Karen A. Connolly has secured the reversal of a first-degree murder conviction of a father who claims that he accidentally shot his wife, the mother of his child. In a thoughtful and persuasive opinion issued last month, the Honorable District Judge Abbi Silver of the Eighth Judicial District Court determined that Mauricio Melendez was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel during trial.
In 2008, Mauricio Melendez and his wife Chennel were talking and drinking beer at their dining room table after spending the day with family at a barbeque. Their son Ciran, who at the time was just seven years old, was playing video games in his bedroom in the family’s Las Vegas apartment. Melendez claimed that after his son fell asleep, he accidentally shot Chennel while showing her how to use his gun. Chennel died of a single gunshot wound and had no other injuries.
A month later, Melendez was charged by the State of Nevada with one count of murder with use of a deadly weapon. He was convicted of first-degree murder at trial and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, plus a consecutive term of eight to 20 years in prison because a deadly weapon had been used.
During his trial, Melendez was represented by two public defenders from the Clark County Public Defender’s Office. He filed an appeal of his conviction, once again represented by a public defender. Melendez was devastated when the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed his conviction.
A Chance to Prove His Innocence
Determined to prove his innocence, Melendez filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus without help from a lawyer (also known as “pro se“). A writ of habeas corpus is a motion used to bring a prisoner before a court to determine if his or her imprisonment is lawful. In his petition, Melendez argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Karen A. Connolly was appointed by the court to represent Melendez in the proceedings that could ultimately give him another chance at fighting for his innocence. She prepared and submitted additional materials to the court in support of Melendez’s petition, raising a number of additional challenges to his conviction.
Connolly represented Melendez in a hearing on his petition. She successfully argued that the public defenders who represented Melendez at his criminal trial made a series of blunders that amounted to a violation of his constitutional rights. For one, one of Melendez’s public defenders admitted to his guilt during closing arguments and told jurors to convict him of manslaughter. This undermined Melendez’s own testimony at trial that the shooting was an accident. The public defenders also failed to object to damning testimony by a witness for the state, seek expert witnesses to support their defense theories, and interview other witnesses appropriately.
Judge Silver concluded that Connolly had met the high evidentiary burden to establish that trial counsel was in fact ineffective, warranting a reversal of Melendez’s conviction. Citing authority from the United States Supreme Court as well as the Nevada Supreme Court, Judge Silver stated that “the performance of [Melendez’s] trial counsel fell below any objective standard of reasonableness to such an extent that it rendered [his guilty] verdict unreliable and [his] trial unfair.”
A Victory for Justice
Connolly was pleased to represent Melendez in his successful petition to have his verdict overturned. She believes that the victory affirms important constitutional principles and should serve as a reminder of the importance of hiring an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney.