Felony Murder in the Second Degree: Where Violent Assault Caused Death
Felony Murder: Heart Failure Of Victim During A Robbery Attributed To Defendant
People v. Davis
New York Court of Appeals
2016 NY Slip Op 07818
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Issue: Whether legally sufficient evidence supported defendant’s felony murder convictions when a victim with a pre-existing heart condition died after being violently assaulted by defendant.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that there was legally sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings that defendant’s assault of the victim during a home invasion was an actual contributory cause of the victim’s death.
Facts: Defendant and his two accomplices, Fatico (defendant’s girlfriend at the time) and Wilson, planned to visit the victim to determine whether marijuana and valuables were available to steal from the apartment. The victim, Fatico, and Wilson entered through the security door of the apartment building, walked upstairs to the victim’s apartment, and smoked marijuana. Meanwhile, throughout the visit, Fatico and defendant kept in phone contact, while the victim remained unaware of the robbery plan orchestrated by Fatico, Wilson, and defendant. Fatico and Wilson left the apartment and met defendant to inform him that the victim had two jars of marijuana in his apartment. Later that same night, Fatico and Wilson contacted the victim again, telling him they were going to return to his apartment. The victim let Fatico and Wilson back into his apartment.
Fatico exited the apartment alone to let defendant into the security door to access the victim’s apartment without the victim’s knowledge of defendant’s entry. Defendant, Wilson, and Fatico’s entrances and exits to and from the victim’s residence were captured on surveillance footage by a camera at the security door. Defendant returned to the van with the jars of marijuana, and the threesome left the premises.
Two days later, the victim was found dead in his apartment. The physical injuries present on the victim’s body and the blood spattered in the living room and smeared on the couch revealed defendant’s violent assault two days prior. Defendant was indicted on two counts of murder in the second degree, and one count each of burglary in the first degree and robbery in the first degree.
The autopsy report revealed that the victim’s physical injuries were consistent with blunt force injury and that the victim also suffered pre-existing conditions of obesity and hypersensitive cardiovascular disease. At trial, the medical examiner testified that the cause of death was “Hypersensitive Cardiovascular Disease,” although the manner of death was undetermined. The medical examiner further testified that had the violent assault not occurred, the victim would not have died when he did.
The jury convicted defendant, and then the Appellate Division reversed the convictions for murder in the second degree and dismissed the indictment counts, holding that the People failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s actions directly caused the victim’s death. The Court of Appeals modified that Appellate Division’s order and remitted the case back to the Appellate Division.
Legal Analysis: Prosecution must meet two requirements to prove defendant committed felony murder in the second degree in the course of committing robbery and burglary: (1) that defendant’s actions were “an actual contributory cause of the death, in the sense that they ‘forged a link in the chain of causes which?actually brought about the death'” (citing Matter of Anthony M., 63 NY2d 270, 280 , quoting?People v Stewart, 40 NY2d 692, 697 ); and (2) that “the fatal result was reasonably foreseeable” (People v Hernandez, 82 NY2d 309, 314 ). The jury was instructed to consider the two-part standard to establish causation.
First, the Court of Appeals held that defendant’s assault was “an actual contributory cause of the death” because a necessary causative link was established. Similar to Matter of Anthony M., the victim’s pre-existing condition did not eliminate defendant’s responsibility for homicide (citing Anthony M., 63 NY2d at 280). In Anthony, the elderly victim died ten days after defendant grabbed her handbag, causing her to fall to the ground (see id. at 276). An expert medical witness opined that the cause of death was the stress of the mugging, in combination with a hip fracture from the fall and subsequent surgery, which “precipitated the myocardial infarction with subsequent cardiac arrest and ultimate death” (id. at 277).
The Court of Appeals also supplemented its holding with People v. Cable, where the medical examiner stated, “the emotional and physical trauma of the burglary caused [the victim’s] heart attack” (id. at 279). The Court of Appeals held that the medical examiner’s testimony established the causal link between the burglary and the victim’s death.
“… the crime scene evidence and the medical examiner’s testimony provided a sufficient causal link between the victim’s injuries inflicted by defendant and the victim’s death.”
Here, Anthony and Cable supports the Courts holding that the crime scene evidence and the medical examiner’s testimony provided a sufficient causal link between the victim’s injuries inflicted by defendant and the victim’s death. The medical examiner testified that “stress of any kind can hasten a person’s demise by cardiovascular disease” and that, here, the stress caused by the injuries inflicted by defendant, “given the victim’s underlying heart disease, led to his death.” The Court of Appeals held that the jury was able to conclude that the defendant’s actions contributed to the victim’s death based on the medical examiner’s testimony.
With reference to the requirement that “the fatal result was reasonably foreseeable,” the People must prove “that the?ultimate harm is something which should have been foreseen as being reasonably related to the acts of the accused” (citing People v Kibbe, 35 NY2d 407, 412 , 169). The proof of defendant’s violent encounter with the victim allowed the jury to draw its own conclusion as to whether or not the stress and trauma of the assault induced the victim’s death.
The Court of Appeals held that defendant’s argument disregarded the controlling law and erroneously blended the terms “cause of death” and “manner of death.” Even though the autopsy reported “Hypertensive Cardiovascular Disease” as the cause of death, the manner of death hinged on the violent circumstances of the attack. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial evidence adduced as to the manner of death created a question of fact for the jury regarding foreseeability, particularly given the violence of the encounter.