Gristwood v. State

This appeal addresses an action for damages for wrongful conviction and imprisonment.  Claimant appeals from a Court of Claims judgment that awarded him $5,485.394 in damages. In 1996, Claimant was convicted of murder in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree for the death of his wife. The only evidence tying Claimant to the crime was an inculpatory statement made to police after a fifteen hour interrogation. In 2003, an individual confessed to the assault and murder of Claimant’s wife, providing details that accurately described the attack. Claimant moved to vacate the judgment of conviction on the grounds that those statements were “newly discovered evidence.” In 2006 County Court granted the motion and dismissed the indictment and Claimant was released after serving more than nine years in prison. Claimant thereafter brought a successful suit against the State.

In this appeal, the court held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the transcripts of Claimant’s criminal trial. Further, a determination of the Court of Claims will not be set aside unless their conclusions could not have been reached upon any fair interpretation of the evidence. The Court of Claims properly determined that the “new” 2003 confession established that Claimant did not commit the acts for which he was imprisoned.

The court found that Claimant had otherwise maintained his innocence and that his inculpatory statement was coerced. The voluntariness of a confession can be determined through “examination of the totality of the circumstances,” including duration, detention conditions, polygraph use or misuse, police attitude, threat existence and the age, and physical and mental state of the detainee. The court concluded that Claimant’s inculpatory statement was the product of police misconduct, including threats and harsh tactics. Claimant made the inculpatory statement after being awake and emotionally traumatized for thirty-four hours. He was interrogated in a six-by-eight-foot windowless room for fifteen hours and was devoid of food, drink and cigarettes. He was promised release if he passed a polygraph exam, which was determined to be “questionably reliable” due to his mental and physical state. The totality of the circumstances showed that Claimant’s statement was not voluntarily made, nor did he actually trigger his own conviction.

Finally, the court concluded that the nonpecuniary damages awarded did not materially deviate from reasonable compensation. The damages must “fairly and reasonably” compensate claimant under N.Y. Court of Claims Act § 8-b(6). “Traditional” tort, common-law and case law should guide the amount of present or future awards. “Proximately resulted” damages can be included after the period spanning conviction to the imprisonment term. Accordingly, the court determined that Claimant’s conviction and incarceration was detrimental to his personal and family life. The court ruled that Claimant correctly received damages for loss of liberty and pain and suffering, which included post-imprisonment psychological injuries.

990 N.Y.S.2d 386, 2014 N.Y Slip Op. 05259 (4th Dep’t. 2014)

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People v. Angona

This appeal is from a conviction for four counts of sodomy in the first degree. The Defendant was charged with abusing a young victim on four separate occasions between September and October 2001, when the Defendant was sixteen years old.

Defendant alleged multiple issues on appeal. First, Defendant alleged that the People had to charge the jury with an infancy defense. The court rejected this argument, holding that the charging of such a defense is only necessary if the evidence can adequately support it. Next, Defendant alleged the lower court abused its discretion in determining he could not file a late notice of alibi. The court also rejected this argument because Defendant’s notice was inadequate as it did not identify the place defendant was at the time in question, or any witness information.

The court determined that the next four issues were not properly preserved for appeal and only ruled on two of them. The Defendant argued the indictment lacked specificity and was therefore fatally defective. The court found that even if defendant had properly preserved the issue, the indictment was sufficiently specific. Defendant also claimed his conviction was not supported by the record and that the victim lacked credibility. The court determined those claims lacked merit.  The court refused to consider whether the lower court conducted an improper jury selection, or whether the lower court should have reopened the suppression hearing sua sponte.

Defendant next claimed ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to challenge a juror who claimed she would possibly sympathize with the victim because she was a grandmother. The court rejected that claim because the juror stated she would render a verdict based solely on the court’s instructions. Defendant also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney did not renew a motion for a trial order of dismissal. The court held that “defense counsel cannot be deemed ineffective for failing to make a motion or argument that has little or no chance of success.” The court also determined the attorney was not ineffective for failing to raise an objection to a reference made to Defendant’s prior incarceration, as it did deprive him of effective assistance of counsel.

Defendant’s contentions of prosecutorial misconduct were also denied. First, the court determined that the prosecutor’s reference to the defense being a “ruse” and use of the phrases “little boy” and “young boy” were not so egregious as to deprive him of a fair trial. Second, the jury was properly instructed to disregard the prosecutor’s remarks that is was “plausible” that Defendant’s victim later becoming a sex offender.

Finally, the court held that Defendant was not punished for exercising his right to a jury trial as there was no evidence that the sentence was the product of vindictiveness or the Defendant’s decision to reject a plea bargain. Additionally, the court rejected Defendant’s contention that his sentence was unduly severe. The court found that the lower court could have sentenced Defendant consecutively instead of concurrently, his total sentence could have been one hundred years, and the lower court was entitled to take into consideration his prior youthful offender adjudication for sexually abusing an eight-year-old. The mere fact that the final sentence was greater than the plea offer did not provide proof that the Defendant was punished for exercising his right to trial.

Justices Centra and Lindley dissented, arguing that the large disparity between the sentence and the plea offer indicated that the final sentence was unduly harsh and severe. They believed that the sentence should be modified from twenty-five years to fifteen with five years post-release supervision, as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice.

989 N.Y.S. 2d 746, 2014 Slip Op. 05257 (4th Dep’t. 2014)

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People v. Maldonado

This appeal addresses whether reckless driving alone can sustain a conviction for depraved indifference murder. The Defendant led police on a high-speed chase after stealing a minivan. In addition to speeding and driving on the wrong way down one way streets, the Defendant also ran a red light and narrowly avoided hitting a pedestrian. The Defendant continued to run from police and swerved into multiple lanes to avoid congestion and slower moving vehicles. He finally fatally struck a pedestrian and crashed into a parked vehicle to avoid more damage.

At trial, the Defendant moved twice for dismissal of the depraved indifference murder charge, arguing that the People failed to prove the requisite mens rea. To support these motions, he argued that the evidence provided portrayed him as swerving to avoid hitting any pedestrians or cars, and was merely reckless driving. The Supreme Court denied his first motion and reversed judgment on the second, submitting a charge of depraved indifference murder to the jury. After the jury convicted him, Defendant renewed his motion for dismissal of the depraved indifference charge, only to have the Supreme Court deny the motion. Finally, the Defendant appealed, the Appellate Division affirmed, and this court granted defendant leave to appeal.

Here, the court held that, under the circumstances present in this case, the evidence was insufficient to support the Defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder. The court explained that, without evidence of the Defendant’s utter disregard for human life, a conviction for depraved indifference murder could not be upheld. It drew support for this conclusion from the evidence that showed the Defendant swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles and causing more harm. It further explained that, even though the Defendant drove on the wrong side of the road, this conduct was episodic and performed in an effort to avoid hitting other cars and escape the police. Additionally, even though his conduct was admittedly reckless and done in an effort to avoid capture by the police, that alone did not establish the requirements for depraved indifference.  Finally, as a matter of policy, if the People’s argument were accepted, charges of depraved indifference murder would arise out of any high-speed police chase that resulted in the death of another. Thus, the court concluded that the charge for depraved indifference murder never should have been submitted to the jury, as a rational jury could not have reasonably convicted the Defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.

The dissent objected on the grounds that the proof of depraved indifference was sufficient.  Judge Piggott reasoned that the Defendant did not slow down at intersections, and more importantly, the defendant did not reasonably adjust his reckless driving behavior after almost hitting the first pedestrian. Thus, there was no indication that the reckless Defendant remained fearful, to some extent, for others’ safety.

No. 135, 2014 N.Y. LEXIS 1525, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op. 04878 (N.Y. 2014)

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