Category Archives: N.Y. Court of Appeals

Unanswered Jury Notes: Cause for New Trial?

In People v. Parker (Ct. App. 6/28/2018) (Rivera, J.),  the Court granted the defendants’ request for a new trial due to the trial court’s failure to provide “meaningful notice” of two jury notes to defense counsel. The defendants were convicted of Robbery 2º after allegedly robbing thousands of dollars from a commercial establishment.

On the second day of jury deliberations, the jury sent three notes to the court: one note requested definitions of the charged crimes and testimony linking witnesses to where the defendants were seen and caught; a second note requested further testimony relating to fingerprint evidence; and a third requested testimony from the victim and his wife. In response to the jury’s notes, the court initially responded to solely the first note and subsequently dismissed the jury for a one-hour lunch break. However, immediately after the break and without receiving response to its latter two notes, the jury entered a verdict.

Under CPL § 310.30, a trial court is required to direct that the jury be returned to the courtroom after notice has been given to the defense counsel of any substantive notes provided by the jury. This allows defense counsel an opportunity to formulate a response to the jury’s inquiries before the jury’s return to the courtroom. In this case, it was undisputed that the defense counsel was not informed of the contents of the latter two jury notes. As the Court provides in its opinion, the proof that the trial court relayed the substance of the notes to the defense counsel must be specifically in the record. Here, it was not. Therefore, the Court found that the “sole remedy” in failing to comply with CPL § 310.30 was to reverse and grant the defendants’ a new trial.

Chief Judge DiFiore dissented, remarking that the holding of the majority’s leading precedent focused on a more general concept. She argued that O’Rama‘s holding required the trial court’s compliance with providing notice to defense counsel of the jury notes; it did not mandate the inclusion of such notice in the record. The Chief Judge wrote that the defense counsel was indeed informed of the overall substance of the jury notes in an off-the-record meeting. As such, she argued that ordering a new trial was an excessive remedy and completely off-base with O’Rama‘s requirements. Instead, Chief Judge DiFiore proposed the remedy of a reconstruction hearing, which is provided to amend ambiguities in the record. Importantly, the Chief Judge also noted that the jury was well aware that the trial court had not responded to the latter two notes it had received. However, the jury’s verdict ultimately rescinded the requests in those notes, further supporting the argument that ordering a new trial was unwarranted (AP/LC).

Mode of Proeedings Errors and Jury Notes

In 1991, the Court of Appeals in People v. O’Rama articulated the proper procedure a court should go through when there is a note from the jury during the course of a trial: Upon receiving a jury note, a trial court should (1) mark the note as a court exhibit and read it into the record before the jury is called in (thereby ensuring adequate appellate review); (2) afford counsel an opportunity to suggest responses to the note; (3) inform counsel of the substance of the court’s proposed response (thereby giving counsel an opportunity to suggest appropriate modifications before the jury is returned to the courtroom); and (4) read the note aloud in open court before the jury so that any inaccuracies may be corrected by the individual jurors.

In People v. Morrison (Ct. App. 6/28/2018), the Court of Appeals, in an unsigned memorandum affirming the order of the Appellate Division, held that the trial court’s failure to provide counsel with meaningful notice of a substantive jury note was a mode of proceedings error that required reversal. This decision by the Court drew dissents from Chief Judge DiFiore as well as Judge Garcia.

The case stemmed from the rape of a 90-year-old Alzheimer’s patient in her nursing home. Continue reading

Defendant’s Waiver of Grand Jury Indictment

Initially, under the New York Constitution, criminal defendants were unable to waive an indictment by Grand Jury. However, in 1974, the Constitution was amended to permit  waiver so long as a waiver is signed in open court in front of defendant’s counsel. Recently, the Court of Appeals affirmed this practice in People v. Myers (Ct. App. 6/27/2018) (Wilson, J.) (5-2).

Mr. Myers waived his right to an indictment by the Grand Jury and immediately after pleaded guilty to Burglary 3º. Prior to this, Mr. Myers had an opportunity to confer with his counsel off the record, and while the judge called the other cases on the calendar, he had an opportunity to meet with his attorney at the lectern about the waiver form. The judge then asked Mr. Myers’ counsel if he was ready, and when he said yes, the judge signed the order approving the waiver after determining it met the statutory requirements.

Mr. Myers argued that the indictment was invalid because there was no evidence the waiver was executed in open court and there was no conversation with the court on the subject. The Appellate Division upheld the waiver.

New York Constitution, article I, section 6 allows for waiver of a grand jury indictment if it is consented by the district attorney, and “evidenced by written instrument signed by the defendant in open court in the presence of his or her counsel.” In this case, the record shows that the waiver was signed in open court. Mr. Myers’ attorney notarized his signature on the waiver on the date of the court appearance.

The defendant’s argument that there was no inquiry by the court into whether his waiver was knowing and intelligent was unsupported by the New York Constitution, the Court held. Instead, the Court found that the requirements set forth in the statute (signed in open court, in the presence of counsel) were met. Thus, the Court declined to read into the statute the additional requirement of the judge conducting an oral inquiry on the record. The Court noted that “[c]ompliance with the constitutionally-specified waiver mechanism establishes the prima facie validity of the waiver of the right to prosecution by indictment.” There was no evidence on the record that the waiver was involuntary, unknowing, or unintelligent, so the prima facie showing was deemed by the Court to be conclusive.

Therefore, the Court affirmed the order of the Appellate Division but noted:

We emphasize, however, that the better practice—captured in the relevant model colloquy—is for courts to elicit defendants’ understanding of the significance of the right being waived, to minimize future challenges to the effectiveness of the waiver (see Waiver of Indictment; Superior Court Information Procedure & Colloquy, https://www.nycourts.gov/judges/cji/8-Colloquies/ [accessed June 22, 2018]).

Judge Rivera dissented because she believed that “[n]o waiver is valid without sufficient judicial inquiry.” (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

Some Further Thoughts on Tiger

Earlier today, Paul Tsenesidis posted about People v. Tiger, where the Court of Appeals held that a freestanding actual innocence claim without any further constitutional basis, such as IAC or Brady, could not be used to vacate a judgment that was obtained by guilty plea.

Professor Bonventre (Albany Law School) posted an analysis of Tiger on his blog shortly after it came out. I agree with much of what he wrote but disagree with this portion of his post:

It’s not that the statute in question (CPL 440.10) actually says that. Or that the statute cannot be interpreted to allow an actual innocence challenge. No, the majority chose to adopt that interpretation. … So why did the Court choose to reject the availability of an actual innocence challenge? Strangely–and this is cause for at least as much concern as the Court’s decision itself–the majority relied in large measure on Supreme Court precedents.

I read Tiger differently.  I saw it as a statutory interpretation case, not a constitutional one.  Most of the majority’s analysis was focused on the statutes, particularly the differences in plain language between 440.10(1)(h), (1)(g), and (1)(g-1), which together showed that the Legislature had a clear purpose in treating judgments obtained by guilty plea versus trial verdict differently. (Still, the majority’s argument would have been stronger if it had expressly come out to say that its decision was on constraint of the statute and that the Legislature was free to provide relief in these types of situations if it so chooses.)

That said, Professor Bonventre’s point is that the statute does provide relief: CPL § 440.10(1)(h), which states that judgments obtained in violation of constitutional rights are subject to vacatur.  The argument is that the state Constitution provides for such a basis. Thus, citation to federal cases is inapposite.  The New York Court of Appeals has a long tradition of interpreting the New York Constitution as going further than its federal counterpart.  Yet the majority does not engage with those cases or principles.  (On the other hand, most of those cases are in the search/seizure and right to counsel areas, which do not have bearing on a procedural issue.)  If I read Professor Bonventre’s post correctly, he is arguing that the state constitutional issue is properly before the Court—and needed to be addressed—via CPL § 440.10(1)(h).

Still, I come back to the plain language of the statute.  CPL § 440.10(1)(h) permits vacatur if the judgment was obtained in violation of a defendant’s state or federal constitutional right.  The key word in the statute is “obtained.”  In an actual innocence case, the judgment was not “obtained” by some unconstitutional practice. It was obtained by the defendant’s consent to entry of judgment. After all, a person who maintains his or her innocence is allowed to enter into a contractual bargain with the State for a reduced sentence.  See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970).  Again, to Professor Bonventre’s point, Alford is a federal case, but the principle in Alford has been upheld in New York courts as well. See, e.g.People v. Couser, 28 N.Y.3d 368 (2017). So in a roundabout way, perhaps the Tiger majority did engage state constitutional law in its analysis.

And maybe this is to say that there isn’t much daylight between Professor Bonventre’s position and mine after all.

At the end of the day, the ball is now in the Legislature’s court.  I wonder what the odds are of the Legislature taking up such a meaty criminal justice issue?  (LC)