In addition, the criminal defendant challenged the voluntariness of his statements to the police by testifying during the trial that they were the product of verbal threats and physical abuse by the police.
The defendant was convicted of murder in the second degree, burglary in the first degree, and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree.
“Upon a request by a defendant, the prosecutor shall notify the defendant of all specific instances of a defendant’s prior uncharged criminal, vicious or immoral conduct of which the prosecutor has knowledge and which the prosecutor intends to use at trial for purposes of impeaching the credibility of the defendant.”
In its discretion and in the interest of justice, the trial court “must then determine whether and to what extent the prejudicial effect of the admission of evidence thereof for impeachment purposes would so far outweigh the probative worth of such evidence on the issue of credibility as to warrant its exclusion'”.
Here, over defense counsel’s objections, the Supreme Court permitted the People to question the defendant extensively about his two prior arrests, the underlying facts of those arrests, and his school disciplinary record, without providing him the opportunity to demonstrate whether there would be undue prejudice from the “unnecessary and immaterial development of previous misconduct”. Since the Supreme Court failed to conduct a pretrial Sandoval hearing, and the People failed to provide adequate notice to the defendant of their intention to impeach his credibility, the Supreme Court committed error in allowing the People to cross-examine the defendant about those prior bad acts, and thereby deprived the defendant of his right to a fair trial.
Compounding this error, the Supreme Court’s charge with respect to the voluntariness of the defendant’s confession was incomplete. Although the jury charge error was not preserved for appellate review, the Court reached this issue in the exercise of our interest of justice jurisdiction because, “[w]hen a defendant raises a factual issue regarding the voluntariness of a confession, he or she is entitled to a voluntariness charge”
“Nothing contained in this article, however, precludes a defendant from attempting to establish at a trial that evidence introduced by the people of a pre-trial statement made by him should be disregarded by the jury or other trier of the facts on the ground that such statement was involuntarily made within the meaning of section 60.45. Even though the issue of the admissibility of such evidence… was determined adversely to the defendant upon motion, the defendant may adduce trial evidence and otherwise contend that the statement was involuntarily made. In the case of a jury trial, the court must submit such issue to the jury under instructions to disregard such evidence upon a finding that the statement was involuntarily made.”
Here, the Supreme Court gave the above-quoted charge to the jury, and further explained that the defendant must be advised of his right to remain silent, that anything he says may be used against him in court, and that he has a right to counsel. Additionally, the Supreme Court restated that if the People did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the statement was voluntarily made, then the statement should be disregarded. The Supreme Court, however, failed to provide any instruction to the jury explaining that a statement obtained by the use, or threatened use, of physical force, or by other improper conduct, could be considered involuntarily made. Due to the incomplete charge, the jury erroneously was deprived of any instructions regarding the standards by which to evaluate the defendant’s claim that the statement at issue had been coerced.
The Court also noted that the prosecutor made certain inappropriate remarks during summation which conveyed to the jury that there may have been additional evidence, not admitted at trial, that would further support a guilty verdict.
Once again, while the defendant’s current challenge to these remarks is unpreserved for appellate review, “our Court nevertheless retains the statutory authority to reverse the conviction and order a new trial as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice upon finding that the errors at trial, although not duly protested, deprived the defendant of a fair trial”. The cumulative nature of the trial errors, aggravated by these summation remarks, embodies such a situation. Although we are satisfied, upon reviewing the record, that the evidence was legally sufficient to support the convictions and that the verdict of guilt was not against the weight of the evidence, the Court nevertheless “find the conclusion inescapable that the verdict of guilt in this case may not be the result of honest fact-finding,” but rather the result of the trial errors. In other words, it cannot be said that there is no significant probability that the verdict would have been different absent these errors. Accordingly, the judgment of conviction must be reversed and a new trial ordered.