Category Archives: Trial Courts

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

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

Refusal to permit summations results in overturned verdict

In a bench trial, the court may not prohibit summations if the judgment will result in jail time.  Doing so is a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel.  In People v. Harris (Ct. App. 6/26/2018) (7-0), the defendant was tried for a Class B misdemeanor with the court as trier of fact.  However, the judge announced at the close of the evidence that it would exercise its “prerogative” not to hear summations.  The court immediately rendered a verdict finding the defendant guilty of the charge and sentencing him to 90 days in jail.

First, the Court of Appeals held that the claim was reviewable on appeal even though no objection was taken to the court’s ruling.  The manner in which the trial judge proceeded “deprived defense counsel of a practical ability to timely and meaningfully object to the court’s ruling of law.”  Thus, the Appellate Term erred in holding that the claim was unpreserved.

On the merits, the Court held that the failure to permit summations deprived the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, since his attorney was not able to be heard.  New York’s former CPL § 320.20(3)(c), which gave trial courts the discretion not hear summations on nonjury indictments, was ruled unconstitutional in Herring v. New York, 422 U.S. 853 (1975).

The Court’s ruling in Harris came with two important caveats:

Our analysis is limited to the facts in this case and we do not address the constitutionality of the statute as applied to other nonjury trials that may not involve a deprivation of liberty. Similarly, defendant never argued that the denial of an opportunity to deliver summations violated his statutory right to counsel (see CPL 170.10).

Overall, Harris is a straightforward case with clear implications for future cases. (LC)

Excited Utterances: Pinned at the Scene of the Crime

The law of the case doctrine and the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule are two very fact-specific determinations. The law of the case doctrine is not meant to be a limitation on judicial discretion or power; however, judges should not completely disregard prior decisions made within a single case. Similarly, the foundation and basis of the excited utterance exception is crucial in determining whether it should be applied to the statements of a specific case at hand. Recently, in People v. Cummings (Ct. App. 5/8/18) (Wilson, J.) (6-1-0), the Court found that a lower court erroneously admitted such statements, leading to the conviction of the defendant, Cummings. There, the out-of-court statements were extracted from the background of a 911 call, made by an unidentified person. Continue reading

AD1 affirms trial court order setting aside verdict

In People v. Rios (1st Dept. 9/22/2011), the previous manager of a building as well as the corporate owner, were found guilty of Criminally Negligent Homicide and Reckless Endangerment 2º.   The victims in the case were two firefighters who were killed while trying to extinguish the flames.  Two of the apartments had unsafe conditions.  The first had faulty wiring.  The second had an illegal partition.  The fire started in the first apartment and then spread.  The People's theory was that the conditions in the second apartment were the cause of the firefighters' deaths and that the manager had actual knowledge of them.

Following the conviction, the trial court set aside the verdict under CPL § 330.30, finding insufficient evidence of knowledge.  The First Department agreed with the decision.  "The inferences upon which the People rely are impermissibly speculative. Furthermore, the People called the building's superintendent, who testified that he knew about the partition in 4-L but never told Rios about it. Even if the jury discredited that testimony, such disbelief would not supply affirmative proof of the contrary proposition."  (LC)