Tagged: criminal trials

NY Court of Appeals Affirms Attempted Kidnapping Conviction

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

Is evidence that an adult male made repeated offers to take a ten-year old girl on outings with him and at one time offered her the keys to his apartment legally sufficient to support a conviction for second degree kidnapping, where the man had only a passing acquaintance with the girl, his offers were unsolicited by the girl or her mother, and where the girl refused all the man’s requests to meet with her or to accept the keys to his apartment?

The Court of Appeals was confronted with this question recently in People v. Denson. As discussed previously, a 5-1 majority of the Court rejected Denson’s argument that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of his 1978 conviction for sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. But that was not all there was to this appeal.

Denson’s other argument raised the sufficiency of evidence issue mentioned above. The issue merited consideration because at no time did the defendant use any physical force against the girl; nor did she ever begin to accompany the defendant on any outing that he proposed to her. All of the defendant’s alleged efforts to attempt to kidnap the girl consisted only of offers to take her on outings or to provide her with the keys to his apartment – all of which the girl refused.

The applicable statutes relating to kidnapping and Court of Appeals precedents on attempt required the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant “must have engaged in conduct that came dangerously near commission of the completed crime,” which completion here would involve abducting the girl and holding her in a place where she would “not likely be found.” After all evidence was presented in a nonjury trial, the trial court found that the prosecutor met this burden.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals, Denson argued that the trial evidence was legally insufficient (1) to show his intent to abduct the girl and (2) to show evidence of an attempt to commit the actus reus of abduction.

In a decision issued on October 27, 2015, a 5-1 majority of the Court of Appeals, applying the standard of review for challenges to the legal sufficiency of evidence, found that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the trial judge as factfinder could reasonably conclude that all elements of attempted kidnapping were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

With respect to intent, the Court found the circumstantial evidence at trial, which included testimony by the girl’s mother and admissible evidence of defendant’s prior conviction, sufficient to withstand the sufficiency of evidence challenge.

With respect to the actus reus attempt element, Denson argued that because the trial evidence showed that the girl never acquiesced to any of his offers, the evidence was legally insufficient to show that he came “dangerously near” to abducting her. The Court disagreed, stating that its case law focuses primarily on evidence of a defendant’s conduct, which in this case included defendant’s 30 to 40 offers to meet alone with the girl. The Court added that if it were to accept defendant’s argument, a kidnapping defendant “could never be guilty of attempt because the crime charged could not be completed without the acquiescence of the victim.” The Court held that “under the circumstances of this case, a rational factfinder could conclude that defendant had moved beyond mere preparation to the point that his conduct was potentially and immediately dangerous.”

In his dissent, Judge Eugene Pigott agreed with defendant’s argument that because the girl rejected defendant’s offer to accept the keys to his apartment, the evidence at trial was legally insufficient to support the attempted kidnapping conviction. Judge Pigott stated that although “defendant clearly engaged in alarming behavior with the child…his actions, even viewing them in a light most favorable to the People, did not come ‘dangerously close’ to attempted kidnapping.” In Judge Pigott’s view, appropriate recourse was for psychological treatment for the defendant, rather than incarceration.

Related Reading:

NY Court of Appeals Decision on Evidence of Prior Bad Acts

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

Federal and state law demand careful scrutiny of a prosecutor’s attempt to introduce evidence of a defendant’s bad acts committed prior to, and unrelated to, the crime charged. Such scrutiny is necessary because of the danger that the prior bad act will be taken as proving the defendant guilty of the crime charged, simply because of defendant’s purported propensity to commit crime, thus taking attention away from the evidence relating to the specific charge under consideration. Caution regarding prior bad act evidence is especially necessary in jury trials, but the law imposes cautionary rules even when the fact finder is a judge.

The New York Court of Appeals has confronted this issue many times and did so again recently in People v. Denson. In this case, the prosecution pursued charges against a man who made repeated attempts to meet with a ten-year old girl who lived in an apartment in a building in which the defendant worked. These attempts included defendant’s offer to provide the girl with the keys to his apartment; this offer, and all defendant’s other offers to meet – made on at least thirty occasions – were rejected by the girl.

The prosecutor obtained a grand jury indictment against the defendant on charges of attempted kidnapping in the second degree under N.Y. Penal Law §§ 110.00 and 135.20, and endangering the welfare of a child under N.Y. Penal Law § 260.10(1). To support the intent element of the attempted kidnapping charge, the prosecutor sought to introduce evidence of defendant’s 1978 sodomy conviction relating to sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. The prosecution’s theory was that because the victim of the prior case and the potential victim in the case at hand were both young girls and because the prior case involved sexual abuse, the evidence of defendant’s prior conviction was probative to show that he intended to abduct the girl in the case at hand for similar sexual abuse.

Upon the trial judge’s initial rejection of this evidence, the prosecution renewed its request through a hearing in which it presented expert testimony in support of the theory that defendant’s actions in the prior case and in the case at hand showed a pattern of criminal conduct with criminal intention against young girls. The defense provided testimony of its own expert in rebuttal. After the hearing, the judge admitted the evidence of the 1978 conviction, finding it probative evidence of intent, which the law allows as an exception to the rule against evidence of prior bad acts.

After trial in which, among other testimony, both experts testified, the judge, as fact finder in this nonjury trial, convicted the defendant on both charges. On appeal to the Appellate Division, First Department, the convictions were affirmed by a divided vote.

In a decision issued on October 27, 2015, a 5-1 majority of the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by considering evidence of defendant’s prior conviction. The majority considered that the judge had reason to find this evidence as probative for the issue of defendant’s intent and that such evidence outweighed the danger of prejudice based on propensity.

Judge Eugene Pigott dissented. In his view, the trial court abused its discretion in considering the 1978 sex crime conviction because in the case at hand “no sex crime was involved or charged.” Judge Pigott added that the prior conviction could not be “relevant to show that defendant intended to kidnap the child, as his prior conviction did not include any kidnaping.”

Related Reading:

Prof. Gershman Questions Rosenberg Prosecutors

In his most recent Huffington Post blog post titled Did the Rosenberg Prosecutors Suborn Perjury?, Prof. Gershman raises a question about prosecutors suborning perjury based on the recently released grand jury testimony of David Greenglas, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and prosecution’s witness. It is a fascinating read – check it out! 

I Am Sure That’s Him … I Think – Eye Witness Identification: Improper Showups

POST WRITTEN BY: Maria Dollas (’16), J.D. Pace Law School

Often, there are no witnesses to a crime other than the victim. Given the stress and state of the victim the question arises whether such conditions affect this lone witness’s ability to accurately recall the assailant. Things become more muddied when the police apprehend an assailant (not necessarily THE assailant who committed the crime in question) and the police proceed to do more than to merely present the alleged assailant to the victim.

In a 3-1 majority the Appellate Division Second Department recently held that the use of showup identification by police was unduly suggestive and that the victim’s identification testimony should have been suppressed. People v. James, ___ N.Y.S.3d ___ 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 03864 (App. Div. 2d Dep’t May 6, 2015).

The discrepancy in the attributes of the person the victim described and the person actually caught were significant:  they varied in age, height, and attire. The victim described her assailant as about 20 years old, 6 feet tall, wearing a brown and white striped shirt. The person apprehended by police was 13 years older and 4 inches shorter. A striped shirt of a different color combination, in this case a red-and-blue striped shirt was found near a parked vehicle and not on his person. Nonetheless, the police presented the person apprehended in handcuffs to the victim. That alone might have signaled guilt. It was particularly suspicious since the person arrested was walking shirtless in the area.

Still, the victim was not able to identify her assailant. It was only when the police purposely placed the miscolored striped shirt across the defendant’s chest that that the victim conceded that he was her assailant. The victim did not request the shirt to be placed upon the apprehended individual. Initially, she could not and did not identify him. It was only after the police officer took active steps that the victim said he was the one.

There is no doubt that the crime was committed. There is however doubt as to the reasonableness of the police tactics in presenting the apprehended individual to the victim. Showups and other identification procedures are not to be so unduly suggestive as to violate due process. The primary evil to be avoided is a “very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification.” Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377, 384 (1968).

The law is not concerned with the number of witnesses but rather with the quality of the identification given. Even a slight deviation from permitting the victim to objectively determine whether the person presented to her as the assailant taints the process. The circumstances in this case are not free from coaxing the victim even so slightly as to whether the right shirt and therefore the right person is in custody.

Additionally, the identification here may have been a cross-racial one:  the assailant was described as a light skinned black male, the victim was only described as a 22 year old female and her skin color was not noted. Ordinary human experience indicates that some people have greater difficulty in identifying members of a different race than they do in identifying members of their own race. See Gary L. Wells & Elizabth A. Olson, The Other-Race Effect in Eyewitness Identification: What Do We Do About It?, 7 Psychol., Pub. Pol’y & L. 230 (2001).  Here, an already challenging identification may have been even more problematic by irresponsible police tactics.

The people’s burden is not only to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed but justice requires that the defendant is indeed the person who committed the crime. One person wrongly identified is one person too many whose liberty and life may be irrevocably altered because of the procedural missteps of others. Misidentification and its consequences can also happen to you and me.

Related Readings:

REMINDER: Event – Prof. Gershman Stars as Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow performancePace Law School and the Pace Criminal Justice Society present Clarence Darrow starring Professor Bennett Gershman. Please join us for this once in a lifetime event and note that there will be only two performances! Suggested donation is $15 and all proceeds will benefit the Equal Justice Initiative. Don’t miss it and come and join us!

WHEN:
FRIDAY April 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm
SATURDAY April 25, 2015 at 2:00 pm

WHERE:
The Moot Court Room at Pace University School of Law, 78 North Broadway, White Plains, NY

Clarence Darrow (April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938) was born in Ohio and attended the Allegheny College and University of Michigan Law School. He began his career as a corporate lawyer, moved on to labor law, and at the end of his legal career he was a criminal attorney defending, among others, Leopold and Loeb in Chicago presenting a defense that the two accused boys were mentally disabled and should not be sentenced to death, John T. Scopes in Tennessee who was accused of teaching evolution theory in violation of the Butler Act, Ossian Sweet in Michigan, articulating and highlighting racial prejudice throughout the trial of Mr. Ossian Sweet who was charged with murdering a white male while defending his home, or the Massie Trial in Hawaii presenting an honor killing defense in a case where two defendants were charged with murdering Joseph Kahahawai – a man who was accused of raping and beating Ms. Thalia Massie but who was believed to have escaped justice because of hung jury.

Related Readings: