Category Archives: Case Summaries

When Deliberating Jurors Ask a Question, Answer It

When a jury asks clarifying questions of the court when deliberating, the court must meaningfully answer the question, without prejudicing the defendant. In People v. Wood (4th Dept. 7/25/2018), the Fourth Department held that a supplemental instruction provided by the court in response to a jury question constituted an abuse of discretion.

The defendant in this case was convicted by a jury verdict of two counts of CPW 2º and one count of Menacing 2º.  (The first count of CPW 2º charged possession outside the home of a loaded firearm.  The second count of the same crime charged possession with intent to use it against another.)

This case arose from a breakfast at a restaurant, which the defendant deemed cost too much and complained. Weeks later, he returned to the restaurant with a loaded gun, pointing it at employees and demanding sexual favors in exchange for the cost of breakfast. He was asked to leave and did so, and was then apprehended nearby by police. At trial, the defendant testified that the gun was a war antique of his grandfather’s and he was transporting it to another individual, keeping it on his person so that it was not stolen. The defendant claimed that he entered the restaurant to make amends with the complainant after his initial outburst. In his version of events, she insulted him, so he insulted her back and left, never displaying the weapon.

During juror deliberations, the jury sent a note requesting clarification on the terms “intent” and “unlawfully.” Continue reading

Missing Witness Testimony: Expanding the “Noncumulative” Rule to All Four Departments

It is well-established in New York that a party may request and receive a “missing witness” jury instruction—i.e., that the jury may draw an unfavorable inference if the opposing party fails to call a witness who presumably has evidence that would aid that opposing party. People v. Smith (4th Dept. 6/29/2018) brought harmony to the Appellate Division by bringing the Fourth Department’s standard for a missing witness charge into conforming with the other three Departments.

In this case, the defendant was convicted by a jury at the lower court of Attempted Murder 2º, Assault 1º, and Criminal Use of a Firearm 1º. The defendant claims that his trial attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel, which the Court dismissed quickly, as the court determined defense counsel used a legitimate trial strategy.

What was at issue in this case is the contention by the defendant that Supreme Court erred in denying his request for a missing witness charge. In the First, Second, and Third Departments it is well-settled that the proponent of such a charge has the initial burden of proving that the missing witness has noncumulative testimony to offer on behalf of the opposing party.

In this case, the Court joined its sister departments and held that “when seeking a missing witness instruction, the movant has the initial, prima facie burden of showing that the testimony of the uncalled witness would not be cumulative of the testimony already given. In other words, it is the movant’s burden to establish, prima facie, that the missing witness’s testimony would not be ‘consistent with the other witnesses.'” (quoting People v Rivera, 249 AD2d 141, 142 (1st Dep’t 1998)).

In this case, the defendant failed to meet his burden. He does not argue otherwise, but simply contended that the burden was not his. The court rejected this approach in its adoption of the law, and therefore, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.

Two Justices dissented, reading the Court of Appeals decision in People v. Gonzalez differently. They stated that the burden begins with the party seeking the charge to show entitlement, then shifts to the opposing party to demonstrate the charge would not be appropriate. In their view, it is only then that the issue of whether the testimony is cumulative would arise. (JC)

Non-Party Cannot Appeal Order Denying Motion to Quash Subpoena Issued During Criminal Proceeding

An order resolving a nonparty’s motion to quash a subpoena issued prior to the commencement of a criminal action is final and appealable. However, in Matter of People v. Juarez (Robles) (Ct. App. 6/27/18) (per curiam) (4-3), a closely divided Court of Appeals held that no direct appellate review is authorized for an order resolving a nonparty’s motion to quash a subpoena issued after the commencement of a criminal action.

This case arose out of a criminal prosecution in which the People charged Conrado Juarez with one count of second-degree murder for the killing of “Baby Hope,” a four-year-old girl. In 1991, the victim’s partially decomposed body was found in a cooler near the Henry Hudson Parkway. She had been sexually assaulted and suffocated, but the semen investigators discovered was too degraded for analysis. For two decades, police could not identify the victim or the killer. In 2013, officers tracked down the victim’s mother, and from there, identified defendant as the probable killer. After his arrest, defendant Juarez gave a videotaped confession in which he admitted to strangling the victim during a sexual encounter.

After giving the videotaped confession and while in pre-trial detention, the defendant gave an interview to nonparty Frances Robles, an investigative reporter with the New York Times. The Times subsequently published a story based on this interview, in which the defendant offered an alternate account of the victim’s death that differed in some respects from the video-taped confession.

Before defendant’s Huntley hearing, the People obtained two subpoenas meant to compel Robles’ participation in the case: one for Robles’ own testimony and one for Robles’ written interview notes. Robles moved to quash both. Continue reading

Free-Standing Actual Innocence Claims and Guilty Pleas

In People v. Tiger, (Ct. App. 6/15/2018) (DiFiore, C.J.) (4-1-2), the Court of Appeals held that claims of actual innocence can not be brought under CPL 440.10(1)(h) after a defendant voluntarily pleads guilty.

This case involved a licensed practical nurse and caregiver who was charged with various crimes after she allegedly burned a disabled 10-year-old girl while bathing her. Following the incident, there was confusion as to whether the girl’s injuries were skin conditions caused by an allergic reaction to her medication or if they were in fact caused by scalding water. After plea negotiations, the defendant pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a vulnerable elderly person or an incompetent or physically disabled person in the first degree. During the plea colloquy, the defendant affirmed that “she was pleading guilty because she was, in fact, guilty.” Following the guilty plea, the family of the injured girl filed a civil lawsuit against Ms. Tiger. Based on the conflicting medical evidence as to the source of the girl’s injuries, the civil jury found that the nurse’s actions were not a substantial factor in causing the girl’s injuries but found instead that the injuries in question were caused by an allergic reaction to her medication.

At around the same time as the civil trial, the defendant moved to vacate the judgment under CPL 440.10(1)(h), relying on People v. Hamilton. CPL 440.10 (1) (h) allows a defendant to move to vacate where the judgment was obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional right. In Hamilton, the Second Department allowed for a free-standing actual innocence claim to be brought pursuant to 440.10(1)(h). The People opposed defendant’s motion, arguing Hamilton’s holding was limited to situations where a defendant was found guilty after trial, and therefore did not apply to guilty pleas which were voluntarily entered into by defendants. Continue reading

The Necessity of Preservation for Appeal

While defendants may appeal certain rulings that took place during a trial, these issues must have been preserved properly for appeal. In People v. Bailey (Ct. App. 6/14/2018) (Rivera, J.) (6-1), the Court of Appeals held that in order to object to a trial court’s lack of inquiry following an outburst into a juror’s impartiality, the defendant must preserve the objection. Additionally, the Court found that testimony about gang customs and practices was not excessive.

This case stemmed from a trial in which defendant and two inmates were being prosecuted for assault of another inmate when they were all incarcerated at Manhattan Detention Complex. During the trial, defendant’s counsel sought to elicit statements that supported defendant’s theory that his assault was to protect himself after the complainant started a fight due to a codefendant using a racially derogatory term in his direction. On cross-examination, the defendant’s attorney asked if one of the codefendants provoked him and called him an “old n*****.” When complainant said he was not provoked and did not remember if that particular phrase was used, counsel persisted. Continue reading