Under its factual review power, the Appellate Division sits as a “thirteenth juror” to determine whether the factfinder—the jury or, in a bench trial, the judge—was justified in finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This assessment does not permit the court to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, as is required in a legal sufficiency review. Since the Court of Appeals can only review questions of law, “weight of the evidence” decisions cannot be reviewed by that higher court.
Recently, the Second Department reversed a conviction on weight of the evidence grounds—a rare move. In People v. Herskovic (App. Div. 2d Dept. 10/10/2018), the court reversed the defendant’s conviction for Gang Assault 2º and related charges, which stemmed from a 2013 attack upon the victim by a group of 20 Hasidic Jewish men in Brooklyn. The victim was not able to identify the defendant as one of the attackers. The victim and eyewitnesses also gave conflicting accounts of the attack.
The People relied principally on DNA recovered from the defendant’s sneaker, which one of the attackers had taken off of him and thrown on a roof. However, the DNA sample was small (97.9 picograms, short of the 100.0 picograms needed for a traditional DNA analysis) and was a mixture of two or more individuals’ DNA. A criminologist testified to a procedure that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had developed to analyze such small and mixed samples to determine a “likelihood ratio.” However, even with these “tweaked” protocols, the court found the DNA evidence lacking:
The analysis also found that it was 133 times more likely that the DNA sample originated from the defendant and the complainant than from the complainant and an unknown unrelated person. The FST analysis of the DNA was based upon a Caucasian population, and failed to take into account the genetic history of the defendant, a member of the Hasidic population. Moreover, the likelihood ratio result was only 133, a relatively insubstantial number.
Based on the weak testimony and “less than convincing” DNA analysis, the court reversed on the facts. As a result, the defendant may not be retried. For more on this case, see this article from the New York Law Journal (subscription required).
A few days ago, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Term’s decision dismissing an accusatory instrument as jurisdictionally defective. At issue was whether the term “manual stimulation” in the context of Patronizing a Prostitute 3º was sufficient.
At the Appellate Term, the defendant argued, “the [term] ‘manual stimulation’ he sought could refer to a ‘foot rub, therapeutic massage, chiropractic adjustment, personal training – even an energetic match of thumb wrestling’.”
I think I’ll let the Court of Appeals’ opinion on this issue speak for itself:
The factual allegations that defendant requested “manual stimulation” from a woman on a street corner, for a specific sum of money, at 2:25 a.m., supplied “defendant with sufficient notice of the charged crime to satisfy the demands of due process and double jeopardy” (People v Dreyden, 15 NY3d 100, 103 ). Defendant’s argument that “manual stimulation” could be indicative of nonsexual conduct ignores the inferences of sexual activity to be drawn from the factual context in which the statement was alleged to have been made—a late night solicitation of a physical personal service from an individual on a public street, in exchange for a sum of money. Any assertion that defendant was referring to a nonsexual activity “was a matter to be raised as an evidentiary defense not by insistence that this information was jurisdictionally defective” (see Casey, 95 NY2d at 360). The fact that the instrument used a clinical phrase for the sexual activity alleged does not render the instrument jurisdictionally defective.
Barry Kamins has the first of two Law Journal articles about new legislation affecting New York’s criminal justice system. In the first (subscription required), he provides a thorough overview of the new Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, including some of the constitutional controversies over the new commission. For those unfamiliar with the commission, the article is worth a read.
Courts are back from their summer recesses, and so are we! Look for case summaries in several, new Appellate Division cases in the next few days.
When jurors communicate with third parties about the case in which they are hearing, it can adversely impact the trial by prejudicing the defendant. In People v. Neulander (4th Dept. 6/29/2018), one juror’s misconduct impacted the defendant’s rights and resulted in a new trial.
The defendant in this case was convicted by a jury of Murder 2º of his wife and Tampering with Physical Evidence.
The defendant contended that his conviction should be set aside on grounds of juror misconduct. Under CPL 330.30(2), the verdict may be set aside for juror misconduct if the misconduct may have affected a substantial right of the defendant, and it was not known to the defendant prior to the verdict. The defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence every fact essential to support the motion.
The defendant established during his CPL 330.30(2) hearing that a juror engaged in text messaging with third parties about the trial, including receiving a text from her father saying: Continue reading