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Murder conviction overturned, new trial granted

Defense lawyer failed to investigate potential exculpatory witness

By: Bennett Loudon//June 7, 2022

Murder conviction overturned, new trial granted

Defense lawyer failed to investigate potential exculpatory witness

By: Bennett Loudon//June 7, 2022//

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The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department, has reversed a murder conviction and granted a new trial.

Defendant Shala Williams was convicted in Onondaga County of second-degree murder, second-degree assault, and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

Initially, Williams appealed the conviction to the trial judge on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel, but the motion was denied.

Williams appealed to the Fourth Department, which ordered the judge to hold a hearing on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

The hearing was held, but, in January 2021, Judge Stephen J. Dougherty denied the motion to vacate the convictions on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel, so Williams appealed again to the Fourth Department.

“To prevail on his claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel, defendant must demonstrate that his attorney failed to provide meaningful representation,” the Fourth Department wrote.

To claim ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show “the absence of strategic or other legitimate explanations for counsel’s challenged actions,” the court wrote.

The court noted that “the failure to investigate or call exculpatory witnesses may amount to ineffective assistance of counsel,”

A man and a woman were shot through a closed window of the man’s home, killing the man. The shooting took place several hours after Williams had attended a gathering at the residence, where he and the male victim had a fight.

After Williams was arrested and jailed he heard from another inmate that the shootings were committed by someone who wanted to rob the residence, and that there was a witness.

“Although defendant informed his trial counsel that the witness who had been present during the shootings was able to provide potentially exculpatory information, trial counsel never interviewed the witness,” according to the decision released Friday.

The witness, who testified at the hearing against said that, on the night of the shooting, he and another person committed a string of crimes, including an armed robbery of another residence.

The witness said the other person, who had a.38-caliber handgun, went to the house where the man was fatally shot.

The witness said that while he and the other person were outside the residence “someone inside turned on a light and spooked the third party, who then fired shots into the residence from the backyard through a closed window,” according to the decision.

“The witness was unequivocal that defendant was not present during the shooting and did not fire the shots,” the Fourth Department wrote.

At the hearing, the prosecutor called Williams’ trial lawyer and the hired defense investigator. The investigator testified that, although defendant requested that he interview the witness, the investigator did not think it was necessary because the witness’s version of events was not credible due to various inconsistencies.

The trial attorney testified that she did not follow up with the witness because his version of events did not comport with accounts from other witnesses the defense might have called at trial.

“We conclude, however, that those putative discrepancies were either resolved by the witness’s testimony at the … hearing, immaterial, or related to minor differences in terminology,” the court wrote.

“Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that defendant met his burden of establishing that defense counsel’s failure to interview the potentially exculpatory witness constituted ineffective assistance of counsel,” the court wrote.

“The failure by defendant’s trial counsel to interview the witness cannot be characterized as a legitimate strategic decision because, without collecting that information, (she) could not make an informed decision as to whether the witness’s evidence might be helpful at trial,” the court wrote.

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