State High Court Unanimously Reverses Murder Conviction Due to Violations of Constitutional Right to Present a Defense
At around 12:30 a.m. on December 29, 2012, a group of about 20 people, including members of a gang, were standing outside when gunshots were fired and a person was killed. The prosecution had one eyewitness testify at trial, R.M., who claimed that Mr. Deverow and a co-defendant fired at the crowd. Mr. Deverow raised a justification defense, maintaining that the gang members fired first and that he and the co-defendant acted in self-defense. Defense counsel sought to call R.M.’s girlfriend R.J., who would have contradicted R.M.’s testimony that they were together moments before the shooting and that she lived in the area. The court precluded R.J.’s testimony on the ground it would only impeach R.M. on a collateral issue. Defense counsel also sought to introduce three 911 calls, but the court denied the application, ruling they were inadmissible because there was insufficient evidence corroborating the statements made by the callers.
The Court of Appeals reversed the murder conviction, holding that the trial court’s evidentiary rulings deprived Mr. Deverow of his constitutional right to present a defense. The Court found that R.J. was “an integral part of R.M.’s account of why he was in a position to witness the shooting” and that her proffered testimony was probative of R.M.’s ability to observe and recall details of the incident. In addition, the three 911 calls were admissible as present sense impressions, and the fact that certain details in the calls were in conflict with the People’s theory of the case supported the defense argument to admit the evidence. Because R.J.’s precluded testimony would have contradicted the sole eyewitness at trial, and the preclusion of the 911 calls “effectively tied [Mr. Deverow’s] hands” in a case that “was far from overwhelming,” the murder conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.
Alice R.B. Cullina represented Mr. Deverow