On January 17, 2003, a man was found guilty by the County Court of Chenango County of murdering his wife. His motion to have this decision vacated, or set aside, was rejected without a hearing.
Let’s review the facts of the case. According to reports, a car accident occurred at the Guilford Lake in Chenango County on April 3, 2002. When the Sheriff’s Department rushed to the scene, they found a man standing at the top of an embankment and saw the taillights of a car submerged in the lake. When they interviewed the man, he said that his wife was driving when a deer ran into the road. She swerved and the car plunged into the lake. Her body was later found at the bottom of the lake, beside the car.
The results of the investigation however, did not match the man’s story. Suspicions began to be raised that he had staged the whole thing after killing his wife in their home. He was then found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The man appealed to the County Court to have their decision cancelled but this was denied without a hearing. The man then raised this with the Court of Appeals.
When the Court of Appeals reviewed the case, they found a lot of errors committed by the County Court that deprived the man of his right to a fair trial. Some of these errors were not objected to by the man’s side, and most of them, individually, were harmless. However, as it is the Court’s responsibility to ensure the right of every individual to a fair trial, it reviewed the case again and came to the conclusion that the County Court’s earlier decision should be reversed and a new trial be held.
What errors by the County Court did the Court of Appeals find? During the trial, the case presented by the prosecution was that the murder was the finale, the culmination of a long history of domestic violence by the man to his wife. In order to prove this, the prosecution presented 24 witnesses to testify that the man had abused his wife and had often threatened her and others. To introduce these testimonies, the prosecution stated that the evidence presented were proof of the man’s motives and intent to kill his wife. Some witnesses said they had seen the man abuse his wife and others said that they remembered the wife saying certain things that revealed how her husband had abused her in the past.
At first, the County Court was hesitant about accepting the testimonies. In deciding whether or not to admit evidence, a court should determine the worth of the evidence and balance it against the possibility of biasing the jury against the suspect. In many cases involving domestic violence, proof of previous abuses against the victim is admitted on the ground that it establishes the suspect’s motive or to establish the relationship between the suspect and the victim. Nevertheless, just because this has been done in a lot of cases does not mean that it should hold true for every case.
In this case, although the testimonies presented showed that man’s tendency to abuse against his wife, there was no discussion about the worth of this evidence to the case or the possible prejudice to the man. The Court of Appeal noted that when a suspect’s previous acts of abuse are focused, there is a potential that the jury will give it too much importance, even though other proofs are weak.
The wife’s diaries, from as far back as six years before the incident, were also included as evidence. However, according to the Court of Appeals, a murder victim’s diaries are “clear hearsay” are cannot be accepted in court as evidence of a suspect’s motive.
A lot of importance was also given to a report by the Michigan State Police on a submerged motor vehicle accident study conducted in 1991, involving 31 tests on 20 passenger vehicles and a school bus. This report was presented by a sheriff who had undergone a month of advanced accident reconstruction training but had never personally investigated an underwater accident. He testified to the Court again and again that the suspect’s story was inconsistent with the State report and was impossible. Testimonies by experts in the field are usually acceptable as evidence in court. Nevertheless, it cannot be the “principal basis” for an opinion in court.
Lastly, the man challenged certain actions by the prosecutor. The Court of Appeals found that the prosecutor repeatedly expressed his personal opinions of the man and said his testimony and those of his witnesses were “lies”. Given all this, the Court of Appeals reached its decision that the man had not been given a fair trial and should be given a new one.
There a lot of difficulties involved in any court case. Not only that, it is sure to take up much of your physical, mental, and emotional strength, time, and money. Stephen Bilkis & Associates can help you through this difficult time. They can advise you and guide you and recommend excellent lawyers.
You can easily contact them in their office in Corona, New York, or in their other conveniently located offices around the State.