First Department Reverses Conviction for Trial Court’s lack of Inquiry Regarding the Defendant’s Request for a New Lawyer During Trial
The First Department, the Court of direct appeal for cases in Manhattan and the Bronx overturned a conviction in the case of People v McCummings, 2015 NY Slip Op 00610 (1st Dep’t, 2015) under unusual circumstances. In McCummings, during the fourth day of a jury trial, the defendant asked the Court to replace his attorney with a new attorney. The Mr. McCummings even brought to court a pro se written submission that he wished to provide to the Court, however, the typically salty Judge Renee A. White (retired) refused to allow the defendant to speak or submit his motion.
The First Department, in a 4 to 1 decision, held that the fact that “the court did not even learn the nature of the disagreement, let alone ask any questions about it. While not all requests for new counsel contain the specific factual allegations to show that the complaints and request are ‘serious,’ which then triggers the court’s obligation to make a ‘minimal inquiry’ into the nature of the disagreement and its potential for resolution.”
Essentially, if Judge White, who had developed quite the reputation for dismissiveness towards both defendants and their lawyers, had allowed the defendant to submit his written submission, and discuss his wishes with him for even just a few moments, the result here would have been different. As the appellate court stated in the decision, “We are mindful that had the court considered the application, only the most compelling circumstances would have justified granting it.” However, since the trial court made absolutely no inquiry, it is impossible to know if the defendant would have been able to present “compelling circumstances” to justify his request at such a late stage of the criminal litigation.