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 November 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in four cases, two of which presented criminal procedure issues relating to whether a defendant can employ a post-verdict, pre-sentence CPL § 330.30 motion to raise issues based on facts not discovered until after the verdict was rendered and have such facts considered as part of the record for purposes of direct appeal. In response to probing questions from the Court, all attorneys involved made forceful and well-informed arguments.
The November 19 arguments were the last that Judge Robert Smith will hear prior to his retirement from the Court. In accord with Court of Appeals tradition, at the conclusion of the arguments the other members of the Court rose and applauded Judge Smith. Chief Judge Lippman expressed his thanks and admiration to Judge Smith for his dedicated service to the Court before an audience that included the Judge’s family and virtually all members of the Court staff.
One of the most important legacies of Judge Smith’s tenure regarding criminal justice issues is the strong and thoughtful stance he took in many cases to curb prosecutors’ unfounded employment of a depraved indifference murder charge pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2). Section 125.25(2) provides for a second degree murder charge in cases where a defendant, without intent, causes the death of another person “[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life [when the defendant] engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death ….”
Dissenting in a case in which the Court majority upheld three depraved indifference murder convictions, Judge Smith stated that
experience shows that juries, especially in cases with inflammatory facts, will often find depraved indifference where the evidence does not support it, and as a result we have reversed many convictions in recent years because the proof of this mens rea was insufficient.
In the cases in question, Judge Smith found that the facts showed at most a basis for conviction on a lesser charge of second degree manslaughter. He cautioned the majority that its affirmance of the murder convictions “departs from the rigor we have previously shown [in depraved indifference murder appeals] and makes it more difficult to attain our long-sought goal of reserving convictions of this crime for the very few cases that warrant them.”
This writer was one of the clerks employed by Judge Smith when he took the bench in January 2004. After oral arguments one day during the winter of 2004, my co-clerks and I met with the Judge to discuss that day’s oral arguments. In a criminal appeal argued that day, when the Court pressed the defense attorney on a secondary argument he made for his client, the attorney responded in a sheepish way and declined to pursue that argument. Judge Smith asked us what we thought about this: he wanted to convey that the attorney’s response was unacceptable. He told us that the attorney had a basis to support this argument and that he should have presented it, prefacing his argument by saying: “It is my responsibility to fight for my client’s liberty with everything I have.”
People v. Heidgen, 3 N.E.3d 657 (N.Y. 2013) (Smith, J., dissenting)