People v. Lance J. Reed
AD4 order dated July 6, 2012, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 97 A.D.3d 1142, 948 N.Y.S.2d 493. Martoche, J., (AD dissenter) granted leave October 2, 2012.
ISSUE PRESENTED: The sufficiency of the evidence that the shooting victim had been robbed, and thus that defendant was guilty of robbery and felony murder. (Assigned counsel: Timothy P. Donaher, Monroe County Public Defender, 10 N. Fitzhugh St., Rochester, NY 14614.)
Issue before the Court: where the defendant was charged with felony murder, whether the evidence of an underlying robbery, which was purely circumstantial, was legally sufficient.
Held: In an opinion written by Judge Pigott, four judges agreed that the evidence was sufficient to establish that a robbery had taken place and that defendant had participated. On appeal, defendant did not dispute that he drove the car from the scene of the killing of a drug dealer. He argued that there was insufficient evidence that he had participated in the drug dealer’s robbery. The evidence of a robbery and defendant’s participation in it was purely circumstantial: the drug dealer had left his apartment with a double-knotted plastic Topps grocery bag containing $40,000, and a similar bag – double-knotted, but empty with the bottom torn out — was found in defendant’s car after the killing. The majority found that the presence of a similarly knotted bag established that defendant participated in a robbery. The minority, consisting of Chief Judge Lippman, and Judges Rivera and Abdus-Salaam, would have held that there was insufficient evidence that there was a forcible taking of property.
CAL Observes: In People v Cabey, 85 N.Y.2d 417, 420 (1995), the Court held that although juries must be instructed to apply a heightened standard of proof in wholly circumstantial evidence cases, appellate courts need apply no special standard of review. While jurors must find proof to a moral certainty and exclude innocent inferences, appellate courts need only find that the evidence meets the Jackson legal-sufficiency standard. While Judge Pigott found the evidence sufficient, his opinion reintroduces a special circumstantial evidence standard to sufficiency review, asking whether “a jury could rationally have excluded innocent explanations of the evidence offered by the defendant and found each element of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”