The Law Tribune previews an important or interesting case most weeks when the state Appellate Court or state Supreme Court is in session.

Case: Eddie Rodriguez v. Commissioner of Correction

Court: Connecticut Supreme Court
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 11
Time: Noon
Attorneys: April Brodeur; Timothy Sugrue

Summary:A man convicted of felony assault and burglary charges claims he did not get a fair trial because his defense lawyer was distracted by his own pending legal problems—criminal charges for bribing and witness tampering.

Background: Eddie Rodriguez was arrested in 1990 and charged with first-degree assault and first-degree burglary stemming from an incident involving his estranged girlfriend, according to court documents.

Rodriguez was represented in his criminal case by Meriden attorney Frank Cannatelli. Before representing Rodriguez, Cannatelli had his own trouble with the law when he was charged with bribery and tampering with a witness in a civil case.

Cannatelli pleaded not guilty and went to trial in October 1991 in Meriden. Ultimately, he was acquitted by a jury.

Rodriguez’s case then went to trial in New Haven in November 1991. Just before trial, Rodriguez caught wind of Cannatelli’s prior criminal problems and expressed concerns to the trial judge, Thomas O’Keefe.

“He was a criminal petitioner himself about three weeks ago, your honor. He didn’t prepare for my case when he should have been preparing for my case,” Rodriguez told the judge.

The judge replied: “You can’t point to anything specific that leads you to believe he’s not ready, can you?”

Rodriguez told the judge his lawyer only was familiar with the basic facts of his case. O’Keefe ultimately told Rodriguez his protest was noted but that the trial would proceed.

Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

He appealed, arguing that the trial judge should have held a hearing to determine if Cannatelli was providing adequate representation. Rodriguez maintains that Cannatelli was distracted by his own case and wasn’t properly prepared for Rodriguez’s trial.

The Appellate Court upheld Rodriguez’s conviction and told him to pursue his ineffective assistance of counsel claim as a habeas case.

After Rodriguez got out of prison, he was again arrested for violating the terms of his probation. That led to him being sentenced in 2003 to 10 more years in prison. In 2005, Rodriguez decided to again challenge Cannatelli’s representation in his original criminal case.

In 2009, Superior Court Judge John Nazzaro denied Rodriguez’s habeas petition. Cannatelli himself testified at the hearing.

“There has been no showing that either an actual conflict of interest existed here or that there was a lapse in representation by Mr. Cannatelli,” wrote Nazzaro.

Rodriguez then appealed the habeas ruling to the Appellate Court. Once again, in 2011, the Appellate Court upheld Rodriguez’s conviction.

In his latest appeal, Rodriguez, now represented by attorney April Brodeur of Stonington, cites the Connecticut 1991 Supreme Court decision in Phillips v. Warden. In that case, a defendant’s lawyer, Bernard Avcollie, was appealing his own murder conviction at the same time he was representing the man in his criminal trial.

The state Supreme Court determined that Avcollie’s representation created a constitutionally impermissible risk that the jury would identify the conduct of defense counsel with the conduct of the defendant and such conduct would reflect poorly on the defendant.

In its decision, the Appellate Court distinguished Rodriguez’s case from the Phillips case. The judges ruled that while Avcollie was ultimately convicted of strangling his wife to death, Cannatelli was acquitted of criminal charges and his case drew minimal publicity.

Brodeur doesn’t think the ultimate outcome in Cannatelli’s case matters.

“The fact that Cannatelli was ultimately acquitted of the crimes of which he was accused is of no consequence to the conflict of interest because he stood before a jury with [Rodriguez] only three weeks later,” wrote Brodeur. “This jury was culled from a pool in the judicial district where Cannatelli was tried and his case received notable media coverage. Cannatelli placed himself and [Rodriguez] in a ‘no-win’ situation … and risked juror bias.”

Brodeur continued: “An attorney charged with a crime garnering media attention who represents a defendant at the same time his case is ongoing (or very recently resolved) in the same judicial district must take steps to ensure representation is conflict-free. Those steps were not taken in this case. Yet, the habeas court found no error and the Appellate Court upheld this decision. The Appellate Court erred in upholding the habeas court.”

While Meriden has its own courthouse, its one of 13 towns in the New Haven Judicial District.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Timothy Sugrue said he does not believe a conflict exists and agrees with the habeas and Appellate Court’s rulings.

“There is no question that the bribery/tampering charges brought against Cannatelli were serious, integrity-based crimes and that, had Cannatelli been convicted of such charges, a knowing juror’s view of counsel and, by extension, his client might become corrupted,” wrote Sugrue. “An unproven allegation that counsel bribed a witness in an unrelated civil matter in no way compares with a murder conviction that is based on strangling one’s wife to death and leaving her corpse in a swimming pool.”

Surgure continued: “The conduct differs so significantly that there was little or no risk that knowledge of Cannatelli’s situation would have caused a potential juror to revile Cannatelli and transfer this negative feeling to the petitioner.” •