One of the most common issues to arise in a criminal case is whether a certain piece of evidence can be used during a trial. Although there are protocols regarding how the prosecution must maintain evidence and preserve the chain of custody, sometimes evidence is mishandled or lost. This creates a whole host of legal issues regarding the impact of the evidence and whether it can be used or referenced during a trial. As a recent appellate case demonstrates, consulting with a knowledgeable New York criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and how evidence may affect your case.
The defendant in the case at hand was charged with intentional murder in the second degree, two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and other things. The shooting allegedly took place outside a nightclub in Queens. Shortly after the incident, a police officer obtained a copy of video surveillance footage of the scene that the nightclub possessed, but the footage was subsequently lost before the trial took place. The defendant was identified as a suspect, and the bouncer of the club identified him in a lineup, but he later testified at trial that he could not be certain whether the defendant was the shooter because he observed the shooter from across the street.
Before trial, the defendant requested disclosure of the nightclub’s surveillance footage, and the prosecution requested a copy as well. The police department responded that the officer misplaced the footage, however, and that it could not be found. The nightclub has ceased operating in the interim and did not have any additional copies of the footage. A number of witnesses and the officer testified about the footage and what they saw, with the bouncer indicating that the footage captured the victim.
In response to the missing footage, the defendant requested that the court provide the jury with an adverse inference charge, which allows the jury to infer that a party that destroys relevant evidence may have done so because the evidence was unfavorable to the destroying party. The court denied this request, stating that such an instruction would only be proper if the evidence would be favorable to the defendant. The witnesses who testified about the video did not indicate that if it was produced, it would be favorable to the defendant. The jury returned a verdict convicting the defendant of gun possession and intentional murder.
On appeal, the defendant challenged the trial court’s refusal to provide the adverse inference instruction. The Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding that nothing in the record supported a conclusion that the videotape contained information or details that would have been favorable to the defendant. The defendant appealed again to the Court of Appeals, which concluded that the trial court erred in failing to provide an adverse inference instruction to the jury, based on the nature of the testimony regarding the video. In large part, the testimony about the video came from witnesses who were involved with the misplacement of the tape. Ultimately, however, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and categorized the court’s failure to provide the instruction as a harmless error. The weight of the prosecution’s case against the defendant was so strong that it was unlikely that the error had any impact on the jury’s verdict.
If you are involved in a criminal investigation or facing criminal charges, the tenacious criminal defense lawyers at Tilem & Associates are prepared to assist you. We handle a wide variety of matters, including gun crimes, narcotics crimes, and DWI. To schedule your free consultation, call us at 1-877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.