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People v. Brahney

New York Court of Appeals

March 30, 2017

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Ryan P. Brahney, Appellant.

          Kathryn Friedman, for appellant.

          Christopher T. Valdina, for respondent.

          STEIN, J.

         On this appeal, we are asked to determine whether consecutive sentences were authorized under Penal Law § 70.25 (2) for defendant's burglary and intentional murder convictions. Inasmuch as the People identified evidence in the record to support their view that the crimes were committed through separate and distinct acts, consecutive sentences were permissible.

         I.

         Defendant was charged in an indictment with numerous crimes, including two counts of murder in the second degree and two counts of burglary in the first degree, after he killed his former girlfriend in her home by stabbing her with a butcher knife. At the ensuing nonjury trial, defendant stipulated in writing that he "caused the death of" the victim "by stabbing her with a knife, " but proffered an affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance. Defendant's uncle testified that defendant appeared at the uncle's home at approximately 1:00 a.m. on the night of the murder. Defendant was covered in blood, asked that his mother be called to pick up his son, and stated that he had stabbed and killed the victim. The uncle called the police. At the station, defendant made statements to police that he had killed the victim; he was subsequently recorded on a telephone call with his mother, admitting that he went to the victim's apartment, "dragged her down the stairs and murdered her."

         Police responding to the victim's apartment determined that defendant had gained entrance by smashing a window and tearing a screen. They observed signs of a struggle in the upstairs master bedroom, as well as a small smear of blood on a wall outside the bedroom, a smear of blood on a half wall at the top of the staircase landing, and a few drops of blood on the floor upstairs and on the stairs. Testing later revealed this to be the victim's blood. The victim was found downstairs, on the floor of her living room, with a knife sticking out of her chest. The photographs depicting her body and wounds corroborate the police testimony at trial that there were large quantities of blood in the living room, including next to the victim's body.

         The Chief Medical Examiner testified that he found 38 slash or stab wounds on the victim's body, all of which were consistent with the murder weapon. He explained that several of the wounds, individually, could have been fatal - specifically, those that penetrated the chest cavity, caused lung collapse, injured the heart, sliced a major vein in the neck and penetrated the liver - but did not identify a particular wound that clearly caused death immediately.

         As relevant here, defendant was found guilty of intentional murder, as well as two counts of burglary in the first degree, based on (1) causing physical injury and (2) using or threatening to use a dangerous instrument. At sentencing, the People argued that consecutive sentences were appropriate because the evidence showed that defendant pulled the victim out of bed and inflicted minor injuries on her while she was upstairs, before dragging her down the stairs and inflicting mortal wounds in the living room. Defendant argued that consecutive sentences were not permissible because the crimes were part of a continuing course of criminal conduct that was formulated, according to the People, before he entered the victim's apartment. The court, upon resentencing, sentenced defendant to a term of imprisonment of 54 years to life, with the concurrent sentences on the two burglary convictions imposed consecutively to his sentence on the intentional murder conviction.

         Upon defendant's appeals from the judgment of conviction and resentence, the Appellate Division affirmed, with two Justices dissenting (126 A.D.3d 1286');">126 A.D.3d 1286 [4th Dept 2015]). While stating that "the actus reus elements of the burglary counts and the murder count overlap under the facts presented here, " the court "nevertheless conclude[d] that the People 'establish[ed] the legality of consecutive sentencing by showing that the acts or omissions' committed by defendant were separate and distinct acts" (id. at 1289, quoting People v Laureano, 87 N.Y.2d 640, 643 [1996]). In contrast, the dissenting Justices concluded that "the People failed to meet their burden of establishing that the burglary and murder offenses were committed by separate and distinct acts, " based upon their view that "it is possible" that the wound or wounds that the victim sustained while upstairs may have ultimately caused her death (id. at 1291-1292). One of the dissenting Justices granted defendant leave to appeal.

         II.

         Penal Law § 70.25 authorizes a trial judge to direct that sentences run either concurrently or consecutively except that

"[w]hen more than one sentence of imprisonment is imposed on a person for two or more offenses committed through a single act or omission, or through an act or omission which in itself constituted one of the offenses and also was a material element of the other, the sentences... must run concurrently"

(Penal Law ยง 70.25 [2]). In other words, under section 70.25 (2), "sentences imposed for two or more offenses may not run consecutively: (1) where a single act constitutes two offenses, or (2) where a single act constitutes one of the offenses and a ...


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