People v. Slaughter

Decision Date21 November 1991
Parties, 583 N.E.2d 919 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Lewis SLAUGHTER, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
OPINION OF THE COURT

HANCOCK, Judge.

After a jury trial, defendant was convicted of felony murder, attempted robbery in the first degree, and related crimes. The felony murder count arose from a high-speed chase, following the attempted robbery, which resulted in the getaway vehicle crashing into and killing a passenger in another vehicle. Defendant's appeal presents two issues: (1) whether the evidence adduced at trial was legally sufficient to support defendant's guilt of felony murder as a homicide occurring during the immediate flight from the attempted robbery and (2) whether the suppression hearing court's failure to undertake a sufficiently searching inquiry of defendant to be reasonably certain that he understood the dangers and disadvantages of proceeding pro se requires reversal. The jury here could properly have found that the homicide occurred in the immediate flight from the attempted robbery. However, the failure of the court below to make the required inquiry before defendant proceeded pro se is not harmless error; therefore, we reverse.

I

A brief summary of the facts and of the procedural history is necessary. Defendant, along with three accomplices, allegedly attempted to rob a warehouse. The robbery failed when one of the warehouse employees called the police, and defendant and his accomplices fled in a green van. Police responded to the report of the crime and, about 10 minutes after the crime began, a description of the van including the license plate number was broadcast over the police radio. Approximately 15 minutes after the broadcast and 1 1/2 to 2 miles from the warehouse, police saw the van. A high-speed chase ensued and ended when the van collided with another vehicle, resulting in the death of a passenger. Defendant was immediately apprehended.

After the indictment, a suppression hearing was commenced on February 26, 1987 to determine whether statements made by defendant to the police could be admitted against him at trial. Before the hearing began, defendant expressed a lack of confidence in his court-appointed attorney and requested new counsel. He acknowledged that his attorney had visited him three times and had discussed the case with him. The court refused to appoint new counsel "in view of the fact that this case is ready for hearing" and told defendant that it would rehear his application after the hearing was concluded.

On March 18, 1987, the third day of the hearing, defendant made a written application to the hearing court for the appointment of new counsel. Upon the court's inquiry, counsel said that he had visited defendant on various occasions, made motions on his behalf, and reviewed all the hearing minutes and police reports. The hearing court denied defendant's application stating that it would be unfair to defendant to relieve counsel in the middle of a hearing and reserved ultimate decision on defendant's request until the hearing's conclusion.

On April 8, 1987, the fourth day of the hearing, Police Officer Murray revealed during cross-examination that he had 50 to 60 pages of handwritten notes relating to the investigation of defendant's case which the prosecution had not yet provided to the defense. Defendant's counsel was given a brief opportunity to review 10 pages of the notes regarding Officer Murray's interview of defendant; the court directed that the balance should be provided after the prosecutor had redacted information identifying witnesses. Defendant's counsel reserved his right to recall Officer Murray after he had the chance to review the redacted notes, remarking that defendant had not yet decided whether to testify but would do so before the next hearing date.

On April 27, 1987, the fifth and final day of the hearing, defense counsel stated that defendant had refused to discuss the case with him. He noted that he had received Officer Murray's notes but, because defendant would not talk to him, he could not determine whether to cross-examine Officer Murray on the notes or whether defendant would testify. The hearing court then informed defendant that if he no longer wanted to be represented by his assigned counsel, he could represent himself. It told defendant that he would get no assistance from the court in questioning witnesses nor with regard to his constitutional rights, that he could ask any legally permissible question, but that the court would not appoint new counsel at that stage of the hearing. The court requested that defendant's released attorney remain present to offer defendant advice if requested.

Proceeding pro se, defendant requested time to review the recently provided notes of Officer Murray, which defendant had never seen, so that he could decide whether further cross-examination was necessary. The court responded: "You want to ask Sergeant Murphy [sic] any questions, you want to take the stand on your own behalf? You make that decision now. We are not going any further with this beyond today." Defendant reiterated that he was unable to make these decisions without reviewing the officer's notes. The hearing court stated that the papers had been in the hands of his attorney for a week, and summarily ruled that the hearing was concluded. Thereafter, it denied the suppression of both sets of statements allegedly made by defendant.

After trial, at which defendant was represented by new counsel, a jury convicted defendant of murder in the second degree, attempted robbery in the first degree, criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree and the third degree, reckless endangerment in the first degree, and leaving the scene of an accident. Thereafter, the Appellate Division affirmed, holding, in part, that the hearing court's failure to conduct a searching inquiry of defendant--to be reasonably certain that he knowingly and intelligently chose to proceed pro se --was harmless error. That court also concluded that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to determine that the homicide occurred in the immediate flight from the attempted robbery and unanimously affirmed the conviction for felony murder. A Judge of this Court granted leave, and we now reverse.

II

Defendant contends that the evidence adduced at trial was legally insufficient to support his guilt of felony murder because the homicide did not occur during the immediate flight from the alleged attempted robbery. He notes that when the van was first observed by the police, it was turning towards, not fleeing from, the warehouse and was traveling at a legal speed; two of the accomplices had been dropped off; and defendant had stopped to buy a soda and some cigarettes--all indicating that the flight from the crime had been completed prior to the start of the high-speed chase. We disagree.

A felony murder is committed when a person, acting alone or in concert with others, commits or attempts to commit certain predicate felonies, including robbery, and "in the course of and in furtherance of such crime or of immediate flight therefrom, he * * * causes the death of a person other than one of the participants" (Penal Law § 125.25[3] [emphasis added]; People v. Gladman, 41 N.Y.2d 123, 125, 390 N.Y.S.2d 912, 359 N.E.2d 420). Whether the homicide occurred in "immediate flight" from a felony is generally a question of fact for the jury and is one of law for resolution by the court only where the record compels the inference that the actor was not in immediate flight (People v. Gladman, 41 N.Y.2d 123, 129, 390 N.Y.S.2d 912, 359 N.E.2d 420, supra ). Relevant factors which the jury should be instructed to consider are: "whether the homicide and the felony occurred at the same location or, if not, * * * the distance separating the two locations[,] * * * whether there is an interval of time between the commission of the felony and the commission of the homicide[,] * * * whether the culprits had possession of the fruits of criminal activity,...

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