Jeffrey Pyne has a ray of hope while he sits in prison, as this week his appeal attorney Neil J. Leithauser filed a detailed and comprehensive appeal on his behalf.
Pyne, a former University of Michigan student, was convicted in December 2012 of second degree murder of his mentally ill mother, Ruth Pyne. He is currently serving 20-60 years in prison.
The appeal put forth two major arguments on his behalf: 1) that the court allowed a significant amount of improper evidence; and 2) that James Champion, trial attorney, failed to present a substantial defense.
Pyne, 23, has also requested a “Ginther hearing” for Champion, alleging “constitutionally deficient performance.”
A Ginther hearing is defined as an “evidentiary hearing on a motion for a new trial claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Trial attorney did not call any witnesses
During the Ginther hearing, it is expected that Champion will explain “why no defense witnesses were presented, and also explain his failure to object to multiple instances of …potentially objectionable testimony during trial," stated Leithauser.
The appeal attorney explained that potential defense witnesses would have benefited Jeff Pyne, as they included the Chief Medical Examiner of Macomb County, Dr. Daniel Spitz, and Jeff’s father, Bernard Pyne.
For example, Dr. Spitz would have testified that, contrary to the opinions of the government witnesses, the hand injuries on Pyne were likely NOT caused by a 2 X 4 or similar object.
In addition, Bernard Pyne wanted to tell the jury about his wife’s medication compliance and behavior as well the character of and complete lack of violent behavior by his son.
Bernard Pyne was also unable to testify that he observed a blue mark on a cabinet near the body.
The Ginther hearing may be held as soon as next month, and could expedite the appeal process. Otherwise, it may be next spring before the Court of Appeals rules on the issues.
Below is a summary of the appeal. Dozens of cases and hundreds of examples are cited in the full brief for appeal.
Argument I: improper evidence
“The trial court’s failure to prevent, or to reasonably restrict, the prosecution’s usage of improper character, opinion and non-relevant other acts evidence –in a case where direct evidence of guilt was lacking and the proofs were comprised of inferential circumstantial evidence and opinions of witnesses –was an abuse of discretion which denied Mr. Pyne his constitutional rights to a fair trial and due process of law under the sixth, fifth and fourteenth amendments,” states Argument I .
Ultimately, the court, defense counsel and the prosecutor all have the responsibility to ensure that Mr. Pyne’s trial was fair.
“The trial court failed in its ultimate obligations," stated Leithauser.
Unfair prejudice is especially likely where improper character evidence is utilized. For example, the trial court allowed evidence of Mr. Pyne drinking, lying while dating Ms. Freeman, and opinions about whether Mr. Pyne was truthful.
Leithauser explained that a prosecutor may ask a witness about specific instances reflecting on the defendant's character, but only where the defendant has placed his or her character at issue. Yet the prosecution chose to attack Mr. Pyne’s character where the defense had not put character into issue.
“Despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- the complete lack of any prior violent act by Mr. Pyne, on anybody, the prosecution found it necessary to argue non-relevant acts,” according to the brief.
Opinion testimony by officers inadmissible
In addition, the trial court erred by allowing the opinion testimony of the officers.
“Experts may certainly provide opinions, and lay witnesses may provide opinion testimony in a more limited manner,” according to “The Rules of Opinion Testimony by Lay Witnesses.”
Yet the police detectives were allowed to render opinions on multiple crucial topics, although they were not qualified as experts in those areas. For example, blood-spatter, emotional states, “fake” behavior, etc.
“The trial court failed in its threshold duty to act as the gatekeeper prior to the admission of that evidence, and defense counsel failed to timely object and, in that failure, deprived Mr. Pyne of constitutionally effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.”
Argument II : ineffective counsel
“Mr. Pyne was denied his sixth amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel where counsel failed to present a substantial defense, failed to object to inadmissible hearsay, failed to object to improper prosecution argument, and opened the door to highly prejudicial opinion evidence," according to Argument II.
"Counsel’s deficiencies must be considered in their totality," stated Leithauser. “Multiple errors of counsel are evident in the existing record.
“The record is clear that no defense witnesses were called. The reasons are not clear, and remand is sought for that clarification.”
Essentially, the prosecution’s case went unchallenged, according to the brief.
“There was no strength to the defendant’s case...The jury saw the picture painted only by the prosecution, and was left with no foundation to formulate an articulable and reasonable doubt.”
“Counsel’s failure to challenge inadmissible testimony is reflective of a pattern of counsel’s failure to be at the forefront in the protection of Mr. Pyne’s constitutional rights.”
Trial counsel utilized a tactic, or theatric, perhaps, throughout the trial, asking almost all of the witnesses if they knew who killed Ms. Pyne. Adding insult to injury, “he opened to door on multiple occasions to the detailed explanations of witness opinions about Mr. Pyne’s guilt.”
“More problematically, certainly, is the impact on the jury of law enforcement personnel -- with the prestige of the State behind them -- stepping into the jury’s role as fact finder and presenting the otherwise inadmissible opinions of guilt.”
In short, “counsel failed to effectively challenge the prosecution’s case, particularly as the case was so largely dependent upon innuendo, speculation and opinion.
“The jury, without something specific or viable to challenge the prosecution’s case, had nothing with which to counter the theories, opinions and inferences.”