Federal Court Finds Lawyer Ineffective For Failure to Call Expert on Effects of Blood Loss and Sedation on Witness’s Memory

Just came across an interesting recent decision from the 2nd Circuit, in connection with a habeas claim from an old New York case.

Brentonol Moriah was walking along a Brooklyn street at 2:30a.m. one summer night in 1996, when he was held up with a full-length shotgun. Mr. Moriah turned over the contents of his pockets, at which point apparently some headlights flashed, and his assailant fired the shotgun into his thigh. Moriah proceeded to lose approximately half of his blood before receiving treatment. When police arrived, he was still conscious, but only able to say that he was robbed and shot by a black male wearing a “lemon-colored shirt.” The assailant was listed as “unknown” and “unidentified” in police reports documenting the incident. Mr. Moriah then entered an 11-day coma.

When he came out of the coma, but while still heavily medicated, Mr. Moriah reported that the man who shot him was his neighbor, Derrick Bell. On that evidence alone, Mr. Bell was convicted of robbery and assault at trial, which was upheld on appeal.

On the habeas claim, however, the 2nd Circuit found that trial counsel’s failure to consult a medical expert on the expected effects of heavy blood loss, heavy medication, and an 11-day coma on the reliability of Mr. Moriah’s memory as a witness to the crime, rendered Mr. Bell’s trial counsel constitutionally deficient.

In connection with Mr. Bell’s habeas claim, he contacted a neuropsychologist to review the case:

Bell submitted the affidavit of Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist … who reviewed the police reports from the case, Moriah’s grand jury and trial testimony, and the trial testimony and affidavit of Dr. Brewer. Dr. Goldberg opined that: “Mr. Moriah’s testimony contains unequivocal evidence that he suffered from retrograde amnesia for the events predating the loss of consciousness”; the retrograde amnesia was exacerbated by such anxiolytic and amnestic medications as Dr. Brewer attested were likely administered to Moriah in the emergency room; false memories can be persistent and dominant, overriding true memories; and Moriah was unlikely to have regained full consciousness when he first named Bell. Accordingly, Dr. Goldberg concluded that Moriah’s identification of Bell was unreliable.

On that basis, the 2nd Circuit overturned the conviction:

where the only evidence identifying a criminal defendant as the perpetrator is the testimony of a single witness, and where the memory of that witness is obviously impacted by medical trauma and prolonged impairment of consciousness, and where the all-important identification is unaccountably altered after the administration of medical drugs, the failure of defense counsel to consider consulting an expert to ascertain the possible effects of trauma and pharmaceuticals on the memory of the witness is constitutionally ineffective.

The text of the decision is available on Westlaw: Bell v. Miller, — F.3d —-, 2007 WL 2469423 (2nd Cir. 2007).

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