People v. Ledwon

Citation153 N.Y. 10,46 N.E. 1046
PartiesPEOPLE v. LEDWON et ux.
Decision Date04 May 1897
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Appeal from superior court of Buffalo, general term.

Joseph Ledwon and Annie Ledwon were indicted for murder. The husband was convicted of murder in the second degree, and the wife of murder in the third degree, and they appeal. Reversed.

Henry W. Hill, for appellants.

James L. Quackenbush, for the People.


The defendants, husband and wife, were convicted in the superior court of Buffalo, the husband of murder in the second degree, and the wife of murder in the third degree, as shown by the verdict of the jury when first delivered in open court. The verdict also contained a recommendation for mercy in favor of the wife. The court then informed the jury that there was no such crime as murder in the third degree, and explained to them the various degrees of murder and manslaughter, and directed the clerk to receive the verdict as to the husband, and the jury to retire and reconsider their verdict with respect to the wife. The jury retired, and, again coming into court, found a verdict of guilty against the wife of manslaughter in the first degree, with a recommendation for mercy. Sentence was pronounced against the husbandof imprisonment in the state prison for life, and the wife for 10 years. On appeal to the general term of the court in which the conviction was had, two judges only held the court; and one wrote for affirming, and the other for revering, the judgment. This disagreement resulted in affirming the judgment, under the statute regulating appeals in that court.

In order to obtain a clear view of the merits of the judgment and the questions presented by the record, if any, a brief history of the case becomes necessary. On the morning of the 11th of September, 1890, the dead body of one George Borowiec, a native of Poland, was found in the water-closet of the tenement house in which he lived, in Buffalo, suspended by the neck with a rope from the crosspiece over the vault. The coroner immediately instituted an inquiry as to the cause and circumstances of the death, and it was found that he had committed suicide. On the 7th of April, 1891, the defendant Joseph Ledwon married the widow of the deceased, and she is now the defendant Annie Ledwon. Nothing further in regard to the matter seems to have transpired till about four years after the death, when an indictment was found against the defendants, charging them with the murder of the deceased by violence, and as the result of their joint act. In January, 1895, the indictment was brought to trial, with the result already indicated. The deceased was a man well advanced in years, who lived with his wife in apartments, and it seems that they kept several boarders, of whom the defendant Joseph Ledwon was one. They had two children, and possibly more, the eldest of whom was a boy then less than 8 years of age. This boy, at the time of the trial, was about 12, and, as we shall presently see, he fills an important place in this record. It was the theory of the prosecution that the deceased did not commit suicide, but that the defendants, who had then become somewhat intimate with each other, conspired together to murder him, and thus remove an obstacle to their future union; that they did, in fact, put him to death by violence, acting together, and aided, it would seem, by at least one other person; that the true cause of the death was strangulation or some other form of violence, perpetrated with a felonious intent, with deliberation and premeditation by the defendants; that, having thus killed the deceased, the defendants, in order to conceal the crime, hung up the body after death in the water-closet, in order to make it appear that the deceased had committed suicide. While the precise theory of the district attorney is not very clearly outlined by the evidence in the record as to all who took part in the supposed tragedy, and it is not very intelligible in many other important particulars, yet it has been here sufficiently stated for all the purposes of this appeal.

We think that it is entirely clear from a perusal of the record that the defendants should not have been convicted upon the evidence, and that the court should not have submitted the case to the jury. There is, of course, a manifest incongruity in the verdict, since, if the theory of the prosecution was established, the defendants were guilty of murder in the first degree, if of any crime whatever. There is nothing in the case to suggest any possible theory upon which there could be a conviction of murder in the second degree, much less one for manslaughter in the first degree. The promptness with which the jury changed a verdict of murder in the third degree into one for manslaughter in the first degree suggests to the mind that the mental process directing such a result must have been based upon conjecture rather than proof. The only difficulty that we have with respect to this case grows out of the condition of the record and the power of the court to review the judgment in such cases. The judgment not being one of death, our jurisdiction is confined to questions of law. We have no power to review the facts, and questions of law can ordinarily be raised by exceptions only. This is not a new rule, but one that has existed always. Assuming that the defendants were improperly convicted, I do not think that we are compelled to affirm the judgment on any technical questions of practice. The record shows that the proceedings at the trial are lacking in precision, but enough was done to present the question to the trial court, and now to this court.

At the close of the case for the people, and again at the close of the whole case, counsel for defendants requested the court to dismiss the indictment, on the grounds (1) that the people had failed to make out a case; (2) they have failed to show that any crime has been committed; (3) they have failed to connect the defendants with the commission of any offense. The court replied that, if there was any evidence at all in such a case, it must be disposed of by the jury, and stated that he would deny the motion, and submit the case to the jury. To this ruling an exception was taken. After the verdict, the counsel moved for a new trial, under section 465 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, on the ground that the verdict was contrary to the law and the evidence, which was denied, and an exception taken. Subsequently, a motion for a new trial, on the ground of newly-discovered evidence, was made and denied. It is made the duty of the court, where it deems the evidence insufficient to warrant a conviction, to advise the jury to acquit (section 410), and the jury must then obey the advice. The court may undoubtedly do this of its own motion, and the accused may present to the court his right to an acquittal, as matter of law, under this section. But the defendant is not confined to this formula or to any form of words in presenting to the court the question of his right to be acquitted. All that is necessary is that in some intelligible form there shall be presented to the court, for its ruling and decision, the question that there is no evidence for the jury, or not sufficient evidence upon which to base a conviction. If the record in this court shows either that there was no evidence whatever, or that the evidence did not, as matter of law, come up to the standard which the law requires in quantity and quality to warrant a conviction, the denial of such a request is legal error, and this court has the power, when such a decision is challenged by exception, to do what the trial court should have done. The same strictness with respect to exceptions does not prevail in criminal as in civil cases, but the court will look at the substance rather than the form, with a view to promote justice. A motion in form to discharge the defendant or dismiss the indictment may be regarded as in substance a request to direct an acquittal, or that the court instruct the jury, as matter of law, that the prisoner could not be convicted. There can be no doubt in this case that such was the substance of the request made, or that it was so understood and treated by the court, and, when the evidence will not warrant a conviction, the denial of such a request is an error of law. People v. Bennett, 49 N. Y. 137. In a criminal case the denial of such a request upon the ground that there is some evidence, or whenever there is any evidence, may present a question of law. In a civil case a question of law can be raised in this court only when the finding or verdict has no evidence to sustain it, and the question has been raised by exception. But that, I think, is not true in a criminal case. A party cannot be convicted of murder or any other grade of homicide whenever there is merely some evidence or any evidence to sustain the charge; and the court, upon the trial of such cases, may be called upon to decide, as matter of law, whether the evidence is of such a character or quality as to warrant a conviction. If this were not the rule, the jury would in all cases be the sole judge of the question, and there would be no remedy in this court against convictions clearly based upon insufficient evidence. Many of the common-law rules of evidence governing criminal trials have been enacted in the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the most important one is that contained in section 389, which declares...

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