People v. Hakim B. Scott
AD2 order dated May 22, 2013, modifying judgment of conviction. AD2 order dated May 22, 2013, modifying judgment of conviction. Decision below: 106 AD3d 1030, 964 NYS2d 665. Rivera, J., granted leave April 21, 2014. Argued May 5, 2015.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Sufficiency of evidence of first-degree manslaughter; did defendant act with a “community of purpose” with his co-defendant, who beat the victim to death with a baseball bat. (2) Whether defendant was deprived of his right to be present when the judge reinstructed the deliberating jury outside of his presence. (Assigned counsel: Steven R. Bernhard & Lynn W.L. Fahey, Appellate Advocates, 111 John St., 9th Floor, NYC 10038.)
People v. Hakim Scott - Decided June 11, 2015
Background Facts: On December 7, 2008, Jose Sucuzhanay, the decedent, and his brother, Romel, were walking home supportively holding one another after a night of drinking. As they crossed in front of an SUV with three passengers stopped at a red light, the driver, codefendant Keith Phoenix, yelled homophobic slurs at the men. In response, one of the brothers either kicked or attempted to kick the SUV. Appellant Hakim Scott then exited from the back seat of the vehicle and smashed a beer bottle over Jose’s head, causing him to fall to the ground. Mr. Scott then chased Romel down the block with the remains of the broken bottle. At some point, codefendant Phoenix exited the SUV and proceeded to beat Jose with an aluminum bat. Once Mr. Scott returned to the SUV, the vehicle left the scene. Jose was left unconscious and died the next day.
At trial, there was conflicting testimony about when codefendant Phoenix exited the vehicle. Demetrius Nathaniel, the third passenger of the SUV, testified that Mr. Scott exited the vehicle first, then, once Mr. Scott ran away chasing Romel, codefendant Phoenix exited the vehicle. Romel, however, testified that the two men exited the vehicle at the same time and that after Mr. Scott hit Jose with the bottle, he could observe codefendant Phoenix approach Jose with the bat. Additionally, another eyewitness testified that he observed Mr. Scott with codefendant Phoenix as he swung the bat.
The prosecution asserted two alternative theories of liability: (1) that Mr. Scott was acting in concert with codefendant Phoenix, and (2) that Mr. Scott alone caused Jose’s death. Mr. Scott was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree.
Issue: Was the evidence legally sufficient to support the conclusion that Mr. Scott was acting in concert with codefendant Phoenix to commit first-degree manslaughter?
Held: Legally sufficient evidence existed to support the conclusion that Mr. Scott and codefendant Phoenix were acting in concert and caused the death of Jose.
CAL Observes: Although the Court acknowledges that “[t]his was a close case,” the Court reaffirms that when evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, it must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. To support this holding, the Court cites People v. Delamota, 18 N.Y.3d 107 (2011), which explains that where there is conflicting testimony from more than one witness, the discrepancy is inapposite to a sufficiency analysis. Thus, regardless of the Court’s “subjective assessment of the People’s case,” it “cannot overturn the conviction on sufficiency grounds” even if it believes the conviction is mistaken. Delamota, 18 N.Y.3d at 116. The Scott decision is a reminder of the limits of sufficiency review. Where a defendant’s challenge to a conviction hinges upon the conflicting testimony from multiple witnesses, a weight of the evidence challenge may well be the better course on appeal, but that course is not available in the Court of Appeals. Scott demonstrates that the Court of Appeals is limited in far it can go given its more limited review powers.
This case is also addresses accomplice liability. Penal Law § 20.00 provides that a principal’s accomplice may be held liable where the accomplice “acting with the mental culpability required for the commission [of the crime] . . . solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or intentionally aids [the principal] to engage” in the commission of the crime. Citing People v. La Belle, 18 N.Y.2d 405 (1966), the Court notes that liability under an acting in concert theory requires that the accomplice and principal “share a ‘community of purpose.’” Scott, 25 N.Y.3d at 1110. Here, there was no dispute that Mr. Scott was the first actor and that it was only afterwards that codefendant Phoenix acted with deadly force. Indeed, the only contested fact was whether Mr. Scott was present at the time codefendant Phoenix attacked Jose with the bat. As such, the Court’s holding suggests that even where the accomplice is the initial actor and uses non-deadly force, he or she can still be held liable for the principal’s deadly actions taken immediately afterwards in the accomplice’s presence.