Tagged: manslaughter

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:

A Recent Decision: Fatally Improper Conduct Between Deliberating Jurors

While the jury deliberation process remains safely secret in our system, there are limits to what jurors can do and say to each other in the deliberative process when that process spills over into the courtroom. Federal District Judge Kimba Wood recently granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus  to a defendant in a case where a Bronx trial judge refused to investigate claimed racial bias among the deliberating jurors that was brought to his attention during deliberations.

In the underlying murder trial, the jury was in its third day of deliberations when a juror sent a note to the judge saying he had been called a racial epithet and felt as if he were being forced to agree with the other jurors. A second juror asked to have deliberations suspended until the following Monday due to overwhelming tension in the jury room. On Monday, the first juror sent another note saying he was exhausted and could no longer be objective. The judge declined defense counsel’s request for an in camera interview of the individual jurors, encouraged the jurors to continue deliberating, and sent them back. Three days later the jury convicted the defendant of manslaughter and he was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the error had not been preserved, and the court of appeals denied leave. The magistrate judge issued a report advising that the habeas petition be denied because of the same procedural default.

Judge Wood disagreed. She held that defense counsel’s objection placed the trial court on notice of the constitutional basis for his objections. Thus, the state’s contemporaneous objection rule “served no legitimate state purpose.” On the merits, the Court found that the case was one of first impression in the Circuit – Whether Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) which bars inquiry into the validity of a verdict, prohibits jurors from testifying about statements during deliberations. The court found that the policy behind the rule – preventing the badgering of jurors by a losing party and endless litigation – does not bar the reviewing court from considering such statements when they are brought to the court’s attention before the verdict is returned. The court held that the defendant was denied a fair trial because, on the basis of a verbal racist assault, which was evidence of actual bias – deprived the defendant of his right to an impartial jury.

Related Readings: 

N.Y. Court of Appeals Issues Ruling on Disclosure of Jury Notes in Criminal Cases

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 June 12, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals issued a memorandum decision on the responsibilities of a trial court when a jury sends a note asking for clarification of the court’s instructions on the elements of the crimes presented for the jury’s deliberations.

The appeal arose from a case in which the prosecution charged the defendant with second-degree murder, pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(1), which requires proof of intent to kill.  At the close of proof in the case, the trial court, in addition to instructing the jury on the elements of this charge, granted the defense counsel’s request to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of first degree manslaughter, in the event that the jury, pursuant to Penal Law § 125.20(1), found that the defendant’s intent was not to kill the victim but only to cause serious physical injury that unintentionally resulted in the victim’s death.

During its deliberations, the jury sent the judge the following note: “Power Point – Judges directions on Manslaughter/Murder in the Second Degree -(Intent).” The judge did not present the jury’s note to the parties (apparently receiving no request to do so), but simply informed them that the jury was requesting “the Judge’s directions on manslaughter and murder in the second degree.” Of particular importance in this case is that the judge did not inform counsel of the note’s reference to intent. When the judge called the jury to the courtroom to hear his response to the note, the judge said that he understood them to be asking merely for a read-back of the instructions on the elements of charges at issue, and the judge repeated these instructions.

The jury acquitted defendant on the murder charge but found him guilty on the manslaughter charge. In rendering this verdict, the jury had to make a crucial decision about the defendant’s intent. Their verdict implied that they found that the defendant’s intent was not to kill but to cause serious physical injury.

The Defense appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred by not informing counsel of the jury note’s reference to intent. The Court of Appeals agreed. The Court noted that Criminal Procedure Law § 310.30 requires that when the trial court receives a request from the jury “for further instruction or information with respect to the law,” the court must give notice of the content of the request to the People and the defense. The Court stated that under its precedent in People v. O’Rama, 579 N.E.2d 189 (N.Y. 1991), this notice must be “meaningful,” so that the defense is able “to evaluate the inquiry and the proper responses in light of the defendant’s interests.” Id. at 192. The O’Rama court stated that

[a] court can neither serve the goal of maximizing counsel’s participation nor satisfy the CPL 310.30 requirement that meaningful notice be given when counsel is not afforded a verbatim account of a juror’s communication and is thereby deprived of an advance opportunity to suggest a response.

Id. at 193. Following this precedent, the Court held that the trial judge’s conduct with respect to the jury note, omitting specific reference to the intent issue, failed to satisfy this obligation. Moreover, because the Court deemed this a failure of the trial court’s “core responsibilities” relating to the court’s “mode of proceedings,” the Court held that under O’Rama an objection by defense counsel was not required to preserve the issue for appeal.

The Court vacated the defendant’s manslaughter conviction, with leave to the People to resubmit that charge to a grand jury.

Judge Robert Smith concurred in the result, while stating some misgivings that excusing the preservation requirement in such a case may provide defense counsel with a tactical opportunity to avoid seeking full disclosure to counsel of the contents of a juror note in hopes of a future reversal of the conviction. He suggested that a future case might raise and brief the issue of the scope and validity of the “mode of proceedings” doctrine and afford the Court with an opportunity to reconsider and revise of this doctrine.