Category Archives: Trial Courts

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)

Another reversal for equivocal answers by juror

The Second Department reversed the conviction in People v. MacFarlane (2d Dept. 8/23/2011), because the trial court sat a prospective juror who had given equivocal answers to a question about police credibility.  The Defendant was on trial for Murder 2º.  During voir dire, the juror reported that several family members were police officers.  "The prospective juror expressed on two occasions her concern that she may give the testimony of a police officer more credence than she would to other witnesses. When asked if she would give no greater credibility to the testimony of police officers, the prospective juror replied, 'I would like to think that I can be fair, but it's hard.' When asked if she could evaluate the testimony of police officers in the same way as any other witness, the prospective juror answered, 'I would hope so.' Further, in response to a query from defense counsel as to whether she could be fair and impartial, the prospective juror stated, 'I'd like to think of myself as a fair person, but I — it's — I — I do give police officers a little more credence, I think, than I would other people.'"

Based on the juror's responses, the Appellate Division found that the juror should have been excused for cause.  

Lesson learned?  While it is frustrating for both jurors and attorneys, the latter must ensure that the former give unequivocal answers to questions about bias.  Jurors who remain on the fence about such an issue must be excused.  (LC)

COA reverses jury selection case in summary fashion

In People v. Johnson (Ct. App. 6/9/2011), a unanimous Court of Appeals—in a memorandum decision—reversed a defendant's conviction because of an error in jury selection.  The Defendant raised the insanity defense.  One of the prospective jurors said she wrote a college term paper on the insanity defense.  During subsequent questioning, she said that she was not sure if she could give both sides a fair trial and that she might be biased against the defense.  The Defendant exercised a peremptory challenge.

The court reversed because the trial judge should have conducted a further inquiry and either obtain an unequivocal assurance of fairness or excuse the juror for cause.  "Here, given the absence of follow-up questioning by the court after the juror expressed uncertainty concerning her ability to fairly consider a major issue in this case, the conviction must be reversed and the matter remitted for a new trial." 

Lesson learned?  Followup, followup, followup.  (LC)