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Can A Trial Court Submit Lesser Charge To A Jury Over Defendant’s Objection?


Can A Trial Court Submit Lesser Charge To A Jury Over Defendant’s Objection?

New York Court of Appeals

People v Hull

2016 NY Slip Op 04252

Decided: June 2, 2016

Issue: Whether the trial court, over defendant’s objection can submit the lesser count of manslaughter when the defendant is charged with murder?

Holding: The New York Court of Appeals held that defendant’s statements to the victim just before the shooting, coupled with evidence of the struggle and defendant’s testimony properly concluded that there was a reasonable view of the evidence that defendant committed first-degree manslaughter but not murder in the second degree, and, therefore, the trial court did not err in submitting that charge.14537-guns_news

A court may, in addition to submitting the greatest offense which it is required to submit the alternative any lesser included offense, if there is a reasonable view of the evidence which would support a finding that the defendant committed the lesser but not greater offense, CPL 300.50(1).

Facts: Defendant was convicted in 2006 of one count of murder in the second degree for fatally shooting his downstairs neighbor. On appeal, the Appellate Division vacated the judgment and ordered a new trial on the ground that defendant received ineffective assistance of trial counsel,(71 AD3d 1336 [2010]).

At defendant’s second trial, the People presented evidence that defendant and the victim constantly argued and had engaged in a verbal altercation immediately before the shooting. Defendant retrieved a loaded handgun from his bedroom, opened the apartment door and allegedly confronted the victim. The victim rushed at defendant and reached for the gun. According to defendant’s daughter, who witnessed the incident, the two men were struggling when the gun discharged. The bullet struck the victim in the forehead, killing him instantly. Defendant testified in his own defense that he did not intend to shoot the victim and wasn’t aiming for nothing but wanted to stop his forward momentum.

rtr2xroi.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeAt the conclusion of evidence, the People requested that the court instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree, which requires proof that defendant caused the death of another with intent to cause serious physical injury, Penal Law 125.20[1]. The court submitted the charge over defendant’s objection, along with defendant’s requested instructions on second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and the defense of justification.

The jury acquitted defendant of murder but found him guilty of manslaughter first. Defendant moved to set aside the verdict, arguing that there was no reasonable view of the evidence that he intended only to injure, but not kill, the victim when he shot him in the forehead at point-blank range. The trial court denied the motion and the Appellate Division affirmed, with one Justice dissenting. The dissenting Justice subsequently granted defendant leave to appeal.

Legal Analysis:The Court of Appeals held that the court below properly concluded that there was a reasonable view of the evidence that defendant committed first-degree manslaughter, but not murder in the second degree and, therefore, the trial court did not err in submitting that charge.

A court may, in addition to submitting the greatest offense, which it is required to submit, submit in the alternative any lesser included offense if there is a reasonable view of the evidence which would support a finding that the defendant committed the lesser but not the greater offense, CPL 300.50(1). It is undisputed that manslaughter in the first degree is a lesser-included offense of second-degree murder within the meaning of CPL 1.20(37), so the question simply is whether on?any reasonable view of the evidence it is possible for the trier of the facts to acquit the defendant on the higher count and still find him guilty on the lesser one, People v Henderson, 41 NY2d 233, 236 (1976).behind-bars-198x300

Here, defendant’s statements to the victim just before the shooting, coupled with evidence of the struggle and defendant’s testimony that he “wasn’t aiming for nothing but wanted to stop (the victim’s) forward momentum”, could have led the jury to conclude that defendant intended only to injure the victim and that the victim’s movements during the struggle resulted in his death, People v Ford, 66 NY2d 428, 441 (1985). The fact that a bullet entered the victim’s forehead does not necessarily mean defendant intended to kill him, as it is a matter of common experience that people who fire handguns do not always hit precisely the intended target, People v Butler, 86 AD2d 811, 815 (1st Dept. 1982) 57 NY2d 664, 666 [1982]).

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.


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