Trial Put Lawyer To Sleep – Client Gets A Second Chance
The owner of a Pennsylvania company deserves a new trial for alleged mortgage fraud because the original put his lawyer to sleep. Pittsburgh’s Stanton Levenson dozed off several times during the proceedings, according to U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose who stated the dozing was significant enough to violate James Nassida’s Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. The attorney said the trial itself hadn’t put him to sleep, but that he dozed off only a couple times and it was because of an antihistamine and some cold medicine he was taking. Levenson had also blamed his sleepiness on the said antihistamine when Ambrose questioned him during the trial about a prosecutor’s assertion that he appeared to be sleeping during the testimony of a government witness. Nassida told the judge he wasn’t too concerned with his lawyer’s cat naps, and he was prepared to move forward. As the trial progressed, and it appeared Nassida would be in hot water, however, he reconsidered. Levenson joined in Nassida’s mistrial request, and Ambrose said she would rule on the motion if the jury returned a guilty verdict.
Nassida was president of a Century III Home Equity branch, and while he and his sister, Janna Nassida, were both employed at the branch, they inflated borrowers’ incomes and assets and used fake property appraisals designed to trick lenders into giving clients millions of dollars in fraudulent mortgage loans. Nassida’s firm received fees for the nearly 700 loans issued every year, which Nassida allegedly put down on a $1.3 million house, a ski resort vacation home and luxury cars. The siblings were charged with orchestrating a complex fraud scheme, and Janna Nassida committed suicide in November 2016 while awaiting sentencing. Nassida was convicted in October 2016.
When the case moved to trial in October 2016, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Chung notified U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose that Nassida’s attorney, Stanton Levenson, had slept through portions of the trial. Several jurors told Ambrose they had seen Levenson sleeping, though they differed on how long the attorney was incoherent and number of times he dozed off. Some said the sleeping lasted only about 30 seconds at a time, while others said it lasted a few minutes. One juror said the sleeping happened four or five times, while others stated it was less frequent.
In a post-trial hearing, Nassida said he had observed his attorney sleeping a couple times a day, for a total of about 20 times each time. Nassida claimed he would nudge his lawyer to waken him with little success. Levenson testified in the hearing that he had slept during the trial but he didn’t know how long. During cross examination, Levenson said he was asleep for 30 seconds at most and he often closes his eyes to concentrate.
“I find that these facts are sufficiently ‘extraordinary and egregious’ to justify a presumption of prejudice,” Donetta Ambrose indicated in her 10-page order. Ambrose added that Levenson “was not functioning as counsel during a substantial portion of Mr. Nassida’s trial, thus violating Defendant Nassida’s Sixth Amendment rights.” Ambrose has appointed a new lawyer to represent Nassida, James Brink of Pittsburg, who was pleased with Ambrose’s ruling. “The judge’s decision was fair and very well-reasoned,” he said in an interview. “It was a very good opinion. She really did the right thing.” James Nassida’s new trial is set for Sept. 5th of this year.