The People v. Agape A. Towns
Issue before the Court: Whether the defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated when the trial court entered into a cooperation agreement with the co-defendant, offering him a lower sentence if he “told the truth” and testified consistent with his pre-trial statements implicating the defendant.
Held: The trial court abandoned its neutral role, created the specter of bias and assumed the function of an interested party, so reversal was required.
CAL Observes: A refreshing confirmation that the right to a fair trial still exists. It was, however, an obvious case. The judge, in effect, acted like a second prosecutor in ensuring the co-defendant implicated the defendant here. Judge Stein, speaking on behalf of a full Court, emphasized that a fair trial before an unbiased judge and unprejudiced jury is a fundamental principle, and its violation requires no harmless error analysis. This extends to “even the appearance or taint of partiality,” reaffirming the Court’s decision in People v. DeJesus, 42 N.Y.3d 519 (1977). In a concurrence, Judge Rivera agreed with the majority vote but concluded the court’s conduct here constituted actual bias.