People v. Cruz

Decision Date17 October 1985
Citation485 N.E.2d 221,66 N.Y.2d 61,495 N.Y.S.2d 14
Parties, 485 N.E.2d 221 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Eulogio CRUZ, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Belton BRIMS, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Robert S. Dean and William E. Hellerstein, New York City, for appellant in the first above-entitled action.

Mario Merola, Dist. Atty. (Mark L. Freyberg and Peter D. Coddington, New York City, of counsel), for respondent in the first above-entitled action.

Bennett L. Gershman, New York City, for appellant in the second above-entitled action.

Kenneth Gribetz, Dist. Atty. (John S. Edwards, New City, of counsel), for respondent in the second above-entitled action.

OPINION OF THE COURT

SIMONS, Judge.

Defendant Eulogio Cruz has been convicted of murder second degree committed during the course of a gas station robbery in The Bronx. Defendant Belton Brims has been convicted of two counts of murder second degree and other crimes committed during the burglary of a private home in Spring Valley, New York. Both defendants were tried jointly with codefendants and the principal issues submitted in these appeals are whether the courts' refusal to grant defendants' motions for severance resulted in trials impermissibly flawed contrary to the rule of Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 20 L.Ed.2d 476; see, also, Roberts v. Russell, 392 U.S. 293, 88 S.Ct. 1921, 20 L.Ed.2d 1100, and if not whether reversal is nevertheless required because the prosecutions failed to meet minimum standards of fairness (see, People v. Payne, 35 N.Y.2d 22, 358 N.Y.S.2d 701, 315 N.E.2d 762; People v. La Belle, 18 N.Y.2d 405, 276 N.Y.S.2d 105, 222 N.E.2d 727). In each trial statements of the codefendants and the defendants were received in evidence. The basis for defendants' claims are their assertions not only that the content of their nontestifying codefendant's statements did not "interlock" with their own but that even if the statements were substantially the same, defendants were prejudiced because the reliability of the codefendants' confessions, made in the controlled environment of a police station, to police officers and under circumstances rendering them more credible, was greater than that of defendants' alleged confessions, made to lay witnesses having motives to falsify. Because of this difference in reliability, defendants contend that the jurors must have used the codefendants' statements to resolve any doubts about defendants' guilt, even though they were instructed not to do so. Defendant Brims urges other grounds for reversal but those claims are either unpreserved or harmless (see, People v. Crimmins, 36 N.Y.2d 230, 367 N.Y.S.2d 213, 326 N.E.2d 787). Neither defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence and, in the absence of legal error, the convictions should be upheld.

There should be an affirmance. The introduction of a codefendant's testimony may, in some instances, substantially impair the defendant's right to confrontation or to a fair trial. The confessions of the defendant and codefendant in each of these cases interlocked, however, and even though they differed in length and in the circumstances under which they were made, the codefendant's statements could properly be received with appropriate limiting instructions, regardless of differences in their comparative reliability (People v. McNeil, 24 N.Y.2d 550, 301 N.Y.S.2d 503, 249 N.E.2d 383, cert. denied sub nom. Spain v. New York, 396 U.S. 937, 90 S.Ct. 282, 24 L.Ed.2d 236; Parker v. Randolph, 442 U.S. 62, 99 S.Ct. 2132, 60 L.Ed.2d 713). Because defendants' statements not only interlocked with those of their codefendants, but also contained legally corroborated admissions of all the elements of the crime of which they were convicted, defendants were not denied a fair trial and the motions for severance were properly denied.

PEOPLE V CRUZ

Defendant Cruz was indicted with his brother, Benjamin, for the felony murder of a gas station attendant committed November 29, 1981. Jerry Cruz, who was not related to defendant, was also a participant in the robbery. Some five months later Jerry Cruz was killed and during the course of the investigation of that homicide, the police interviewed his brother, Norberto. Norberto told the police that defendant and Benjamin came to his apartment the morning after the gas station robbery and that at the time defendant was nervous and wearing a bloodstained bandage around his right forearm. Norberto said that defendant told him that he and Benjamin had gone to a gas station in The Bronx the night before intending to rob it and that during Eulogio's struggle with the attendant the attendant had bent down behind the counter, procured a gun and shot him in the arm. Defendant said that Benjamin then jumped up and shot the attendant. Norberto said Benjamin told him a similar account of the incident, although he did not explain to Norberto how defendant was injured or that the brothers had gone to the station that night intending to rob it. Norberto said that he had offered to take defendant to the hospital for treatment of his wounds but defendant refused to go because to do so was "very dangerous". At the trial, Norberto testified that he had been a friend of Eulogio's for 25 years, since they had grown up together in Puerto Rico. He remembered the date Eulogio and Benjamin came to his apartment because his wife was discharged from the hospital that day. When asked on cross-examination why he had not gone to the police earlier with this information, Norberto said that he could not because his brother Jerry "had the event".

Shortly after Norberto's statements to the police, Benjamin Cruz learned that they were looking for him and went to the police station. While he was being questioned about the death of Jerry Cruz, he blurted out that he and defendant had killed the gas station attendant in The Bronx. Subsequently he gave a complete confession to the police which was recorded on videotape. Defendant and his brother were indicted together for felony murder.

Before the trial defendant moved for a severance, but the motion was denied (see, 119 Misc.2d 1080, 465 N.Y.S.2d 419). Both Norberto's testimony implicating the brothers and the videotape of Benjamin's confession were received in evidence during the trial with appropriate limiting instructions. The first trial was aborted because of juror misconduct but the confessions were again received at a second trial which resulted in the judgment now before us convicting defendant. In addition, the People presented police testimony, forensic evidence and photographs which established the robbery and the killing, the location of the victim's body, the injuries to his face and the substantial damage to the office, inferentially establishing defendant's struggle with the attendant before the murder. Also introduced was medical evidence of the trajectory of the bullets as they entered the victim's head from above, corroborating the evidence that Benjamin was above the attendant when he shot him. Defendant offered no evidence and both defendants were convicted of felony murder.

BELTON BRIMS

Defendant Belton Brims was convicted of two counts of intentional murder, two counts of felony murder, two counts of robbery first degree and two counts of burglary first degree. The charges arose out of an incident occurring December 28, 1980 when defendant and James Sheffield, with the assistance of Sheryl Sohn and Willie Brims, burglarized Sheryl's home and killed her parents. On January 1, 1981 defendant was arrested in New York on three other felony charges. He was a prime suspect in the Sohn murders at the time but, after he waived extradition, he was returned to New Jersey to answer felony charges against him there. Brims was subsequently convicted in New Jersey of armed robbery and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 25 years to life. In the meantime, defendant, Sheryl Sohn and James Sheffield were indicted in New York for multiple charges arising out of the Sohn homicides. Defendant was returned to New York and the three defendants were tried together.

None of the defendants testified, but Sheryl Sohn's confession to the police, in which she told the police that she had helped Brims and Sheffield enter her parents' home the evening of the crime, was received in evidence against her. She said she had met the two men at a bar and told them she would unlock the door for them; they could await her parents' return from a party and then, when they returned, rob them. She also agreed that they could have all the valuables they found, except for a diamond ring which her mother would be wearing that she wished for herself. Sheryl said that defendant and others left for the house while she remained at the bar with a friend, but they returned shortly thereafter and told her they were unable to get in. She went home, checked the door again to insure that it was unlocked, and then returned and told defendant and Sheffield. Apparently they were still unable to enter the house and returned to the bar a third time. At that time Sheryl explained the floor plan of the house to the defendants and they left. Her oral statements were later reduced to writing and admitted at the trial. Her statement was redacted to eliminate references to other crimes but the names were left in it.

The People introduced two prior statements by defendant. One was made to his cousin, Willie Brims, who had gone to the Sohn house with defendant and Sheffield but remained in the car while they were inside. Willie Brims was not charged with any crime despite his participation that night. He testified about the several trips from the bar to the house and return while defendant and Sheffield tried to gain entry, about leaving the house after the crime, and about the place where the participants had disposed of various pieces of evidence after the homicides....

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