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#292 Third Department Caselaw Round-Up for January 26, 2012, Part 2 of 3

151 Post-1 01-26-12, Part 2 Third Department January.pngAnother interesting appeal out of Franklin County. This one is another long one with a twist: a rarely-seen concurring opinion.

The second case involves sexual offenses against children. Yeah. There is a special place in Hell for people who commit such crimes. And, if I were in charge, I’d personally put such vermin on the Expressway to Hell, with a bullet to the head. So, it’s a good thing that I’m not in charge. Sorry, but I feel very strongly about these sorts of crimes.

151 Post-2 Franklin County.pngCase #140 #13316/15910
People v. Snyder, ___ A.D.3d ___, ___ N.Y.S.2d ___ Franklin County – Rogers Issues: Criminal Charges; Evidence; Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Cited statutes: CPL §440.10; PL 120.10; 120.25; 125.25 Affirmed (with concurring opinion)

The defendant was convicted of the crime of Murder in the Second Degree, among others. She appeals both the judgment of conviction and the order that denied her 440 motion to vacate the conviction without a hearing.

After the death of her daughter, the defendant was arrested and charged with three (3) counts of murder, among several other charges, including the attempted murder of her son. The defendant went to trial on the charges, was convicted by a jury, and was sentenced to a term of fifty (50) years to life.

The core of the defendant’s argument was that the evidence did not “support a finding that she committed any of the acts alleged, that she possessed the necessary mens rea or that she caused injury to either of her children.”

The Third Department notes that “the People’s case was based entirely on the theory that [the] defendant attempted to cause breathing problems in both of her children by suffocating them for the purpose of collecting government benefits.” THAT is amazingly depraved. As could be imagined, “the People presented extensive testimony from the numerous pediatricians, specialists, nurses, emergency personnel, and social workers who cared for the children”. Nevertheless, most of this testimony only rose to the level of circumstantial evidence against the defendant.

In any event, experienced medical personnel who actually dealt with the defendant and her children ultimately came to believe that the defendant was suffocating her children.

After the daughter died, upon autopsy, the medical examiner was unable to exclude suffocation as a possible cause of death and he therefore ruled the death to be “consistent with homicide”.

Ultimately, the People produced a “jailhouse snitch” to testify against the defendant. Chillingly, the inmate testified that the defendant told her that she “didn’t mean for it to go as far as it did”, somehow treating her episodic suffocation of her daughter as some sort of sick game to derive government benefits.

More chillingly, the People produced an SSI claims representative who testified that the defendant applied for disability benefits for her children, which were ultimately granted, based (however unknowingly) upon the alleged lung problems and obstructive apnea that the defendant-mother had inflicted upon her children. The People then correlated the timing of the defendant’s application for government benefits with the occurrence of the apnea events in her children to show that the defendant carefully induced these problems in an effort to obtain these government benefits.

Most chillingly? This: the People produced the salesperson for a mobile home company from whom the defendant and her boyfriend wished to purchase a mobile home. The salesperson was leery of the defendant’s ability to secure financing but was informed by the defendant that her income consisted of public assistance and SSI benefits, most of which were due to the defendant’s daughter’s respiratory problems which the defendant “anticipated [would] be a long-term disability and that the benefits would continue for the rest of the child’s life.” Lovely.

The test in this case is this: “in reviewing the legal sufficiency of a verdict, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, and determine whether there is any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by a jury, and as a matter of law satisfy the proof and burden requirements for every element of the crimes charged.” The Third Department found that the People satisfied their burden.

The aspect of the case that creates the concurring opinion is the evolution of the law concerning mens rea, which changed substantially from the date of the defendant’s conviction. At the time of the defendant’s conviction the Court of Appeals recognized an objective view of depraved indifference. However, a series of five (5) cases came before the Court of Appeals which ultimately cause the Court to view depraved indifference as a mens rea element instead. Because the defendant’s appeal was pending at the time of this crucial change in the law, the majority felt that better practice was to decide the appeal pursuant to the state of the law as it currently exists.

My first thought on this was wait, what? How could such an important aspect of the law change so quickly? Well, that’s because it wasn’t quick at all: this particular appeal took TEN YEARS to perfect!!! That’s a new one on me.

In any event, mens rea (criminal intent) can be found in instances of circumstantial evidence, as here. The key to this case is how the Court of Appeals defines depraved indifference: “an utter disregard for the value of human life – a willingness to act not because one intends harm, but because one simply doesn’t care whether grievous harm results or not”. The testimony throughout this case established beyond all doubt the defendant’s depraved indifference to the tragic arc of her daughter’s life. The kid was just a meal ticket, a cash cow to be milked at will.

The defendant also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel and that her sentence was harsh or otherwise excessive, but both arguments were easily refuted by the court.

The concurrence takes the position that the court should be guided in its decision “in light of the law as it existed at the time of trial”. Furthermore, the concurrence takes issue with the majority’s focus on the interpretation of an element of the offense instead focusing on the adequacy of the proof. Focusing on the adequacy of the proof removes the need to belabor the case with the change in the law on a different matter, while still preserving the result.

Academic? Maybe. But what the concurrence seems to be stating – without actually saying so – is that in instances where an appeal takes such an unreasonably long time to perfect, the court should be guided by Occam’s Razor (the principle of parsimony) and avoid any need to address changes in the law if they can be avoided at all. And, here, focusing on the adequacy of the proof, as opposed to the element of the proof, does just that.

This case may not be appealed to the Court of Appeals, but I assure you that someone is probably writing a law review article on it, in light of the concurrence.

151 Post-3 Schoharie County.pngCase #141 #102607
People v. Rhodes, ___ A.D.3d ___, ___ N.Y.S.2d ___ Schoharie County – Bartlett Issues: Criminal Charges; Drug Abuse; Sexual Abuse Cited statutes: PL §220.00; 221.50 Affirmed

The defendant was convicted of thirty-nine (39) of forty-two (42) counts of various crimes, the most serious of which were the crimes of Criminal Sexual Act in the First and Second Degree. This followed from two (2) separate indictments with “numerous sex crimes stemming from his inappropriate contact with his two daughters“. He was sentenced to twenty-five (25) years with twenty (20) years of post-release supervision. The defendant appealed.

The Third Department made quick work of this case. The court found no error with the trial court’s Molineux ruling (admissibility of unrelated offenses), no need for a Ventimiglia hearing (evidence of uncharged crimes), and no Brady violation (failure of the People to disclose exculpatory and material evidence).

Have fun in prison.

Caselaw Round-Up Score Card:

Affirmed: 96 (68.09%)
Decision Withheld: 6 (4.26%)
Dismissed: 8 (5.67%)
Modified: 11 (7.80%)
Reversed: 19 (13.48%)

Total: 141