Gristwood v. State

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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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