People v. LaValle

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtG.B. SMITH, J.
Citation783 N.Y.S.2d 485,3 N.Y.3d 88,817 N.E.2d 341
Decision Date24 June 2004
PartiesTHE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent, v. STEPHEN S. LAVALLE, Appellant.

3 N.Y.3d 88
817 N.E.2d 341
783 N.Y.S.2d 485

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent,
v.
STEPHEN S. LAVALLE, Appellant

Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Argued April 26, 2004.

Decided June 24, 2004.


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Kevin M. Doyle, Capital Defender, New York City (Daniel R. Williams, Christopher Seeds and Holly Handler of counsel), for appellant.
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Thomas J. Spota, District Attorney, Riverhead (Michael J. Miller, Kerry Bassett and Anne E. Oh of counsel), for respondent.
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Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General, New York City (Luke Martland, Peter B. Pope, Daniel Smirlock and Robin A. Forshaw of counsel), in his statutory capacity under Executive Law § 71. I

Chief Judges KAYE and Judges CIPARICK and ROSENBLATT concur with Judge G.B. SMITH; Judge ROSENBLATT concurs in a separate concurring opinion; Judges R.S. SMITH dissents in another opinion in which Judges GRAFFEO AND READ concur.

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OPINION OF THE COURT

G.B. SMITH, J.

A Suffolk County jury found defendant Stephen S. LaValle guilty of first degree murder in the course of and in furtherance of first degree rape (Penal Law § 125.27 [1] [a] [vii]) and sentenced him to death. His direct appeal comes to us from Supreme Court pursuant to our unique jurisdiction in death penalty cases (NY Const, art VI, § 3 [b]; CPL 450.70 [1]). For the reasons that follow, we uphold the conviction, but vacate the death sentence, and remit for resentencing in accordance with CPL 470.30 (5) (c). In vacating the death sentence, we conclude that the jury deadlock instruction prescribed in CPL 400.27 (10) is unconstitutional under article I, § 6 of the State Constitution. We further conclude that this defect in the existing statute can only be cured by a new deadlock instruction from the Legislature.

I. FACTS

Around 12:30 P.m. on Saturday, May 31, 1997, the body of Cynthia Quinn was found in the woods near Mills Road in Yaphank, a village in Suffolk County. Her neck, chest, back and arms were covered with 73 puncture wounds made with a screwdriver-like instrument. She had been raped. She also had a broken rib, bruises on her arms and abrasions on many parts of her body.

About six hours earlier, she had left her home for her customary morning jog. Several Yaphank residents saw her running along her route. By 7:30 A.m., her husband Brian Quinn grew concerned that she had not returned home and began searching for her. He had expected her to return by 7:00 A.m. because, as a self-employed carpenter, he was scheduled to report to a work site at 7:30 A.m. He also knew that Cynthia, a high school track coach, had a track meet that same morning. Initially, Brian searched the surrounding area in his car, with his two young children, and then enlisted the help of fellow volunteer firefighters. Eventually, several units of the police department joined the search. The body was discovered by two volunteer firefighters.

Earlier that same morning, Monique Sturm was attacked and robbed by a man who bumped her car on a road in Port Jefferson,

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which is about eight miles from where the body was found. She managed to escape through the passenger door when the man forced himself through the door on the driver's side. In the process, she bit his finger. In her call to 911, placed at 5:57 A.m., Sturm provided a description of the assailant and his car. Sturm's wallet was found around 11:40 a.m., not far from the murder scene.

Police investigators connected the two events, inferring that the same person was behind both. According to pretrial testimony, several weeks earlier a pedestrian was accosted by the driver of a car similar to that of defendant. Defendant was a suspect in that incident, and Sturm's description of the assailant and his car matched the description that woman gave. The police learned that in 1986 defendant was convicted of sexually assaulting a female driver he had bumped with his car and that he was on parole as the result of a burglary conviction. The police also learned that defendant's car was similar to a car seen near the crime scene about 6:30 A.m. that Saturday. That witness identified defendant's car as the car he had seen. Sturm, however, could not identify defendant's car as the one her assailant had been driving and could not definitively identify defendant in a photo array.

Two days after the murder, on June 2, 1997, the police arrested defendant in connection with the robbery after he was told to report to his parole officer. Defendant's right index finger had a cut. Defendant waived his Miranda rights and was interrogated. According to the trial testimony of the interrogating officer, defendant initially denied any involvement with Sturm. Eventually, he admitted that his car hit Sturm's car. Defendant told the police that the night prior to the encounter, he and his family had gone to dinner around 7:30 P.m. at a local restaurant. After dinner, he went to a comedy club, arriving at around 8:30 P.m. An hour later, he went to a pub named Harrigan's, where he stayed for a few hours with his friend Phil Anderson and a man named Brett. After dropping off Phil at his home, defendant told the police, he and Brett went to a keg party, where they stayed for a few hours. At around 5:45 A.m., he dropped off a man named Tom near a 7-Eleven store. As defendant drove off, he turned a corner and he hit a car. When he pulled over, a female got out of the other car and began yelling at him and attacked him with her pocketbook. He took the pocketbook from her, and threw it over a fence. Defendant claimed that he tried to calm her down by pushing her into the

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car, but that she hit him and kicked him. Defendant admitted to the police that he got inside her car, and she jumped out the passenger door and ran to a nearby house yelling for help. Defendant said he returned to his car and drove away. Defendant prepared a sketch of where the incident took place and gave the police permission to search his car and take samples of his hair, blood and saliva.

Defendant eventually confessed to the murder of Cynthia Quinn. He stated that while driving home, he had stopped on the road to urinate. A woman jogging on the road began yelling that he was a bum and should use a restroom. He became angry because people had been yelling at him his whole life, and walked toward her. Defendant told the police that the woman backed into the woods and began waving a long thin piece of metal, like a screwdriver, at him. Defendant could see that she was scared. Defendant grabbed the piece of metal away from her and started stabbing her. When she fell down, he raped her. Then, he started stabbing her again. According to defendant, he later sat down on a nearby log and cried. Defendant told the police that he ran back to his car and drove toward his house, discarding the weapon along the way. When he got home, he threw his clothes into a hamper. Defendant drew sketches of the murder scene and the weapon for the police.

On June 5, 1997, a grand jury indicted defendant for murder in the first degree (Penal Law § 125.27 [1] [a] [vii] — intentional murder in the course of committing or attempting to commit and in furtherance of rape in the first degree, or in the course of and furtherance of immediate flight after committing or attempting to commit rape in the first degree); three counts of murder in the second degree (Penal Law § 125.25 [1], [2], [3] — intentional murder, depraved indifference murder and felony murder),1 and robbery in the first degree (Penal Law § 160.15 [2]). He was arraigned on June 9, 1997. On August 12, 1997, the People served notice of intent to seek the death penalty (CPL 250.40).

Opening statements commenced on June 8, 1999, and the trial lasted 17 days. The jury considered 41 prosecution witnesses and 180 exhibits, including evidence showing that defendant's DNA matched samples collected from the victim's

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body and clothing. Defendant did not present any witnesses. Two days after summations, the jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder and one count of second degree murder (intentional murder) and found him not guilty of the robbery charge. After the jury's verdict, the trial court, pursuant to CPL 300.30 (4) and 300.40 (3) (b), dismissed the guilty verdict for murder in the second degree in light of the first degree murder verdict. The penalty phase began on August 3, 1999 and concluded on August 6 when the jury rendered a verdict that defendant be sentenced to death.

Throughout the proceedings below, defendant filed a flurry of motions, most of which the courts denied, and objected to numerous rulings. On appeal, defendant raises a number of issues. We conclude that defendant's guilt was established beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the verdict of guilt was not against the weight of the evidence. We consider first issues arising during the guilt phase and then turn to the penalty phase. We do so with the awareness both that death is different and that CPL 470.30 confers upon this Court unique powers of review (see People v Harris, 98 NY2d 452, 474 [2002]).

II. GUILT PHASE

A. JURY SELECTION

Defendant argues that the trial court erred in failing to grant challenges for cause against jurors Nos. 16, 43, 79, 107 and 124, because they were not impartial and held views that substantially impaired their ability to consider a life sentence. None of these jurors sat on the case. The defense exhausted its peremptory strikes, and defendant argues for relief pursuant to CPL 270.20 (2), which states

"An erroneous ruling by the court denying a challenge for cause by the defendant does not constitute reversible error unless the defendant has exhausted his peremptory challenges at the time or, if he has not, he peremptorily challenges such prospective juror and his peremptory challenges are exhausted before the selection of the
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128 practice notes
  • Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 1, 2005
    ...imposition of the death penalty if aggravating and mitigating circumstances were found to be in equal balance); People v. LaValle, 3 N. Y. 3d 88, 817 N. E. 2d 341 (2004) (invalidating mandatory requirement to instruct the jury that, in the case of jury deadlock as to the appropriate sentenc......
  • Baze v. Rees, No. 07–5439.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 2008
    ...(2000); N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 15–187 (Lexis 2007); N.Y. Correc. Law Ann. § 658 (West 2003) (held unconstitutional in People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 130–131, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485, 817 N.E.2d 341, 367 (2004)); Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 2949.22 (Lexis 2006); Okla. Stat., Tit. 22, § 1014 (West 2001); O......
  • Billiot v. Epps, Civil Action No. 1:86CV549TSL.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Mississippi
    • November 3, 2009
    ...has not been rewritten by its legislature. See People v. Taylor, 9 N.Y.3d 129, 848 N.Y.S.2d 554, 878 N.E.2d 969 (2007); People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485, 817 N.E.2d 341 (2004). In Illinois, the moratorium on executions declared by then-Governor George Ryan in 2000 is apparen......
  • State v. Peeler, No. 18125.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • May 26, 2016
    ...sentence obtained under an unconstitutional death penalty procedure statute—despite dissenting three years before in People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 99, 817 N.E.2d 341, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485 (2004), in which the court had invalidated that statute.4 Judge 140 A.3d 837 Smith explained that the “po......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
129 cases
  • Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 1, 2005
    ...imposition of the death penalty if aggravating and mitigating circumstances were found to be in equal balance); People v. LaValle, 3 N. Y. 3d 88, 817 N. E. 2d 341 (2004) (invalidating mandatory requirement to instruct the jury that, in the case of jury deadlock as to the appropriate sentenc......
  • Baze v. Rees, No. 07–5439.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 2008
    ...(2000); N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 15–187 (Lexis 2007); N.Y. Correc. Law Ann. § 658 (West 2003) (held unconstitutional in People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 130–131, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485, 817 N.E.2d 341, 367 (2004)); Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 2949.22 (Lexis 2006); Okla. Stat., Tit. 22, § 1014 (West 2001); O......
  • Billiot v. Epps, Civil Action No. 1:86CV549TSL.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Mississippi
    • November 3, 2009
    ...has not been rewritten by its legislature. See People v. Taylor, 9 N.Y.3d 129, 848 N.Y.S.2d 554, 878 N.E.2d 969 (2007); People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485, 817 N.E.2d 341 (2004). In Illinois, the moratorium on executions declared by then-Governor George Ryan in 2000 is apparen......
  • State v. Peeler, No. 18125.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • May 26, 2016
    ...sentence obtained under an unconstitutional death penalty procedure statute—despite dissenting three years before in People v. LaValle, 3 N.Y.3d 88, 99, 817 N.E.2d 341, 783 N.Y.S.2d 485 (2004), in which the court had invalidated that statute.4 Judge 140 A.3d 837 Smith explained that the “po......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • MISSING THE MISJOINDER MARK: IMPROVING CRIMINAL JOINDER OF OFFENSES IN CAPITAL-SENTENCING JURISDICTIONS.
    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 111 Nbr. 3, June 2021
    • June 22, 2021
    ...For New Mexico, see, e.g., N.M. STAT. ANN. [section] 31-14-1 (2019). For New York, see, e.g., People v. LaValle, 817 N.E.2d 341, 367 (N.Y. For North Dakota, see, e.g., N.D. CENT. CODE [section] 12-50, repealed by N.D. Laws 1973, ch. 116, [section]41. For Rhode Island, see, e.g., 11 R.I. GEN......
  • Merciful Justice: Lessons From 50 Years of New York Death Penalty Commutations
    • United States
    • Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 35-2, June 2010
    • June 1, 2010
    ...The Supreme Court’s reliance on commutation to ensure justice in deathpenalty cases. Vanderbilt Law Review,49, 311-372.People v. LaValle, 817 N.E.2d 341 (N.Y.). (2004).Pridemore, W. A. (2000). An empirical examination of commutations and executions in post-Furman capitalcases. Justice Quart......

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