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People v. Stahli

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

March 1, 2018


          Calendar Date: January 17, 2018

          Paul J. Connolly, Delmar, for appellant.

          D. Holley Carnright, District Attorney, Kingston (Marlene O. Tuczinski, New York Prosecutors Training Institute, Albany, of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Egan Jr., J.P., Devine, Mulvey, Aarons and Rumsey, JJ.


          DEVINE, J.

         Appeal from a judgment of the County Court of Ulster County (Williams, J.), rendered June 4, 2015, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crime of murder in the second degree.

         Defendant resided with Katlin Wolfert and her two sons, the two-year-old victim and his younger brother, in the summer of 2014. Beginning in mid-July 2014, defendant cared for the children while Wolfert was working. On the afternoon of August 5, 2014, the victim's aunt went to wake him up and found him unresponsive in bed. Emergency responders observed that rigor mortis was already setting in on the heavily bruised victim, and it was later determined that he succumbed to nonaccidental blunt force trauma and attendant blood loss. An investigation pointed to defendant as the perpetrator of these injuries, and he was indicted on one count of murder in the second degree (depraved indifference murder of a child). Following a jury trial, defendant was found guilty as charged. County Court sentenced defendant to 25 years to life in prison, and he now appeals.

         We affirm. Defendant argues that the verdict was not supported by legally sufficient evidence and was against the weight of the evidence. A legal sufficiency challenge requires us to "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People and 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 Robinson, 156 A.D.3d 1123, 1124 [2017], quoting People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 [1987]; see People v Kancharla, 23 N.Y.3d 294, 302 [2014]). A legally sufficient verdict may, however, be against the weight of the evidence (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 349 [2007]). The latter review requires us to assess whether acquittal was a reasonable possibility and, if so, to weigh "the relative probative force of conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony" in deciding whether the verdict was justified (People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d at 495 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see People v Kancharla, 23 N.Y.3d at 303).

         Defendant first questions whether the trial proof established that he recklessly engaged in conduct that created a grave risk of serious physical injury or death to the victim and resulted in the victim's death (see Penal Law § 125.25 [4]). His challenge to the legal sufficiency of this proof is unpreserved due to his failure to attack it in his trial motion of dismissal; nevertheless, we consider "whether the elements of the challenged crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt" as part of our weight of the evidence review (People v Rosario, 157 A.D.3d 988, 989 [2018]; see People v Odofin, 153 A.D.3d 972, 974 [2017]). In that regard, Wolfert testified, and the victim's treating nurse practitioner confirmed, that the victim was healthy prior to being left in defendant's clutches. By the time of the victim's death, he was covered by approximately 80 visible bruises and abrasions and had significant internal injuries. The internal injuries included brain, spine and eye injuries that a medical examiner testified were classic indications of a child striking his or her head while being shaken. The victim also fractured a rib, an injury often seen in a child subjected to nonaccidental squeezing. The medical evidence reflected that the primary cause of the victim's death, however, was massive internal bleeding caused by a single incident three to five days prior to his death wherein extreme, sudden compression of his abdomen lacerated his liver and intestines and ripped apart his pancreas.

         The victim was visibly injured in the week before he died, as Wolfert testified to seeing him with bruises, a black eye, a bloody nose and a fat lip. She also testified to returning from work on July 29, 2014 to find him bruised, lethargic, vomiting and passing blood. Wolfert further observed that the victim was not "acting right" and, on the day before his death, asked coworkers if they thought she should seek medical attention for him. Another witness testified that she saw the victim's head "lolling to the side" and his eyes "rolling into the back of his head" before he died, observations so disturbing that she unsuccessfully urged defendant to take the victim to the hospital. Defendant passed some of these injuries off to Wolfert as having occurred under her supervision and suggested that most resulted from the victim's clumsiness, but other witnesses tied them to defendant's abuse. For example, a neighbor testified that, about five days before the victim died, he watched defendant vigorously shake the screaming victim in a parked vehicle and slam the victim against a car seat with such force that he bounced up and struck his head on the vehicle ceiling. Another witness related a conversation on August 2 or 3, 2014 in which defendant recounted how the victim had bitten him on the finger, prompting defendant to throw the victim on a bed so forcefully that the bed broke at some point. Defendant admitted to investigators that this had happened, adding that he placed his right knee onto the victim's stomach while pulling his finger free. Of note, the medical examiner testified that a knee being forcefully jammed into the victim's abdomen could account for the internal injuries that led to his death.

         This extensive proof indicated that defendant inflicted severe and eventually fatal injuries upon the victim in the week prior to his death, and defendant himself acknowledged to investigators that no one else was in a position to cause those injuries. Therefore, deferring to the jury's assessment that this evidence was credible, its finding that defendant "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" was not against the weight of the evidence (People v Warrington, 146 A.D.3d 1233, 1235 [2017], lv denied 29 N.Y.3d 1038');">29 N.Y.3d 1038 [2017]; see Penal Law § 15.05 [3]; People v Barboni, 21 N.Y.3d 393, 405 [2013]; People v Varmette, 70 A.D.3d 1167, 1171 [2010], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 845');">14 N.Y.3d 845 [2010]).

         Defendant assertion that the trial proof failed to establish his "depraved indifference to human life" is unavailing (Penal Law § 125.25 [4]). Depraved indifference is, simply put, "an utter disregard for the value of human life" (People v Suarez, 6 N.Y.3d 202, 214 [2005]). It exists "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'" (People v Nelligan, 135 A.D.3d 1075, 1078 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1072');">27 N.Y.3d 1072 [2016], quoting People v Suarez, 6 N.Y.3d at 213; see People v Barboni, 21 N.Y.3d at 400). The proof in this case showed that "[d]efendant inflicted brutal injuries upon a helpless child over a prolonged period, " attempted to conceal his role in causing them and rejected a plea to obtain medical attention for a victim in obvious decline (People v Nelligan, 135 A.D.3d at 1078). Therefore, legally sufficient evidence existed to support the conclusion "that defendant evinced a wanton and uncaring state of mind" (People v Barboni, 21 N.Y.3d at 402) and, in our view, the jury's decision to make that finding was not against the weight of the evidence (see People v Warrington, 146 A.D.3d at 1237; People v Waite, 145 A.D.3d 1098, 1101 [2016], lv denied 29 N.Y.3d 953');">29 N.Y.3d 953 [2017]; People v Varmette, 70 A.D.3d at 1171).

         Defendant next argues that County Court erred in denying his request to charge criminally negligent homicide (see Penal Law § 125.10) as a lesser included offense of depraved indifference murder of a child. "A crime cannot be a lesser included offense of a greater one unless, when assessing the elements of the two crimes, it is 'theoretically impossible to commit the greater crime without at the same time committing the lesser'" (People v Cruz, 152 A.D.3d 822, 824 [2017], lv denied 30 N.Y.3d 1018');">30 N.Y.3d 1018 [2017], quoting People v Green, 56 N.Y.2d 427, 430 [1982]; see CPL 1.20 [37]; People v Rivera, 23 N.Y.3d 112, 120-121 [2014]). Criminally negligent homicide demands that a person act "with criminal negligence" and, in doing so, "causes the death of another person" (Penal Law § 125.10). Inasmuch as criminal negligence involves a person failing "to perceive [the] substantial and unjustifiable risk" of the result set forth by the statute (Penal Law § 15.05 [4]), a person does not commit criminally negligent homicide unless he or she fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death (see People v Ricardo B., 73 N.Y.2d 228, 235 [1989]; People v Montanez, 41 N.Y.2d 53, 56 [1976]). In contrast, Penal Law § 125.25 (4) demands that an adult person, "[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, ... recklessly engage[] in conduct which creates a grave risk of serious physical injury or death to another person less than [11] years old" and that ends in the other person's death (emphasis added).

         The definition of serious physical injury encompasses injuries that do not create a substantial risk of death or cause death, such as those that cause "serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ" (Penal Law § 10.00 [10]). As we have previously held, it is therefore theoretically possible to commit depraved indifference murder of a child by "engag[ing] in conduct that creates and disregards a grave risk of serious physical injury, causing death, without... engaging in conduct that creates... a substantial risk of death, causing death" (People v Heslop, 48 A.D.3d 190, 195 [2007], lv denied10 N.Y.3d 935');">10 N.Y.3d 935 [2008]) [1]. Defendant urges us to overrule this precedent - which is in accord with the other Appellate Divisions that have addressed the issue (see People v Mora, 57 A.D.3d 571, 572-573 [2d Dept 2008], lv denied12 N.Y.3d 785');">12 N.Y.3d 785 [2009]; People v Robinson, 278 A.D.2d 798, 798 [4th Dept 2000], lv denied96 N.Y.2d 762');">96 N.Y.2d 762 [2001]) - but we recently declined a similar ...

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