On the night of June 17, 1994, Jonathan Boylston, a known drug dealer, went to Albany, New York to collect on some outstanding debts. He had collected a total of $6,800 from two individuals before meeting with Timothy Foss, who also owed him money. Foss arranged for Boylston to come to his apartment, knowing beforehand that he would be carrying the money he had collected earlier in the evening. Eric G. Johnson, who had never met Boylston, was present in the apartment when he arrived.
Shortly after arrival, Mr. Foss went to the rear of his apartment and returned with a hammer, which he used to strike Boylston. Mr. Johnson later gave a written statement to police, acknowledging that he had physically prevented Boylston from leaving the apartment and that Foss had continued to strike him with the hammer until he stopped moving. Mr. Johnson also told the police that Foss took money from Boylston’s knapsack and gave him several hundred dollars. Boylston’s body was removed the apartment and dumped in a field. The body was discovered several months later in September.
On April 13, 1995 at around 5:30 in the morning, Albany police placed a phone call to Mr. Johnson at his home, asking to speak with him about Boylston’s murder. Mr. Johnson agreed and shortly after, police officers arrived at his residence and escorted him to the police station. Beginning at approximately 6:30 a.m., Mr. Johnson gave a four-page written statement detailing the events of June 17, 1994. He indicated to police that Foss had told him of his plans to bring Boylston back to the apartment so they could steal his money. Mr. Johnson stated that he had no knowledge beforehand that a weapon would be used.
For his part in the crime, Mr. Johnson was charged with three separate counts, including robbery in the first degree, robbery in the second degree and second-degree murder. Since the crime involved the use of force, Mr. Johnson could not have been charged with a lesser count of theft.
At trial, Mr. Johnson’s testimony differed from his original statement on several key points. Mr. Johnson testified that he never had any knowledge of Foss’s plan to steal from the victim and that he did not take part in the crime. The prosecution’s case against Mr. Johnson rested primarily on the information he provided in his written statement.
Prior to beginning deliberations, the judge instructed the jury concerning the elements of both robbery in the first degree and robbery in the second degree, as well as the elements of felony murder. Under New York law, robbery is the taking of another person’s property by threat or force. This differs from burglary, which involves the taking of another person’s property by forceful entry into a building or other structure. Had Mr. Johnson and Mr. Foss had attempted to steal from the victim without force, they may have only been charged with grand larceny and his death may have been avoided.
The jury in Mr. Johnson’s case was also instructed that “when one person engages in robbery, another person is criminally liable for such robbery, when acting with the mental culpability required for the commission thereof, he intentionally aids such person to engage in robbery”. Mr. Johnson’s attorney asked the judge to issue instructions to the jury regarding robbery in the third degree but this request was denied. The court argued that the evidence did not support a charge of robbery in the third degree. During deliberations, the jury sent several notes to the judge, asking for clarification of the elements of each crime included in the indictment, specifically regarding the meaning of “intent”. Eventually, the jury opted to acquit Mr. Johnson of both the robbery charges but found him guilty of second-degree murder. This conviction was later appealed.
The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court was charged with determining whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to warrant a conviction for felony murder, even though the jury had found Johnson not guilty of the robbery. The appellate court argued that since the jury chose to acquit Mr. Johnson of the robbery charges, there must have been insufficient evidence to prove intent. Since the basis for the prosecutor’s case lay in the written statement Mr. Johnson originally offered to police, the appellate court concluded that the jury did not believe his confession.
A charge of felony murder may be sustained even when the underlying felony is not charged, when the charge is dismissed or when the defendant is acquitted of the underlying felony. The appellate court acknowledged this but also noted that in order to prove the elements of the crime of felony murder the evidence must demonstrate proof that the underlying felony was also committed. In Mr. Johnson’s case, the jury was instructed that to convict him of felony murder they must believe that he also committed or attempted to commit the crime of robbery. The appellate court reasoned that since the jury found Mr. Johnson not guilty of the robbery, there was insufficient evidence to prove the second-degree murder charge.
The court went on to say that had the jury accepted the truthfulness of Mr. Johnson’s statement to police, then logically, he would have been found guilty of either first or second-degree robbery. Since the jury declined to find him guilty of the robbery charges, it follows that there was no other evidence that could lead to a conclusion that Mr. Johnson had intended to or did participate in either the robbery or the murder. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed Mr. Johnson’s conviction.
With the help of his attorney, Mr. Johnson was able to fight the robbery charges brought against him and get his conviction overturned. Fortunately, he understood that navigating the complexities of the New York legal system can be an overwhelming prospect and should not be undertaken without the aid of experienced legal representation.
If you’ve been charged with robbery, burglary or another property crime in the New York area, you too should waste no time in contacting a New York Criminal Defense Attorney today. The law firm of Stephen Bilkis and Associates specializes in aggressively defending the rights of individuals charged with serious crimes, including larceny and other charges stemming from the theft of money or property. Call us today at 1-800-NY-NY-LAW or visit one of our New York area offices for your free initial case evaluation.