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 July 1, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals issued a 5-1 ruling regarding a prosecutor’s comments on summation that may overstate the probative value of DNA evidence presented at trial and defense counsel’s obligation to object to such comments. People v. Wright, No. 109, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 05621 (July 1, 2015).
The case involved the murder and alleged rape of a woman in Rochester, N.Y., who was found dead of strangulation by means of a ligature, shortly after she had sexual intercourse. A Monroe County prosecutor pursued charges of intentional murder, felony murder, and rape. Defense counsel admitted in opening statement that defendant had intercourse with the victim around the time in question, but argued that this intercourse was consensual. Counsel also vigorously opposed the murder charges.
In its case in chief, the prosecution called three expert witnesses who testified about the potential scientific value in general of the different methods of DNA testing they employed. The experts also carefully explained the limited probative value that could be deduced from their analysis of the ligature and items relating to the victim’s sexual intercourse.
The jury rejected the rape and felony murder charges, but convicted the defendant of intentional murder, pursuant to Penal Law § 125.25(1). The trial court imposed a sentence of 25 years to life. By a 3-2 vote, the Appellate Division affirmed. People v. Wright, 982 N.Y.S. 2d 219, 115 A.D. 3d 1257 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014).
In the July 1 ruling, all six Court of Appeals judges who participated in the case (including especially dissenting Judge Eugene Pigott) credited defense counsel for effectively eliciting from the prosecution’s expert witnesses during cross-examination the limited probative value their testimony provided regarding identifying the defendant as the person possibly responsible for the murder. The appeal therefore focused decisively on statements made by the prosecution on summation and defense counsel’s response (or lack thereof) to such comments.
Upon review of the record, the Court’s majority held that during summation the prosecution prejudicially overstated the probative value of the DNA evidence its own witnesses provided relating to the circumstances of the case. The Court identified several instances in which the prosecutor told the jury that expert testimony conclusively showed that defendant’s DNA was a match for that found on the ligature. The Court noted that these comments contravened what the experts had in fact stated: that DNA analysis was only able to show that the defendant’s DNA could not be excluded from that found on the ligature.
The Court determined that the prosecutor’s “apparent intent was to persuade the jury that the DNA established that defendant had committed the rape and murder, when the evidence did not, and could not, dispositively establish his guilt.” The Court further held that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance because it could not identify any tactical reason to excuse counsel’s “multiple failures” to object to the prosecutor’s “numerous misrepresentations of the evidence.”
In support of its ruling, the majority noted the significant impact that DNA evidence may have on a jury’s deliberations. It further concluded that aside from the expert testimony, evidence produced at trial was insufficient to support defendant’s conviction for second degree murder. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the case for a new trial.