HERE THE DEFENDANT CLAIMED HE ACTED IN SELF-DEFENSE WHEN HE STABBED THE VICTIM WITH A PEN KNIFE; THE DEFENDANT SOUGHT TO INTRODUCE EVIDENCE OF THE VICTIM’S PRIOR VIOLENT ACTS IN SUPPORT OF THE JUSTIFICATION DEFENSE; THE TRIAL JUDGE INSTRUCTED THE JURY ON THE JUSTIFICATION DEFENSE BUT DID NOT ALLOW EVIDENCE OF THE VICTIM’S PRIOR VIOLENT ACTS TO BE CONSIDERED ON THAT ISSUE; THE COURT OF APPEALS AFFIRMED, UPHOLDING THE RULE THAT THE VICTIM’S PRIOR VIOLENT ACTS ARE NOT ADMISSIBLE PROOF OF JUSTIFICATION UNLESS THE DEFENDANT WAS AWARE OF THE PRIOR VIOLENT ACTS AT THE TIME OF THE INCIDENT (CT APP).
The Court of Appeals, over a two-judge dissenting opinion, affirming defendant’s conviction, determined the rule that evidence of a victim’s prior violent acts should not be admitted in support of the justification defense unless defendant was aware of those prior violent acts at the time of the incident. Here there was evidence the victim had four youthful offender adjudications in which the victim acted violently. The defendant stabbed the victim with a pen knife and claimed the victim was attacking him with a broken beer bottle. The trial judge instructed the jury on the justification defense:
Defendant stabbed the victim in the chest with a small knife, causing life-threatening injuries. At trial, the court determined that defendant was entitled to raise a justification defense. Defendant sought to introduce evidence of the specific violent conduct underlying four of the victim’s prior youthful offender adjudications to prove that the victim was the initial aggressor with respect to deadly physical force … . Supreme Court, in accordance with Miller, prohibited the jury from considering that evidence for that purpose. The Appellate Division affirmed … .
“Youthful Offender status provides youth four key benefits: relief from [a] record of a criminal conviction, reduced sentences, privacy from public release of the youth’s name pending the Youthful Offender determination on misdemeanor offenses only, and confidentiality of the Youthful Offender record” (Report of the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice 135 ). Youthful offender designations are given to those who have “a real likelihood of turning their lives around,” and the protection gives these individuals “the opportunity for a fresh start, without a criminal record” … . Given these policy concerns, we see no reason to revisit the Miller rule in this case. People v Guerra, 2023 NY Slip Op 01352, CtApp 3-16-23
Practice Point: Where the defendant raised the justification defense, proof of prior violent acts by the victim is not admissible unless the defendant was aware of them at the time of the incident (not the case here).
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