Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Another "depraved" decision

People v Baker, 2005 NY Slip Op 07226

In another decision dealing with the border between "intentional" and "depraved indifference" murder in the wake of Gonzalez and Payne, the Fourth Department affirmed defendant's "depraved indifference" murder conviction in People v Baker, finding that there was a reasonable view of the evidence to conclude that defendant recklessly caused the victim's death by shooting him in the chest. (See People v Baker, 2005 WL 2404847, 2005 NY Slip Op 07226 [decision available here].)

The facts, as summarized in the Court's opinion:

The record establishes that defendant approached the two victims and shot the first victim in the chest, which eventually caused the death of that victim, and defendant then shot the second victim. The first victim ran after being shot, but defendant did not follow him. Instead, defendant approached the second victim, stood over him, and continued to shoot him from inches away, pulling the trigger of his weapon while aiming it at the second victim even after there was no remaining ammunition.


Given those facts, the Court held that "a rational jury could have had a reasonable doubt with respect to whether defendant's acts were 'specifically designed to cause the death of the [first] victim.'" (Id.) I'll buy that--it seems from the facts that the second victim was the real target of defendant's aggression, and the first victim was shot so defendant could get to the second victim. But acknowledging that defendant may not have intended to kill the first victim does not necessarily establish that defendant acted "recklessly" in shooting the first victim--indeed, from the facts of the decision it seems as if defendant intentionally shot the first victim in order to get to the second victim. In that case, manslaughter in the first degree would seem to be a proper conviction--defendant intended to cause the first victim serious physical injury by shooting him in the chest, and the victim ultimately died--but is the reckless mens rea required for "depraved indifference" murder established?

The Fourth Department obviously thought so in Baker, although in another decision from this packet dealing with the same issue, the Court found legally insufficient facts to support a defendant's "depraved indifference" murder conviction where defendant stabbed his victim once in the chest. (See People v Lawhorn, 2005 WL 2403844, 2005 NY Slip Op 07058 [available here].) See my previous posts on Lawhorn here and here. Perhaps the fact that there was more than one victim in Baker and only one victim in Lawhorn was a factor in the Fourth Department's distinction between the two cases. (See Lawhorn [stressing that a "'one-on-one shooting or knifing (or similar killing) can almost never qualify as depraved indifference murder'" [citations omitted].) But certainly some tension exists between the Lawhorn and Baker decisions (i.e. one shot in the chest can support finding of "reckless" killing [Baker] but one stab wound in chest cannot support "reckless" killing [Lawhorn]). Perhaps that is why Justice Pine wrote a separate concurring opinion in Baker that would have affirmed the depraved indifference conviction on the much more narrow preservation ground. (See Baker, 2005 NY Slip Op 07226.) The implication of Justice Pine's concurrence is that she would not have found the evidence legally sufficient to support the depraved indifference count (presumably reasoning that, if a single stab wound to the chest was sufficient to rule out a depraved indifference murder conviction under Lawhorn, a single gunshot to the chest should likewise render Baker's depraved indifference murder conviction infirm), but would not have reached the issue because it was not preserved for review.

For what it's worth, I think the facts of Baker could support both a conviction for manslaughter in the first degree and depraved indifference murder--defendant could have intended to cause serious physical injury to the victim (thus satisfying the mens rea requirement for manslaughter 1st) and simultaneously been aware of and ignored that by shooting the victim he was creating a substantial and unjustified risk of death (thus satisfying the mens rea requirement for depraved indifference murder). In fact, I had an argument with my co-workers on this point for the better part of two hours this morning. I will post at length soon why I think I am right. But for now, the arguably inconsistent results from the Fourth Department in Lawhorn and Baker illustrate how the Appellate Divisions are struggling to set the boundaries between "depraved indifference" and "intentional" murder after Gonzalez and Payne.