People v. Christopher Oathout


AD3 order dated December 29, 2011, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 90 A.D.3d 1418, 935 N.Y.S.2d 704. Pigott, J., granted leave May 18, 2012.

ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Ineffective assistance of trial counsel. (2) Admissibility of prior crimes evidence.

Issue before the Court:  Whether the defendant's pro bono counsel in a murder case rendered ineffective assistance of counsel?

Held:  Counsel's wholesale lack of knowledge of criminal procedure and the rules of evidence, reinforced by the prosecutor's own motion questioning defense counsel's effectiveness, established that counsel did not render competent assistance.  "Defense counsel's actions throughout this case showed an unfamiliarity with or disregard for basic criminal law," such that defendant "was deprived of a fair trial by less than meaningful representation."

CAL Observes:  The litany of counsel's transgressions set forth in Judge Pigott's majority opinion certainly establish a frightening degree of inexperience/incompetence.  One wonders, however, whether this is what is required for the Court to find a lack of meaningful representation.  If so, it is an exceedingly high bar that will rarely be met.  Notably, the Court did not engage in a traditional prejudice analysis, finding instead that the cumulative errors here deprived the defendant of his due process right to a fair trial.