One of the most critical phases of a trial is providing instructions to the jury before deliberation. There are form jury instructions that the judge can use, but the parties are also allowed to offer suggested jury instructions. The type of instructions that the jury receives can have a serious impact on the ultimate verdict that they return. Additionally, if you believe an error was made during jury instructions, it is critical that you object to it on the record so that you can later appeal the matter. At Tilem & Associates, our team of New York criminal defense lawyers has guided numerous clients through the jury instruction phase.
A recent New York appellate opinion discusses alleged errors in jury instructions. The defendant was charged with a number of crimes, including coercion involving his ex-girlfriend. The defendant was accused of making physical threats against the former girlfriend and threatening to ruin a business that she operated after the girlfriend asked the defendant to move out of her apartment. The defendant allegedly made these threats in an attempt to stay at the apartment. The defendant was on parole at the time he made these threats, so the girlfriend reported the threatening conduct to his parole officer. The parole officer then had the defendant arrested. Evidence at trial suggested that the defendant continued to make threats against his ex-girlfriend while he was in prison.
During trial, the defendant asked the judge to instruct the jury on coercion in the second degree as a lesser-included offense of coercion in the first degree. In making this request, the defendant asserted that his conduct did not rise to the level of heinousness contemplated by coercion in the first degree. The trial court denied his request. At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict convicting the defendant of coercion in the first degree on two counts. The defendant appealed.
The defendant’s first argument on appeal was that the trial court committed a reversible error by making a factual assessment of the heinousness of the defendant’s conduct instead of allowing the jury to make this determination. More specifically, the defendant argued that by declining to offer the instruction regarding the lesser-included offense, the trial court made a factual determination about the seriousness of the defendant’s coercive conduct. The appellate court rejected this argument, finding that the defendant failed to object to the trial court’s decision and the jury’s conviction based on this ground. As a result, the court reasoned, the defendant waived this argument.
Next, the defendant argued that there was a reasonable view of the evidence that warranted instructing the jury on the lesser-included offense for less heinous conduct. The appellate court reviewed the elements of coercion in the first degree, which applies whenever the coercive methods used were intended to instill fear of injury or property damage in the victim. Second-degree coercion is applicable in the unusual factual scenario in which the threat lacks the heinousness typically associated with the crime. After reviewing the record, the appellate court concluded that the facts of this case did not satisfy the second-degree standard. Specifically, the defendant made threats to hurt and to kill the ex-girlfriend, which the appellate court found to be sufficiently heinous in nature. As a result, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision to deny the defendant’s jury instruction request and upheld the verdict.
If you are facing criminal liability, the seasoned criminal defense lawyers at Tilem & Associates know just how confusing it can be to know whether you are taking the right steps to preserve your rights. With experience handling a wide variety of criminal matters, we will ensure that you receive the responsive and compassionate legal counsel that you deserve. To schedule your free consultation, call us now at 1-877-377-8666 or contact us online.