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People v. Morgan

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

April 6, 2017

ARTHUR H. MORGAN JR., Appellant.


          Theodore J. Stein, Woodstock, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          Paul Czajka, District Attorney, Hudson (James A. Carlucci of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Garry, J.P., Lynch, Clark, Mulvey and Aarons, JJ.


          Clark, J.

         Appeals (1) from a judgment of the County Court of Columbia County (Nichols, J.), rendered February 20, 2009, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crime of murder in the second degree, and (2) by permission, from an order of said court, entered April 17, 2015, which denied defendant's motion pursuant to CPL 440.10 to vacate the judgment of conviction, without a hearing.

         On April 9, 2008, after defendant's wife had been reported missing, her body was found wrapped in a blanket underneath the trailer home that she had once shared with defendant. Defendant was later charged with murder in the second degree and, following a jury trial, he was convicted as charged. Prior to sentencing, defendant moved pursuant to CPL article 330 to set aside and vacate the verdict, arguing, among other things, that he had been denied the right to testify on his own behalf. County Court denied the motion and thereafter sentenced defendant to a prison term of 25 years to life and imposed a fine of $15, 000, as well as fees and surcharges. County Court denied defendant's subsequent CPL 440.10 motion to vacate the judgment of conviction without a hearing. Defendant now appeals from the judgment of conviction and, by permission, from the summary denial of his CPL 440.10 motion.

         We turn first to defendant's challenge to the admissibility of testimonial evidence that he perpetrated prior acts of domestic violence against the victim. "Evidence of... prior uncharged crime[s or prior bad acts] may not be admitted solely to demonstrate a defendant's bad character or criminal propensity, but may be admissible if linked to a specific material issue or fact relating to the crime[s] charged, and if [their] probative value outweighs [their] prejudicial impact" (People v Blair, 90 N.Y.2d 1003, 1004-1005 [1997] [citations omitted]; accord People v Kidd, 112 A.D.3d 994, 995 [2013], lv denied 23 N.Y.3d 1039');">23 N.Y.3d 1039 [2014]; People v Westerling, 48 A.D.3d 965, 966 [2008]). Here, as County Court properly concluded, evidence of defendant's prior threats and abusive behavior toward the victim were legally relevant and material to the issues of motive, intent and the absence of mistake (see People v Burkett, 101 A.D.3d 1468, 1470 [2012], lv denied 20 N.Y.3d 1096');">20 N.Y.3d 1096 [2013]; People v Kelly, 71 A.D.3d 1520, 1521 [2010], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 775');">15 N.Y.3d 775 [2010]; People v Doyle, 48 A.D.3d 961, 964 [2008], lv denied 10 N.Y.3d 862');">10 N.Y.3d 862 [2008]; People v Williams, 29 A.D.3d 1217, 1219 [2006], lv denied 7 N.Y.3d 797');">7 N.Y.3d 797 [2006]) [1]. As to the probative value of the evidence versus its prejudicial impact, County Court engaged in a proper balancing of these competing interests (see People v Miles, 36 A.D.3d 1021, 1023 [2007], lv denied 8 N.Y.3d 988');">8 N.Y.3d 988 [2007]; compare People v Wlasiuk, 32 A.D.3d 674, 678 [2006], lv dismissed 7 N.Y.3d 871');">7 N.Y.3d 871 [2006]). Considering the circumstantial nature of the case and the temporal proximity between the victim's death and the subject incidents, which bore on the nature of the marital relationship of defendant and the victim, we conclude that County Court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that such evidence was more probative than prejudicial and, therefore, admissible for the limited purpose of establishing defendant's motive or intent (see People v Kelly, 71 A.D.3d at 1521; People v Doyle, 48 A.D.3d at 964; People v Williams, 29 A.D.3d at 1219). Moreover, after the relevant testimony and in its final charge, County Court issued appropriate limiting instructions concerning the purpose for which the jury could consider the subject testimony, thereby limiting the prejudicial effect of such evidence (see People v Burkett, 101 A.D.3d at 1471; People v Doyle, 48 A.D.3d at 964).

         Next, because defendant made only a general motion to dismiss at the conclusion of the People's case, defendant's challenge to the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting the verdict is unpreserved (see People v Hawkins, 11 N.Y.3d 484, 492 [2008]; People v Valverde, 122 A.D.3d 1074, 1075 [2014], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 970');">27 N.Y.3d 970 [2016]). Nevertheless, as part of our review of defendant's additional claim that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, we must assess whether the elements of murder in the second degree, which requires proof "that defendant caused the victim's death after having acted with the intent to do so" (People v Wlasiuk, 136 A.D.3d 1101, 1102 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1009');">27 N.Y.3d 1009 [2016]; see Penal Law § 125.25 [1]), were proven beyond a reasonable doubt (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 349 [2007]; People v McCann, 126 A.D.3d 1031, 1032 [2015], lv denied 25 N.Y.3d 1167');">25 N.Y.3d 1167 [2015]). If we conclude that it would not have been unreasonable for the jury to have acquitted defendant of the charged crime, we then proceed to weigh the relative probative force of any conflicting testimony and the relative strength of any conflicting inferences that may be rationally drawn from the testimony, so as to determine whether the jury accorded appropriate weight to the evidence and, thus, was justified in finding defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d at 348; People v Smith, 138 A.D.3d 1248, 1250 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1139');">27 N.Y.3d 1139 [2016]).

         At trial, the People sought to prove the theory that defendant killed the victim during an episode of domestic violence. As to the element of intent, which may be properly inferred from a defendant's conduct and the surrounding circumstances (see People v Taylor, 134 A.D.3d 1165, 1166 [2015], lv denied 26 N.Y.3d 1150');">26 N.Y.3d 1150 [2016]; People v Chancey, 127 A.D.3d 1409, 1411 [2015], lv denied 25 N.Y.3d 1199');">25 N.Y.3d 1199 [2015]), the People called several witnesses who testified to previously observing defendant perpetrate acts of domestic violence against the victim, including striking her, holding her by the throat and threatening to kill her. In addition, an acquaintance of the victim testified that, toward the end of March 2008, she had a telephone conversation with defendant wherein she informed defendant that the victim had been cheating on him. The acquaintance stated that, in reaction to the victim yelling in the background, defendant told her that he would call her back after he had "take[n] care" of the victim. This testimony was corroborated by defendant's statements to law enforcement that he had argued with the victim before her disappearance, as well as the testimony of defendant's brother, who asserted that defendant had told him about the conversation with the acquaintance and that the ensuing argument with the victim had "got[ten] out of hand."

         As to the issue of whether defendant caused the victim's death, notwithstanding that the People's expert pathologist testified that he could not identify the cause of death, [2] the victim's body was discovered wrapped in a blanket and hidden underneath the trailer home that she shared with defendant. The scientific evidence established that the victim's body had been wrapped in the blanket before she was moved from within the trailer to underneath the trailer and that defendant's DNA was on that blanket. Defendant's mother testified that, on March 30, 2008, she went to defendant's home and observed the victim lying "face up" in bed, partially covered with the blanket in which she was later discovered. In addition, defendant's DNA was found under the victim's fingernails, and the police investigator who interviewed defendant about the victim's disappearance testified that he had observed scratches on defendant's face. Defendant's DNA was also found on blood stain cuttings from a curtain in the master bedroom and the victim's shirt.

         Further, defendant's brother testified that defendant had confessed to killing the victim during an argument and stated that he had "no other choice" but to hide her body underneath the trailer. That testimony was partially corroborated by the testimony of defendant's friend, who stated that defendant had asked if the police would look for him if the victim did not appear in Family Court and her body was not found. Moreover, defendant gave conflicting statements to law enforcement, his mother and his brother as to where he went and what he did after arguing with the victim. Finally, the victim's driver's license, Social Security card and health insurance card - the very documents that defendant had told an investigating police officer that the victim had taken with her when she left the trailer following their argument - were retrieved from defendant's wallet. In our view, it would not have been unreasonable for the jury to have acquitted defendant based on the foregoing evidence, as the jury could have discredited the testimony of the People's key witnesses, including defendant's brother, and accepted the defense's theory that someone else had killed the victim. However, viewing the evidence in a neutral light and extending appropriate deference to the jury's assessment of witness credibility (see People v Romero, 7 N.Y.3d 633, 644 [2006]; People v Morris, 140 A.D.3d 1472, 1475 [2016], lv denied 28 N.Y.3d 1074');">28 N.Y.3d 1074 [2016]), we find that the weight of the evidence amply supports the jury's guilty verdict (see People v Wlasiuk, 136 A.D.3d at 1102-1103; People v Thibeault, 73 A.D.3d 1237, 1239-1240 [2010], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 810');">15 N.Y.3d 810 [2010], cert denied 562 U.S. 1293');">562 U.S. 1293 [2011]; People v Denis, 276 A.D.2d 237, 240-244 [2000], lv denied 96 N.Y.2d 782');">96 N.Y.2d 782 [2001]).

         We do, however, find merit to defendant's claim, made in his appellate brief and in his CPL article 440 motion, that he was denied his due process right to testify in his own criminal defense. It is a fundamental principle of due process that a criminal defendant has a right, guaranteed by the U.S. and NY Constitutions, to take the stand and testify on his or her own behalf (see Rock v Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 51-53 [1987]; Bennett v United States, 663 F.3d 71, 84 [2d Cir 2011]; People v Robles, 115 A.D.3d 30, 33-34 [2014], lv denied22 N.Y.3d 1202');">22 N.Y.3d 1202 [2014]; People v Harden, 99 A.D.3d 1031, 1032 [2012], lv denied20 N.Y.3d 986');">20 N.Y.3d 986 [2012]). The constitutional right to testify in one's own defense is "'personal'" to the defendant (People v Robles, 115 A.D.3d at 34, quoting Chang v United States, 250 F.3d 79, 82 [2d Cir 2001]) and, while the decision to testify or not to testify is often made in consultation with counsel (see e.g. People v Borthwick, 51 A.D.3d 1211, 1216 [2008], lv denied11 N.Y.3d 734');">11 N.Y.3d 734 [2008]; People v Johnson, 273 A.D.2d 495, 497 [2000], lv denied95 N.Y.2d 854');">95 N.Y.2d 854 [2000]), the defendant retains ultimate decision-making authority as to whether to waive this right (see Jones v Barnes, 463 U.S. 745, 751 [1983]; People v Hogan, 26 N.Y.3d 779, 786 [2016]; People v Petrovich, 87 N.Y.2d 961, 963 [1996]). Any such waiver must be knowing, voluntary and intelligent (see People v Gajadhar, 9 N.Y.3d 438, 448 [2007]; Brown v Artuz, 124 F.3d 73, 78-79 [2d Cir 1997], cert denied522 U.S. 1128');">522 U.S. 1128 [1998]; United States v Pennycooke, 65 F.3d 9, 11 [3d Cir 1995]). Generally, the trial court does not have an affirmative obligation to ascertain whether the defendant's failure to testify was the result of a knowing, voluntary and intelligent waiver of his or her right to testify (see People v Pilato, 145 A.D.3d 1593, 1595 [2016]; People v Marcelle, 120 A.D.3d 833, 834 [2014], lv denied24 N.Y.3d 1045');">24 N.Y.3d 1045 [2014]; People v Dolan, 2 A.D.3d 745, 746 [2003], lv denied2 N.Y.3d 798');">2 N.Y.3d 798 [2004]; see generally People v Fratta, 83 N.Y.2d 771, 772 [1994]). "However, 'in exceptional, narrowly defined circumstances, judicial interjection through a direct colloquy ...

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