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The People &C v. Owen Steward

June 7, 2011


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

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

The issue before us in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion in imposing a five-minute limitation on counsel for the questioning of jurors during each round of voir dire in this multiple felony case. Based on the seriousness and number of charges, the identity of the victim and certain characteristics of prospective jurors that were revealed during examination by the court, we conclude that the trial court erred in adhering to the unusually short time restriction after defense counsel objected. Defendant is therefore entitled to a new trial.

This prosecution arose from a robbery that allegedly occurred outside a Manhattan nightclub in the early morning hours of July 23, 2006. The alleged victim of the crime was Raashaun Casey, a prominent radio personality in New York City known as "DJ Envy" who hosted a show on "Hot 97," a popular radio station. According to the witnesses presented by the People at trial, defendant and an unidentified accomplice accosted Casey and his friend Derrick Parris at gunpoint as the two men were leaving the nightclub, demanding that Casey hand over his $25,000 gold and diamond necklace.

After obtaining the necklace, defendant and the accomplice fled the scene in a vehicle driven by defendant. Casey and Parris followed them in Casey's car, resulting in a high speed car chase through lower Manhattan. The defendant's vehicle crashed and the pursuit continued on foot, with the victim and Parris ultimately apprehending and detaining defendant but not the accomplice (whose identity remains unknown). Defendant offered proof suggesting that he had been beaten by Casey and Parris before the police arrived, which resulted in his hospitalization for several days after his arrest. Defendant was subsequently charged with multiple counts of first and second-degree robbery as well as various weapon possession offenses.

Prior to the commencement of jury selection, the trial judge informed the parties that the attorneys would be given only five minutes to question each panel of prospective jurors. The judge began voir dire by instructing and examining the venire members on a variety of topics and then permitted counsel to question the panel. At the conclusion of the first round of voir dire, defense counsel objected to the time limit, contending that five minutes was an insufficient period of time for counsel to conduct an adequate inquiry of venire persons in light of the complexity of the prosecution, which involved multiple class B felony charges. Defense counsel suggested that the trial judge's usual five minute "rule" that she had employed in misdemeanor cases -- where only six jurors were being selected and the parties had only three peremptory challenges -- should not apply in this instance where the charges against defendant were serious, 12 jurors were being selected and the parties would be exercising 15 peremptory challenges. He also cited examples of several topics that he hoped to discuss with the prospective jurors but had not had time to address as he was able to speak to only two of the 16 prospective jurors during the allotted time. Without addressing defendant's objection, the court continued to enforce the time limit in the two subsequent rounds of voir dire.

The impact of this decision was evident throughout the remainder of voir dire, particularly in the third round. In response to questioning by the court, 12 prospective jurors indicated that they, or people close to them, had been victims of robbery or theft. Several others stated that they had either witnessed or been the victims of violent crimes. Some of these individuals told the judge that they did not "think" their past experiences would affect their ability to deliberate in this case while at least one indicated it might (the court did not follow-up with this juror). After this series of questions, the court sua sponte excused a number of jurors but the record does not indicate whether the individuals that had been crime victims were discharged (defendant suggests that none were). Given the unusual role the victim allegedly played in facilitating defendant's capture and arrest and the considerable number of venire members that had been victims of crime, there were undoubtedly topics that would have been appropriate for follow-up questioning by counsel.

During this same round, two prospective jurors indicated that they had ties to law enforcement and several others identified themselves as lawyers or law students. Two members of the panel stated they had previously served on a jury; one had deliberated to verdict and the other case ended in a hung jury. In addition, three jurors responded that they were familiar with "DJ Envy," with one acknowledging that he listened to the victim's radio show.*fn1

Yet, as a result of the time restriction on questioning by counsel, defense counsel had only five minutes to explore the issues that had arisen during questioning by the court. Defense counsel used his time segment to ask follow-up questions of the prospective juror that had previously sat on a deadlocked jury. He also inquired of the panel whether jurors would hold it against his client if he did not give an opening statement and whether they would draw a negative inference from his client's decision not to testify on his own behalf. At this point, the court interrupted counsel to warn him that only one minute remained for questioning. Time expired before defense counsel had an opportunity to examine any of the prospective jurors who stated that they had heard of the victim or indicated that they had been witnesses or victims of crime.

After the jury was selected and sworn, the trial proceeded and defendant was convicted of two counts of robbery in the first degree and one count of robbery in the second degree.

On appeal, defendant contended that he should be granted a new trial because counsel was not provided with an adequate opportunity to examine prospective jurors during voir dire and the defense was prejudiced as a result. The Appellate Division rejected this argument and affirmed the conviction (72 AD3d 524). A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal and we now reverse.

In criminal cases, jury selection is governed by CPL 270.15, which directs that prospective jurors will initially be questioned by the trial court (CPL 270.15[b]). The statute also provides:

"The court shall permit both parties . . . to examine the prospective jurors, individually or collectively, regarding their qualification to serve as jurors. Each party shall be afforded a fair opportunity to question the prospective jurors as to any unexplored matter affecting their qualifications, but the court shall not permit questioning that is repetitious or irrelevant, or questions as to a juror's knowledge of rules of law" (CPL 270.15[c]).

CPL 270.15 does not contain guidelines relating to the duration of voir dire but states that the scope of counsel's examination of prospective jurors "shall be within the discretion of the court" (id.). This Court has emphasized the broad discretion afforded trial courts in this arena (see People v Jean, 75 NY2d 744 [1989]; People v Pepper, 59 NY2d 353 [1983]; People v Boulware, 29 NY2d 135 [1971], cert denied 405 US 995 [1972]), while cautioning that any restrictions imposed on voir dire "must nevertheless afford . . . counsel a fair opportunity to question prospective jurors about relevant matters" (Jean, 75 NY2d at 745).

As we have previously recognized, this area of law is not amenable to "the formulation of precise standards or to the fashioning of rigid guidelines" that can be applied across-the-board in all cases (Boulware, 29 NY2d at 139). Thus, the Legislature has left to the trial court the supervision of the process of counsel questioning during jury selection. Should a court choose at the outset to allocate a fixed ...

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