Conviction in Abstentia
One of the biggest tenets of the rights of a criminal defendant is to a fair trial – essentially, they should be able to have their day in court and defend against any allegations that have been made. But what happens if the defendant runs away in the middle of their own trial?
This situation recently happened in Manhattan. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that Felix Rosa, 30, would be sentenced from twenty years to life after he was found guilty of Predatory Sexual Assault, Kidnapping in the Second Degree, and Aggravated Criminal Attempt – all while he had fled mid-trial.
The prosecution was able to prove that Rosa drove to his former girlfriend’s home one evening, despite having an active order of protection against him. He waited for her until she showed up at home the next morning. He waved at her and got her to get close when he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through his driver’s side window and into the car. For the next two hours, he drove her around to Highbridge Park, where he beat her repeatedly, slashed her with a razor, and made threats to kill her. He then raped her inside the car while holding a razor blade against her.
A few months later, Mr. Rosa was arrested and arraigned in Manhattan. Bail was set at $100,00.00, and despite several requests for an increase in bail, it remained at $100,00. In February 2018, Rosa managed to post bail and was released. In August 2018, the survivor testified at trial, at which point the prosecution asked for bail to be revoked, and have the defendant remanded for the duration of the trial. The request was denied. It is not clear what the arguments were on either side to increase bail or why the court decided to deny those requests. But, on the following Monday, August 20, Rosa failed to return to court and a bench warrant was ordered. Although yet to be found, he was subsequently convicted and then sentenced in absentia.
A criminal has the right to appear in person at their trial as a matter of due process. This has been protected by the fifth, sixth and fourteenth amendments, and echoed throughout several Supreme Court cases. Finally, the U.S. Congress codified this principle under Rule 43 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure but included some important exceptions to the rule. If the defendant voluntarily leaves the trial after it has begun, then he or she waives their right to be present. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court in Crosby v. the United States, where the justices unanimously held that Rule 43 will not allow a trial in absentia of someone who is absent at the start of trial, but if the trial has begun in his presence, and then he flees on a volunteer basis, he has waived his right to be present. This allowed the New York courts to convict and sentence Mr. Rosa. It’s a strange quirk of the law, but useful to know, particularly in the field of criminal defense.