The Court of Appeals, in a full-fledged opinion by Judge Fahey, over a two-judge dissent, determined that state evidentiary rules were violated by testimony, during the People’s case-in-chief, describing the defendant’s silence following some of the questions asked by the police during interrogation. The court noted that although there are (very) limited circumstances when a defendant’s silence, or failure to give a timely exculpatory explanation, can be used to impeach a defendant who takes the stand, no such flexibility applies to the case-in-chief. There can be many reasons for a defendant’s silence in response to a question, so the probative value of silence is limited. On the other hand, there is a real danger a jury will interpret a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt. The error was not harmless as a matter of law–defendant’s conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered:
If silence could constitute an answer, then the People could meet their burden simply by asking a question. Moreover, evidence of a defendant’s selective silence “is of extremely limited probative worth” … . A defendant who agrees to speak to the police but refuses to answer certain questions may have the same legitimate or innocent reasons for refusing to answer as a defendant who refuses to speak to the police at all … . Furthermore, the potential risk of prejudice from evidence of a defendant’s selective silence is even greater than the risk to a defendant who chooses to remain totally silent. Jurors are more likely to construe a defendant’s refusal to answer certain questions as an admission of guilt if the defendant has otherwise willingly answered other police inquiries. The ambiguous nature and limited probative worth of a defendant’s selective silence is outweighed by the substantial risk of prejudice to the defendant from admission of such evidence … . Evidence of a defendant’s selective silence therefore generally may not be used by the People during their case-in-chief and may be used only as “a device for impeachment” of a defendant’s trial testimony in limited and unusual circumstances … .
The People’s use of defendant’s selective silence in this case was improper for another reason. In her opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury that defendant did not admit or deny the accusations when he spoke to the detective. Furthermore, during direct examination of the detective, the prosecutor elicited testimony establishing not only that defendant did not answer when asked whether he had sex with the victim, but also that he did not deny it either. In addition to using defendant’s selective silence as a purported impeachment device during their direct case, the People also invited the jury to infer an admission of guilt from defendant’s failure to deny the accusations. The risk that the jury made such an impermissible inference is substantial where, as here, defendant selectively answered some police questions but not others, and the court refused to provide any curative instruction. The prosecutor’s comments regarding defendant’s selective silence during opening statements were improper, and the court erred in allowing testimony concerning defendant’s selective silence at trial, inasmuch as the comments and testimony allowed the jury to “draw an unwarranted inference of guilt” … . People v Williams, 2015 NY Slip Op 02866, CtApp 4-7-15