Tagged: reckless driving

What’s Wrong with America’s Criminal Justice System in 40+ Tweets

rantNorth Carolina criminal law attorney T. Greg Doucette’s twitter rant went viral. Although only tweeting, he does an excellent job in capturing what’s wrong with the American criminal justice system, particularly when race is involved.

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:

The NY Court of Appeals Issues a Difficult Decision on Personhood

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.

Does New York’s Penal Law subject a pregnant woman to a manslaughter charge for the death of her child if, while driving a vehicle recklessly, she causes a collision that injures her fetus and as a result of these injuries, her child dies days after being delivered?

As noted here previously, the New York Court of Appeals was confronted with this question this year in a case arising from a May 2008 car accident in which a woman, Jennifer Jorgensen, while driving in Suffolk County, swerved out of her lane and crashed into a vehicle traveling in the opposing lane. Two people in the other vehicle were killed, and Jorgensen’s child, after delivery through emergency caesarian section, died six days later from injuries suffered in utero from the accident.

Suffolk County prosecutors pursued three manslaughter counts against Jorgensen for recklessly causing the death of the two people whose vehicle she struck and for the death of her child. A jury found Jorgensen not guilty on the counts relating to the people in the other vehicle but convicted her on the count relating to her child. Jorgensen appealed her conviction on that count.

The NY Court of Appeals’ review of this matter was not about sufficiency of the evidence considered by the jury. Rather, all judges agreed that the issue on appeal involved a question of statutory interpretation.

In a decision issued on October 22, 2015, Judge Eugene Pigott, writing for a 5-1 majority, framed the issue as follows: “did the legislature, through its enactment of [the relevant] statutory provisions, intend to hold pregnant women criminally responsible for engaging in reckless conduct against themselves and their unborn fetuses, such that they should be subject to criminal liability for prenatal conduct that results in postnatal death?”

Upon review of Penal Law §§ 125.15(1) addressing reckless manslaughter and 125.05(1) defining personhood as relating to homicide, the majority decided that the answer to the above question is NO. Given the unusual facts and issues in this case of first impression, the majority dismissed the count in question and stated that criminal liability for a case such as this “should be clearly defined by the legislature, not the courts;” nor should it “be left to the whim of a prosecutor.”

Judge Fahey in his dissent insisted that the wording of the statutes in question showed the legislature’s intent to criminalize an act such as that involved in this case. In support, he pointed to Appellate Division case law on related issues finding homicide liability based on acts committed against a pregnant woman that caused the death of the child after being born alive.

The majority opinion resolved this case in the defendant’s favor, based on the current statutory scheme. The court’s resolution suggests that the legislature could amend its statutes to provide a different outcome in the future, should an unusual case like this arise again. Whether the legislature will do so is an open question. Consideration would need to be given to the tragic circumstances in cases such as this one.

Related Readings:

NY Court of Appeals Confronts a Tragic Case on Personhood

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 September 8, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in People v. Jorgensen, in which Jennifer Jorgensen is appealing her second-degree manslaughter conviction for recklessly causing the death of her daughter, who died as a result of a head-on car collision in May 2008, allegedly caused by Jorgensen’s reckless driving.

At the time of the accident, the victim at issue was in the seventh or eighth month of gestation in Jorgensen’s womb. As stated in the case summary, “Jorgensen’s baby was delivered alive by emergency Caesarean section less than two hours after the accident, but died six days later.”

In June 2009, the Suffolk County Prosecutor indicted Jorgensen on several charges, including the manslaughter charge relating to the death of her child. The first trial ended with a hung jury. In the second trial, the defendant was only convicted on the charge of manslaughter for the death of her daughter and the sentence of three to nine years in prison was imposed. The Appellate Division Second Department affirmed the manslaughter conviction.

As set out by N.Y. Penal Law § 125.00, “Homicide means conduct which causes the death of a person or an unborn child with which a female has been pregnant for more than twenty-four weeks under circumstances constituting murder, manslaughter in the first [or second] degree, criminally negligent homicide, abortion in the first degree or self-abortion in the first degree.” Penal Law § 125.05(1) adds that “‘[p]erson,’ when referring to the victim of a homicide, means a human being who has been born and is alive.”

This is indeed a very sad and tragic case. Jorgensen argues that her manslaughter conviction was contrary to law because her daughter had not been born (and so was not a “person”) at the time she (Jorgensen) allegedly engaged in reckless conduct. She adds that she consented to the Caesarean section in an effort to save her baby’s life. The Prosecutor is arguing that because Jorgensen’s daughter was born alive, the child was a person under the law and Jorgensen must bear criminal responsibility for recklessly causing her death.

Related Readings:

NY Court of Appeals Issues a Ruling on Depraved Indifference Murder

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.

Reviewing a case of egregious recklessness that caused the death of an innocent victim, a 5-2 majority of the Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for depraved indifference murder and cautioned that efforts to prosecute a defendant on this charge must “fit within the narrow category of cases wherein the facts evince a defendant’s utter disregard for human life.”

In April 2009, Jose Maldonado hot-wired and stole a minivan in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. In a determined effort to avoid capture by police pursuing him through streets in a mixed residential and commercial area, during a five-minute period Maldonado greatly exceeded the speed limit, drove through several red lights, repeatedly swerved into opposing traffic lanes, and repeatedly drove the wrong way on one-way streets. After one pedestrian narrowly managed to dive away to escape being struck by the van, which did not brake, Maldonado drove, again without braking, into another pedestrian, Violet Kryzak (aged 37), who was crossing Manhattan Avenue with the traffic light in her favor. The van’s windshield on the passenger side showed signs of impact with Ms. Kryzak’s body.

Maldonado said he thought he “hit the girl in the hand or something.” Apparently, it was not her hand that he smashed into because impact with the stolen van, which witnesses estimated to be going at least 70 mph, catapulted Ms. Kryzak’s body into the air, to land more than 160 feet from the point of collision. Without stopping to seek help for Kryzak (who died at the scene), Maldonado continued his effort to avoid capture, speeding north in a southbound lane with the van’s windshield caved in on the passenger side. Apparently realizing shortly afterwards that he could not escape with the van, he crashed it into a car, got out, and ran away. This last attempt to avoid capture was unavailing, thanks to civilians who grabbed him and held him for the police.

Among other charges, the prosecutor sought to convict Maldonado for second-degree murder, pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25 (2), on the basis that Maldonado recklessly created a grave risk of death to another person and caused such death in circumstances that evinced his depraved indifference to human life [DIM]. A jury unanimously agreed, and the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction.  It held that the evidence was legally sufficient to support defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder and that, upon independent review, the conviction was not against the weight of the evidence.

Maldonado sought review by the Court of Appeals. Maldonado’s appellate counsel conceded that Maldonado’s conduct was reckless but argued that it did not meet the requirements for DIM established in the Court’s recent precedents.

On July 1, 2014, a majority of the Court agreed. Quoting one of its precedents, the Court stated that “a depraved and utterly indifferent actor is someone who does not care if another is injured or killed” by his reckless conduct. The Court held that “assuming the People proffered evidence indicating that defendant was aware of and disregarded the substantial risk of injury or death caused by his driving, they failed to submit evidence establishing that defendant did not care whether grievous harm resulted.”

Despite applying the applicable standard to review the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the Court found that “defendant sought to mitigate the consequences of his reckless driving” by at times swerving to avoid crashing into other vehicles. The Court credited defendant for such “conscious avoidance of risk,” which it stated was “the antithesis of a complete disregard for the safety of others.” The Court found that, despite the fatal collision with Violet Kryzak, the purpose of Maldonado’s extremely dangerous driving tactics was simply “to speed his flight and to avoid crashing into other vehicles or pedestrians.” According to the Court’s review, the record showed “no indication that [Maldonado’s] conduct … was motivated solely by his intent to evade capture, regardless of the risk to human life.” Therefore, the Court ordered that, given Maldonado’s “conscious avoidance of risk” during his concededly reckless driving in a desperate effort to avoid capture for his crimes, his killing of Violet Kryzak rendered him guilty only of second-degree manslaughter.

In a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Graffeo, Judge Pigott noted that after Maldonado narrowly avoided collision with one pedestrian and then struck and killed Ms. Kryzak, he did not cease his reckless conduct “when he had the opportunity to display that he cared whether or not he might strike a pedestrian.” Applying the required standard of review, Judge Pigott stated that there was “a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences from which a rational jury” could find that defendant “simply did not care whether or not a pedestrian died,” thus demonstrating not just extreme recklessness but also “utter indifference to the value of human life.”