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The People &C v. James Phillips

March 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jones, J.:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

On August 23, 2004, defendant James Phillips was involved in a domestic dispute where he threatened his wife by brandishing a knife in the presence of their two daughters. Consequently, defendant was arrested and his wife obtained an order of protection against him. Approximately two weeks later, on September 10, 2004, defendant was found waiting near his wife's workplace and a second order of protection was issued against him.

On September 22, 2004, while screaming "Die," defendant attacked his wife in the lobby of her apartment building, stabbing her 17 times in the chest, abdomen, forearm, hand, and thigh. He fled the scene and was apprehended by the police minutes after the attack. Defendant's wife survived.

After being indicted on charges of attempted second degree murder, first degree assault, aggravated criminal contempt, first degree criminal contempt, third degree weapon possession, and third degree menacing, defendant was ordered to undergo an examination pursuant to CPL 730.30(1). Prior to these criminal incidents -- over an 11-year period that commenced in the late 1990s -- defendant had suffered a series of strokes that affected his ability to communicate. At his initial examination, defendant was found unfit for trial by two psychiatric examiners, remanded to the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, and committed to Kirby Psychiatric Center.

After a five-month stay at Kirby, defendant's treatment team recommended that he was fit for trial and should be reevaluated. Defendant's case was referred to Kirby's Hospital Forensic Committee, and three members of that committee, which included Dr. Capruso, determined that he was unfit for trial based on a series of neurological examinations. Given the conflicting opinions, the matter was referred to Dr. Hicks, the Associate Clinical Director at Kirby, who concluded that defendant was fit for trial. Dr. Kunz, the Clinical Director at Kirby, also examined defendant and determined that he was fit to proceed to trial. After he was discharged from Kirby and returned to the custody of the New York City Commissioner of Corrections at Riker's Island, defendant moved to contest the finding of trial competency pursuant to CPL 730.60(2).

The ensuing hearing was conducted before Supreme Court over a six-month period where both the People and defendant profferred expert medical testimony with respect to defendant's condition and fitness for trial. The People did not claim that he was malingering, or exaggerating his symptoms as both sides agreed that defendant suffered from transcortical motor aphasia, a permanent brain injury that affects defendant's language and speech skills as evidenced by MRIs indicating a permanent lesion in the left hemisphere of defendant's brain. However, the expert opinions sharply diverged with respect to defendant's ability to perceive and comprehend trial proceedings.

On behalf of defendant, Dr. Capruso, a licensed psychologist board certified in clinical neuropsychology, testified that he had conducted several neurological examinations and concluded that defendant suffered from motor speech skill deficits and comprehension issues that called into question defendant's ability to understand legal concepts and assist his attorney. Particularly, defendant had a halting, stammering manner of speaking. And with respect to comprehension, while defendant may understand simple concepts, he appeared to struggle with slightly more complex, or compound concepts. For example, while defendant understood the terms "yellow" and "circle" individually, he had difficulty when questioned about the "yellow circle."

Dr. Henry, the Director of Neurology at Bellevue Hospital, also concluded that while defendant appeared to have general comprehension, he often gave inconsistent answers, casting doubt on his ability to comprehend questions and concepts. For example, when asked twice if he had asthma, defendant answered both "yes" and "no".

For the People, Dr. Hicks, a licensed physician, also board certified in general psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, concluded that defendant was fit for trial. While not a neurologist, Dr. Hicks did have training in neurology in addition to his expertise in forensic psychiatry, a field encompassing both law and psychiatry, and involving matters such as determining legal competency for trial. Dr. Hicks explained that when questioning defendant he would repeat the same question, but phrase it differently, to ensure that defendant understood what was being asked. By using this method, Dr. Hicks found no inconsistent answers. And while defendant had difficulty articulating lengthy responses, he did evince an understanding of the nature of the charges against him and the potential consequences of a trial when he answered that he was accused of stabbing his wife and that a trial could result in a lengthy prison sentence.

The People also produced Dr. Scheuer, a forensic psychologist, who had treated defendant in group therapy sessions at Kirby for 7 months. Dr. Scheuer testified that while defendant exhibited speech difficulties, he appeared alert and attentive, and he perceived and understood small nuances like humor. Moreover, defendant acknowledged an understanding of legal terms like plea bargains and defenses when those issues were discussed during treatment sessions.

Finally, defendant testified during the competency hearing. When asked about legal concepts such as the purpose of a trial or pleadings, defendant responded "I know what you are saying, but it's hard." However, over the course of his testimony, defendant was able to articulate that he understood the roles of a judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney. Moreover, when asked by the People whether speaking slowly would assist him, defendant responded as follows:

"THE PEOPLE: And is it easier for you when we speak slowly? "THE DEFENDANT: No, that doesn't help.

"THE PEOPLE: That doesn't matter?

"THE DEFENDANT: No, I understand, but I can't say what you saying.

"THE PEOPLE: You can understand me, but you can't say?


At the conclusion of the hearing, Supreme Court issued a 55-page decision finding defendant fit for trial. The court credited the People's experts, finding that defendant's experts performed tests in the abstract that had no bearing on the legal competency needed for trial. Furthermore, the court considered its own observations during the course of the six-month hearing which included, inter alia, defendant's amusement during humorous moments, turning to counsel when important information was elicited, or answering "not me" when asked who the prosecutor would assist. Moreover, the court concluded that defendant's responses were "appropriate, susceptible of understanding, and rational."

Following a pre-trial conference, Supreme Court issued an order whereby it established numerous guidelines and procedures for the trial such as limiting the trial proceedings to the morning so that defendant and his counsel could consult in the afternoon.*fn1

After trial, a jury convicted defendant of all charges. Defendant moved to set aside the verdict and for a new trial pursuant to Wilson v United States (391 F2d 460 [D.C. Cir 1968]) and People v Francabandera (33 NY2d 429 [1974]).*fn2 Supreme Court concluded that defendant's condition did not inhibit his ability to communicate with counsel and present a defense as his conduct and responses during the course of the trial indicated comprehension and perception of the proceedings. The trial court had observed defendant react to evidence and consult with counsel. Furthermore, defendant engaged in colloquies with the court that demonstrated an understanding of the legal issues presented.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that there was no basis to overturn the finding that defendant was fit for trial based on the thorough competency hearing and the trial court's resolution of the conflicting expert testimony (68 AD3d 541 [1st Dept 2009]). A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal, and we now affirm (14 NY3d 843 [2010]).

The key inquiry in determining whether a criminal defendant is fit for trial is "whether he [or she] has sufficient present ability to consult with his [or her] lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and whether he [or she] has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him [or her]" (Dusky v United States, 362 US 402, 402 [1960]). In New York, Article 730 of the Criminal Procedure Law prescribes the procedures that trial courts of this State must adhere to in determining a defendant's legal competency for trial. Particularly, CPL 730.30(2) provides that "[i]f following a hearing, the court is satisfied that the defendant is not an incapacitated person, the criminal action against him must proceed." ...

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