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Split Court of Appeals affirms assault conviction

Defense prevented from using victim's criminal history

By: Bennett Loudon//March 17, 2023

Split Court of Appeals affirms assault conviction

Defense prevented from using victim's criminal history

By: Bennett Loudon//March 17, 2023//

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In a split decision, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed an assault conviction and rejected a defense argument to use evidence of the victim’s prior violent crimes to support a justification defense.

Previous case law has established that a defendant may not use evidence of prior violent acts by victims in cases where a claim of justification is made unless the defendant was aware of the specific acts at the time of the alleged assault by the defendant.

Defendant Santino Guerra stabbed the victim in the chest with a small knife, causing life-threatening injuries. At trial, Guerra raised a justification defense and sought to introduce evidence of violent conduct in four cases where his victim was adjudicated as a youthful offender.

Based on the 1976 Court of Appeals decision in People v. Miller, the judge prohibited the jury from considering that evidence for that purpose of deciding who was the aggressor, and the Appellate Division affirmed that ruling.

The majority included acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro and judges Michael Garcia, Madeline Singas and Shirley Troutman. Judge Rowan Wilson dissented, and Judge Jenny Rivera concurred.

When Guerra stabbed Dylan Pitt with a penknife, he claimed he was acting in self-defense, and the trial court concluded that he was entitled to a justification instruction and the prosecution did not challenge the ruling.

It is the prosecution’s burden to prove lack of justification beyond a reasonable doubt, which entails proving that Guerra was the first aggressor.

Guerra wanted to introduce the details of four prior arrests of the victim. Each case led to a criminal conviction, but they were replaced by a youthful offender adjudication.

The trial court unsealed two of the cases and let Guerra use the facts concerning those two offenses, but the judge ruled that the evidence could be used only for the purpose of evaluating the victim’s credibility, but not to determine who was the initial aggressor.

Wilson wrote that the victim’s confidentiality “pales in comparison and cannot be asserted to deprive Mr. Guerra of a fair trial.”

Guerra wanted to question the victim about the four previous incidents in which he attacked or threatened another person. In all four of the cases the victim was adjudicated as a youthful offender, meaning the records of those cases were sealed.

Guerra was allowed to cross-examine the victim about two of those incidents, but only to establish that he had a motive to lie because he was on probation.

Before deliberations, the judge told jurors that “a person cannot be considered the initial aggressor simply because he has previously engaged in violent acts.”

“Whatever the rule might be in a case in which the victim’s past acts were wholly obscured from the jury by virtue of a youthful offender adjudication, this is not that case. Accordingly, I dissent and would remit for a new trial,” Wilson wrote.

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