From [HERE] US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement on Monday conveying “deep concern” over an Alabama court’s failure to preserve an original recording of jury instructions for a capital murder case.
Sotomayor concurred with the US Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in the case of Tawuan Townes because without the tape Townes could not show the procedures amounted to constitutional error.
“Petitioner Tawuan Townes was convicted of capital murder committed in the course of a burglary and sentenced to death. At trial, the crucial question for the jury was whether Townes possessed the requisite intent for a capital murder conviction.” The constitutionality of the instruction hinged on whether the trial court instructed jurors whether they “may” infer the defendant’s intent to kill a victim during a burglary, or whether they “must” infer his intent to kill. The former being an appropriate instruction and the latter unconstitutional.
Townes successfully appealed his 2014 conviction by relying on the original certified transcript which indicated that the unconstitutional instruction was given. However, following the reversal, the trial court judge filed a “supplemental record” with the appellate court stating that the certified trial transcript had been transcribed in error, insisting that the instructions delivered to the jury were proper.
Upon receiving the trial court’s filing, the Court of Criminal Appeals directed the trial court to appoint a new court reporter to listen to the audio recording and re-transcribe the proceedings. The new transcription differed from the original by one word, saying “may” where the original had said “must.”
On the basis of the new transcript, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals withdrew its reversal and affirmed the trial court’s conviction and death sentence.
After failing to obtain review by the Alabama Supreme Court, Townes filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the US Supreme Court. Upon receiving the petition, the Supreme Court specifically requested the written transcripts, as well as the original audio recording from the Houston County Clerk’s Office, but was informed that the audio recording no longer exists.
The statement noted the trial court’s “unilateral intervention” of Townes’ appeal, mentioning how they “failed to preserve the recording at issue—despite the fact that Townes’ case was still pending direct review.”
Sotomayor concluded: “A reliable, credible record is essential to ensure that a reviewing court—not to mention the defendant and the public at large—can say with confidence whether those fundamental rights have been respected. … By fostering uncertainty about the result here, the trial court’s actions in this case erode that confidence. That gives me—and should give us all—great pause.”