PEOPLE v. SMITH
63 N.Y.2d 41 (1984)
The People of the State of New York, Respondent,
Lemuel Smith, Appellant.
Court of Appeals of the State of New York.
Argued April 23, 1984.
Decided July 2, 1984.
William M. Kunstler, Mark B. Gombiner, C. Vernon Mason, Robert H. Gombiner, Peter J. Avenia and Ronald L. Kuby for appellant.
William E. Stanton, Special District Attorney (B. Anthony Morosco and Richard Schisler of counsel), for respondent.
Robert Abrams, Attorney-General (Michael S. Buskus, Peter H. Schiff and Peter J. Dooley of counsel), in his statutory capacity under section 71 of the Executive Law.
Mitchell A. Karlan, Anthony G. Amsterdam and John H. Hall for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and others, amici curiae.
Jonathan E. Gradess, Edward H. Wassermann, Donald B. Smith, Martin I. Rosenbaum and Charles F. O'Brien for New York State Defenders Association, amicus curiae.
Judges JONES, WACHTLER and MEYER concur with Judge KAYE; Judge SIMONS dissents in part and votes to affirm in a separate opinion in which Judge JASEN concurs; and Chief Judge COOKE dissents in part and votes to affirm in another dissenting opinion.
After a jury trial, defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. This direct appeal as of right by defendant (NY Const, art VI, § 3, subd b; CPL 450.70, subd 1), the lone resident of New York's death row, presents three questions: (1) whether the evidence was sufficient to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) whether alleged trial errors deprived him of a fair trial; and (3) whether the State's mandatory death sentence (Penal Law, § 60.06) for one convicted of murder while "confined in a state correctional institution * * * upon a sentence for an indeterminate term the minimum of which was at least fifteen years and the maximum of which was natural life" (Penal Law, § 125.27, subd 1, par [a], cl [iii]) is constitutional. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to prove defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that the court below committed no reversible error in the conduct of the proceedings. We also conclude, however, that New York's mandatory death penalty law is unconstitutional. For these reasons we modify the judgment by vacating the sentence of death and remitting the case to the Supreme Court, Dutchess County, for resentencing and, as so modified, we affirm the judgment.
In May 1981, Donna Payant was employed as a corrections officer at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, where defendant was serving an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life.1 Some time after reporting for work on the afternoon of May 15, 1981,
Payant disappeared. Her body was discovered the next morning at a landfill in Amenia, New York, when refuse from Green Haven was dumped and examined. An autopsy revealed that she had died of ligature strangulation.
Three weeks later, an information was filed in Beekman Town Court accusing defendant of Payant's murder and charging him with violation of section 125.27 of the Penal Law, a felony which mandates a sentence of death upon conviction. The Dutchess County Grand Jury indicted defendant in October 1981. Because of a potential conflict involving the Dutchess County District Attorney's office, a Special District Attorney was appointed by the court, and at a later date defendant's present counsel were appointed pursuant to article 18-B of the County Law. Defendant's pretrial motions to dismiss the indictment, for recusal of the Trial Judge, and for a change of venue were denied.
Defendant's trial commenced in January 1983. On April 21, 1983, after three days' deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Defendant's motion to set aside that verdict was denied, and on June 10, 1983 he was sentenced to death. This appeal followed.
The People's case consisted of circumstantial evidence showing that Payant's known movements at Green Haven on May 15, 1981 brought her to an area near the Catholic Chaplain's office, where defendant worked that day, that Payant and defendant had previously spoken, that Payant and defendant were observed entering the Catholic Chaplain's office together on the day of her disappearance, and that defendant had access to a room (the library of the Chaplain's office) to which he could have lured Payant and killed her in relative seclusion, to materials (cord, plastic bags and masking tape) similar to those with which she was killed and her body was wrapped, and to vehicles (a large waste drum, a cart for moving refuse, and trash dumpsters) for disposal of her body. The People also introduced testimony of an inculpatory admission defendant made to a fellow inmate approximately one year after Payant's death, and expert testimony that a premortem wound on Payant's chest was a bite mark made by defendant.
Defendant at trial showed that several corrections officers had made prior statements that Payant had been seen
at various points of the institution on May 15 after the alleged time of her murder, and that the investigation of Payant's death had produced no evidence — save the bite mark — connecting defendant to Payant's murder. The defense introduced its own expert testimony to show that the mark on Payant's body could not be attributed to defendant, and indeed that it was not even a bite mark.