Defendant in New York Assault Case Unsuccessfully Argues Evidence of Victim’s Criminal History Should Have Been Admitted During Trial

Last month, the defendant in a New York assault case challenged the constitutionality of a rule that worked against him in his 2018 jury trial. This case is a very important case about the limits of evidence of prior bad acts of the victim in self-defense cases.  Originally, the defendant was charged with assault in the second degree after an altercation between him and another individual. His case went to trial, the defendant was found guilty, and he promptly appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed the verdict, and the defendant challenged the order of the Appellate Division, hoping again to get his conviction reversed. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court, reviewing the defendant’s second appeal disagreed with him and sustained the guilty verdict.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant stabbed another individual with a penknife after the two strangers began arguing. Officers quickly arrived at the scene, and the defendant was charged with assault. When the case went to trial, the defendant argued that he was acting in self-defense. As evidence that he was not the first aggressor, the defendant tried to introduce evidence of the victim’s past criminal history which included a history of attacking strangers.

The victim’s prior criminal acts were referred to as “youthful offender adjudications,” meaning the acts happened when the victim was between the age of 16 and 19 years old. Under New York law, some of these criminal acts can be sealed so that no one can later access the records. The sealing takes place largely because the State recognizes that youth deserve the chance to start adulthood with a clean slate after their brains have fully developed.

Because these acts were sealed under the law, the trial court allowed the defendant to use them as evidence in his case for only the limited purpose of determining the victim’s credibility but not for determining whether the victim was in fact the initial aggressor. The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty, and the defendant’s series of appeals began.

The Decision

Examining the evidence, the court deciding the defendant’s appeal cited a rule in New York criminal court that prohibits victims’ prior violent acts from being admitted as evidence unless the defendant knew of the acts at the time of the assault. Here, said the court, it was not appropriate to discard that rule. The defendant only learned of these particular criminal acts after the assault, and it was therefore not appropriate to allow the defendant to bring the acts in as evidence at trial.  However, the exclusion of the information from the jury raises a constitutional question and one of the Judges of the Court of Appeals wrote a scathing dissent which disagreed with the majority and argued that the conviction should be overturned.  Ultimately, 4 judges voted to affirm the conviction and two voted to overturn the conviction.

Given this conclusion, the defendant’s original guilty conviction was affirmed, and his sentence was kept in place. However, this case is likely to end up in federal court on a federal constitutional question.

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