Tagged: second degree murder

NY Court of Appeals Overturns a Murder Conviction Because of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

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 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.

A Warning to Itinerent Defense Counsel: Beware of Conflicts of Interest

The Supreme Court, Kings County, has granted a post-conviction motion to vacate a conviction (CPL 440.10) where the defendant’s attorney accepted employment with the Kings County District Attorney’s Office after having been substantially involved in the preparation of the case for trial.  The attorney was assigned to the homicide bureau, became Chief of the Trial Division, and then an Executive in the office and there were no mechanisms put in place to avoid a breach of confidence or the appearance of a conflict of interest.

People v. Dennis, Indictment No.: 12843/1989 (N.Y. Kings Cnty, Mar. 16, 2015).

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.”


Why Prosecutors Overcharge?

In his most recent Huffington Post blog post titled Overcharging George Zimmerman With Murder, Prof. Bennett L. Gershman of Pace Law School analyzes the implications of prosecutors charging defendants with crimes “that cannot reasonably be supported by the evidence.” He points out the extraordinary discretionary power prosecutor possesses and the potential for abuse this power can lead to. Prof. Gershman takes the Florida George Zimmerman case in which the defendant was charged with second degree murder and demonstrates the considerations and the decision process the prosecutor engages in when charging a defendant.

What do you think – did the prosecutor in the Zimmerman case overcharge to create leverage for plea bargain, was it a trial tactic, or was she pressured by public?