not only was it incorrect, but it left Alvarez without any means of supporting his defense theory.”
     Officers knew of an alternate suspect, Julio Guerrero, his general appearance, his car color and other details from eyewitnesses to the shooting. “Had detectives investigated the lead, they would quickly have learned that Guerrero lived not far from the crime scene,” the 27-page decision states.
     Further, by banning Alvarez from questioning the detective, “the trial court allowed the jury to get the impression that the defense had nothing other than rhetoric to contradict the prosecutor’s statement in summation that the NYPD’s investigation into Dan Colon’s murder was ‘thorough,'” according to the ruling.
     “It is sufficient that the jury might have well reached that conclusion, had it learned of the many links – including Guerrero’s name, proximity, car color and ‘borrowed 9 mm gun – between Julio Guerrero and the shooting,” Calabresi wrote.

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