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Murder Conviction Vacated Due to Sleepy Lawyer

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Murder generally makes for compelling storytelling. It is a staple of fiction across all mediums, and who knows where podcasting would be without the "true crime" genre.

But even murder might get old if you've defended over 100 first-degree murder cases. That is, apparently, what happened to veteran attorney Willie Davis during a 2013 murder trial in Massachusetts. He fell asleep several times, according to the defendant and multiple witnesses. Once during jury selection and again during one crucial witness testimony, and perhaps at other times.

The trial involved the murder of 16-year-old Jaivon Blake in 2011. The defendant, Nyasani Watt, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years. He was 17 at the time of the murder. It was only when Watt's second appellate attorney realized that Davis fell asleep during the trial that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took up the issue despite it never having been raised previously.

On January 11, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated Watt's conviction, writing that a defendant can be deprived of counsel in several circumstances even if the attorney is physically present. This could include things like intoxication, not being prepared, or, in this case, not being awake.

Surprisingly Extensive Precedent

Interestingly, this has happened enough that federal circuit courts have precedent for when an attorney falling asleep is grounds for a conviction being vacated. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits judge ineffectiveness of counsel according to whether the attorney in question was asleep for a "substantial portion" of the trial. The Second Circuit, on the other hand, focuses more on whether the attorney was asleep during "critical times."

Massachusetts' highest court adopted both standards, holding that an attorney who is asleep during critical times or for a significant portion of the trial has committed an "uncurable error", depriving the defendant of their Sixth Amendment rights. But "mere momentary lapses in attention or consciousness are insufficient," the court noted.

The court also called attention to the difference between momentary drowsiness, which happens to everyone, or adopting a bored or drowsy look as a strategic choice, and actual unconsciousness. Here, however, witnesses heard Davis snoring, indicating he was quite asleep, not just drowsy or closing his eyes. This rendered the adversarial process presumptively unreliable.

Sleepy Attorneys

The attorney, Willie Davis, passed away in 2019 at the age of 83. According to Bloomberg, Watt was an indigent 20-year-old defendant at the time of trial, so it isn't clear if Davis was taking on the case pro bono. There was also a question about whether Davis was physically healthy at the time of the trial in 2013, as he may have been hospitalized shortly before the trial.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, clearly Davis is not the only attorney to have fallen asleep during a criminal trial, since half of all federal circuit courts already have legal precedent for when this occurs.

For the rest of us, this case might serve as the excuse we need to justify that extra cup of coffee.

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