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People v. Warrington

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

January 26, 2017


          Calendar Date: May 29, 2015

          Paul J. Connolly, Delmar, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          Kathleen B. Hogan, District Attorney, Lake George (Emilee B. Davenport of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: McCarthy, J.P., Egan Jr., Devine and Clark, JJ.


          McCarthy, J.P.

         Appeal (upon remittal from the Court of Appeals) from a judgment of the County Court of Warren County (Hall Jr., J.), rendered July 11, 2013, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crimes of murder in the second degree, manslaughter in the second degree and endangering the welfare of a child.

         At all relevant times, defendant resided with his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Mattison, as well as her five-year-old son (hereinafter the victim) and their infant son. On the morning of November 15, 2012, Mattison called 911 to report that the victim was having trouble breathing. The victim was suffering from severe head injuries, and he died shortly thereafter. Defendant was indicted on charges of murder in the second degree, manslaughter in the second degree and endangering the welfare of a child stemming from his abuse of the victim and his role in causing the fatal injuries [1]. Following a jury trial, defendant was convicted as charged and sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 25 years to life. On appeal, this Court, with one Justice dissenting, reversed the judgment and remitted the matter for a retrial upon the finding that County Court had committed reversible error in failing to excuse a prospective juror for cause (130 A.D.3d 1368');">130 A.D.3d 1368 [2015]). The Court of Appeals thereafter reversed this Court's order, holding that "the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying defendant's for-cause challenge" to the prospective juror at issue (___ N.Y.3d ___, ___, 2016 NY Slip Op 08584, *3 [2016]). Further, the Court of Appeals remitted the matter to this Court "for consideration of the facts and issues raised but not determined on the appeal" (id. at *4). We affirm.

         Defendant first contends that County Court should have suppressed the statements he made to investigators. Defendant had left the residence he shared with Mattison before she called 911. The testimony at the suppression hearing reflects that, upon his return, he was greeted by a police officer who had been dispatched to secure the scene. The officer summoned a police detective who requested that defendant accompany him to the police station for questioning. Defendant agreed and the two traveled to an interview room at the station where the detective activated a recording system and administered Miranda warnings to defendant from a written form. Defendant then took the form, read and signed it and agreed to talk to investigators. County Court also viewed the video recording of the interrogation - which shows defendant being Mirandized and the 5½ hours that he was in the room - which consisted of periods of questioning and substantial periods where he sat alone. Therefore, based on the hearing testimony and the recording, "the People established that defendant's statements were voluntarily made after a valid and knowing waiver of his Miranda rights" (People v Lloyd, 118 A.D.3d 1117, 1119 [2014], lv denied 25 N.Y.3d 951');">25 N.Y.3d 951 [2015]). Defendant further complains of the behavior of the investigators who conducted the questioning but, after considering the totality of the circumstances, we are satisfied that his "statements were not [the] products of coercion, either physical or psychological" (People v Thomas, 22 N.Y.3d 629, 641 [2014]; see People v Jin Cheng Lin, 26 N.Y.3d 701, 725 [2016]; People v Moore, 132 A.D.3d 496, 496-497 [2015], lv denied, 27 N.Y.3d 1003');">27 N.Y.3d 1003 [2016]; People v Cavallaro, 123 A.D.3d 1221, 1223 [2014]).

         Defendant next argues that the verdict was unsupported by legally sufficient evidence and, moreover, was against the weight of the evidence. Defendant's challenge to the legal sufficiency of the evidence requires us to evaluate whether "there is any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of the evidence at trial and as a matter of law satisfy the proof and burden requirements for every element of the crime charged" (People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 [1987] [internal citation omitted]; see People v Ramos, 19 N.Y.3d 133, 136 [2012]; People v Lynch, 95 N.Y.2d 243, 247 [2000]). A weight of the evidence review, in contrast, requires us to make a threshold determination as to whether a different verdict would not have been unreasonable given all of the credible evidence (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 348 [2007]; People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d at 495). Where a different verdict would not have been unreasonable, this Court "must, like the trier of fact below, weigh the relative probative force of conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony" (People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d at 495 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d at 348).

         Defendant first claims that the proof did not establish that he recklessly engaged in conduct that created a grave risk of serious physical injury or death to the victim and, in fact, resulted in his death (see Penal Law §§ 15.05 [3]; 125.15 [1]; 125.25 [4]). Physical examinations of the victim after his fatal injury revealed that bruising, abrasions and other injuries covered his body and, while defendant attempted to dispute the origin of those injuries, the trial record is replete with proof that they were the result of abuse inflicted by defendant. Among the acts of abuse that Mattison observed was one on November 11, 2012, when she saw defendant pick up the victim by the neck and repeatedly slam his head against a wall. The victim's fatal injuries similarly stemmed from blunt force trauma to the head, which led to brain swelling, subdural hematoma and cell death. Several physicians opined that the fatal trauma must have occurred in the hours before the victim became unresponsive, and Mattison's testimony sheds the most light on those hours.

         Mattison specifically testified that defendant was very angry with the victim when he was put to bed on November 14, 2012. The victim had seemed upset, but had otherwise acted normally that evening, and Mattison discerned nothing unusual in his demeanor when she put him to bed. Mattison awoke around 2:30 a.m. on November 15, 2012 to find defendant missing from their bedroom, and he failed to offer a persuasive explanation for his absence when he returned to bed. Defendant woke the victim up at 7:45 a.m. to use the bathroom, which Mattison found odd given that the victim was usually awake by then and defendant had no reason to rouse him. When the victim emerged from his bedroom, he was unsteady, pale and disoriented, and defendant had to guide him to the bathroom. Defendant responded to these clear signs of distress by slamming the victim on the floor and screaming that he should be able to use the bathroom on his own. Mattison left the room to tend to her infant son, who had begun crying. She then heard a thud and returned to find the victim lying unconscious on his bed. According to Mattison, defendant ordered her not to call 911 until he left for an appointment, and defendant admittedly wrote down a cover story for her to relate to the authorities. Mattison eventually summoned assistance at 9:30 a.m. and reported that the victim had hit his head after jumping on his bed, although she recanted that story in her trial testimony.

         Defendant continued to maintain at trial that the victim had fallen while jumping on his bed. The medical evidence indicated, however, that such a routine accident could not have inflicted the fatal trauma. Instead, testifying physicians opined that the victim's injuries could only have been caused by the type of force that would be encountered in a heavy blow, a fall from a great height or an automobile accident. It is also worthy of note that, while defendant was at the police station later in the day, he wrote a letter to Mattison in which he apologized for hurting the victim and stated that he "didn't think [he] pushed [the victim]... that hard." [2] In short, while no one observed the deadly blow being struck, defendant was previously seen slamming the victim's head against a wall and was angry with the victim, his whereabouts in the residence were unknown for a considerable portion of the overnight hours of November 15, 2012, and he apologized to Mattison for injuring the victim. In our view, this proof was legally sufficient to permit a finding that defendant engaged in conduct that recklessly created a risk of serious physical injury or death to the victim and, in fact, caused his death. The jury made that finding, notwithstanding the conflicting account offered by defendant. After assessing the proof offered at trial and according due deference to the jury's assessment of credibility, we cannot say that its verdict was against the weight of the evidence (see People v McLain, 80 A.D.3d 992, 996 [2011], lv denied 16 N.Y.3d 897');">16 N.Y.3d 897 [2011]; People v Varmette, 70 A.D.3d 1167, 1169-1171 [2010], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 845 [2010]).

         Defendant's similar challenge to the jury's finding that the circumstances of the victim's death "evinc[ed] a depraved indifference to human life" on his part is also unavailing (Penal Law § 125.25 [4]). Depraved indifference "is best understood as an utter disregard for the value of human life" (People v Suarez, 6 N.Y.3d 202, 214 [2005]) and may be found in those cases where the facts "reflect wanton cruelty, brutality or callousness directed against a particularly vulnerable victim, combined with utter indifference to the life or safety of the helpless target" (id. at 213; see People v Barboni, 21 N.Y.3d 393, 400 [2013]; People v McLain, 80 A.D.3d at 997). Defendant inflicted brutal injuries upon a helpless child, and the jury could rationally conclude - from his total indifference to the victim's physical distress upon waking up, his refusal to allow Mattison to promptly summon medical assistance or relate the truth of what happened, and his decision to leave the incapacitated victim and go to a previously scheduled appointment - "that [he] evinced a wanton and uncaring state of mind" (People v Barboni, 21 N.Y.3d at 402; see People v McLain, 80 A.D.3d at 997). Defendant points out that he later texted Mattison regarding the victim's condition and wrote a letter expressing remorse, but his "state of mind and the real reasons for [his later actions]... implicate[d] credibility questions" for the jury to resolve (People v Waite, 108 A.D.3d 985, 987 [2013]; see People v Johnson, 106 A.D.3d 1272, 1278 [2013], lvs denied 21 N.Y.3d 1043, 1045, 1046 [2013]). The jury determined that his belated expressions of concern did not reflect any interest in the victim's welfare and, deferring to their assessment of credibility, we cannot say that their finding was against the weight of the evidence.

         Defendant further claims that he was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel, but such an argument will fail "so long as the evidence, the law, and the circumstances of a particular case, viewed in totality and as of the time of the representation, reveal that the attorney provided meaningful representation" (People v Goldston, 126 A.D.3d 1175, 1178-1179 [2015] [internal quotation marks, brackets and citations omitted], lv denied 25 N.Y.3d 1201 [2015]; see People v Flores, 84 N.Y.2d 184, 186-187 [1994]; People v Gokey, 134 A.D.3d 1246, 1246 [2015], lv denied, 27 N.Y.3d 1069');">27 N.Y.3d 1069 [2016]). Defendant points to a myriad of purported errors, but stresses a mistake by defense counsel wherein he inadvertently elicited testimony regarding otherwise undisclosed prior assaultive behavior and drug use by defendant. In light of the extensive proof documenting defendant's violent behavior toward the victim and his use of synthetic marihuana, however, that error cannot be viewed as sufficiently egregious or prejudicial as to deprive defendant of a fair trial (see People v Sanchez, 54 A.D.3d 638, 639 [2008], lv denied11 N.Y.3d 930');">11 N.Y.3d 930 [2009]). Defense counsel further failed to object to the testimony of a physician who examined the victim and found injuries consistent with spanking and anal penetration that had occurred no more than 24 hours before the fatal assault. The People used that proof, in conjunction with other evidence that defendant was alone with the victim during the relevant period and made statements suggesting that he was aware of the penetration, to suggest that defendant was the perpetrator of the abuse. Inasmuch as the proof was relevant to the charge of endangering the welfare of a child, however, any objection to its admission would have been fruitless (seePeople v McIver,245 A.D.2d 180, 180 [1997], lv denied91 N.Y.2d 1010');">91 N.Y.2d 1010 ...

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