People v. Cheryl Santiago
AD2 order dated July 11, 2012, modifying judgment of conviction by reducing second-degree murder conviction to second-degree manslaughter, and otherwise affirming, Decision below: 97 A.D.3d 704, 949 N.Y.S.2d 78. Lippman, Ch.J., granted leave November 26, 2012.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Sufficiency of the evidence corroborating defendant’s confession. (2) Whether letters written by defendant to a third party were sufficiently redacted to delete unnecessarily prejudicial language. (3) Whether the defendant was in "custody" during the first part of the police questioning, so as to require Miranda warnings. (4) Whether trial counsel was ineffective to failing to preserve various issues. (Counsel for defendant-appellant: Malvina Nathanson, 40 Exchange Place, Suite 2010, NYC 10005.)
Factual Background: Santiago was convicted of murdering her step-daughter by suffocating her while putting her to bed. The medical examiner testified that the child had to have been deprived of oxygen for several minutes in order to die. Santiago had given statements to law enforcement and to a jailhouse informant concerning her responsibility for the child’s death. The appellate division had reduced the conviction to second-degree manslaughter, but otherwise affirmed
Issues before the Court: 1) whether the confessions were sufficiently corroborated pursuant to C.P.L §60.50 by evidence establishing that an offense had been committed and whether counsel’s failure to move to dismiss on this ground rendered his assistance ineffective; 2) whether the introduction of letters between the defendant and the jailhouse informant demonstrating the existence of a sexual relationship had been overly prejudicial and counsel was ineffective for not objecting on these grounds; 3) whether the prosecution’s summation, which included a slide show presentation that contained a picture of the dead child vanishing over the course of several minutes was overly prejudicial and counsel was ineffective for failing to object;
Held: 1) the confession was sufficiently corroborated by the medical examiner’s testimony that the death was the result of a homicide; 2) counsel’s failure to single out the sexual nature of the letters admitted between defendant and the informant, where objection was raised to the letters being prejudicial and limiting instructions obtained, did not support an ineffectiveness finding since it would not have changed the outcome of the appeal; and 3) counsel’s failure to object to the prosecution’s summation did not support an ineffectiveness finding as the slides depicted already admitted evidence.
CAL Observes: Justice Rivera’s dissent recognizes the danger that new technologies present to the fairness of criminal proceedings and recognized the inflammatory nature of the presentation which depicted the child in pink pajamas and lifeless projected over and over again. “It is simply not a fair trial if the prosecution puts before the jury in summation a ‘horrid and gruesome’ portrayal of the body of the child,” she observed. The case provides another example of the Court’s reluctance to second-guess on appeal trial counsel’s decisions.