Split Panel Upholds Robbery Conviction
February 2, 2015
After a jury trial, Mr. Speaks was convicted of a robbery based on eyewitness testimony. The only witness who identified him prior to trial did so 7 months after the robbery. Immediately after the crime, that witness could not give a description of the robbers at all. A second witness misidentified Mr. Speaks as the shorter robber – when it was clear that the other witnesses believed him to be the taller robber. And, the third witness identified Mr. Speaks for the first time more than two years after the incident, while he was seated at the defense table.
These witnesses also had difficulty recalling whether the robber they identified as Mr. Speaks had facial hair. This detail was especially concerning because Mr. Speaks testified that he had a disease that made it impossible for him to grow hair on any part of his body.
A detective testified that someone else had told him additional descriptions of the robbers. Although that person was not in court and did not testify, the detective testified about what that person had said to him. This detective also repeated a description provided by one of the testifying witnesses.
A split Appellate Division panel affirmed Mr. Speaks’ conviction. The majority held that the trial court was not wrong to allow the detective to testify about what someone had told him even though that person wasn’t in court. The court held that the detective only provided this additional description to explain police action and complete the narrative, so it was not hearsay.
The majority also rejected Mr. Speaks’ claim that the detective’s repetition of one of the other witness’s descriptions was hearsay, finding it too was properly admitted to explain police conduct and to complete the narrative.
In a 6-page dissent, Justice Hall reasoned that because the People did not connect the descriptions provided to the detective to any subsequent police conduct, the jury could only have considered this testimony for its truth. Therefore, this testimony was hearsay and should have been excluded. Additionally, she would have exercised the court’s interest of justice jurisdiction to reach Mr. Speaks’ claim that the detective’s testimony was improper bolstering.
Justice Hall recognized that in this case, where the question of identity was “critical and hotly disputed” and “the identification evidence was problematic in several respects,” the admission of this hearsay evidence was prejudicial.
Nao Terai briefed and argued the appeal.