Friday, December 12, 2008

Rape Conviction Overturned for Lack of Specificity

This week, in People v Bennett (2008 NY Slip Op 09811 [2d Dept 12/09/08]), the Second Department overturned a rape conviction when the second-grade victim could only give a nine-month window for the date of the incident. The Court explained that while
a per se (nine-month) bar does not apply, a significantly lengthy period is a factor to be considered, with "proportionally heightened scrutiny" given to whether the People's inability to provide more precise times can be justified as against the important notice rights of the defendant (People v Sedlock, 8 NY3d at 539; People v Watt, 81 NY2d 772, 775).

At trial, the victim testified that the two incidents occurred about two weeks apart when she was in the middle of second grade. The first incident occurred when her mother was at the grocery store with the victim's brother. The second incident occurred when the mother took the brother to the doctor. The People should have inquired as to when the mother took the victim's brother to the doctor and/or should have sought to obtain the brother's medical records to narrow the time frame of the crimes as alleged. The defendant's ability to prepare a defense was further stymied by the fact that the victim testified that the incidents occurred in the middle of her second grade school year, which would have been during the winter, but the amended bill of particulars provided that the incidents occurred when the weather was warm. Under these circumstances, when the time period charged, namely seven months, approaches the nine-month period found to be per se unreasonable in People v Beauchamp (74 NY2d 639; see People v Sedlock, 8 NY3d at 538), the People are subjected to "proportionally heightened scrutiny" as to whether their inability to provide more precise times is justified (id at 539). There is no indication that the People inquired of the mother or of the doctor of the victim's brother regarding as to when the brother was treated.

As Assistant Monroe County Public Defender David Abbatoy (who brought Bennett to our attention) has noted, Bennett and the cases cited within make clear that the judge should not simply rely on the prosecutor's representations regarding the victim's intelligence,etc. The government should demonstrate its inability at a hearing. The judge should then make an independent determination as to whether more precise notice is required based on the complainant's age, etc. This should occur at a hearing with sworn testimony from the complainant. Perhaps we can call it a "Sedlock Hearing."

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