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#322 Third Department Caselaw Round-Up for March 22, 2012, Part 1 of 1

322 Post 03-22-12 Third Department March.pngThis one involves the murder of a 4-month old boy. Yeah. Again, while I would normally not analyze a murder case, I will always make an exception where the victim involved is a child. Murder is vicious enough. But the murder of an infant? That is beyond the pale of the civilized world and perpetrators of such crimes should be forever exiled from the civilized world.

322 Post-2 Rensselaer County.pngCase #190 #103008
People v. Thomas
Rensselaer County-Ceresia Issues: Criminal Charges Cited statutes: CPL §60.45, 710.70; MHL §9.41; PL §15.05, 125.25 Affirmed

The infant’s mother awoke to find the infant to be unresponsive and breathing irregularly. The mother then woke the defendant and called 911. Upon arrival at the hospital, the infant was found to be in critical condition. Later tests revealed the infant was infected with streptococcal pneumonia. Tellingly, a CAT scan revealed the infant had suffered bilateral subdural hematomas on his brain “consistent with severe head trauma”. Due to his extensive injuries, the infant became brain dead and was later removed from life support. He died shortly thereafter.

While his wife was at the hospital with the infant, the defendant babysat the couple’s six other children, all of whom were under 9 years old – including the infant’s twin brother. Police detectives and DSS caseworkers got involved. All of the children were removed from the home and the defendant was questioned for hours about the circumstances of his son’s death. Ultimately, the defendant confessed to initiating repeated blunt force trauma to the infant by throwing him down onto a mattress near the floor. This occurred at least 3 times in the 4 days preceding the 911 call. “The police interviews were recorded on DVDs, which captured the defendant, self-described at 500 pounds, demonstrating how he had forcefully thrown the infant to the mattress.”

Think about that last, quoted sentence for a bit. And try not to cry.

The defendant signed 2 statements reflecting the essential parts of his admissions. It was also established that the infant was born 2 month premature and weighed only 15 pounds at 4 months. Furthermore, the infant “had been ill and experiencing fevers, diarrhea and vomiting in the days preceding his death.” Sickening.

The “defendant was indicted on one count of depraved indifference murder.” As could be expected, at trial, the matter became a battle of the experts, with each side trying to win over the jury. The People’s experts claimed that while the sepsis and pneumonia were contributing factors in the infant’s death, the primary factor was the subdural hematomas caused by the blunt force head trauma. The defendant’s experts claimed effectively the opposite conclusion.

To make matters more interesting, at trial, the defendant disavowed his own confession as coerced and false. The jury was not convinced and the defendant was later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The defendant appealed.

The defendant’s principal arguments on appeal are as follows:
1. The defendant’s statements to the police should have been suppressed;
2. “Questioning should have ceased when the defendant invoked his right to counsel during the second interview;
3. The jury verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence;
4. The jury verdict is against the weight of the credible evidence;
5. The evidence did not establish that the defendant acted recklessly; and 6. The court erred in denying the defendant’s request to permit expert testimony from a social psychologist “on police interrogation tactics and false confessions”.

The Third Department meticulously and comprehensively disassembled each and every one of these arguments and found them wanting. The decision is far too complicated and interesting to dissect in small portions. It is best to just go and read the decision for yourself.