The New Jersey Supreme Court is weighing whether a criminal defendant’s rights were shortchanged when his public defender was pushed to trial just a day after being assigned the case — leaving them scant chance to bond.
If the justices so find in State v. Miller, A-35-11, argued Tuesday, a man convicted of drug possession and possession with intent to distribute and sentenced to five years in prison, may be granted a new trial.
Assistant Deputy Public Defender Michael Amantia first met Terrence Miller on Monday morning, Dec. 10, 2007. He told Superior Court Judge Charles Delehey that he had read the case file and was ready to proceed but needed time to establish some sort of rapport with the client. Delehey denied the request, saying the trial date had been set two weeks earlier and the Public Defender’s Office knew it.
A suppression motion was heard and denied that morning, allowing Amantia to meet with Miller that afternoon. The next day, a jury was picked and the prosecution put on its case. Because Delehey was busy with other cases, the trial did not resume until Friday, giving Amantia two days to prepare a defense. Three defense witnesses were called.
A divided Appellate Division panel found no error in going ahead with the trial. “Nothing in the federal or State constitutions guarantees a criminal defendant good rapport with or confidence in his defense attorney,” the majority said. “The constitutional guarantee is of effective assistance of counsel, not familiarity and confidence.”
Miller’s attorney on appeal, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Amira Scurato, said fundamental fairness was violated. “This was a trial by surprise, a trial by ambush,” she said. “When the first words to an attorney are ‘Who are you?’ we have a problem. “The right to counsel has to be more than a warm body next to you, somebody with a J.D. after their name.”
Scurato said that when a lawyer is assigned to a case on the eve of trial, he and the client should at least be allowed a chance to get acquainted and to prepare a trial strategy.
“What was required in this case?” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked.
“A short adjournment and let’s see where we are at that point. Then inquire into it a little further,” Scurato said.
“I thought attorneys were supposed to prepare their clients,” said Justice Barry Albin. “It’s difficult to calculate the prejudice.”
“Exactly,” Scurato said, adding that Amantia gave his opening statement without having had a chance to speak to the defense witnesses. Nor could he make a determination about whether it was appropriate for Miller to testify.
“No attorney worth his salt would put a client on the stand without having spoken to him beforehand,” Albin said. “That would be a new low in our criminal justice system.”
Albin noted there could be cases where a defense attorney or prosecutor could request a sudden adjournment to game the system, but the defendant shouldn’t bear the consequences if he was not the instigator, he said.
Scurato agreed, saying the lawyers could face contempt proceedings if that were the case.
Alexander Shalom, of the amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, argued Miller was denied a fair trial.
Rabner asked how much time should have been required in this case. “Two hours? Two weeks?”
“A very brief adjournment would have been appropriate,” Shalom said. “Then figure it out.”
Assistant Mercer County Prosecutor Dorothy Hersh disagreed. “There was absolutely no showing of prejudice and no abuse of discretion,” Hersh said. “The argument is that the defendant was not comfortable. The defendant is not entitled to either comfort or rapport.”
Albin asked whether it would have been helpful for the defense had Amantia been given a chance to speak with the defense witnesses and to fully hear his client’s side of the story.
“I don’t know that that wasn’t the situation in this case,” Hersh said, noting Amantia had the file for a week and told the judge he was prepared for trial.
Albin suggested anyone looking at this case might see a “conveyor belt” justice system. “Don’t you think that this is fundamentally wrong?” he asked.
“No,” Hersh replied. “There’s more to the record than that. The attorney stated he was prepared to proceed.”
Hersh said the court already had decided the issue 15 years ago, ruling in State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42 (1987), that a defendant did not have a right to a new trial even though his lawyer did not discuss the case with him until the morning of the trial. “This is a case where the law is absolutely clear,” she said.
Assistant Attorney General Carol Henderson also said there was no need for a new trial.
Amantia, she said, had half a day after the suppression hearing and two days after the prosecution rested before he had to put on a defense.
“You have to leave this to the discretion of the judge,” Henderson said.