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Court of Appeals Upholds Convictions in First-Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct Cases

October 1, 2019 Criminal Law and Procedure

The Court of Appeals in People v. Jeffrey Lynn Watts examined a bench trial conviction for CSC cases. This is an unpublished case from Wayne County Circuit Court in 2019.

Following a bench trial, Watts was convicted of two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of unlawful imprisonment, and one count of assault by strangulation. The Court sentenced him to prison for 15 to 22.5 years.

What Happened in this CSC Case

The facts of the case are not discussed too much in the Court of Appeals opinion. Essentially, Defendant Watts and the victim had an argument about supposed infidelities on the part of Mr. Watts. Mr. Watts at trial argued that they had an argument, and then the victim made up a story of him committing crimes against her to get revenge. The victim testified that after she confronted Mr. Watts about him being unfaithful. She then said Mr. Watts strangled, raped and assaulted her for several hours, not allowing her to leave.

What Did Defendant Argue on Appeal?

The Defendant’s main argument was that he did not receive the effective assistance of counsel. People charged with crimes are constitutionally guaranteed what’s called the effective assistance of counsel. This means that the criminal defense lawyer must perform to a certain level. A defendant convicted of a crime can argue that the lawyer did not do a good enough job, that the defendant did not receive the “effective assistance of counsel.” However, it’s not enough to say that the lawyebyr didn’t do a good job – the defendant must also demonstrate that the lawyer’s bad job contributed to the conviction. That is, the ineffectiveness prejudiced the defendant’s trial.

Waiver of Right to Jury Trial

The Defendant’s first specific argument here is that his counsel misled him into waiving his right to a jury trial. A person charged with a crime has the right to a jury trial – a trial where the person is judged by peers. A jury trial is the default type of trial that a criminal defendant receives. A person can give up the right to a jury trial – called waive – if the defendant wishes. Waiving your right to jury trial means you will get a bench trial. A bench trial is a trial by a judge, not a jury. There may be good reasons for a bench trial in some cases. The waiver of the right to jury trial must be done knowingly and voluntarily. In this case, the Court examined the transcript of the record for when a bench trial was discussed. The Court believed that the trial court did an adequate job of ensuring the Defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to a jury trial. Specifically, the trial court asked the Defendant, “Has anybody promised you anything or threatened you or suggested that I’d give you a break if you waive your right to trial by jury?” The Defendant answered no.

Undelivered Plea Offers

On Appeal, the Defendant claimed there were plea offers that his criminal defense lawyer did not communicate with him. A defense lawyer must always communicate any plea offers to a client, even if they are bad. It’s sort of like how a real estate agent must communicate any offers to buy or sell to the home owner or home buyer. A lawyer could get in a lot of trouble if an offer for resolution is not relayed to the client. In this case, however, the Defendant did not show any undelivered plea offers. On the contrary, it seemed that there were plea offers communicated on the record during hearings. The Court ruled that if undelivered plea bargain offers were an issue, the Defendant would have to show there were actual plea offers that were undelivered, not just the suspicion that there might be.

Polygraph Examination

Under MCL 776.21(5), a person charged with CSC-I must be give the opportunity for a polygraph examination (lie detector test). On appeal, Defendant argues his trial attorney did not tell him of this right. The Court did not believe this constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, however.

Conflict of Interest

Defendant also argued that there was a conflict of interest in this case. Namely, Defendant accused his lawyer of having a romantic connection with a defense witness. The lawyer and the witness apparently went to breakfast together. Defendant characterized the breakfast as a date. It wasn’t clear whether the breakfast was a meeting or a date. In any event, the Court was not persuaded that this effected anything related to the trial.

Failure to Investigate the Charges

The Defendant ultimately argued that his lawyer failed to investigate the case. He argues that trial counsel should have done more, essentially. The Court of Appeals in previous cases has stated, “trial counsel is responsible for preparing, investigating, and presenting all substantial defenses.”

The Court recognized that trial counsel had extensive knowledge of many details of the case. Specifically, trial counsel had knowledge of many test messages between the defendant and the victim. There was also comprehensive knowledge shown of details contained in 911 calls and inconsistencies in other statements. It was clear to the Court that trial counsel had detailed knowledge of the case and used that knowledge to Defendant’s during cross examination in trial.

Defendant had several other argument along the same lines as those outlined above.

Ultimately, as you may have guessed by now, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence.

Why is There a Blog on This Case?

This is an unpublished case, meaning the Court of Appeals did not believe it was important enough to publish, meaning it is not of precedential value. ArborYpsi Law nevertheless follows Court of Appeals cases because it provides a birds-eye view of how criminal defense lawyers should try cases. The reality is some of these cases will be lost at trial. It’s important to fight the cases with an eye to appeal – preserving the record. Many cases hinge on decisions made by judges. Many judges are pro-prosecution and will often side with the prosecutor during trial or before during motion practice. It is crucial for trial lawyers to make objections so that a Court of Appeals or even the Supreme Court can review them.

In this case, the grounds of appeal were basically limited to ineffective assistance of counsel grounds, which is often the last resort when there is nothing real to argue. The Court of Appeals does not often find that trial lawyers were ineffective. It’s a very high bar to show that a lawyer was ineffective. Trial counsel is very unlikely to be found ineffective in a case where counsel demonstrates detailed knowledge of the case and aggressively cross-examines witnesses with a coherent theory of the case.

Call us

Call Attorney Sam Bernstein at 734-883-9584 or e-mail at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com.

Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave.