O'Neil v. Commissioner of Correction
As explained in the 2004 Connecticut Appellate Court case of Toccaline v. Commissioner of Correction, "the decision of a trial lawyer not to make an objection is a matter of trial tactics, not evidence of incompetency…" In connection with two drive-by shootings in Bridgeport using the same weapon, Caesar O'Neil was convicted, following a jury trial, of murder, attempt to commit murder, assault in the first degree and criminal attempt to tamper with a witness. O'Neil filed this amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging, relevantly, that he was deprived of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. O'Neil alleged that because his trial counsel, Lawrence Hopkins, failed to make timely objections to hearsay testimony given by Detective William Perez that, prior to interviewing one of the shooting victims, Donald Vernon, Perez was told by another officer that Vernon knew who shot him and that the shooter was the petitioner. The petitioner argued that Perez's hearsay testimony unfairly bolstered the direct testimony given by Vernon that the petitioner was the shooter. Following trial, the habeas court denied the petition and denied certification to appeal. The petitioner appealed claiming that the court improperly rejected his claim that Hopkins had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to the hearsay testimony of Perez. The Appellate Court dismissed the appeal concluding that the habeas court did not abuse its discretion by denying O'Neil's petition for certification to appeal. Although Hopkins did not object to Perez's hearsay statement, he obtained Perez's admission that there was no report or other evidence corroborating the statement, minimizing its impact on the jury without highlighting the testimony with an objection. Hopkins also effectively cross-examined Vernon regarding his prior inconsistent statements. Although Hopkins testified regarding his general defense strategy, he was never asked to explain why he chose not to object to Perez's hearsay testimony. The petitioner presented no expert testimony regarding whether Hopkins' actions fell outside of the range of acceptable performance by a criminal defense attorney. The habeas court's finding was not clearly erroneous that Hopkins' strategic and tactical decisions, and the manner in which he carried them out, were within the acceptable range of performance. A reasonable jurist could not have reached a different conclusion based on the evidence.