People v. Natascha Tiger


Issue: Is a claim of actual innocence cognizable under C.P.L. §440.10 following the entry of a guilty plea.


Factual Background: Ms. Tiger, a nurse, worked for the complainant, a severely disabled girl.  While in Ms. Tiger’s care, the complainant suffered severe burns following a bath.  Initially doctors diagnosed the complainant as suffering an extreme allergic reaction to an antibiotic creme; a few days later, a different doctor diagnosed the injuries as being consistent with scalding.  During the investigation, Ms. Tiger had stated that she believed she had burned the child because the bath water was too hot.  Charges of second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a vulnerable person followed.   Following plea negotiations, Ms. Tiger pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of endangering the welfare of a disabled person in exchange for a split sentence of five years probation concurrent with four months in prison.  During the plea colloquy Ms. Tiger initially stated that she had tested the bath water and it did not feel “that hot.”  Following further inquiry, she admitted making a mistake in determining the water’s temperature and that she was reckless in the care provided.  There was no motion to withdraw the plea or appeal.  


The complainant’s family brought a civil lawsuit and a jury concluded that the care provided by Ms. Tiger did not cause the complainant’s injuries.  Ms. Tiger subsequently brought a C.P.L. §440.10 motion to vacate her guilty plea alleging ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence.  She relied upon medical records which existed at the time of the plea suggesting the injuries were caused by an allergic reaction, her own affirmation asserting her innocence and that of a medical expert retained during the civil suit.  In addition to asserting her innocence in contradiction of her plea statements, Ms. Tiger set forth that counsel had failed to retain a medical expert because of a lack of funds.


In opposing the motion, the prosecution argued that C.P.L.§440.10(1)(h) did not recognize an actual innocence claim in the context of guilty pleas.  The motion court summarily denied the motion and the Second Department reversed.  Relying on People v. Hamilton, 115 A.D.3d 12 (2d Dept. 2014), the Appellate Division held that Ms. Tiger’s guilty plea did not bar her from seeking such relief.  Judge Garcia granted leave to the prosecution to resolve the question of whether a guilty plea forecloses an actual innocence claim under C.P.L. §440.10.


Held: A claim of actual innocence is not cognizable under C.P.L. §440.10 following a guilty plea.  DeFiore, writing for the majority, relied on the recent 2012 enactment of C.P.L. §440.10(1)(g-1) establishing a claim of actual innocence in cases involving newly discovered DNA evidence where a defendant has pleaded guilty but can demonstrate a “substantial probability” that she is actually innocence.  That the legislature had recently carved out this exception for DNA cases supported that an actual innocence claim did not exist in other plea contexts.  The majority emphasized the finality interests at stake and the importance that “a voluntary and solemn admission of guilt in a judicial proceeding is not cast aside in a collateral motion.”  The centrality of the plea process to the administration of justice was also emphasized.   The court expressly left open the question of whether a defendant convicted after trial can raise a claim of actual innocence.  


Garcia wrote a separate opinion, employing similar analysis,  to emphasize that Ms. Tiger’s “freestanding”  actual innocence claim was foreclosed regardless of whether she possessed other claims for relief under C.P.L. §440.10.


Judge Wilson, in an opinion joined by Rivera, opined that the majority had reached the issue of whether §440.10 recognizes an actual innocence claim following a guilty plea too soon, since all the Appellate Division’s decision did was grant a hearing into Ms. Tiger’s claims.  Wilson also disagreed that a person who pleaded guilty but is innocent cannot vacate a guilty plea pursuant to C.P.L. §440.10 (1)(h) in the absence of DNA evidence. Emphasizing the centrality of protecting the innocent to the integrity of our criminal justice system and the prevalence of guilty pleas, Wilson would not bar relief on the basis of a guilty plea. “It is not impossible, as the majority seems to imply, to redress exceptional cases in which a clearly innocent person has pleaded guilty, and simultaneously to avoid eroding the fundamentals of our criminal justice system,” Judge Wilson observed.


CAL Observes: A collective groan from the defense bar could be heard when the court decided this case.  The majority opinion, mean-spirited and exulting the interests of finality over justice, undercuts the criminal justice system’s central mission -- to protect the innocent while ensuring that only the guilty suffer the onus of criminal conviction.  


While the decision bodes poorly for the recognition of any “free standing” claim of actual innocence, including ones following a trial conviction, in reality the decision’s impact will be limited.  The vast majority of 440 motion do not involve claims of actual innocence, particularly in the context of guilty pleas.  As Ms. Tiger’s case itself illustrates, claims that an innocent person was wrongfully convicted, almost invariably result from some breakdown in the process, such as the ineffective assistance of counsel or the suppression of exculpatory evidence.  Still, the majority opinion is depressing for its willingness to categorically close the door to actual innocence claims following a guilty plea, something the State of Texas has refused to do.