Curative Instructions in New York Criminal Trials

Throughout the New York criminal trial process, it is not uncommon for comments or evidence to come into the trial that could prejudice either side. Courts take precautions to instruct attorneys and witnesses not to say certain things, and to avoid particular topics. However, the jury will inevitably be exposed to comments or evidence that it should not have seen or heard. When this happens, it may result in a mistrial. However, courts are reluctant to declare a mistrial unless absolutely necessary and, in many cases, will provide the jury with a “curative instruction” instead.

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York assault case discussing whether a juror’s comments during the trial necessitated a mistrial. Ultimately, the appellate court held that the trial court’s curative instruction was sufficient to cure any prejudice to the defense.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was on trial for second-degree assault. Two other men were also on trial for the same crime. During the trial, in an attempt to goad the complaining witness, one of the defendants’ attorneys repeatedly asked the complaining witness whether he referred to the defendant by a racial slur. The defense attorney used the actual word, rather than self-editing. After repeating the word multiple times, one of the jurors stood up and exclaimed, “Please, I am not going to sit here . . . and have you say that again. Don’t say it again or I’m leaving. . . . I find that very offensive.”

The court reprimanded the juror for her outburst, and instructed the defense attorney to stop asking the same question and move on. Defense counsel moved for a mistrial, arguing that, based on the juror’s comments, she was “grossly unqualified.” The trial court overruled the defendant’s objection, and instead provided a curative instruction to the jury. Specifically, the court instructed the jurors that they must wait until the conclusion of the case to form an opinion of the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and that they could not base their decision on whether they did not like any of the questions posed by defense counsel. The court also told the jurors that they should speak with a court officer if they felt they could not be fair and impartial. No juror took the court up on its offer.

Ultimately, the jury convicted all three defendants. The defendant in this case (whose attorney was not the one asking the offensive questions), appealed, arguing that the lower court abused its discretion in not striking the juror or declaring a mistrial.

On appeal, the court rejected the defendant’s argument and affirmed his conviction. The court explained that the trial judge was well within their discretion when they opted to provide a curative instruction rather than strike the juror or declare a mistrial. The court explained that it was up to the trial judge, who was able to observe the jurors and the attorneys first-hand, to make that decision. Here, the court explained, the trial judge’s instruction was thorough and instructed the jury to disregard the potentially inflammatory comments. The court held that the judge’s decision was supported by the record, in that no juror spoke up that they could not be fair. Thus, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

Have You Been Arrested for a Serious New York Crime?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a crime in New York, contact the dedicated criminal defense attorneys at Tilem & Associates. At Tilem & Associates, we proudly represent individuals facing a wide range of allegations, from New York assault crimes to drug offenses to white-collar crimes. We have the dedication, skill, and experienced necessary to ensure that your rights are protected at every step of the process. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with an attorney today, call 877-377-8666.

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