The Fourth Department in People v. Jones (4th Dept. 11/9/2018) considered whether it should, in its discretion, override the lower court’s decision on two matters: (1) whether the defendant should have been sentenced as a youth offender or as an adult, and (2) whether the sentence imposed was too harsh and excessive. The Court ultimately used its authority to amend the lower court’s decision on the second count in the “interest of justice.”
The defendant was convicted of Assault 1º and two counts of CPW 2º; he committed the crimes when he was 18 years old. Although CPL 720.10(3) provides that “a youth who has been convicted of an armed felony offense . . . is an eligible youth if the court determines that one or more of the following factors exist: (i) mitigating circumstances that bear directly upon the manner in which the crime was committed; or (ii) where the defendant was not the sole participant in the crime, the defendant’s participation was relatively minor although not so minor as to constitute a defense to the prosecution.” Therefore, the only relevant mitigating factors related to a CPL 720.10(3), or “eligible youth,” inquiry revolve around the circumstances of the crime itself, such as “a lack of injury to others or evidence that the defendant did not display a weapon during the crime.” Here, the Fourth Department affirmed the lower court’s decision in trying the defendant as an adult rather than an eligible youth because he carried a loaded gun on several occasions and shot a gang member.
Although the Court decided that trying the defendant as an adult was just, it determined that the 35-year sentence imposed on the defendant was too harsh. As a matter of discretion in the interest of justice, the Fourth Department modified the defendant’s sentence to run for an aggregate term of 25 years. The Court contemplated multiple factors in deciding to reduce the sentence; the defendant’s lack of a criminal record, the fact that the victim was attempting to commit an armed robbery of the defendant’s gang members, and the fact that the People offered a plea constituting a 20-year sentence all contributed to the Court’s decision to impose a more lax sentence.
Two judges dissented to the second part of the majority’s opinion; they did not believe the Court should amend the sentence in any way. This decision was not necessary in the “interest of justice.” Although the dissent noted the defendant’s low intellect and rough childhood, it was of paramount significance that the defendant was a dangerous individual who was known to carry a loaded gun. Thus, he should be “locked up for a long time.”
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).
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