Case Summaries – Fourth Department Decisions Released on March 20, 2015

Published on April 23, 2015 2:25 pm by hiscockadmin in Appeals Blog

Criminal Case Summaries:

  • People v Brahney (KA 13-01456) – 4AD rejects D’s argument that the lower court erred by imposing consecutive sentences for his convictions of burglary in the first degree and murder in the second degree. D broke into his ex-girlfriend’s house, dragged her downstairs, and killed her by repeatedly stabbing her with a butcher knife. The two burglary counts had as aggravating factors D’s use of a dangerous instrument and his causing physical injury. 4AD explains that while the actus reus elements of the counts overlap, the People established the legality of the sentences by showing that D’s acts were separate and distinct. Specifically, 4AD notes that there was blood evidence in both the upstairs and downstairs of the apartment, but there was significantly more blood downstairs. This shows that the burglary was complete when D was still upstairs, where he caused physical injury to the victim, and did not murder the victim until he brought her downstairs.
  • Justices Centra and Lindley dissent, finding that the consecutive sentences were unlawfully imposed. The dissent explains that the victim sustained 38 knife wounds, and the People’s evidence did not establish which of those wounds were fatal. Given the presence of blood in the upstairs of the apartment, at least one wound was inflicted there, and it was possible that the fatal wound was caused by the same act that caused physical injury. As such, it is not possible to determine whether the burglary and murder counts were committed by separate and distinct acts.
  • People v Angel T.C. (KA 13-01936) – 4AD modifies D’s judgment of conviction by adjudicating him a youthful offender. D was convicted of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property after he and two friends stole a car that had been left with the keys in the ignition. 4AD finds that D’s acts were that of an impulsive youth rather than a hardened criminal, and D expressed remorse for his actions.
  • People v Gibbs (KA 11-00056) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction for predatory sexual assault against a child because the lower court erred by admitting evidence of prior bad acts of sexual abuse that D committed against the victim’s mother and another woman. References to the acts were contained in a recorded telephone conversation between D and the victim’s mother. 4AD finds that the improper references were not inextricably interwoven with the admissible parts of the recording, and thus could have been redacted without impeding the jury’s ability to understand the admissible portions. The references were numerous, and their prejudicial effect outweighed any probative value. 4AD also finds that the lower court abused its discretion by ruling that D could be cross-examined regarding the prior bad acts, on the ground that they were already admitted through the telephone call. In so ruling, the court failed to engage in the requisite balancing of probative value versus prejudicial effect.
  • People v Gibson (KA 09-00395) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction of attempted murder in the second degree and assault in the first degree because the lower court abused its discretion by denying D’s request for the assignment of a new attorney. One month before trial, D requested new counsel in a letter to the court. Two weeks later, counsel also asked to be relieved because he could no longer communicate with D. Days later, D further specified his grievances against counsel. 4AD concludes that the lower court erred in determining that a breakdown in communication cannot constitute good cause for the assignment of new counsel. 4AD notes that while a mere complaint by D alleging a breakdown may be insufficient, here, both D and counsel agreed they could no longer communicate. 4AD further finds that there is no support in the record for the lower court’s conclusion that D initiated or promoted the breakdown.
  • Justice DeJoseph dissents, finding the lower court did not abuse its discretion because there was no good cause that  warranted a substitution of counsel. According to the dissent, D based his allegations of a breakdown in communication mostly on counsel’s infrequent contact, and infrequent contact does not constitute good cause for substitution. D’s other allegations were either conclusory or did not suggest the serious possibility of a need for substitution.
  • People v Martinez (KA 13-02053) – 4AD reverses the lower court’s order denying D’s CPL 440.10 motion without a hearing. D based his motion on the recantation of his daughter, the victim, as well as ineffective assistance of counsel. 4AD finds that the lower court should have held a hearing on the part of the motion based on the recantation. In her affidavit, the daughter stated that she fabricated the allegations against her father so that she could live with her maternal grandmother. She did not care about her father at that time, but since then, had reconnected with her paternal grandmother and has seen how the grandmother has been suffering as a result of D being in prison. 4AD concludes that the lower court erred in finding, without holding a hearing, that the recantation was inherently incredible and unreliable.
  • People v Strassner (KA 10-01374) – 4AD reverses D’s DWI conviction because the lower court erred in refusing to grant his causal challenges to three prospective jurors. The three jurors made statements during voir dire regarding police officer testimony that cast doubt on their ability to render an impartial verdict. 4AD explains that the jurors failed to provide unequivocal assurances that they could set aside any bias, and such assurances were not established by the mere fact that those jurors nodded affirmatively along with other jurors to statements made by another prospective juror.
  • People v Wilkins (KA 13-00189) – 4AD reserves decision and remits the matter for further consideration of D’s motion pursuant to CPL 440.10 (1) (h). D moved to vacate his conviction of second-degree murder (depraved indifference) on the ground that he was denied his right to due process because his conviction was based on legally insufficient evidence. Specifically, the evidence did not establish the requisite mens rea, depraved indifference to human life. Though D challenged the sufficiency of the evidence on direct appeal, he argued in his motion that the law changed after the Appellate Division affirmed his conviction but before the Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. 4AD finds that the lower court erred by dismissing the motion on the ground that the law did not change until the Court of Appeals’ decision in People v Feingold (7 NY3d 288), which was decided after D’s conviction became final. 4AD agrees with the Third Department that the law changed on October 19, 2004, when the Court of Appeals decided People v Payne (3 NY3d 266). It was in Payne, explains 4AD, that the Court first held that one-on-one shootings or knifings can almost never qualify as depraved indifference murder.

Family Law Case Summaries:

  • Matter of Suarez v Williams (CAF 13-02243) – In this custody proceeding, 4AD reverses the Family Court’s order granting custody of the child to the paternal grandparents. The child had lived with the grandparents since shortly after he was born in 2002. For most of that time, the mother visited with the child several times per week, and she participated in decision making for things such as the child’s participation in after-school activities. When the mother told the grandparents in 2012 that she wanted the child to live with her, they commenced this custody proceeding, and the lower court, after finding extraordinary circumstances, awarded the grandparents custody. 4AD concludes this was error. 4AD finds that the parties essentially exercised joint custody of the child, with the grandparents having primary physical custody and the mother having visitation. These circumstances did not establish “surrender, abandonment, persisting neglect, [or] unfitness” within the meaning of the Court of Appeals’ seminal decision in Matter of Bennett v Jeffreys (40 NY2d 543). 4AD further concludes that the lower court erred in determining that extraordinary circumstances existed here based on Domestic Relations Law § 72 (2) (b), which provides that such circumstances exist if there is a prolonged separation of the parent and child for at least a 24-month period. 4AD explains that Bennett v Jeffreys made clear that a fit parent cannot be displaced by a decisional rule or statute, and thus rejects the grandparents contention that DRL § 72 eased the burden of grandparents to establish extraordinary circumstances.