Court’s Unjustifiably Narrow Interpretation of Jury’s Request for Evidence Required Reversal
The Court of Appeals, in a full-fledged opinion by Judge Abdus-Salaam, with a concurring memorandum by Judge Rivera, determined the trial judge’s narrow reading of a request for evidence of the benefits two prosecution witnesses received in return for their testimony required reversal. There was essentially no evidence other than the testimony of the two witnesses pointing to defendant as the shooter. A written cooperation agreement with one of the two witnesses outlined some of the benefits accorded him. However, there was also trial testimony in which both witnesses testified about other benefits received in exchange for testimony. The jury requested to “see” the evidence of the benefits. The court read the request narrowly to refer only to the written cooperation agreement and gave the jury the impression only the cooperation agreement was in evidence. The Court of Appeals held that the jury note should have been read as a request for all the evidence of benefits accorded the witnesses and the failure to provide all the requested evidence was reversible error:
CPL 310.30 provides that, “[u]pon such request” for evidence or legal instruction from a deliberating jury, “the court must direct that the jury be returned to the courtroom and, after notice to both the people and counsel for the defendant, and in the presence of the defendant, must give such requested information or instruction as the court deems proper” (CPL 310.30). Similarly, absent a withdrawal of the jury’s inquiry or similar circumstances, common-law principles of procedural fairness generally require the court to furnish the jury with information requested during its deliberations, and the court has significant discretion in determining the proper scope and nature of the response … . Thus, regardless of whether the issue is framed under CPL 310.30 or common-law rules governing jury deliberations, where, as here, the defendant has preserved for our review a specific objection to the contents of the trial court’s response to a jury note, we must determine whether the trial court acted within the bounds of its discretion in fashioning an answer to the jury’s inquiry … . In determining whether the trial court abused its discretion and committed reversible error, “[t]he factors to be evaluated are the form of the jury’s question, which may have to be clarified before it can be answered, the particular issue of which inquiry is made, the [information] actually given and the presence or absence of prejudice to the defendant” … .
In this case, an evaluation of those factors demonstrates that the trial court abused its discretion by declining to provide the jurors with information that they plainly wanted and incorrectly characterizing the state of the evidence on the subject of their inquiry. People v Taylor, 2015 NY Slip Op 07782, CtApp 10-27-15