Monday, October 03, 2005

Intentionally reckless reduction?

Another interesting wrinkle from the Lawhorn decision (see original post here): the Fourth Department overturned defendant's conviction for "depraved indifference" murder in the second degree because the evidence that defendant stabbed the victim in the chest was not consistent with a less-than-intentional mental state; the facts supported intentional murder or nothing. Fine so far. But the Court in Lawhorn not only reversed the "depraved indifference" conviction--it reduced the conviction to "reckless" manslaughter in the second degree. This begs the question--why is the evidence that "Defendant . . . intentionally stabbed the victim once in the chest" not sufficient to support the less-than-intentional mental state for depraved indifference murder, but is sufficient to establish the "reckless" mental state for manslaughter in the second degree? (See Penal Law 125.15[1] ["A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when . . . [h]e recklessly causes the death of another person."].) Aren't both crimes ("depraved" murder 2nd and "reckless" manslaughter 2nd) based on "reckless", non-intentional conduct? And if so, how can the evidence that defendant intentionally stabbed his victim in the chest support one conviction ("reckless" manslaughter 2nd) and not the other ("depraved" murder 2nd)? "Ordinarily, a defendant cannot be guilty of both the intentional and reckless homicide of the same individual because a defendant cannot intend to cause a person's death and at the same time consciously disregard a risk that he or she will succeed in doing so." (People v Atkinson, 799 NYS2d 125 [2d Dept 2005] [decision available here].)

It would seem to make more sense in the Lawhorn case to reduce the "depraved" murder 2nd conviction to manslaughter in the first degree, because manslaughter in the first degree is based on intentional conduct that causes death. (See Penal Law 125.20[1] ["A person is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree when . . . with intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person."].) But by the Lawhorn Court's own reasoning, the same deficiencies that rendered the trial proof insufficient to support the jury's "depraved" murder 2nd conviction should also doom the manslaughter 2nd conviction. That it doesn't is puzzling.

This is an issue ripe for the Court of Appeals, and leave is pending from the Second Department's decision in Atkinson.