New York Court of Appeal Reverses Manslaughter Conviction Based on Improper Jury Instructions

One of the most common questions that we receive as New York criminal defense attorneys is, “How are jury members selected?” The law surrounding jury selection is very complex, as the following recent appellate opinion demonstrates. The central issue in this appeal was whether the lower court committed a reversible error when it did not allow defense counsel to question prospective jurors regarding their opinions about involuntary confessions. The defendant was charged with a number of crimes, including murder. The defendant provided verbal and written statements to the police indicating that he was involved with the shooting. The victim approached the defendant about a missing cell phone, and sometime after that, the defendant came back and threatened him with an ice pick, at which time the defendant pulled out a gun and shot at the victim while he fled. There were two eyewitnesses to the crime in addition to the defendant’s statements.

Before jury selection, the defendant asked if he could question jurors regarding their ability to understand legal rules applicable to involuntary statements. In response, the prosecution indicated that they had not decided whether they were going to offer the defendant’s statements during trial as evidence. As a result, the court denied the defendant’s request to question jurors on this subject. The court reasoned that if the prosecution did not use the statements, and the jury was questioned about their views on involuntary confessions, the jury might then engage in speculation regarding whether such statements existed. The court also concluded that the jurors would be able to understand that involuntary confessions were inadmissible for any purpose.

During trial, the prosecution admitted the defendant’s statements, and the jury ultimately concluded that the defendant was not guilty of murder in the second degree. Instead, they convicted him of manslaughter in the first degree. The defendant appealed, stating that the trial court erred when it failed to allow the defendant to question jurors about involuntary confessions. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and the defendant appealed to the New York Court of Appeal.

On review, the court concluded that the lower court abused its discretion in prohibiting the defendant from asking any questions regarding involuntary confessions and by refusing to conduct its own assessment of how the prospective jurors considered the issue. Questions regarding whether the prospective jurors could understand the law regarding involuntary confessions and whether they would be able to disregard any such confessions were relevant to whether the jurors would afford the defendant a fair and impartial trial. The fact that the prosecution was unsure regarding whether it would use the statements should not have been a consideration in determining whether to allow the defendant to pursue this line of questioning. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the matter for a new trial.

If you or someone you love is facing a criminal trial, the dedicated and compassionate gun crime lawyers at Tilem & Associates are standing by to assist you. Understanding the procedural rules that apply and ensuring that you receive the just legal treatment that you deserve is absolutely critical. Our seasoned team of legal professionals has assisted New York residents in a wide variety of legal matters, which means we have the experience and skill that it takes to protect your freedom. To schedule your free consultation, call us at 1-877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.

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