Court of Appeals Rules There’s No “Actual Innocence” Claim For Those Who Plead Guilty

August 15, 2018

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Most cases in the criminal justice system are resolved by guilty pleas rather than trials. Usually, it is to the benefit of both the prosecution and the defendant to resolve cases this way. The prosecution won’t have to spend its time and resources taking a case to trial or have victims subject to cross-examination, and the defendant usually benefits by receiving a reduced sentence.

The decision to plead guilty or go to trial is one that can only be made by the defendant – an attorney can only give advice on what might be the outcomes of his or her choice. This may be one of the most important choices a defendant may ever make in his or her life.

So what choice do you make when you’re facing several years in prison for a crime you really didn’t commit? Do you take the case to trial and risk a state prison sentence, or do you accept a plea deal where you’ll avoid state prison all together? Here, we’ll discuss the case of Natascha Tiger, whose case was addressed in June 2018 by the New York State Court of Appeals. Ms. Tiger may be actually innocent of the crime for which she’s been convicted, but the Court of Appeals has ruled that her conviction may stand – all because she pleaded guilty.


The Facts

In 2011, a 10-year-old girl was admitted to Westchester Medical Center for what looked like burns on her legs. As the night wore on, the condition worsened, progressing to blisters and third-degree burns. Initial diagnoses by doctors pointed to a reaction to an antibiotic the girl had been prescribed, although later another doctor opined that the more likely cause was scalding by hot water. The girl’s nurse, Natascha Tiger, was questioned by police and signed a statement saying “the water was too hot when [she] was bathing her.” Ms. Tiger also wrote an apology note to the child’s mother.

In 2012, Ms. Tiger pleaded guilty in the Orange County Supreme Court to Endangering the Welfare of a Physically Disabled Person in the First Degree, a felony. Initially during the plea proceedings, Ms. Tiger told the judge that the water wasn’t hot when she tested it. However, after consulting with her attorney, she told the judge the water must have been hot enough to cause the third-degree burns. Ms. Tiger was sentenced to four months in jail and five years’ probation.

However, in a subsequent civil suit commenced by the girl’s parents, a jury found the care Ms. Tiger provided was not a substantial cause of the girl’s injuries. Experts opined that the blistering and burns were likely caused by Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (“SJS”), an auto-immune reaction to certain medications. A biopsy showed that the girl was also suffering from toxic epidermal necrolysis (“TEN”), another auto-immune reaction.

Thereafter, Ms. Tiger sought to have her conviction vacated. In her motion for post-conviction relief, she claimed that she was actually innocent. Ms. Tiger also claimed her attorney had been ineffective, as he had failed to properly investigate the child’s physical injuries, particularly where she told her attorney that the water had not been too hot. Her attorney also failed to obtain the results of a biopsy done on the child or consult with a medical expert about the child’s SJS. Further, when discussing whether to consult an expert, Ms. Tiger’s attorney said it would be too expensive and didn’t advise her of alternative ways to secure financial assistance to retain an expert.


The Law

New York has provided for post-conviction relief under Article 440 of the Criminal Procedure Law. Pursuant to Section 440.10, a defendant may move to vacate a judgment of conviction under certain limited circumstances. This includes where there was a jurisdictional issue, where there was court or prosecutorial misconduct, or where DNA testing points to another perpetrator.

As relevant to Ms. Tiger’s case, she claimed that her conviction was “obtained in violation of a right of the defendant under the constitution of [New York] or of the United States” as set forth in C.P.L. § 440.10(1)(h). This right, she claimed, was that she is actually innocent of the crime charged. Ms. Tiger also claimed that her guilty plea was unconstitutionally obtained due to the ineffective assistance of her attorney.


The Court of Appeal’s Ruling

On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the only issue addressed was whether a defendant can claim actual innocence in a motion pursuant to C.P.L. § 440.10(1)(h).

The Court held that “a guilty plea entered in proceedings where the record demonstrates the conviction was constitutionally obtained will presumptively foreclose an independent actual innocence claim.” It continued that C.P.L. § 440.10 would allow “a defendant to assert a claim of actual innocence by moving to vacate a conviction obtained after a guilty plea on multiple grounds, including government fraud, misconduct and misrepresentations, as well as constitutional violations.” The Court noted that in cases where the defendant has pleaded guilty, a claim of “newly-discovered evidence” cannot be raised, with a limited exception for new DNA evidence.

While C.P.L. § 440.10(1)(h) allows Ms. Tiger to claim her “conviction was obtained due to ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the federal and state constitutions,” the Court ruled that a claim of actual innocence does not lie under that provision. In any event, while Ms. Tiger had provided “the biopsy results and an expert affidavit to support the conclusion that she was innocent of scalding the victim with hot water,” the Court found that this “only raise[d] some doubt as to her guilt by setting up a battle of experts” and did not indicate there was a substantial probability that she was actually innocent.

On remand to the trial court, Ms. Tiger will only be permitted to raise the claim that her attorney was ineffective and will not be able to address her claim of actual innocence.


What Does This Mean?

If you are factually innocent of the crimes you’re charged with, you need to consider extremely carefully whether taking a plea deal is what you really want to do. Even if new evidence (other than DNA evidence) is discovered years later that substantially proves your factual innocence, you won’t be able to move to vacate your conviction unless there was some other error relating to your case.

Speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney about all of your options is advised prior to making any important decisions in your case. If your attorney is pressuring you into making a decision, particularly where there is a concern over money, you may want to consider speaking with another attorney or finding another legal advocate to assist you in making the right choice.