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Murder conviction in boy’s death overturned in split decision

Fourth Department majority finds potential problem with jurors

By: Bennett Loudon//November 22, 2016

Murder conviction in boy’s death overturned in split decision

Fourth Department majority finds potential problem with jurors

By: Bennett Loudon//November 22, 2016//

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In a 3-2 decision, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court has granted a new trial to an Erie County man convicted of sexually abusing and killing a child.

Although the Fourth Department dismissed defendant Matthew Kuzdzal’s claims that there was insufficient evidence to prove the crimes against him, the majority overturned the conviction and granted a new trial because State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns “erred in failing to make a proper inquiry of two jurors who allegedly were overheard making disparaging comments about (Kuzdzal) during a recess.”

Matthew Kuzdzal was convicted in October 2014 of second-degree murder and sexual assault against a child. Burns sentenced him to 50 years to life in prison.

The Fourth Department’s six-page decision was released Friday. In the majority were Justices Brian F. DeJoseph, Shirley Troutman and Henry Scudder. Justices Nancy E. Smith and Erin M. Peradotto dissented.

Kuzdzal was represented in the appeal by Lyle T. Hajdu, of counsel at Erickson Webb Scolton & Hajdu. Matthew B. Powers represented the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

Call to 911

The crime occurred on Sept. 15, 2013. Kuzdzal called 911 to report his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son was unconscious. Kuzdzal had been alone with the child about six hours. The boy had numerous injuries and died two days later.

The majority wrote in the decision that a juror must be discharged if it becomes known that they are unqualified to serve because they are not impartial, the panel wrote in the decision.

“There is a well-established framework by which the court must evaluate a sworn juror who, for one reason or another, may possess such a state of mind,” the majority wrote.

Burns should have conducted a Buford inquiry in which he would have questioned the two jurors individually in camera with the two attorneys and defendant present and decided if their state of mind would affect their deliberations. The judge’s findings should have been placed on the record.

“Not only does the court’s failure to hold an inquiry under such circumstances constitute reversible error, but its failure to place the reasons for its ruling on the record also constitutes reversible error,” the majority said.

 ‘A scumbag’

The issue was raised when one of Kuzdzal’s friends reported that she overheard two jurors calling Kuzdzal a “scumbag.”

Burns called the woman to the witness stand and she identified the jurors and claimed “that they were laughing and making faces” in court.

Kuzdzal’s attorney asked Burns to question the two jurors. The prosecutor opposed the request and instead asked Burns to rule on whether the claims were credible.

Burns denied the defense request and said in court: “I don’t believe that an inquiry of the juror is necessary or appropriate here.”

“Based on the record before us, we are compelled to conclude that the jurors’ alleged reference to defendant as a ‘scumbag’ indicated the possibility of juror bias, and thus that the court should have granted defendant’s request to make an inquiry of the jurors,” the majority wrote.

Credible information

In their dissent, Smith and Peradotto argued that the issue is not whether the court conducted a Buford inquiry, but whether there was enough credible information to trigger it.

“A court may not simply intrude on the jury and begin questioning a member or members thereof unless there is some credible information indicating that a juror may have made a comment or taken an action that raises a question regarding that juror’s ability to be impartial. Here, we agree with the court that no such credible information was presented and that no personal inquiry of the jurors at issue was necessary or proper,” the dissenters wrote.

The dissenters found that the testimony of the woman who came forward was inconsistent and not credible.

“Inasmuch as there is no credible evidence indicating that any juror engaged in misconduct, there was no need for a further inquiry of the individual jurors,” Smith and Peradotto wrote in their dissent..


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