Tagged: dissenting opinion

An Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim Divides the NYCA

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.

On November 23, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals issued a decision in People v. Harris, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 08607 (Nov. 23, 2015) that split the Court 4-2 on application of the law of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC).

The facts of the case were that in 2002 a man surreptitiously entered a dwelling where a woman was sleeping. The man masturbated nearby the woman and fled when she awoke. The woman subsequently noticed that a pair of her earrings was missing. Based on DNA evidence processed several years later, the prosecution identified defendant as the man involved and indicted him on a misdemeanor count of petit larceny (for theft of the earrings) and a felony count of second-degree burglary (for unlawfully entering a dwelling with intent to commit a crime therein).

There was just one problem with the prosecution’s case: the limitations period for the petit larceny count, even allowing for tolling, had expired more than a year before the indictment.

Nevertheless, the prosecution pursued the petit larceny charge at trial and used its underlying facts to support the burglary charge, the prosecution’s theory being that defendant had an intent to steal when he entered the dwelling. This decision would lead the Court of Appeals to comment on the need for “responsible charging practices.” But on appeal, focus would not be on the prosecutor’s decision but on the question: Why did defense counsel not seek dismissal of the time-barred larceny count?

At trial, defendant was convicted on both charges. On appeal, the defendant argued that his attorney was ineffective by failing to obtain dismissal of the larceny count. The issues were (1) whether counsel had a reasonable strategy in letting this charge go forward and (2) whether this singular error – if indeed it was such – could support an IAC claim.

As to the first issue, the majority stated that a finding of guilt on the larceny count would “as a practical matter have dictated a finding of guilt on the burglary count as well,” and so failure to obtain dismissal of the larceny count was “objectively incapable of enabling any compromise verdict.”

The dissenters noted, however, that even had the larceny count been dismissed, evidence relating to this uncharged crime would still have been admissible to support the intent element of the burglary charge – a possibility the majority did not deny. Accordingly, the dissenters concluded that counsel might have wanted to provide opportunity to convict only on this misdemeanor charge – an opportunity that would have been precluded were the charge dismissed.

As to the second issue, the Court’s precedents state the rule that an IAC claim requires assessment of counsel’s overall representation. So the question was whether a single error in otherwise unquestioned performance could support the IAC claim in Harris. The Court relied on its earlier decision in People v. Turner, 840 N.E.2d 123 (N.Y. 2005), in which it held that a singular error to obtain omission of a time-barred charge was prejudicial in a case where the time-barred count was the only one on which the jury convicted. Writing for the Court, Judge Robert Smith noted that Turner “may be the first [case] this Court has encountered” in which a singular error required a finding of constitutionally deficient performance.

The Harris majority understood Turner to create a “freestanding” exception to the overall assessment rule for cases where counsel’s only error was omission to seek dismissal of a time-barred charge. The dissenters interpreted Turner as instead upholding the overall assessment rule, while allowing that a single questionable decision of whatever sort can sustain an IAC claim only if that decision discloses ineffectiveness in overall performance.

This disagreement also implicated the issue of remedy. The majority interpreted Turner broadly to apply wherever unreasonable omission to obtain dismissal of a time-barred charge results in conviction on that charge. Accordingly, in Harris the majority granted only partial relief, reversing the larceny conviction but not the burglary conviction. The dissenters found this partial relief, grounded in “charge by charge analysis,” unprecedented. Given their understanding that focus must be on counsel’s overall performance, the dissenters stated that the proper remedy, assuming IAC is found, would have to have been comprehensive.

Related Readings:

A Tragic Case Tests the Powers of Statutory Interpretation

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.

As noted here previously, the New York Court of Appeals recently reviewed People v. Jorgensen, a case of a woman whose reckless driving caused her unborn child to suffer injuries that led to the child’s death six days after birth. Among other charges, the prosecution sought to convict the woman of second-degree manslaughter for recklessly causing the death of “another person,” the person here being the defendant’s baby daughter. The first jury to hear the case failed to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury in a second trial returned a verdict of guilty, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division, Second Department.

The legality of the conviction presented the Court of Appeals with a matter of first impression. Case law in the Appellate Division had previously upheld manslaughter convictions of defendants whose reckless acts directed against a pregnant woman resulted in the death of the child after birth. The issue now was whether a similar manslaughter conviction could be lodged against a pregnant woman for her own recklessness.

Writing only for himself in dissent, Judge Fahey marshaled powerful arguments that the applicable N.Y. Penal Law statutes, when read together and in their plain meaning, demonstrated that the defendant was guilty of manslaughter. He noted that recklessness, as defined by N.Y. Penal Law § 15.05(3), provides responsibility for future consequences of a defendant’s disregard of substantial and unjustifiable risks, and the consequence in this case was the death of a person born shortly after the reckless act.

The Court’s majority, however, reversed the conviction. The majority did not dispute that the victim of defendant’s reckless conduct was a person under the law at the time she died. Indeed, the majority’s own report of the facts and issues refers to the victim as a “baby” and as a “child.” Nevertheless, as a predicate for moving beyond the plain meaning of the applicable statutes referenced by Judge Fahey, the majority purported to find an ambiguity in their references to “person.”

It seems, however, that the ambiguity found by the majority does not in fact involve possibly different meanings of the word “person” as used in the statutes. The majority does not explicitly identify conflicting meanings of “person.” Moreover, the majority does not dispute the propriety of the manslaughter convictions in the Appellate Division cases referenced above, but simply distinguishes them as not involving charges against a pregnant woman.

Instead, what concerned the majority was that other Penal Law provisions in which the legislature provided for a pregnant woman’s responsibility for harm caused to her fetus, such as through self-abortion acts, classify the offense in question as a misdemeanor and require proof of the pregnant woman’s intent. Accordingly, the majority framed the statutory interpretation issue as: “whether the legislature intended to criminalize a mother’s own reckless conduct” – not the conduct of another – in a situation such as in this case.

Because the only penal statutes that unambiguously hold a pregnant woman criminally responsible for the death of a child she is carrying do so in a very different context, require proof of her intent, and provide only for a misdemeanor charge, the majority decided that a felony conviction based on a pregnant woman’s recklessness is not supported “under the current statutory scheme.” In the majority’s view, manslaughter liability in a case such as this is a matter for the legislature to decide prospectively after full consideration. It should not be initiated by a prosecutor’s charging decision and decided by a court without sufficient guidance by the legislature.

A complication in this case was that the defendant, when taken to a hospital after the accident, consented to an emergency cesarean section. In doing so, she was trying to save her child’s life. But the fleeting success of this effort also provided the basis for a manslaughter charge against her.

Seven years ago, defendant’s careless act placed in mortal danger the daughter she had been carrying in her womb for 34 weeks. It took two jury trials before the prosecution could obtain a manslaughter conviction against her. Because of the statutory ambiguity found by the Court of Appeals, the defendant’s conviction is reversed, and she will not have to serve the three to nine year sentence set by the trial court.

Sometimes life imposes harsher suffering than any sentence provided by law would.

Related Readings:

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:

N.Y. Court of Appeals Judge Robert Smith Hears His Last Oral Arguments

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

On November 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in four cases, two of which presented criminal procedure issues relating to whether a defendant can employ a post-verdict, pre-sentence CPL § 330.30 motion to raise issues based on facts not discovered until after the verdict was rendered and have such facts considered as part of the record for purposes of direct appeal. In response to probing questions from the Court, all attorneys involved made forceful and well-informed arguments.

The November 19 arguments were the last that Judge Robert Smith will hear prior to his retirement from the Court. In accord with Court of Appeals tradition, at the conclusion of the arguments the other members of the Court rose and applauded Judge Smith. Chief Judge Lippman expressed his thanks and admiration to Judge Smith for his dedicated service to the Court before an audience that included the Judge’s family and virtually all members of the Court staff.

One of the most important legacies of Judge Smith’s tenure regarding criminal justice issues is the strong and thoughtful stance he took in many cases to curb prosecutors’ unfounded employment of a depraved indifference murder charge pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2).  Section 125.25(2) provides for a second degree murder charge in cases where a defendant, without intent, causes the death of another person “[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life [when the defendant] engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death ….”

Dissenting in a case in which the Court majority upheld three depraved indifference murder convictions, Judge Smith stated that

experience shows that juries, especially in cases with inflammatory facts, will often find depraved indifference where the evidence does not support it, and as a result we have reversed many convictions in recent years because the proof of this mens rea was insufficient.

In the cases in question, Judge Smith found that the facts showed at most a basis for conviction on a lesser charge of second degree manslaughter. He cautioned the majority that its affirmance of the murder convictions “departs from the rigor we have previously shown [in depraved indifference murder appeals] and makes it more difficult to attain our long-sought goal of reserving convictions of this crime for the very few cases that warrant them.”

This writer was one of the clerks employed by Judge Smith when he took the bench in January 2004. After oral arguments one day during the winter of 2004, my co-clerks and I met with the Judge to discuss that day’s oral arguments. In a criminal appeal argued that day, when the Court pressed the defense attorney on a secondary argument he made for his client, the attorney responded in a sheepish way and declined to pursue that argument. Judge Smith asked us what we thought about this: he wanted to convey that the attorney’s response was unacceptable. He told us that the attorney had a basis to support this argument and that he should have presented it, prefacing his argument by saying: “It is my responsibility to fight for my client’s liberty with everything I have.”


  • People v. Heidgen, 3 N.E.3d 657 (N.Y. 2013) (Smith, J., dissenting)