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Court overturns conviction

ALBANY — The state Appellate Division of Supreme Court recently reversed 2019 orders by Montgomery County Court that denied a hearing for a Nelliston man convicted in 2017 of felony burglary and assault charges.

The seven-page. March 18 appellate decision on behalf of Christopher Stetin remits his case back to Montgomery County Court in Fonda for a hearing.

Stetin had appealed two orders from the court on Feb. 28, 2019 and Nov. 20, 2019 which denied his motions to vacate a judgment convicting him of second-degree burglary and second-degree assault without a hearing.

A Montgomery County Court jury trial in July 2017 found the defendant guilty of the charges. The case stemmed from an incident in September 2016 in which Stetin allegedly broke into the residence of his then-girlfriend and physically assaulted her. He was sentenced to four years in state prison, followed by five years of post-release supervision.

Stetin was represented by attorney Ronald Schur in a trial before Montgomery County Court Judge Felix J. Catena.

Former Montgomery County District Attorney Kelli P. McCoski prosecuted the case.

The case at trial stemmed from an incident that occurred on Sept. 25, 2016 in the village of Nelliston. According to the evidence at trial, Stettin allegedly burglarized a home at approximately 3 a.m., and then assaulted a resident inside the home.

The March 18 appellate decision noted that Stetin sought relief based upon “ineffective assistance” of counsel.

“Although the majority of these claims were properly rejected by County Court as the alleged deficiencies were raised and decided upon direct appeal, we agree with defendant that the court erred in denying, without a hearing, defendant’s remaining claim of ineffective assistance based upon trial counsel’s failure to conduct a proper investigation with respect to defendant’s residence,” appellate judges ruled.

Court papers stated that an investigation by trial counsel would have established that Stetin lived at the victim’s residence and, thus, on the evidence presented at trial, he could not have entered unlawfully, a necessary element of second-degree burglary.

Appellate judges also noted that Montgomery County Court erred in denying, without a hearing, Stetin’s claim that he is entitled to have the judgment of conviction vacated based upon newly discovered evidence, specifically, affidavits of three witnesses that the victim recanted her testimony. The lower court had found that this recantation evidence was merely impeachment evidence, contradictory to eyewitness testimony and “inherently suspect.”

The appellate decision added, “Defendant proffered three separate affidavits from witnesses, as well as text messages purportedly from the victim, asserting that they established that the victim had fabricated the allegations against him. One of these witnesses, in a sworn affidavit, averred that she was friends with the victim and even attended the trial.”

Contrary to Montgomery County Court’s determination, state appellate judges didn’t find that evidence of the victim’s recantations is “merely impeachment” evidence such that it does not constitute newly discovered evidence.

“Although County Court pointed to ‘eyewitness’ testimony at trial that controverts the alleged recantations, this mischaracterizes the trial testimony,” the decision stated. “There was testimony from the victim’s mother, who arrived after the attack, which placed defendant in the victim’s home and described the victim’s condition after the attack, but the victim’s mother did not witness the actual attack.”

Appellate judges added that the sworn affidavits of the three witnesses to the victim’s alleged recantations were sufficient to establish a “prima facie showing of actual innocence sufficient to warrant a hearing [for Stetin] on the merits.”

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