A deeply divided appellate panel has upheld a 25-year state prison term imposed on a defendant who would have faced no jail time if he’d been a mere six months younger when he committed his crimes.
Mathew Angona was 16 when he committed four acts of first-degree sodomy, and 24 when he went to police, said he wanted to clear his conscience and admitted to the offenses performed eight years earlier on a youthful victim who had never reported the abuse.
After rejecting one plea offer that would have resulted in a four-month jail term, and another that would have landed him in prison for two years, Angona was convicted in Oswego County and sentenced to 25 years by Judge William Walsh.
Last week, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, upheld Angona’s conviction against various claims, including ineffective assistance and prosecutorial misconduct. But the panel split 3-2 on whether the sentence was excessive.
Centra and Lindley noted that if Angona had been 15 rather than 16 at the time of the crime, he would not have been exposed to criminal charges at all.
“Defendant self-reported his crimes to the police approximately eight years after they were committed, stating that he wanted to get something off his chest and clear his conscience,” Centra and Lindley wrote in the dissent in People v. Angona, 586. “If defendant had not gone to the police himself, he likely would never have been charged, inasmuch as the victim had not disclosed the abuse to anyone.”
The dissenters said those facts “may explain why, prior to indictment,” the defendant was offered a plea bargain to a reduced charge with a four-month sentence, and on the eve of trial offered a two-year sentence.
In the majority memorandum, Presiding Justice Henry Scudder (See Profile) and justices Edward Carni (See Profile) and Brian DeJoseph (See Profile) countered that Angona’s crimes were “heinous” and that at trial he claimed he was innocent, that his confession was fabricated by police and that he was the victim of police brutality. The majority noted that Angona had a prior youthful offender adjudication for sexually abusing an eight-year-old boy.
“[N]ew facts and circumstances defendant presented to the court through his trial testimony, after the original plea offer, such as his perjurious testimony and lack of genuine remorse, rebutted any presumption of vindictiveness arising from the imposition of the increased sentence after trial,” the majority wrote.
Centra and Lindley agreed that Angona “deserves a lengthy sentence due to the heinous nature of his conduct and his refusal to accept responsibility,” but said 25 years was just too much.
“[A]lthough defendant’s rejection of the plea offers resulted in the victim having to testify at trial, the victim was 18 years old when the last offer was extended and was himself a convicted felon serving time in state prison,” the dissenters wrote. “Thus, unlike in many sexual assault cases involving child victims, there was not a compelling need to shield the victim from testifying at trial.”
The appeal was argued by Oswego County Assistant District Attorney Courtney Pettit, with Bradley Keem of D.J. & J.A. Cirando in Syracuse appearing for the defendant.
Use of Stun Belts
In an unrelated case out of Steuben County, the Fourth Department differed on whether a defendant could be restrained with a stun belt throughout trial without a judicial determination that such a measure is necessary. Stun belts are remote-controlled devices through which authorities can zap prisoners with electric current if they misbehave.
People v. Cooke, 453, centered on a defendant who was charged and ultimately convicted of various sex charges. Since Robert Cooke expressly consented to wearing a stun belt throughout trial, County Judge Joseph Latham made no finding of fact warranting the use of the restraint.
The Fourth Department cited its decision last summer in People v. Schrock, 108 AD3d 1221, where it said a defendant could consent to the use of a stun belt. In Schrock, which the Court of Appeals declined to review, Justice Eugene Fahey (See Profile) dissented. He repeated his concerns in the Cooke decision handed down Friday.
Fahey agreed the result in Cooke was preordained by the decision in Schrock, but continued to maintain that the latter was wrongly decided. He insisted that restraining a defendant with a stun belt without the input the court constitutes a “mode of proceedings” error and that an individual could not waive his or her right to judicial review.
“Here, the decision to apply the stun belt to defendant at the outset of the trial was not made by county court, and I re-emphasize my view that courts, not non-judicial personnel, are to control the courtroom and thus must determine whether to apply a stun belt to a defendant,” Fahey wrote in Cooke.
Fahey agreed with the majority—comprised of justices Centra, Erin Peradotto (See Profile), Lindley and Joseph Valentino (See Profile)—that Cooke had consented to the stun belt. But he argued that the defendant’s consent did not relieve the trial court of its duty to decide if such a restraint was justified.
The Cooke appeal was argued by Assistant Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker. Cooke was represented by Mary Davison of Canandaigua.