Evidence of Prior Violent Act by Defendant Properly Admitted to Refute “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” Affirmative Defense
The Court of Appeals, in a full-fledged opinion by Judge Stein, in a murder case, determined that evidence of a prior violent act committed by the defendant was properly admitted to rebut defendant’s “extreme emotional disturbance” defense. Defendant presented expert testimony alleging he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from a stabbing attack. The defendant argued that his reaction to seeing his friend attacked, intensified by the PTSD, was the reason he fired his gun at a group of people, killing one of them. The defense argued that, prior to the stabbing which triggered the PTSD, defendant was a non-violent person. The evidence of the pre-PTSD violent act by defendant was properly admitted to call into question the “PTSD” defense. A violent incident which occurred after the charged offense, however, should not have been admitted:
Where …. evidence of a defendant’s bad acts or uncharged crimes is “relevant to some material fact in the case, other than the defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged, it is not to be excluded merely because it shows that the defendant had committed other crimes” … .
Evidence of uncharged criminal conduct or bad acts that are probative of a defendant’s state of mind may be admissible if the defendant “opens the door” to such evidence by putting in issue his state of mind at the time of the commission of the charged crime by, for example, raising an extreme emotional disturbance or insanity defense … . Nevertheless, such a defense opens the door to the People’s rebuttal evidence “only to the extent that [the proffered] evidence has a natural tendency to disprove [the defendant’s] specific claim” … . That is, evidence of uncharged crimes or bad acts is admissible to rebut an extreme emotional disturbance defense where the evidence has “some ‘logical relationship’ to, and a ‘direct bearing upon,’ the People’s effort to disprove” the defense, and the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect … . Although the balancing of probative value against potential prejudice is a matter that lies within the trial court’s discretion …, “the threshold question of identifying a material issue to which the evidence is relevant poses a question of law” … .
… The crux of the defense was that defendant, a previously nonviolent person, was suffering from PTSD as a result of the 2005 stabbing incident and that his actions in firing into the group on the street were attributable to his PTSD. By raising this defense and presenting the testimony of [two witnesses] — both of whom testified regarding defendant’s personality and behavior before the 2005 stabbing as compared with his behavior after that event — defendant “necessarily put in issue some aspects of his character and personal history” … . The prosecutor’s inquiries pertaining to the 2002 incident were “directly relevant to the question of defendant’s reaction patterns” because it was an instance in which “defendant had resorted to violence in the face of relatively mild provocation” before the 2005 stabbing occurred … . This altercation “ha[d] a logical and natural tendency to disprove [defendant’s] specific claim” that he was an otherwise peaceful person who reacted with violence only because his PTSD was triggered by the circumstances in which the shooting took place … . In other words, it tended to refute the subjective element of defendant’s defense, i.e. that he actually acted under the influence of PTSD. Moreover, the court’s decision to allow this incident to be explored on cross-examination, rather than through the testimony of a rebuttal witness, was not improper under the facts presented here. People v Israel, 2015 NY Slip Op 08370, CtApp 11-18-15