Despite Witness’s Lies About Being a Drug Dealer, Conviction Not Overturned

First Department

In People v Stilley, 2015 NY Slip Op 02715, the Court choose not to overturn the defendant’s convictions for Felony Murder, Robbery and Weapons Possession even though a key prosecution witness lied about reforming his life and no longer being a drug dealer.

In Stilley, the defendant and two co-defendants decided to go to northern Manhattan in order to rob a drug dealer. That drug dealer was Andres Santana. According to the Court’s decision, Mr. Stilley confessed on video and in writing that he and his friends went to uptown Manhattan and met Mr. Santana. They pretended to be buyers of marihuana, but then produced guns and demanded the drugs and money. After successfully separating Mr. Santana from his drugs and money, the defendant and his co-defendants engaged in a shoot out with Mr. Santana and his confederates. During the course of this shoot out, an innocent bystander was shot and killed.

After a jury trial where Mr. Santana testified against the defendant, the defendant was found guilty of Murder in the Second Degree, Robbery in the First Degree and related counts. After the trial, but before he was sentenced, the prosecutor disclosed to the Court, and then to the defendant and his attorney that Mr. Santana has lied during his testimony. Mr. Santana had indicated that he has turned the corner in his life and stopped selling drugs, however, after the trial it was learned that he was under investigation for narcotics distribution.

Under Brady v Maryland, 373 US 83 (1963), a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a defendant is entitled to discover favorable evidence in the People’s possession that is material to guilt or punishment. To establish a Brady violation, a defendant must show that (1) the evidence is favorable to the defendant because it is either exculpatory or impeaching in nature; (2) the evidence was suppressed by the prosecution; and (3) prejudice arose because the suppressed evidence was material. The government is not obligated to find Brady material, such evidence is subject to Brady disclosure only if it is within the prosecution’s custody, possession, or control.

Certainly, if the trial prosecutor knew that Mr. Santana was under investigation for narcotics distribution, he would have been obligated to turn that information over to the defendant immediately upon learning that information. Additionally, the fact that he lied about his activities under oath would have been valuable information to a juror in determining whether to find his testimony believable. There were two primary issues that the Appellate division had to decide.

The first was whether there was a Brady Violation in the first place, because, if the District Attorney’s office had not known that Mr. Santana was one of the people under investigation for narcotics distribution until after the trial, they were not under any obligation to turn over that information as they were not in possession of it at the time in question. The record was not properly developed by the prosecutor, the defense attorney or the trial court on this issue so the Appellate division was not in a position to make a ruling, but rather than sending the case back to further develop the record, the Appellate Division decided the second issue.

The second issue was materiality. In other words, if the information had been disclosed, would the outcome have been different? Here the Appellate Court ruled that it would not have been, therefore, it was unnecessary to even determine if a violation had occurred. The Court ruled that even if the jury knew that Mr. Santana was a drug dealer and a liar, and decided to disregard his testimony in its entirety, the evidence of guilt was overwhelming.

As the Appellate Division stated, “Defendant admitted, in two confessions, all of the facts necessary to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt of felony murder, robbery and weapon possession *** In those confessions, defendant stated that, on the day of the incident, he traveled with his two friends to upper Manhattan to rob Santana. Defendant described the incident in detail, admitting that he pulled a gun on Santana while he and his cohorts robbed him of marijuana. Defendant also admitted that he and Edwards fired shots as they fled, and that he heard a woman scream. Defendant further explained that he traveled to Brooklyn and divided up the marijuana, and that when he learned the police were looking for him, he fled upstate to Utica.”

Without actually being a party to the trial, its hard to disagree with the Court’s decision that the information about Mr. Santana’s illegal activities was immaterial; however, a case like this involving the death of an innocent bystander are hard to overturn. Sometimes, the result lead the analysis. While I cannot say that this particular decision is result driven, trials rarely stand and fall on one fact. The confessions may not have been as air tight as they are portrayed, there could have been arguments regarding coercion, and confessions alone are insufficient because confession need to be corroborated. If you took away Mr. Santana’s corroboration, the remaining corroboration linking the defendant to the crime may have been tenuous at best… that really calls into question the “Materiality” of the information.

Read the original decision here.
People v Stilley