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United States v. Follette

decided: November 17, 1969.


Moore, Smith and Anderson, Circuit Judges.

Author: Anderson

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge.

On April 27, 1959, George Diblin was convicted of incest in violation of former N.Y. Penal Law, McKinney's Consol. Laws, c. 40, § 1110. The judgment of conviction was entered in the former New York County Court of General Sessions (Judge Samuel Pierce, Jr.) following a plea of guilty.*fn1 On June 24, 1959, Diblin was sentenced as a second felony offender (pursuant to the former N.Y. Penal Law § 1941) to a prison term of 18 to 20 years. He has since been serving his sentence in Green Haven State Prison. The second-offender sentence was based on Diblin's prior conviction of sodomy (in violation of former N.Y. Penal Law § 690) which was entered on January 12, 1942, after a trial in the former Queens County Court before Judge Thomas Downs and a jury. On January 30, 1942, Judge Downs sentenced Diblin to a prison term of 2 to 4 years, which was subsequently served at Sing Sing State Prison and Dannemora State Hospital. No appeal was taken from this 1942 judgment. Although Diblin also has a prior federal felony conviction for transportation of stolen securities in interstate commerce,*fn2 that conviction was not taken into consideration at the 1959 sentencing proceedings.

On June 6, 1968, Diblin applied to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his 1942 conviction was based on an illegally obtained confession. Diblin had made at least eight prior collateral attacks on the sodomy conviction, alleging both that he had not been represented by counsel at sentencing and that he had been denied his right to appeal.*fn3 On December 16, 1968, Judge Jack B. Weinstein ordered "an omnibus evidentiary hearing * * * to try the merits of all claims -- whether or not previously raised -- respecting the constitutionality of the 1942 conviction." United States ex rel. Diblin v. Follette, 294 F. Supp. 841, 842 (E.D.N.Y. 1968).*fn4 That hearing was subsequently held on April 10, 11 and 14, 1969. After the presentation of evidence by both parties, Judge Weinstein dictated the following findings into the record:

"I find that the defendant did not have counsel present at the sentencing in 1942; that he did not waive his right to have counsel present; that the absence of counsel was due to no fault of his, and that under the circumstances, sentencing should have been in the presence of counsel, in order to protect his right to appeal.

"I find that the defendant, at the time of the sentence, was in such a mental state, as reflected by his prior suicidal attempts, by the heinous nature of the crime, by the fact that he was a deserter from the Armed Forces, by the fact that his family was severely embarrassed by his conduct, and by his lack of knowledge of procedure, that it was vital for him to be advised at the time of sentencing of his right to appeal, and of the procedural steps that needed to be taken to vindicate that right.

"I find that, upon going to Sing Sing Prison, he was not informed of the necessary steps to take an appeal by prison authorities in a way that would bring to his mind clearly what needed to be done.

"In light of the fact that he was at that time in a state of severe, or substantial, at least, mental upset, as is indicated by the fact that shortly after he arrived at Sing Sing he was brought to a hospital, and that during a large portion of his term of imprisonment he was in Dannemora.

"I find that his medical records give substantial indication that he was not capable himself of taking the necessary steps to protect his right to appeal in a timely way."

As it was clear that there is no record of the trial which would permit an effective appeal, and as the main witnesses are now deceased, it was determined that resentencing on that conviction would serve no useful purpose. The 1942 conviction was, therefore, set aside. In view of the fact that Diblin's 1959 sentence as a second felony offender was based on the sodomy conviction, that sentence was also set aside.*fn5 The district judge then ordered that:

"petitioner be discharged from the custody of the respondent unless, within thirty days from the date of service of this Order upon respondent, petitioner is resentenced in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County for the crime of incest without reliance on the conviction for the crime of sodomy hereby set aside as the basis for resentencing petitioner as a multiple felony offender."

The Warden of Green Haven State Prison appeals from this order granting the writ of habeas corpus.*fn6 Finding no error in the proceedings below, we affirm, except for the increase in time allowed, as noted infra.

The constitutional equal protection guarantee requires that when the state provides appellate review of criminal convictions, all persons must have the same opportunity to obtain such review. Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 76 S. Ct. 585, 100 L. Ed. 891 (1956); Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 83 S. Ct. 814, 9 L. Ed. 2d 811 (1963). As part of this requirement, the state may not deprive a defendant of notice that appellate review is available or hinder his attempts to secure that right. Dowd v. United States ex rel. Cook, 340 U.S. 206, 71 S. Ct. 262, 95 L. Ed. 215 (1951); United States ex rel. Smith v. McMann, 417 F.2d 648 (2 Cir. October 10, 1969). It is also clear that a convicted felon has the right to be represented by counsel at sentencing, see Mempa v. Rhay, 389 U.S. 128, 88 S. Ct. 254, 19 L. Ed. 2d 336 (1967), McConnell v. Rhay, 393 U.S. 2, 89 S. Ct. 32, 21 L. Ed. 2d 2 (1968); and that under the circumstances of the present case, the denial of that right hindered Diblin's exercise of his right to appeal. Appellant argues, however, that the District Court's findings that Diblin was not represented by counsel and was denied his right to appeal were without basis in the evidence and therefore clearly erroneous.

The primary witnesses at the habeas corpus hearing were Diblin himself and his 1942 trial counsel, Mr. John Cardone. Diblin's testimony was both confusing and contradictory; and the court below specifically stated that its findings were not based on this evidence. Mr. Cardone was 81 years of age and ill at the time of this hearing.*fn7 He had some difficulty recalling the events of 1942 in great detail, but was nevertheless quite emphatic when he stated that Diblin had been sentenced before he (Mr. Cardone) arrived in the courtroom and that he, therefore, had not represented Diblin at sentencing and had not seen or conversed with him afterwards. Appellant argues that Mr. Cardone's frailty and lack of clear memory discredit any merit his testimony may have had. But this is a credibility determination specifically within the province of the district court and we will not disturb it on appeal. There was also ample documentary evidence to support the proposition that Diblin had not been advised of his right to appeal and that he was suffering from mental and emotional disturbances immediately after his incarceration. A thorough examination of the entire record ...

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