People v. Knapp

CourtNew York Supreme Court Appellate Division
Citation113 A.D.2d 154,495 N.Y.S.2d 985
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Ricky A. KNAPP, Appellant.
Decision Date21 November 1985

John H. Owen, Cooperstown, for appellant.

Paul W. Elkan, Dist. Atty., Cooperstown, for respondent.


MAHONEY, Presiding Justice.

Defendant was indicted in January of 1978 and charged with two counts of second degree murder based on the death of Linda Jill Velzy, an 18-year-old co-ed attending the State University College at Oneonta. One count charged intentional murder (Penal Law § 125.25), alleging that defendant beat the victim to death. The other count charged depraved and reckless murder (Penal Law § 125.25), alleging that defendant abandoned the victim in an injured condition in a secluded area on a winter night and failed to transport her for medical care. After a trial, a jury acquitted defendant of intentional murder but convicted him of reckless murder. This court affirmed the conviction, holding that while a confession had been taken in violation of defendant's right to counsel and should have been suppressed, such error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of guilt (82 A.D.2d 971, 440 N.Y.S.2d 416). The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that certain other inculpatory statements and tangible evidence, as well as the confession, should have been suppressed. The Court of Appeals further found the error not to be harmless, and remitted the matter for further proceedings (57 N.Y.2d 161, 455 N.Y.S.2d 539, 441 N.E.2d 1057, cert. denied 462 U.S. 1106, 103 S.Ct. 2452, 77 L.Ed.2d 1332). After a second trial on the second count of the indictment, a jury acquitted defendant of reckless murder but convicted him of the lesser included offense of second degree manslaughter. Defendant was thereafter sentenced, as a persistent felon, to an indeterminate term of imprisonment of 25 years to life. This appeal by defendant ensued.

Initially, defendant alleges as error this court's denial of two pretrial motions to change venue (CPL 230.20). Since this court has already ruled on this issue by denying the motions, the decisions are the law of the case and are not properly raised on appeal to this court. However, we will treat this issue as a contention that defendant was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial by an impartial jury by reason of extensive pretrial publicity, including coverage of his suppressed confession, the prior conviction and the reversal of the conviction on appeal.

An accused has a constitutional right to a fair trial by a panel of impartial jurors (Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 722, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 1642, 6 L.Ed.2d 751), and it has been recognized that "sensational" criminal trials may generate prejudicial publicity which threatens this right (see, Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 551-552, 96 S.Ct. 2791, 2799-2800, 49 L.Ed.2d 683). However, it is unrealistic to expect and require jurors to be totally ignorant prior to trial of the facts and issues in a case (see, Irvin v. Dowd, supra; People v. Genovese, 10 N.Y.2d 478, 481, 225 N.Y.S.2d 26, 180 N.E.2d 419). Thus, the United States Supreme Court has held that extensive knowledge in the community of the crime and the accused is not sufficient by itself to establish that a trial was unfair (Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282, 303, 97 S.Ct. 2290, 2303, 53 L.Ed.2d 344). In the instant case, the publicity surrounding the initial trial, the appellate proceedings and the retrial was extensive. Most significantly, the publicity involved confessions and other evidence which the Court of Appeals ordered suppressed upon the second trial. Nonetheless, the voir dire examination of the jurors was extensive and thorough and provided an opportunity to eliminate jurors who were aware of the suppressed evidence or who were otherwise unable to render an impartial verdict. While it appears that defendant did not take advantage of this opportunity, such decision was a matter of trial strategy. Upon review of the record, we are unable to conclude that the conviction was "obtained in a trial atmosphere that had been utterly corrupted by press coverage" (Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 798, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 2035, 44 L.Ed.2d 389).

Defendant contends that the voir dire examination of the jurors was improperly conducted. County Court granted defendant's request to individually examine the potential jurors (see, People v. Boulware, 29 N.Y.2d 135, 324 N.Y.S.2d 30, 272 N.E.2d 538, cert. denied 405 U.S. 995, 92 S.Ct. 1269, 31 L.Ed.2d 463), but refused to exclude the media and public while jurors were questioned regarding publicity. Defendant took the position that if jurors were questioned about whether they were aware of the confession and other prejudicial matters, the media would report the questioning, thus informing other potential jurors of these prejudicial matters. As a result, defendant's attorney limited his voir dire concerning publicity of prejudicial matters. This claim must be rejected since it is clear that the media was already aware of these prejudicial matters, had been reporting them throughout the history of this litigation and was free to continue to report them. Thus, the presence of the media at this stage of the voir dire did not prejudice defendant. We also find no merit to defendant's contention that County Court improperly described the concept of reasonable doubt to jurors during the voir dire. The explanation was not given as part of the jury charge, but simply to clear up a question by potential jurors. Moreover, it was not so incorrect as to have been prejudicial.

Next, defendant argues that he was denied a fair and public trial because, due to renovations being conducted at the Otsego County Courthouse, the trial was held in the church hall of a Roman Catholic church. The hall apparently had "holy pictures" and other religious artifacts, including a crucifix along the path from the makeshift courtroom to the jury room. Initially, we reject the contention that defendant was denied a public trial. While the church hall was a private building, nothing in the record indicates that public access was restricted during the trial. Moreover, it appears that the church hall was used for a number of secular purposes. More troublesome is the claim that the location of the trial denied defendant a fair trial. Both defendant and the People objected to the trial being held in the church hall. The Otsego County Office Building, where the voir dire of the jury was conducted, was not used for the trial. In People v. Rose, 82 Misc.2d 429, 431, 368 N.Y.S.2d 387, it was held that "selection as a courthouse or courtroom of a building or room dedicated to religion or permeated with religious symbols is inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the constitutional prohibitions of and fortifications against establishment of religion". Thus, the church hall may not have been an ideal place for the trial. However, the question on appeal is whether the choice of the place of trial was so prejudicial as to have denied defendant a fair trial. We think not. The effect of a religious environment and religious artifacts on jurors is uncertain. It is as likely that the jurors would be influenced to render a just and honest verdict as that they would somehow be prejudiced against defendant. Even traditional courtrooms are not devoid of religious symbols and artifacts and both jurors and witnesses are traditionally sworn with the phrase "so help you God". Thus, the legal conceptions of truth and justice are often related to the religious conceptions of these terms. Further, the trial was not held in a church, but in a church hall which was a separate building. While County Court did not allow defense counsel to develop the record fully regarding the number, description and location of religious artifacts, it does not appear from the record that the religious environment was so pervasive as to deny defendant a fair trial.

Defendant also argues that County Court improperly admitted evidence that he struck the victim. As discussed earlier, defendant had been charged with two counts of second degree murder: intentional murder based on allegations that he struck the victim and reckless murder based on his failure to transport her for medical care. At the first trial, the jury acquitted defendant of the intentional murder charge. At the second trial, the People presented the testimony of a former jail inmate of defendant who had not testified at the first trial, to the effect that defendant told him he had beaten the victim. Clearly, the principle of double jeopardy prohibited retrial of the intentional murder charge (cf. Matter of Kitt v. Haft, 99 A.D.2d 942, 473 N.Y.S.2d 3, appeal dismissed 63 N.Y.2d 677). Defendant theorizes that the introduction of evidence that he struck the victim was an attempt to circumvent this principle. We disagree. There is a significant amount of evidence, the body of the victim for example, which was material and relevant to both counts of second degree murder. The mere fact that evidence was relevant to the intentional murder count does not necessarily mean that it was inadmissible at the second trial. The testimony of the former jail inmate was part of the narration of the entire conversation he had with defendant. While evidence that defendant struck the victim may have been essential to the intentional murder charge, it also bore some relevance to the reckless murder charge, particularly with regard to defendant's awareness that the victim was seriously injured. Further, such evidence is relevant in establishing that defendant had a duty to aid the victim, in response to defendant's argument that he was not required to be a good samaritan. Thus, such evidence was properly admitted. For the same reason, it cannot be said that this evidence was beyond the scope...

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    ...doctrine of "the law of the case" is potentially implicated (see, People v. Brown, 136 A.D.2d 1, 12, 525 N.Y.S.2d 618; People v. Knapp, 113 A.D.2d 154, 495 N.Y.S.2d 985). In order to avoid the consequences which strict application of this doctrine might have, the defendant notes that "the e......
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    ...a criminal defendant unquestionably “has a constitutional right to a fair trial by a panel of impartial jurors” ( People v. Knapp, 113 A.D.2d 154, 158, 495 N.Y.S.2d 985 [1985],cert. denied479 U.S. 844, 107 S.Ct. 158, 93 L.Ed.2d 97 [1986];see People v. Rodriguez, 71 N.Y.2d 214, 218, 524 N.Y.......
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