People v. David R. Lang


People v. Lang--decided June 23, 2020

Factual Background:  Defendant was convicted of murdering his brother after the jury rejected his intoxication defense.  On the 9th day of trial, the trial court replaced a juror who apparently had told someone at some time that she had a doctor's appointment for her son in Rochester, hours away from the Essex County courthouse.  While defense counsel did not initially object, he later objected to the court's failure to afford the defense an opportunity to be heard.  The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, finding that "in context" the court conducted the requisite inquiry before determining the juror would not be available to serve within two hours of when she was supposed to return to court.

Held:  the trial court failed to conduct the requisite "reasonably thorough inquiry" before substituting the alternate.  In ordering the substitution, the court had merely stated its belief that the absent juror had to attend her son's doctor's appointment and nothing in the record reflected  that it made any inquiry into the juror's whereabouts or likelihood of appearing prior to the ordering the substitution.  Accordingly, a unanimous court reversed.

CAL observes:  a rare Garcia opinion reversing a conviction following a Rivera leave grant.    This case has had a long, tortured history, which probably explains the Appellate Division's reluctance to order a reversal on a relatively technical error.  As the Court of Appeals observed in People v. Jeanty, 94 N.Y.2d 507 (2000), in refusing to order reversals based on alleged violations of the two-hour rule encompassed in C.P.L. 270.35,  the defendant had a voice in selecting both the original juror and the alternate.  

Here, Lang had attempted to plead guilty years earlier, but the court had not conducted a sufficient inquiry into his assertion of an intoxication defense.  When asked by the 911 operator if he had been drinking he said "^&8 yeah" and blood alcohol tests showed he had a high BAC.  Generally speaking when an Appellate Division uses phrases like "in context" or "under the unique circumstances of this case"  it's a pretty good indication that the court is not following black letter law.  Here, Garcia of all people actually called them out for it.  

Ironically, the case will now probably result in the guilty plea vacated years ago.