Academic journal article Albany Law Review

People V. Morrison: Some Anxious Observations on the Court of Appeals' O'rama Jurisprudence

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

People V. Morrison: Some Anxious Observations on the Court of Appeals' O'rama Jurisprudence

Article excerpt

A politician once said, "I'm not known to make many mistakes, but when I do, it's a doozie." (1) The Court of Appeals' ("Court") decision last term in People v. Morrison (2) is a doozie. One can confidently say that no other jurisdiction in the country would reverse a defendant's conviction for raping a 90-year-old Alzheimer's patient because the trial judge may not have shared the exact contents of a jury note with defense counsel, even though counsel was aware of the note's existence and never objected to the judge's conduct.

I.

A. Morrison: Factual Background

William Morrison worked as an aide at a nursing home in Rome, New York where Helen Smith, a 90-year-old Alzheimer patient, was a resident. (3) On May 24, 2006, Morrison put Smith on her bed, penetrated her and ejaculated. (4) As he left the room, she told him that she was "going to tell on [him]," which she did. (5) An examination revealed the presence of semen in her vagina, and DNA testing confirmed that Morrison was its source. (6) Morrison later confessed to having intercourse with Smith, signing a statement in which he told the police that he had been sexually abused as a child and this was a chance to reverse roles. (7)

An Oneida County grand jury indicted Morrison for Rape in the First Degree, Sexual Abuse in the First Degree, Endangering the Welfare of a Vulnerable Elderly Person in the Second Degree, and Willful Violation of Health Laws. (8) Morrison's trial, which had twice been postponed and garnered considerable media attention, began on Monday, February 26, 2007. (9) The judge was eager to finish it by Friday, having scheduled another trial for the next week. (10) For that reason, when deliberations began late Wednesday afternoon, the judge offered the jurors the option of staying past 4:30 p.m. (11) They chose instead to come back the next morning and were excused for the night. (12)

On Thursday, the judge addressed four jury notes requesting legal instructions, exhibits and read-backs of testimony. (13) In each instance, before giving his response, he read the note into the record in the jury's presence. (14) At 4:30 p.m., the jury sent out two more notes in rapid succession. (15) The first revealed a partial verdict: "We have made a decision on the Third Count [the endangering count] we are having hard time with 1 and 2 just giving you are [sic] status." (16) The second note revised the first: "We have arrived on decision on 2 [the sexual abuse count] and 3. [B]ut we have a lot of work to do on #1. [D]on[']t see it being quick. Not sure what to do. We ars [sic] starting to make way." (17)

The judge marked the two notes as Court Exhibits 8 and 9, respectively, and recalled the jury. (18) He then told the jurors, "I have received a note, which I have marked as Court Exhibit Number 9, and I will not read that into the record, but I'm sure you know what it says." (19) He stated, "[W]e are hoping that at some point you will be able to come to a unanimous verdict on all three of the charges," and gave a mild Allen-like instruction, encouraging the jurors to "listen to what the other jurors have to say" but not to "just abandon your feelings to reach a unanimous verdict." (20) After telling the jury, "[W]e as a group would like you to keep working," he gave them the choice of deliberating "another hour tonight" or returning in the morning, and they chose the latter course. (21)

On Friday, the jury sent four more notes containing requests for further legal instructions. (22) The judge again read the notes into the record in the jury's presence before responding to them. (23) After the fourth note, he gave another Allen-like instruction. (24) That afternoon, the jury returned a guilty verdict on all three counts. (25) Morrison, who had one prior felony conviction and five misdemeanor convictions and lied to get the nursing job, was sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment on the rape count with lesser sentences on the other counts, to run concurrently. …

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