Fatal Stabbing Sparks Panel to Debate Evidence Standard

Erie County prosecutors failed to prove that a man who stabbed his victim eight times intended to commit murder, an appellate panel has found.

The panel came to its conclusion after debating whether a court can reduce a charge only when the evidence is legally insufficient or also when the proof falls below the weight of the evidence standard.

In People v. Heatley, 12-02892, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department majority reviewed sufficiency of the evidence, rather than analyze its weight, to reduce Todd Heatley’s conviction from second-degree murder to first-degree manslaughter.

The majority held that if it had applied a weight analysis, it would have had no choice but to dismiss the indictment. That position put the Fourth Department directly at odds with the Second Department—and possibly a Court of Appeals decision that came down Tuesday—after the judges in Rochester issued their opinion in Heatley.

One judge on the panel concurred with the reduction to manslaughter but, echoing the Second Department, argued the court could have achieved the same result through a weight analysis. And a dissenting justice said the court should have based its ruling on the weight of the evidence and dismissed the indictment.

The Court of Appeals explained the distinction between sufficiency and weight of the evidence in a 1987 opinion by then Judge Joseph Bellacosa, People v. Bleakley, 69 NY2d 490.

On sufficiency of the evidence, Bellacosa wrote, the appellate court must determine “whether there is any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury.” With a weight of the evidence review, however, the intermediate court acts as a 13th juror, weighing the legally sufficient evidence for and against a conviction and deciding whether the jury gave proper credence to the conflicting proof, the Court of Appeals said in Bleakley.

The case from Buffalo arose from altercation that occurred outside a two-family residence where the defendant and victim were attending separate Halloween parties in 2009. Records show that the 19-year-old victim put Heatley, a local disc jockey, in a headlock and was punching him.

Heatley pulled two knives out of a sheath on his belt and repeatedly stabbed the victim in an effort to free himself from the headlock. He inflicted eight wounds, one of which was fatal.

A jury rejected Heatley’s justification defense and convicted him of second-degree intentional murder. Erie County Judge Sheila DiTullio (See Profile) imposed the maximum sentence, 25 years to life.

On appeal, a three-judge Fourth Department majority found proof of intentional murder legally insufficient and reduced the charge to first-degree manslaughter, which carries a determinate sentence between five and 25 years. The majority used its interest of justice authority to reach the legal sufficiency issue that was not raised on appeal and was not preserved, finding essentially that sufficiency is a component of weight.

“We agree with defendant that, despite the number of injuries the victim sustained, including a single fatal stab wound, the credible evidence is not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill the victim,” Justice Henry Scudder (See Profile) wrote. “[T]he evidence is not sufficient to prove the element of intent to kill because the physical evidence supports the conclusion that defendant, during an altercation the victim initiated, stabbed the victim in an effort to the have the victim release him and not with an intent to kill him.”

Scudder was joined by Rose Sconiers (See Profile) and Joseph Valentino (See Profile). They concluded that the majority clearly have authority to reduce the murder conviction to manslaughter since the evidence was legally insufficient to support the higher charge. But the majority said that if they had instead found that the proof failed a weight-of-the-evidence test, the only remedy would have been be to dismiss the indictment.

“In our view, the power to reduce a conviction to a lesser included offense is limited to cases in which it is established that the evidence ‘is not legally sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt of an offense of which he [or she] was convicted but is legally sufficient to establish his [or her] guilt of a lesser included offense,’” Scudder wrote, quoting from CPL 470.15 [2] [a].

With that finding, the majority differed with one of its own colleagues and the Second Department in People v. Santiago, 97 AD3d 704 (2012).

In Santiago, the Second Department found evidence of murder legally sufficient, but it reduced the conviction from murder to manslaughter after finding that the proof failed the weight test.

Santiago went to the Court of Appeals, which issued its opinion on Tuesday (NYLJ, Feb. 26). The high court did not directly address the sufficiency v. weight argument, but it did affirm the Second Department decision reducing a conviction on weight. It is unclear whether Santiago would have impacted the Fourth Department decision handed down nearly two weeks earlier.

In the Feb. 14 decision, Fourth Department Justice Nancy Smith (See Profile) said in concurrence that instead of addressing legal sufficiency, the court should have based its determination on the weight of the evidence, as requested by the defendant. But even under that standard, Smith said, the court was empowered to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter.

“The majority and the dissent conclude that, if we determine that the conviction of murder in the second degree is contrary to the weight of the evidence, our only possibly remedial action is to dismiss that count of the indictment,” Smith wrote. “I disagree.”

In dissent, Justice Eugene Fahey (See Profile) said the majority and Smith “would effectively eliminate the distinction between legal sufficiency and weight on intermediate appellate review.”

“The practical effect of the majority’s position is that there would no longer be any reason to preserve the issue of legal sufficiency for at least intermediate appellate review because that issue could be raised in the context of a review based on the weight of the evidence,” Fahey wrote. “Effectively, this means that the possible benefit of a legal sufficiency review, i.e., conviction of a reduced charge and possibly a reduced sentence, could be obtained without establishing any basis for such an action.”

Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita said the jury’s “reasonable” conclusion that a defendant who stabbed a person eight times committed murder should stand. His assistant, Nicholas Texido, argued the appeal.

David Abbatoy Jr. of Rochester, who represented the defendant, noted that none of the judges thought the prosecution had proven intentional murder.

“There seems to be some disagreement as to how an appellate court should or can analyze sufficiency and weight, and obviously there is real disagreement over what sort of relief they have authority to grant,” Abbatoy said.

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