Accused murderer Christopher Oathout was granted a new trial after the state’s highest court ruled his defense attorney “demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge of criminal procedure” during his 2007 trial.
Justices with the Court of Appeals ruled the shortcomings of attorney John Aretakis — who took the case pro bono at a request of an Oathout relative — were significant enough that his client didn’t receive a fair trial in the 2006 killing of 69-year-old Robert Taylor in Albany. In reversing a lower court decision, the justices found Aretakis’ actions throughout the case showed “an unfamiliarity with or disregard for basic criminal procedural and evidentiary law.”
“At the very least, a defendant is entitled to representation by counsel that has such basic knowledge, particularly so, when that defendant is facing a major felony with significant liberty implications,” Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote in the eight-page decision handed down Thursday. “Considering the seriousness of the errors in their totality, we conclude that defendant was deprived of a fair trial by less than meaningful representation.”
Among other things, the court found Aretakis — who practiced civil law at the time and was best known for representing victims and alleged victims of clergy abuse — repeatedly failed to object to uncharged evidence. For instance, Aretakis failed to object when the prosecution introduced evidence of Oathout’s prior use of crack cocaine and prostitution through multiple witnesses.
“This failure to object throughout the trial had no discernible strategic basis,” the court said.
Aretakis also permitted Oathout to testify before a grand jury, apparently unaware that his testimony could later be used against him at his criminal trial. He also raised questions regarding certain physical evidence, admitting to the court he was seeing the evidence for the very first time only midway through the trial.
Prosecutors allege Oathout and Oswaida Lugo — also a drug addict and prostitute — went to Taylor’s Albany apartment to engage in sexual acts for money. At some point, they believe Oathout and Taylor argued over payment.
Oathout then grabbed Taylor by the neck, prosecutors alleged, prompting him to retreat to a couch in the apartment. They believe Oathout then stabbed him with a knife several times, killing him.
Oathout was subsequently charged with one count of second-degree murder. Prior to his trial in Albany County Court, he pleaded for a new attorney on the basis that Aretakis wasn’t properly representing him.
“Unfortunately, county court took little action on the motions. It made a brief inquiry on the record as to whether [Oathout] wished for [Aretakis] to continue representing him,” Piggot wrote in Thursday’s ruling.
Aretakis responded to the decision via a hand-written two-page fax sent Thursday to The Gazette. In the missive, he accused Thomas Breslin — the County Court judge who presided over the Oathout trial — of allowing prosecutors to cheat and accused him of “being part of the prosecution team.”
“The Court of Appeals, I believe, continues the tradition of judges protecting other judges,” he wrote. “I am glad Chris gets a new trial because the Albany Police [and] DA framed an innocent man.”