Court Decision: Murder Conviction Vacated Due to Hearsay Violation and Prosecutor's Related Summation Comments

Appellate Division, Second Department: People v. Rivers

Murder Conviction Vacated Due to Hearsay Violation and Prosecutor’s Related Summation Comments

Mr. Rivers was arrested in Queens for the death of his girlfriend. Following trial, the jury convicted Mr. Rivers of intentional second-degree murder and second-degree criminal contempt for violating an order of protection.

The Second Department held that the admission into evidence of the girlfriend’s prior statements concerning incidents of domestic violence was error and improperly admitted. The evidence was wrongly used to establish Mr. Rivers’s state of mind, based upon the girlfriend’s characterization of his conduct and the acceptance of that characterization for its truth. Because the evidence of Mr. Rivers’s state of mind, in this case where intent was the primary issue, was not in admissible form, its admission was error.

The Court further found that the error was compounded by the prosecutor’s improper comments in summation. By stating the girlfriend had reason to fear Mr. Rivers, that she “didn’t make this up,” and that her account of the prior conduct “wasn’t a figment of her imagination,” the prosecutor wrongly argued that the girlfriend’s statements were a true characterization of the events.

The Appellate Division modified the conviction, vacated the murder conviction and related sentence, and ordered a new trial on that count.

De Nice Powell represented Mr. Rivers