The defendant, Dwight R. Delee, was charged with killing the victim, known to be a homosexual, with a rifle. Defendant was charged with three offenses: (1) murder in the second degree for intentionally killing the victim because of his sexual orientation; (2) intentional murder in the second degree; and (3) criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. At trial, the Onondaga County Court submitted the following lesser-included offenses to the jury: manslaughter in the first and second degrees as a hate crime (for the first offense) and manslaughter in the first and second degrees (for the second offense).
The jury found Defendant guilty of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, but the jury acquitted Defendant of the remaining charges. On appeal, however, the appellate division reversed Defendant’s manslaughter conviction. The court held that the jury was inconsistent in its verdict by convicting Defendant of one crime but acquitting him of another when both of the crimes contained the same essential elements. Manslaughter in the first degree contains all the same elements as manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime, with the exception that the latter includes an additional element that the defendant killed the victim because of his sexual orientation. Thus, the jury’s verdict was inconsistent because while it found Defendant not guilty for first-degree manslaughter, it nevertheless found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime.
The State argued that the verdict should be upheld because the jury may have interpreted the court’s instructions to imply that the jury may choose between convicting Defendant of either charge. The court, however, rejected this argument because nothing in the record suggested that the jury base the verdict on any such implication. Moreover, even if there were such an implication, it was immaterial in that the court must consider the record only to review the jury charge to determine the essential elements that the trial court described.
Additionally, the State argued that the split verdict should be upheld because it might have been the result of a mistake, compromise, or exercise of mercy by the jury, consistent with People v. Mason, 101 A.D.3d 1659 (4th Dep’t 2012). The court also rejected this argument because a legally or theoretically impossible verdict cannot be upheld on the basis that it resulted from mistake, compromise, or mercy.
Finally, the court held that the lower court’s jury instructions may only be reviewed to assess whether the instructions led the jury to reach an inconsistent verdict. Here, the court did not find that the instructions led to such a result. The court emphasized that a trial court’s role was to instruct the jury and, if an attorney properly objects to a verdict, to inform the jurors of their defective verdict and guide them to continue deliberating until they reach a proper verdict. The failure of the trial court to comply with this role constitutes reversible error. Thus, the court reversed the conviction of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime and dismissed count one of the indictment, as the verdict was inconsistent.
108 A.D.3d 1145, 969 N.Y.S.2d 350 (4th Dep’t 2013)