People v. Enrique Rivera
AD2 order dated November 7, 2012, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 100 AD3d 658, 953 NYS2d 160. Graffeo, J., granted leave March 1, 2013.
ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether the court properly refused to charge second-degree (reckless) manslaughter as a lesser included offense to first-degree manslaughter; whether there was a reasonable view of the evidence that defendant acted recklessly when he stabbed the victim. (Assigned counsel: Warren Landau and Lynn W.L. Fahey, Appellate Advocates, 2 Rector Street, 10th Floor, NYC 10006.)
Factual background: The victim died from a 5 ½ - inch-deep stab wound to the upper chest, inflicted during a barroom brawl between two groups of intoxicated men. In a post-arrest statement, which the defendant repudiated at trial, he recounted waving a knife around haphazardly during a confrontation with the victim and his group. There was evidence at trial that the situation was chaotic and confused. A forensic pathologist for the People testified that the wounds could not have been inflicted by waving around a knife in the manner described by the defendant. The court denied the defendant’s request for a charge-down to second-degree manslaughter and the defendant was convicted of first-degree manslaughter.
Issue before the Court: Whether the defendant was entitled to a charge-down to second-degree manslaughter because neither the number or extremity of wounds was such as to rule out a reckless state of mind.
Held: In an opinion by Judge Read, joined by four judges, the majority held that the court’s refusal to charge man 2 was proper given the forensic pathologist’s testimony. “There is simply not any ‘identifiable, rational basis on which the jury could reject’ the pathologist’s testimony and the evidence of the nature and depth of [the victim’s] wounds.” The majority rejected that its prior case, People v. Butler, 84 N.Y.2d 627 (1984), stands for the proposition that denial of man 2 in a stabbing case is only warranted in the “exceptional case” when the wounds are so numerous and extreme as to rule out a reckless homicide. No minimum number of knife wounds is required to manifest intent.
The dissent (Judges Lippman and Abdus-Salaam) rejected the majority’s assumption that the forensic evidence was conclusive on the issue of intent. Notwithstanding the medical evidence, the jury could reasonably find that the victim “was stabbed during a late-night barroom brawl between two groups of intoxicated men.” The dissent suggested that the majority did not give enough due to the evidence of intoxication, nor to the controlling rule that all reasonable inferences are to be drawn in the defendant’s favor.
CAL observes: This is a dangerous decision that has the potential to hurt defendants in a traditionally more hospitable area of law — defense requests for charge-downs, particularly in knife fights, where different inferences can reasonably be drawn about what the defendant (often intoxicated) might have intended. By finding the forensic pathologist’s testimony conclusive, the majority appears to eliminate the possibility that, notwithstanding the dimensions of the wound, a jury could still reasonably find that the defendant lacked the intent to cause serious physical injury given the surrounding circumstances. In so doing, the majority, while not coming out and saying so, diminishes the rule that all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the defendant’s favor. Hopefully, defendants will be able to limit the decision to its particular facts — an unusually deep penetrating wound that evidently could not have been inflicted in the way the defendant claimed.