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.
Pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25 (1)(a), a defendant charged with intentional murder may present an affirmative defense that at the time of the killing he suffered from an “extreme emotional disturbance” (EED) for which there is “a reasonable explanation or excuse.” If a preponderance of evidence supports this defense, defendant will be convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder.
The NY Court of Appeals has reviewed a dozen or so cases on the potential merits of an EED claim. Most of these presented the issue of whether the trial judge erred by declining defendant’s request to charge the jury on an EED defense. In a November 18, 2015, decision the Court of Appeals reviewed the case of People v. Israel, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 08370, in which the trial court did charge the jury on defendant’s EED claim, but the jury rejected it.
The key facts in Israel were that in June 2007 the defendant, upon seeing a friend chased and threatened by several men, fired a gun multiple times at the pursuers, killing one of them. With respect to the killing, the prosecution introduced alternative counts of intentional murder and depraved indifference murder. Note, however, that Penal Law permits an EED defense for an intentional murder charge but not for depraved indifference murder.
At trial in support of his EED claim, the defendant called a psychiatrist, who opined that defendant suffered (untreated) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of an altercation defendant had with two men in October 2005, during which defendant was stabbed eight times in the back. The expert testified that defendant reacted violently in June 2007 because his PTSD was triggered when he saw his friend being chased and attacked. The expert further testified that defendant was “not a violent person by nature” and had no “significant history of having done violent acts.”
To contest the claim that defendant’s action in June 2007 was attributable solely to the PTSD, the prosecution cross-examined the psychiatrist about two incidents prior to the stabbing and about one that occurred in 2010, in all of which defendant reacted violently with little or no provocation. Regarding the 2010 incident, the prosecution subsequently called to the stand a corrections officer, who testified that while defendant was incarcerated in August 2010, he smashed an inmate telephone in anger and threatened the officer.
In People v. Israel, the jury rejected defendant’s EED argument and convicted him of intentional murder for killing one of his friend’s pursuers and of attempted murder for firing at police officers who came to the scene.
The issue on appeal at the Appellate Division, First Department was whether the trial judge erred by allowing the prosecutor to cross-examine witnesses about the defendant’s other bad acts and to present testimony about the 2010 prison incident. As I wrote earlier, to be admissible such evidence must relate to a material issue and must not be used to show defendant’s propensity to commit wrongful acts.
The Court of Appeals unanimously held that by making an EED claim, defendant raised a material issue about his state of mind at the time of the killing and thus “opened the door” to rebuttal about whether PTSD was the sole reason for his actions at that time. Noting that objection to evidence of one of the two prior bad acts had effectively been waived at trial, the Court found that the prosecutor’s questions about defendant’s other bad act prior to his stabbing were for consideration, as the trial judge made clear in limiting instruction to the jury, only to the issue raised by defendant about his state of mind at the time of the killing and not for evidence of propensity.
The Court did agree with defendant that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of the 2010 prison incident (three years after the crime charged) because the focus of an EED defense must be on whether defendant was suffering from an EED at the time of the crime charged. This evidence should have been excluded as pointing only to propensity, but the Court held this error harmless because other admissible evidence showed “overwhelming” proof and affirmed defendant’s conviction.