People v. Leyra

Decision Date27 April 1956
Citation1 N.Y.2d 199,151 N.Y.S.2d 658,134 N.E.2d 475
Parties, 134 N.E.2d 475 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Camilo Weston LEYRA, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Osmond K. Fraenkel and Frederick W. Scholem, New York City, for appellant.

Edward S. Silver, Dist. Atty., Brooklyn (William I. Siegel, Brooklyn, of counsel), for respondent.

FULD, Judge.

Defendant, charged with killing his mother and father, stands convicted, on both counts, of murder in the first degree. This is the third time that the case has been before us.

Defendant's father, 75 years old, and his mother, aged 80, were killed on Tuesday, January 10, 1950, in their apartment on Quincy Street in Brooklyn, New York. At first, a burglar or other intruder was suspected, but the presence on the Leyras' breakfast table of a third cup prompted the belief that the killer had been known and was, in fact, a welcome guest. That circumstances, plus a possibly false alibi and an inadequate explanation of what had happened to the clothing, previously worn, which he might have been wearing on the day of the killings, directed suspicion to defendant. He was interrogated, at first intermittently, and then more constantly from about 9:00 A.M. Thursday, through most of that day and night, until 6:30 Friday morning. Although on Friday at 6:30 A.M., he made what appear to be damaging statements to Police Captain Meenahan, his principal interrogator, about being present in his parents' apartment, 302 N.Y. 353, 358, 98 N.E.2d 553, 555, he persisted in his denials of complicity or guilt. At any rate, following his parents' funeral on Friday, he returned to the police station where the questioning had taken place. And there, in a room wired for sound and equipped with recording devices, he met Dr. Max Helfand. The psychiatrist continued the efforts of the police to have defendant admit his guilt. Finally, after more than an hour and a half of questioning, Dr. Helfand induced defendant to say that he had killed his parents. See, e. g., 302 N.Y. at pages 359-361, 98 N.E.2d at pages 556, 557; Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556, at pages 559-560, 74 S.Ct. 716, at page 718, 98 L.Ed. 948. The confessions thus wrung from defendant's lips were immediately repeated to Captain Meenahan, then to his business associate William Herrschaft, and, some time later, to two assistant district attorneys.

We reversed defendant's first conviction on the ground that the confession made to Dr. Helfand was inadmissible since it had been the product of mental and psychological coercion. 302 N.Y. 353, 98 N.E.2d 553. Upon the ensuing retrial, the confession to the psychiatrist was not relied upon by the People, but the several other confessions, made shortly thereafter, were used. The jury returned a verdict of guilt and, on the appeal from that conviction, this court, by a 4 to 2 vote, affirmed, 304 N.Y. 468, 108 N.E.2d 673. However, the Supreme Court, in a habeas corpus proceeding instituted after its denial of certiorari, 345 U.S. 918, 73 S.Ct. 730, 97 L.Ed. 1351, reversed, holding that those subsequent confessions, being 'simply parts of one continuous process', were tainted by the same poison that invalidated the statement to the psychiatrist. 347 U.S. 556, 561, 74 S.Ct. 716, 719.

It had all along been recognized, by the trial judge (on both trials) and the district attorney (on the first appeal), that, without those confessions in the record, there was not sufficient evidence to justify a finding of guilt. 1 Accordingly, when the case went back to the county court following the Supreme Court's decision, defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, on the ground that the evidence before the grand jury was insufficient. The judge before whom that motion was made granted it on January 31, 1955, holding that 'without the confessions which have been ruled out' by our court and the United States Supreme Court, the evidence which, we note, did not include the statements made to Meenahan early Friday morning 'is insufficient before the Grand Jury, so that the indictment must be dismissed.' In the meantime, however, on January 20, the district attorney resubmitted the case to another grand jury as he was privileged to do without a court order, see People v. Rosenthal, 197 N.Y. 394, 400-401, 90 N.E. 991, 993, 994, 46 L.R.A.,N.S., 31 and that body returned a superseding indictment. Defendant then moved to dismiss the latter indictment. This motion, heard by the same judge who had earlier dismissed the first indictment, was denied, and the case proceeded to trial and to conviction on the second indictment.

In weighing the evidence, in deciding whether it establishes defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it is well-nigh impossible to exclude from mind the confessions made by defendant after his session with Dr. Helfand. Yet exclude them we must, if the fundamental policy against police coercion or other illegality is to be anything more than an empty gesture. The case must be decided solely on the basis of the record now before us.

Although defendant did not take the stand, there was considerable testimony by police officers as to the results of his interrogation soon after the homicides. Defendant told the police that on the fateful Tuesday, after sleeping the preceding night in the Manhattan apartment of his paramour, he had arisen at 10:00 A.M. He accepted a new telephone book from a man who came around distributing them, then went out for breakfast, purchased a box of candy and took it to his wife, whose birthday it was, at their home in North Bergen, New Jersey. Her arrived in North Bergen at about 11:30 A.M., stayed there a short while and then returned to his father's shop in New York at 1:30 P.M. Upon his arrival, his business associate Herrschaft told him that his father had not come in to work that day. When a number of telephone calls produced no word of his parents, defendant and Herrschaft went to their apartment in Brooklyn and discovered the bodies.

Defendant's wife, testifying for the defense, corroborated the facts that January 10 was her birthday and that defendant came to visit her at 11:00 or 11:30 that day and presented her with a box of candy. And his mistress, Testifying for the prosecution, recalled that, when she left for work between 6:45 and 7:00 A.M., defendant remained in bed and 'just went back to sleep'. As for his assertion, though, that he accepted a telephone book from the delivery man, defendant's account was somewhat shaken. One witness testified for the prosecution that he was engaged in delivering telephone books on the morning in question, that he knocked on the woman's door at about 9:20 A.M. and, getting no response, left the book at the door, where it still remained when he left the building 8 or 10 minutes later. And another People's witness, though her credibility was severely impaired on cross-examination, stated that she saw defendant enter his parents' apartment house in Brooklyn at about 7 o'clock in the morning as she was leaving for work.

Additional circumstances relied upon by the prosecution concern the disappearance of defendant's overcoat and his acquisition of a raincoat, a new suit and new shoes. Prior to January 10, the date of the homicides, defendant had usually worn a blue overcoat on cold winter days. On that day, however, his wife, his mistress and Herrschaft all noticed that he had on a raincoat that they had never seen before. He gave discrepant stories about what had happened to his old coat and offered explanations less than satisfactory concerning the purchase of the new clothing.

Beginning Tuesday night, January 10, defendant had been questioned intermittently by Captain Meenahan and other policemen. At 10 o'clock of Thursday evening, Meenahan summoned defendant to his office and told him that the police had investigated his alibi and his stories about the purchase of new clothing and found them to be false. 'Listen, Mr. Leyra,' he said, 'what is this? What is going on here? * * * Every time I seem to straighten you out, using a process of elimination * * * I just can't seem to straighten you out on it.' He then left the room for a few minutes and, upon his return, defendant told him, 'Sit down here, Captain, just you and I. This thing will work itself out tonight.'

This initiated a discussion that was to continue through all of that night. Defendant remarked that he had had a 'bitter argument' with his father on Sunday over the latter's refusal to retire and turn his business over to him and Herrschaft and during the argument defendant had accused his father of having killed his brother by overwork. Defendant then told Meenahan that he 'couldn't think' because of a severe sinus condition that had been bothering him and they talked for a while, over coffee and cigarettes, of defendant's experiences in the army and of his work as a musician and a bartender. Occasionally, defendant would say 'I can remember about Pop but I can't figure out Mom' and 'if I could only clear the sinus condition, everything will come back.'

At about 2 o'clock in the morning, Meenahan told defendant that 'a lot of men' were outside 'waiting to go to work or waiting to go home' and, in response to the query, 'What are we going to do here', defendant said, 'You tell them men to go home * * *. This thing will work itself out, and when you do get it, it is going to be the truth.' They continued to talk, and at 4:00 A.M. the police officer showed defendant some photographs of the scene of the crime hoping that they would 'refresh' his memory. After defendant had looked at a picture of the kitchen for about 15 minutes, there was a flicker of recognition. Defendant commented on the absence of his father's chair and the presence of the one at which he himself usually sat. 'That chair', he stated, 'it indicates that I was there.' This, according to Meenahan, is the balance of what he said:

"Definitely, I was there.' H...

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