Indigent defendants make up the majority of persons charged with crimes. When prosecutors try homicide cases in New York City, they generally have two Assistant District Attorneys seat the case. However, when the court appoints defense counsel in homicide cases, ordinarily only a single attorney is appointed. Wanting to help a colleague, Daniel W. Scott, who was appointed by the court, Emily Campbell stepped up to the challenge of assisting Mr. Scott in trying two homicide cases 2012.
In the Spring of 2012, Ms. Campbell and Mr. Scott tried the first degree murder case of the People of the State of New York v. Aljulah Cutts. Mr. Cutts was accused of murdering Guido Felix Brinkmann, a 90 year old Holocaust survivor on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in what prosecutors claimed was a robbery gone bad. Prosecutors hypothesized that Mr. Cutts tortured and beat Mr. Brinkmann to death because Mr. Brinkmann would not give up the combination to a safe that he kept in his apartment.
Mr. Cutts’ brother, Hasib Cutts, and Angela Murray, a friend of the Cutts brothers, were also charged, but their cases were severed for legal reasons. There was very little forensic evidence, but Mr. Brinkmann’s safe was found in Angela Murray’s apartment, and there were videos from various stores where Mr. Cutts was depicted with his brother, Hasib, where Hasib was using credit cards belonging to Mr. Brinkmann.
Mr. Cutts’ trial lasted approximately three and a half weeks, with significant testimony from many detectives and cell phone carrier representatives, the medical examiner, Mr. Brinkmann’s son and even Mr. Cutts himself. Although the doorman’s description seemed to be more consistent with that of Hasib Cutts, the jury did not accept Mr. Cutts’ version of the facts, and ultimately, the twelve member jury convicted him on all counts.
The case had significant press coverage from the start. Mr. Brinkmann’s son, Rick Brinkman, posted the video played in court at the time of the client’s sentencing on his blog, Conscious Communication. Although emotionally charged, the video did not persuade the judge to sentence Mr. Cutts to life without the possibility of parole. Indeed, the judge wanted to leave some hope for Mr. Cutts to be released, sentencing him to 25 to life. And of course, there is always the appeal.
Ms. Campbell worked diligently to preserve Mr. Cutts’ constitutional rights, including preparing a lengthy submission to the court on important constitutional issues surrounding the video tape statement. Among the issues that will most likely be appealable are the defendant’s right to remain silent and his right to counsel.
A second homicide case, in which the defendant was charged only with manslaughter, had a happier outcome for the defendant. In the People v. Adele Louis, Adele Louis admitted killing Darryl Taylor, Jr., the father of her young child, asserting that she stabbed him in self-defense. Ms. Campbell was the third pro bono counsel to join the defense team, and Mr. Scott was glad when she did.
Ms. Campbell had a big impact on the case. She successfully argued a motion to preclude the prosecution from having the defendant examined by an expert more than two and a half years after the incident and used her psychology background to work with the expert witness, who testified as to the effects of battering on Ms. Louis, who reported having been seriously abused by the deceased. Ms. Campbell worked tirelessly on this case which, after a five and a half week jury trial, resulted in an acquittal.
The case was difficult from the start. Jury selection was extremely intense, with domestic abuse issues touching many of the jurors, regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status. Some people just could not bring themselves to sit through a trial of this nature, while others almost wanted to be on the jury to resolve something from their own past. While some people simply could not comprehend why anyone would stay in an abusive relationship and could not accept a self-defense argument as a matter of principle, others said things like “Good for her!” Of course, all such people who revealed their insurmountable biases were excluded during jury selection. Jury selection took about a week, with approximately 100 jurors going through the voir dire process, before there was a twelve-person panel with multiple alternates.
Ms. Campbell helped craft the defense’s opening argument, which included a quote that delivered chills to the jurors and helped them begin to look at the facts through Ms. Louis’ eyes. The defense opened with a quote from Stay by Deb Caletti, adjusted for the feminine: “I’ve heard that people stand in bad situations because a relationship like that gets turned up by degrees. It is said that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water. Place her in a pot and turn it up a little at a time, and she will stay until she is boiled to death. Us frogs understand this.” That quote captured the tone for the entire defense’s presentation at trial.
Dramatic moments during the trial included the playing of the videotape from the hallway to the building where the incident occurred. The eerie video, with staggered frame-capture, depicted Ms. Louis running down the hallway, holding a knife in her hand, while the deceased exited the apartment, arguably running after her until he collapsed in the hallway and unfortunately, bled to death. While the prosecutor argued the deceased had come out into the hallway to call for help, there was a dramatic moment where Ms. Louis even tried to hide, with her back against a wall, before being sheltered away into a neighbor’s apartment.
The prosecutor was not satisfied with the graphic, physical evidence. Instead, the prosecutor tried to introduce every “bad act” that Ms. Louis had apparently ever perpetrated, including trying to introduce alleged violence between her and other boyfriends and even so-called “girl fights.” Ms. Campbell worked with Mr. Scott to oppose the Molineaux motion made by the People, and despite the prosecution’s efforts to malign Ms. Louis in the eyes of the jury, the jury apparently focused on the facts of this case, and did not concern themselves with what could only be described as “red herrings” at best and “gossip” and “chatter” at worst.
An important witness for the People was quite a character. The deceased’s father, Darryl Taylor, Sr., who was a member of the notorious Black Mafia family, was flown up from the South, where he is serving time in a federal prison in connection with the sale of drugs. Interestingly, on cross-examination, this witness made statements favorable to the defense, the first sign that there might be some room for a different outcome than the People sought in the case.
Among the key witnesses for the defense was the expert witness, Dr. Joe Scroppo, who explained to the jury in an easily understandable way why Ms. Louis would have stayed in an abusive relationship – a question that does not have an intuitive answer for most people. Dr. Scroppo explained about the effects of battering and gave testimony that bore on the question of whether Ms. Louis was in fear for her life at the time of the incident. Ms. Louis also testified on her own behalf after significant preparation, of course, as her testimony was critical to her self-defense position.
At first it appeared that there might be a hung jury based on questions submitted by the jurors during their deliberations. But after a day and a half of deliberations, the jury reached its verdict. “You could have heard a pin drop,” Ms. Campbell noted, when reflecting on the tension in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. “It was like something out of Law & Order. Ms. Louis was shaking, and so was I.”
Emotions were running high on both sides. A lot was at stake for the deceased and his family, who were still mourning the loss of their loved one, who did, from the forensic testimony, die a brutal death. Ms. Louis had her supporters too – particularly women who had walked in her shoes, who were there to support her along with social workers with the Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families’ special program Steps to End Family Violence. The Steps volunteers all wore shades of purple and/or purple ribbons, the color of domestic violence, to show their support for Ms. Louis.
When all was said and done, Ms. Louis left the court a free woman. Mr. Scott and Ms. Campbell were very proud of their work, as acquittals in Manhattan are few and far between.
When asked about the substantial time she spent on the case, Ms. Campbell was clear that she was often working sixteen hour days during the trial. “I made a very serious commitment to pro bono defense work through my law firm over the last five years,” Ms. Campbell said. “Although I never expected that two of my homicide cases would be tried in the same year, since one was supposed to have been tried the year prior, somehow the paying work and the pro bono work all manage to get done. I can always sleep later,” Ms. Campbell said, smiling.