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New York High Court Affirms Setting Aside Hate Crime Conviction as Inconsistent

Posted on: November 24th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled unanimously on November 24 that the Appellate Division had correctly reversed the hate crime manslaughter conviction of Dwight R. DeLee, who was charged in the murder of a New York transgender woman named Lateisha Green, because the jury’s verdict was inconsistent.  However, the court modified the Appellate Division’s decision by granting the prosecution an opportunity to resubmit the charge of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime to another grand jury, which may lead to a new prosecution.

The decision for the court by Judge Susan P. Read reveals nothing about the nature of the charged offense, and makes no reference to the fact that the victim was a transgender woman or that the defendant was charged with murdering her because of her gender identity.  Instead, the coldly analytical opinion focuses solely on the inconsistency in the jury’s verdict and the trial judge’s failure to correct the situation by explaining the inconsistency to the jury and asking them to resume deliberations to produce a consistent verdict.  A casual reader of the court’s opinion in isolation would have no idea what the case was actually about.

Under New York law, a jury can convict on a hate crime charge if they find all the elements of an underlying crime plus the element of bias on grounds prohibited by the state’s hate crime law.  DeLee was indicted for second-degree murder as a hate crime, second-degree murder, and third-degree criminal weapon possession.  The jury convicted him of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime and a weapon possession offense, but acquitted him on the charge of first-degree manslaughter.  After the verdict was rendered, DeLee’s attorney argued that the verdict was inconsistent, since the acquittal on the manslaughter charge could be taken to mean that the jury found that the prosecution failed to prove all the elements of the crime of manslaughter.  If so, of course, logically DeLee could not be found guilty of manslaughter as a hate crime.

The defense lawyer moved to set the verdict aside as “repugnant,” a technical term meaning that it was fatally flawed due to inconsistency.  The trial judge denied the motion, and sentenced Lee to 25 years in prison.  But Lee successfully appealed, persuading the Appellate Division that the verdict was repugnant.  There was a heated dissenting opinion by Justice Erin Peradotto, who focused on the lack of clarity in the trial judge’s charge to the jury and the obvious misunderstanding by the jury that if they found all the elements of manslaughter as a hate crime satisfied, they should not acquit on the simple manslaughter count.  By its conviction, she argued, the jury was clearly indicating their conclusion that all the manslaughter elements had been met.

Judge Read wrote that this case “presents a straightforward application” of the relevant Court of Appeals precedents, “which clearly contemplate that when jury verdicts are absolutely inconsistent, the verdict is repugnant.  The rationale for the repugnancy doctrine is that the defendant cannot be convicted when the jury actually finds, via a legally inconsistent split verdict, that the defendant did not commit an essential element of the crime.”   Since the jury in this case acquitted DeLee of manslaughter, it arguably found that the prosecution failed to prove at least one element of that crime.

Read continued, “Repugnancy does not depend on the evidence presented at trial or the record of the jury’s deliberative process, and the instructions to the jury will be examined only to determine whether the jury, as instructed, must have reached an inherently self-contradictory verdict.  In making these determinations, it is inappropriate for the reviewing court to attempt to divine the jury’s collective mental process.  Jurors are allowed to compromise, make mistakes, be confused or even extend mercy when rendering their verdicts.”

The prosecution had presented an affidavit from the jury foreperson, attesting to the jury’s intention to convict DeLee, but the court dismissed that as “the opinion of just one juror, and, in any event, [it] cannot be considered under our longstanding precedent.”

However, the court concluded that the Appellate Division’s decision to order absolute acquittal of DeLee went too far, because “a repugnant verdict does not always signify that a defendant has been convicted of a crime on which the jury actually found that he did not commit an essential element.”  It is possible that a jury has decided to acquit on a lesser-included charge, as here, in order to exercise mercy.  “But if this mercy function is the cause of a repugnant verdict,” wrote Read, “the remedy of dismissal of the repugnant conviction is arguably unwarranted.  Indeed, it provides a defendant with an even greater windfall than he has already received.”  The court concluded that “permitting a retrial on the repugnant charge upon which the jury convicted, but not on the charge of which the jury actually acquitted defendant, strikes a reasonable balance.  This is particularly so given that a reviewing court can never know the reason for the repugnancy.  Accordingly, the People may resubmit the crime of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime to a new grand jury.”

If the new grand jury indicts DeLee on the manslaughter as a hate crime charge, he can be retried on that charge without violating the ban on “double jeopardy” since he was not acquitted on that charge at the previous trial.  The federal constitution’s double jeopardy provision prohibits retrying a criminal defendant on a charge of which he has been acquitted by a jury.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam explained at length how a trial judge in a hate crime case should charge the jury to avoid the problem of inconsistent verdicts.  She concluded that “courts would provide particularly clear and legally correct guidance on this subject by telling the jury to treat a non-hate crime as a lesser included offense of an equivalent hate crime allegedly committed via the same criminal acts” and thus that “it is impossible to commit the hate crime without also committing the ordinary crime” on which it is based.  “To that end,” she wrote, “the court should instruct the jury that if it convicts the defendant of the greater offense, it will not consider the lesser included offense.  In that situation, the jury should be told to deliberate on any unrelated charges based on different criminal conduct,” such as the weapons possession charge in this case.  “Of course, if the jury instead acquits the defendant of the hate crime, it should next deliberate on the equivalent ordinary offense, and in the event of an acquittal on that ordinary charge, it may consider any lesser hate crime or lesser included ordinary crime which has been charged based on the same conduct.”

In this case, DeLee was charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime, for which ordinary second-degree murder, manslaughter as a hate crime, and ordinary manslaughter are lesser included offenses.  It is easy to see how a jury could become confused and produce a repugnant verdict, even if it concluded that the defendant was guilty of a hate crime.  The party most likely at fault for this result is the trial judge, whose failure to instruct the jury immediately upon the rendition of the inconsistent verdict and to resubmit the case to them has generated all the subsequent litigation on appeal.  Now the local prosecutor will get a second chance to seek justice for Lateisha Green by retrying Dwight DeLee.

James P. Maxwell represented the prosecution on appeal and Philip Rothschild represented DeLee.  Lambda Legal, the District Attorneys Association of NY and the NY State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers submitted amicus briefs.