People v. Dale Bradley
AD4 order dated April 1, 2011, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 83 AD3d 1444, 919 NYS2d 744. Smith, J., granted leave December 15, 2011.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Molineux - The admission into evidence of testimony regarding a prior unrelated stabbing by a defendant on trial for stabbing her boyfriend. (2) Whether the court’s refusal to charge on post-traumatic stress disorder, regarding the defendant’s justification defense, was harmless error. (Assigned counsel: Timothy P. Donaher, Monroe County Public Defender, 10 N. Fitzhugh St., Rochester, NY 14614.)
Issue before the Court: Where the issue at this homicide trial was justification for the use of deadly force, and where the defendant introduced evidence of battered woman syndrome as to her state of mind at the time of the stabbing, whether the Molineux state-of-mind exception allowed the People to introduce evidence that at some indeterminate time in the remote past, under unexplained circumstances, the defendant had stabbed an unidentified man in the thigh.
Held: No. Given the lack of context provided to the jury about the earlier incident, it had no probative value as to the justification defense; the Court ordered a new trial. In a solo dissent, Judge Smith viewed the evidence as probative under the unique circumstances of the case.
CAL observes: The decision is favorable to the defense bar in arguing against the admissibility of prior-bad-act evidence. From the defense appellate lawyer's perspective, what is notable is the majority's amorphous harmless error discussion. Under Crimmins, even non-constitutional error cannot be deemed harmless unless, as a threshold matter, the proof of guilt was overwhelming. The majority characterizes the People's proof as strong, but never deems it overwhelming; indeed, the ensuing factual discussion establishes the Court's belief that the evidence was not at all overwhelming. Yet the Court goes on to hold that there was a "signficant probability of a different verdict" absent the error --- an unnecessary venture into the second prong of non-constitutional harmless error analysis if the proof of guilt is not overwhelming. While the result of the Court's harmless error ruling was undoubtedly correct, the unstructured reasoning is an all-too-common phenomenon in the harmless error discussions in appelalte opinions --- a laxity that makes the lives of appellate lawyers that much more difficult.