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Knowing And Voluntary Plea: When A Defendant’s Plea Casts Doubt Upon Guilt, A Sentencing Court Must inquire Further


People v. Mox

20 N.Y.3d 936 2012

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: December 11, 2012

When A Defendant Waives An Insanity Defense, Court Has A Duty To Inquire Further To Ensure That Plea Was Knowing And Voluntary

Blog by: Stephen N Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Issue: Whether the trial court erred when it failed in its duty and did not inquire further into whether Defendant’s decision to waive an insanity defense was knowing and voluntary.

Summary: Defendant was indicted for murder in the second-degree for the killing of his father. Defendant had a documented history of mental illness and filed a notice of intent to present psychiatric evidence to demonstrate that, at the time of the alleged crime, he suffered from mental disease or defect. The People offered a plea to the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree under theory of extreme emotional disturbance. Defendant accepted the offer and pleaded guilty. Defense counsel informed the court that she had discussed the potential defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect with Defendant. County Court asked Defendant if that was correct and the Defendant responded “yes”. Represented by new counsel, Defendant moved to withdraw his plea; the court denied that motion. The Appellate Division reversed Defendant’s conviction holding that the county court failed to fulfill its duty to make further inquiry to ensure the plea was knowing and voluntary. The People appealed to The Court of Appeals and the Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.

See Also: Mens Rea: The Intent To Violate An Order Of Protection May Constitute The Mens Rea Element Of Burglary

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred when it did not inquire further into whether Defendant’s decision to waive a potentially viable insanity defense was an informed one such that his guilty plea was knowing and voluntary.

The trial court’s single question to Defendant verifying that he discussed that defense with his attorney was insufficient to meet that obligation.

When a Defendant waives the fundamental right to trial by jury and pleads guilty, due process requires that the waiver be knowing and voluntary. Where the Defendant’s recitation of the facts underlying the crime pleaded to clearly casts significant doubt upon the Defendant’s guilt or otherwise calls into question the voluntariness of the plea, the trial court has a duty to inquire further to ensure that the guilty plea is knowing and voluntary.

Facts: Defendant was indicted for murder in the second-degree for the killing of his elderly father. Defendant had a documented history of mental illness and filed a notice of intent to present psychiatric evidence to demonstrate that, at the time of the alleged crime, he suffered from mental disease or defect. The People offered a plea to the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree under theory of extreme emotional disturbance. Defendant accepted the offer and pleaded guilty. During the plea colloquy before County Court, Defendant stated that on the day of the crime, he was “hearing voices” and feeling painful bodily sensations, was in a “psychotic state” and had not taken his prescribed medication for several days. County Court accepted Defendant’s plea. Defense counsel informed the court that she had discussed the potential defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect with Defendant. County Court asked Defendant if that was correct and the Defendant responded “yes”. Represented by new counsel, Defendant moved to withdraw his plea; the court denied that motion. The Appellate Division reversed Defendant’s conviction holding that the county court failed to fulfill its duty to make further inquiry to ensure the plea was knowing and voluntary. The People appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that when a Defendant waives the fundamental right to trial by jury and pleads guilty, due process requires that the waiver be knowing, voluntary and intelligent People v. Hill, 9 N.Y.3d 189, 191, 849 N.Y.S.2d 13, 879 N.E.2d 152 2007. No catechism is required in connection with the acceptance of a plea People v. Goldstein, 12 N.Y.3d 295, 301, 879 N.Y.S.2d 814, 907 N.E.2D 692 2009.

However, where the Defendant’s recitation of the facts underlying the crime pleaded to clearly casts significant doubt upon the Defendant’s guilt or otherwise calls into question the voluntariness of the plea, the trial court has a duty to inquire further to ensure the guilty plea is knowing and voluntary People v. Lopez, 71 N.Y.2d 662, 666, 529 N.Y.S.2d 465, 525 N.E.2d 5 1988; People v. Serrano, 15 N.Y.2d 304, 308, 258 N.Y.S.2d 386, 206 N.E.2d 330 1965.

The Court of Appeals held that the requisite elements should appear from the Defendant’s own factual recital. Accordingly, where the court fails in this duty and accepts the plea without further inquiry, the Defendant may challenge the sufficiency of the allocution on direct appeal despite failing to do so in the form of a post-allocution motion.

In this case, Defendant’s statements that he was “in a psychotic state” and “hearing voices” on the day of the crime signaled that he may have been suffering from a mental disease or defect at that time and, consequently, was unable to form the intent necessary to commit first-degree manslaughter Penal Law § 125.02 (2).

The Affirmative defense of insanity contemplates that as a result of mental disease or defect, the Defendant lacks substantial capacity to know or appreciate both the nature and consequences of such conduct or that such conduct was wrong. The Court of Appeals held that therefore, the trial court had a duty to inquire further into whether Defendant’s decision to waive a potentially viable insanity defense was an informed one such that his guilty plea was knowing and voluntary. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.


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