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PEOPLE STATE NEW YORK v. JOSEPH SANTARELLI (01/15/80)

COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK 1980.NY.40188 <http://www.versuslaw.com>; 401 N.E.2d 199; 49 N.Y.2d 241 decided: January 15, 1980. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT,v.JOSEPH SANTARELLI, APPELLANT Appeal, by permission of an Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, from an order of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department, entered August 9, 1978, which affirmed a judgment of the Broome County Court (Stephen Smyk, J.), rendered upon a verdict convicting the defendant of murder in the second degree. Counsel Harold J. Boreanaz for appellant. Patrick D. Monserrate, District Attorney (Patrick H. Mathews of counsel), for respondent. Chief Judge Cooke and Judges Jones, Wachtler, Fuchsberg and Meyer concur with Judge Gabrielli; Judge Jasen dissents and votes to affirm in a separate opinion. Author: Gabrielli


Appeal, by permission of an Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, from an order of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department, entered August 9, 1978, which affirmed a judgment of the Broome County Court (Stephen Smyk, J.), rendered upon a verdict convicting the defendant of murder in the second degree.

Chief Judge Cooke and Judges Jones, Wachtler, Fuchsberg and Meyer concur with Judge Gabrielli; Judge Jasen dissents and votes to affirm in a separate opinion.

Author: Gabrielli

 Opinion OF THE COURT

On the morning of August 24, 1975, the defendant shot and killed his brother-in-law, Joseph Foti, by firing five shotgun blasts at him, two of which proved to be fatal. There was no apparent motive for the killing; in fact, the evidence indicated that the victim and defendant had enjoyed a very close and warm relationship over the years. Following a protracted trial, defendant was convicted of having committed murder in the second degree (Penal Law, § 125.25, subd 1) by shooting his brother-in-law with a sawed-off shotgun. At his jury trial, defendant acknowledged having committed the acts charged in the indictment, but contended that his conduct should be excused because he was legally insane at the time of the alleged crime and, consequently, could not be held criminally responsible for his actions (see Penal Law, § 30.05). The People, in an effort to rebut this claim, sought to establish that the shooting was merely a product of defendant's "explosive personality", a character trait not rising to the level of legal insanity. To this end, the District Attorney offered proof through the testimony of witnesses that defendant had committed a number of unprovoked, violent acts, unconnected with his brother-in-law, prior to the shooting. It is the trial court's ruling permitting the use of all of this testimony that forms the basis of the present controversy.

The People's direct case at trial consisted solely of testimony by several police officers, each of whom described the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Lieutenant Fusco, a criminologist, explained that the dwelling in which the shooting occurred was divided into two apartments which were separated by a staircase and a doorway. Defendant and his wife occupied the upper apartment, while the defendant's in-laws occupied the floor below. On the basis of information derived from the autopsy and from the position of the bullet holes in the woodwork, Lieutenant Fusco was able to conclude that the victim, Joseph Foti, had been standing on the lower landing of the staircase leading to defendant's apartment when he was struck by gun discharges fired from above. After the first shot was fired, according to Lieutenant Fusco, the victim had enough strength to exit the building through the lower apartment in a vain attempt to effect an escape via the driveway. It was at this point, Lieutenant Fusco stated, that Foti was struck by the fatal shots, which were fired from a second-floor patio connected to defendant's apartment. Defendant was apprehended shortly after the shooting and promptly acknowledged his responsibility for his brother-in-law's death.

Following the close of the People's direct case, defendant called a number of lay and expert witnesses in an effort to demonstrate that the shooting was the product of a "paranoid delusion" which caused him to believe that his brother-in-law was trying to kill him and that immediate defensive action was necessary to ward off an imminent attack. Several acquaintances of defendant were called to attest to the fact that defendant appeared distracted and unusually tense in the days immediately preceding the shooting. Defendant's sister and several other relatives confirmed these observations and further noted that defendant's attack on his brother-in-law was particularly uncharacteristic, since the two men had always enjoyed a very close and warm relationship. Nola Santarelli, defendant's wife, testified that in the weeks preceding the killing, her husband had become increasingly disturbed as a result of efforts by members of the FBI to convince him to become a witness in a criminal action on the government's behalf. Defendant had been especially unnerved, according to Mrs. Santarelli, when his close friend, Vincent Christina, also tried to persuade him to become a witness for the government.

Testimony concerning the events of the day of the shooting was supplied by Mrs. Santarelli, defendant's father and the victim's widow. All three testified that on the morning of the day in question, defendant had had a violent argument with his wife in which he accused her of working with the FBI. Mrs. Santarelli fled from the couple's apartment as a result of the quarrel, and defendant's brother-in-law, Joseph Foti, was called in to act as a peacemaker. Defendant immediately indicated his desire not to speak with Foti, but Foti persisted in pursuing the conversation. Finally, when Foti attempted to follow defendant into the latter's apartment, defendant opened his apartment door and fired upon his brother-in-law.

To support his contention that his acts had been the product of a "paranoid delusion", defendant also called to the stand two expert witnesses who were familiar with his background. On direct examination, both psychiatrists stated their professional beliefs that defendant had been in a psychotic state aggravated by amphetamine abuse when he shot his brother-in-law and that, at the time of the crime, he lacked substantial capacity to apprehend the nature and consequences of his acts or that his conduct was wrong (see Penal Law, § 30.05). Upon cross-examination of defendant's expert witnesses, however, the District Attorney attempted to establish that defendant's conduct also could be explained as a symptom of a "personality disorder" commonly termed an "explosive personality". He elicited through questioning that an individual suffering from such a disorder would probably have a history of violent, antisocial conduct and would have a tendency to react with disproportionate violence in the face of relatively mild provocation. Moreover, the psychiatrists stated, although an individual with a "personality disorder" will often exhibit poor impulse control, especially when placed under stress, such an individual is generally considered to be in touch with reality and cannot be classified as legally insane within the meaning of section 30.05 of the Penal Law.

Having thus established the medical and legal significance of the term "explosive personality", the prosecutor then attempted to demonstrate that defendant was suffering from that condition rather than from the more serious condition of "delusional psychosis" and that, consequently, his conduct in shooting his brother-in-law could not be legally excused. By using the technique of hypothetical questioning, the District Attorney initially elicited from the expert witnesses that the shooting could be considered symptomatic of an "explosive personality" if it were assumed that the actor had committed certain specific acts of violence in the past and it were further assumed that he was laboring under considerable emotional stress at the time of the crime. The prosecutor then offered to prove through witnesses that defendant had, in fact, committed a number of irrational, violent acts in his past and that his tendency to react with violence had been exacerbated by the pressure that was being placed upon him in the weeks preceding the shooting as a result of his involvement with organized crime.

Defense counsel promptly objected to the admission of such proof on the ground that it would be highly prejudicial and would be probative only of defendant's propensity to commit violent crimes. Arguing that the evidence was not relevant to any material element of the People's case, defendant took the position that it should be excluded under the standards articulated in People v Goldstein (295 NY 61) and People v Molineux (168 NY 264). The trial court, however, rejected defense counsel's argument and permitted the prosecutor to proceed with his rebuttal witnesses, while granting defendant a "continuing objection". Santarelli ultimately was convicted of murder in the second degree, and his conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division. Noting that the challenged evidence "carried little potential for prejudice in this case", the Appellate Division upheld the trial court's ruling on the basis of what it perceived to be a "general rule" that once a defendant asserts the insanity defense, "any and all prior conduct of the accused having a bearing on the subject is admissible, even though it might also tend to show him guilty of other crimes" (64 A.D.2d 803, 804).

We note at the outset that we agree in principle with the Appellate Division's conclusion that the People are entitled to introduce evidence of prior criminal conduct which is probative of the defendant's sanity once the question of the defendant's sanity is made an issue in the case. We nonetheless hold that the present conviction must be reversed, since we find that much of the evidence admitted by the Trial Judge failed to meet the test of "relevancy" long established in our earlier decisions.

As a general rule, evidence of prior, uncharged criminal conduct may not be admitted as part of the People's direct case if its only purpose is to establish the accused's propensity to engage in criminal activities (e.g., People v Fiore, 34 N.Y.2d 81, 84; People v Dales, 309 NY 97, 101; Coleman v People, 55 NY 81, 90; see Richardson, Evidence [10th ed -- Prince], § 170; Wigmore, Evidence [3d ed], § 305). While such evidence may be marginally relevant to the question of the accused's guilt, its probative value is deemed to be outweighed by its potential for prejudice, and, accordingly, the evidence is excluded as a matter of judicial policy (People v Molineux, 168 NY 264, 294, supra ; see People v Allweiss, 48 N.Y.2d 40, 46; People v Zackowitz, 254 NY 192; Fisch, New York Evidence [2d ed], § 209; McCormick, Evidence [2d ed], § 190). On the other hand and in limited instances, where the evidence of prior, uncharged criminal conduct has a bearing upon a material aspect of the People's case other than the accused's general propensity toward criminality, our cases have recognized that the probative value of the evidence justifies its admission, notwithstanding the potential for incidental prejudice (People v Allweiss, 48 N.Y.2d 40, supra; People v Vails, 43 N.Y.2d 364; People v Jackson, 39 N.Y.2d 64; People v Molineux, 168 NY 264, supra).

There is no pre-established formula for determining when a particular uncharged criminal or immoral act may be admitted in evidence against a defendant (see McCormick, Evidence [2d ed], § 190). Although we have suggested certain "categories" for use as a guide in evaluating the relevance of such evidence (see People v Molineux, 168 NY 264, supra), we have consistently stated that these categories are not exhaustive, but rather represent "illustrations" of the type of analysis to be applied in cases involving potentially prejudicial information (e.g., People v Vails, 43 N.Y.2d 364, 368, supra; People v Jackson, 39 N.Y.2d 64, 68, supra; People v Calvano, 30 N.Y.2d 199, 205-206). We have held, for example, that evidence of prior, uncharged crimes will often be admissible in cases where the defendant raises the affirmative defense of entrapment (People v Calvano, 30 N.Y.2d 199, supra ; see People v Mann, 31 N.Y.2d 253). This is so because, in asserting this defense, the accused necessarily places his predisposition to commit the crime in issue (see Penal Law, § 40.05) and thereby "opens the door" for the People to introduce evidence of similar uncharged acts. Similarly, when a defendant interposes the "insanity defense", he necessarily puts in issue some aspects of his character and personal history. By coming forward with sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of sanity, the defendant in effect injects a new factual issue into the case, and the People are consequently required to bear the additional burden of proving the defendant sane beyond a reasonable doubt (see, e.g., People v Silver, 33 N.Y.2d 475). It would strain the rules of evidence beyond anything ever intended by our prior decisions to hold, as defendant urges, that the People are precluded from introducing evidence to counter a defendant's claim of insanity solely because the evidence involves the defendant's previous immoral or unlawful conduct.

We hold instead that evidence of uncharged criminal or immoral conduct may be admitted as part of the People's case on rebuttal if it has a tendency to disprove the defendant's claim that he was legally insane at the time of the crime. Background information which sheds light upon a defendant's personal history is often of crucial significance in cases involving the insanity defense, and we decline to adopt a blanket rule which would exclude such information solely because it is indicative of the defendant's prior antisocial conduct. Having placed his mental state before the trier of fact, the defendant cannot complain when the People seek to bring forth additional evidence bearing upon that issue.*fn1

This is not to suggest, however, that a defendant automatically places his entire character in issue when he interposes the defense of legal insanity. To the contrary, a defendant who asserts an insanity defense "opens the door" to the People's "character evidence" only to the extent that such evidence has a natural tendency to disprove his specific claim. In the present case, for example, defendant's claim was that he suffered from a form of "temporary insanity" that prevented him from apprehending the nature and consequences of his acts and from knowing that his conduct was wrong. He attempted to establish this claim through lay testimony concerning his "unusual" behavior in the weeks preceding the shooting and through expert testimony indicating that his symptoms were consistent with an ultimate "break with reality" in the form of a "paranoid delusion". The presumption of sanity having thus been rebutted, the People were faced with the burden of having to prove defendant sane beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the nature of defendant's insanity claim, it was reasonable for the prosecutor to counter defendant's evidence with evidence that defendant's conduct also was consistent with a "personality disorder" not rising to the level of legal insanity. To the extent that evidence of defendant's prior violent acts and his relationship with organized crime had a direct bearing upon the validity of the People's "explosive personality" theory, we think it was clearly admissible.

The problem arises in this case, however, because the Trial Judge failed to evaluate with sufficient particularity whether each piece of evidence offered by the People was actually relevant and material to their "explosive personality" theory (cf. People v Allweiss, 48 N.Y.2d 40, 49, supra).*fn2 It is on this point, in fact, that we depart from the views expressed by the Appellate Division. In deciding whether to admit evidence of prior criminal or immoral conduct in rebuttal to an insanity claim,the trial court must take special care to ensure not only that the evidence bears some articulable relation to the issue, but also that its probative value in fact warrants its admission despite the potential for prejudice. As we noted in People v Allweiss (48 N.Y.2d 40, 47, supra) : "If the evidence is actually of slight value when compared to the possible prejudice to the accused, it should not be admitted, even though it might technically relate to some fact to be proven" (accord McCormick, Evidence, § 190). This observation is particularly apt in cases involving the insanity defense, where virtually every fact in the accused's life may in some sense be said to have a bearing upon the issue of his mental state.*fn3 Indeed, in ...


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