Calendar Date: November 14, 2016
William T. Easton, Rochester, for appellant.
O. Martin, District Attorney, Owego, for respondent.
Before: McCarthy, J.P., Garry, Rose, Mulvey and Aarons, JJ.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
from a judgment of the County Court of Tioga County (Keene,
J.), rendered January 30, 2015, upon a verdict convicting
defendant of the crime of manslaughter in the first degree.
October 2013, defendant caused the victim's death by
stabbing him in the chest with a knife. The stabbing occurred
in a home located in the Town of Tioga, Tioga County, owned
by defendant and shared by defendant, the victim, and a third
man named James Atwell. Defendant was charged with murder in
the second degree and tampering with physical evidence. The
jury acquitted defendant of the charged crimes, but convicted
him of manslaughter in the first degree as a lesser included
offense of murder in the second degree. County Court denied
defendant's CPL 330.30 motion to set aside the verdict
and sentenced him to 17 years in prison, to be followed by
five years of postrelease supervision. Defendant appeals.
fact that defendant stabbed the victim was uncontroverted.
Immediately after the stabbing, defendant told three people -
the victim's mother, a 911 dispatcher and the first law
enforcement officer to arrive at the scene - that he had
stabbed the victim. The officer saw the victim's body on
the kitchen floor. There was blood on a kitchen counter and
two knives near the sink; the victim's DNA was later
found on the counter and on one of the knives. At trial,
defendant raised the defense of justification and further
contended that the victim had lunged toward him and impaled
himself on the knife. Upon appeal, defendant contends that
his conviction was against the weight of the evidence as the
People failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was
not justified in using deadly force or that he intended to
cause serious physical injury.
People presented the eyewitness testimony of Atwell, who was
in his 80s and confined to a wheelchair. Atwell testified
that he and the victim, who was Atwell's caretaker, had
resided as tenants in defendant's home for several months
before the stabbing occurred. On that day, defendant returned
home from work at about 5:00 p.m. and began drinking alcohol.
The victim, who had spent the day working in the garage, came
into the house between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and began
preparing dinner. Atwell stated that he did not believe that
the victim had been drinking alcohol; however, testing later
revealed that the victim's blood alcohol content was.27.
Almost immediately after the victim entered the house,
defendant and the victim began a verbal disagreement, moving
from room to room as they argued, and eventually beginning to
push and hit each other. Atwell claimed that defendant
initiated both the verbal and physical altercations and that
he never saw the victim throw defendant around or push him to
before 8:00 p.m., defendant left the house, at which point
the lights and electricity went off; Atwell stated that he
believed that defendant turned off the power. Five or 10
minutes later, defendant came back in, the power was turned
on and the argument resumed. Atwell testified that he saw the
victim walk from the laundry room into the adjoining kitchen,
with defendant following him. In the kitchen, defendant
grabbed a knife from the sink area and stabbed the victim in
the chest. The victim immediately fell to the floor and did
not respond when defendant asked him to get up. Atwell stated
that the victim did not lunge toward defendant before the
stabbing, that his arms were by his sides and that he had no
weapon or other objects in his hands. Defendant called 911
and the victim's mother and then went outside to wait for
interview with investigators later that night, defendant
offered an account that differed sharply from that of Atwell.
The investigators testified at trial, and a video recording
of the interview was admitted into evidence. Defendant
claimed that the victim had initiated the altercation,
initially by arguing verbally with defendant about various
subjects. According to defendant, the victim then "went
off, " threw defendant around several rooms, onto the
floor and against furniture, and tipped over chairs.
Defendant left the residence to summon assistance and made
several attempts to call 911, but none of the calls went
through because the electricity had been turned off - by the
victim, according to defendant - which prevented
defendant's cell phone signal booster from operating.
Subsequent inspection of defendant's cell phone revealed
that several incomplete calls were commenced during the
pertinent time period; the first three digits of the main
line for 911 dispatch were dialed three times, and one
attempted call was made to a friend of defendant.
told the officers that he was not fearful of the victim when
he went back into the residence, and he did not claim that
the victim had a weapon or threatened to use one. He said
that the victim continued to yell at him and then "came
at him, " at which point defendant picked up the knife
from a kitchen counter to defend himself. He said that he
backed away into the adjoining laundry room, holding the
knife and telling the victim to leave him alone; the victim
followed him, allegedly saying "go ahead" or
"go for it, " and, in the laundry room, lunged or
ran toward defendant and impaled himself on the knife.
Defendant pulled out the knife, and the victim took several
steps into the kitchen, where he collapsed.
first law enforcement officer responding to the scene had
observed that the victim had no weapons or other objects in
his hands or near where his body lay on the floor. Despite
defendant's account of a violent struggle, the
investigators testified that defendant's hair and
clothing were not disarranged and that he had no visible
bruises or injuries other than an abrasion over one eye and a
hangnail on his finger. Further, an officer who responded to
defendant's residence after the stabbing testified that
the house was neat, with no tipped-over furniture or signs of
a struggle. Defendant told the investigators that he had made
many previous calls to law enforcement to report the
victim's abusive behavior toward him, but the evidence
established that only two of 18 calls that defendant had
placed to police since 2004 involved the victim. In one call,
defendant had complained that the victim had flipped over a
table, and, in the other, that he did not participate in
Terzian, a pathologist, testified that he performed an
autopsy and determined that the victim had died as a result
of blood loss caused by a single stab wound to the chest that
was approximately 4½ inches deep and reached the right
ventricle of his heart. Terzian opined that it would not have
been possible for the victim to have caused this wound by
impaling himself unless the knife was placed against a wall
or other immovable object that prevented it from moving
backwards, and that a person holding a knife would not
constitute such an immovable object. He further stated that
it would have been possible for the victim to move around for
20 or 30 seconds before the wound caused his death. The
administrative coroner for Tioga County, who was called to
the scene and was present at the autopsy, testified that ...