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A man who spent six years in prison for a brutal murder he committed as a teenager should not have his conviction vacated by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Sixth Amendment, a Manhattan judge ruled Tuesday. Acting state Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Corriero said the Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington, 124 S.Ct. 1354, was not a “watershed” ruling and should not be applied retroactively to defendants who have exhausted their state court appeals. Federal courts, including the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have reached the same conclusion. Two of Corriero’s colleagues on the state bench, however, have found that Crawford, which limits hearsay exceptions, should be considered a “watershed” ruling under state law. Corriero’s ruling in People v. Vasquez, 4943/97, rejected an attempt by Christopher Vasquez to clear his record of a vicious 1997 murder he committed with his then girlfriend, Daphne Abdela. Vasquez, 23, and Abdela, 22, were teenagers when they stabbed 44-year-old Michael McMorrow to death in Central Park, gutted his body and then filled it with stones so it would sink in one of the park’s lakes. The brutality of the crime was shocking, especially considering the background of the defendants. Vasquez was a former altar boy; Abdela, the adopted daughter of a millionaire. McMorrow, a real-estate broker, was a drinking companion of the teens. Abdela pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and her plea allocution was used against Vasquez at his trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 3-1/3 to 10 years in prison. Both defendants were released on parole last January after serving six years. Vasquez’s conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division, 1st Department, and the Court of Appeals denied his request for leave. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Crawford ruling last March, Vasquez filed a motion to vacate his conviction under Criminal Procedure Law �440.10 on grounds that he was denied his right to confront Abdela’s testimony under the Sixth Amendment. In Crawford, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 24-year-old precedent that allowed prosecutors to admit testimonial statements at criminal trials as long as they were deemed reliable under hearsay exceptions. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, said that testimonial statements should be acceptable only when a defendant has a chance to cross-examine the witness who made the statement. Though the Court did not fully define the meaning of the word “testimonial,” the ruling clearly covered plea allocutions like the one used against Vasquez. Nonetheless, the Crawford decision would only have been helpful to Vasquez’s post-appeal collateral attack if it was ruled to be a “watershed” rule and therefore retroactive. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to identify a “watershed” ruling. In Teague v. Lane, 489 US 288 (1989), the Court said retroactivity should be reserved for “those new procedures without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished.” Corriero ruled that “watershed” status was not warranted for Crawford. “The rule in Crawford, in my view, although it altered our understanding of the Sixth Amendment in the abstract, did not affect the fundamental fairness of a trial to the extent that it seriously diminished the accuracy of a conviction,” the judge wrote. “In that sense it was not central to an accurate determination of innocence or guilt.” Corriero noted that two other Manhattan judges — Supreme Court Justices Marcy Kahn and Charles J. Tejada — had reached the opposite conclusion in light of People v. Eastman, 85 NY2d 265, a 1995 Court of Appeals ruling that the judges said supported a more expansive definition of the term “watershed.” Corriero said his colleague’s findings did not address another U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Schriro v. Summerlin, 124 S.Ct. 2519 (2004), that said it was unlikely that any watershed rulings had emerged since Gideon v. Wainwright announced a defendant’s fundamental right to counsel.

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