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People v. Wernick

Court of Appeals of New York

 October 17, 1996, Argued ; November 21, 1996, Decided

No. 251


 [*113]  [***392]  [**322]    Bellacosa, J.

Defendant appeals from an order of the Appellate Division, which affirmed a judgment  [***393]   [**323]  of County Court, Nassau County, convicting her, after a jury trial, of criminally negligent homicide of her newborn infant. The dissenting Justice at the Appellate Division granted permission to appeal, and we now affirm.

The primary issue, as it has evolved,  [****4]  is whether CPL 60.55 (1) automatically obviates the need for a Frye hearing in this case. We must determine whether the trial court erred as a matter of law when it precluded, without a reliability assessment, reference by expert opinion witnesses to publications of others concerning profiles of a novel neonaticide "syndrome," proposed in support of the defendant's affirmative defense of insanity. Appellant also argues that the trial court deprived her of a fair trial by admitting a photograph of the deceased infant.

Upon giving unattended birth to a baby boy in the bathroom of a college dormitory, defendant asphyxiated the infant and secured a friend's unwitting assistance in disposing of the body. Defendant was charged with first and second degree manslaughter.

Before the trial commenced, the People requested that the trial court conduct a Frye hearing to determine the admissibility of the defense experts' expected testimony on neonaticide, a term used to describe a mother killing her newborn within 24 hours of birth. The People argued that defendant was required to establish the scientific reliability of neonaticide as a psychological syndrome if such evidence were [****5]  to be accepted. Defense counsel specifically objected to a Frye hearing, stating that he had no intention of presenting neonaticide as a syndrome. County Court denied the People's request for a Frye hearing, stating that it would make specific evidentiary rulings regarding the expert's testimony as the trial progressed. The [*114]  court cautioned, however, that it would be unable to rule on syndrome evidence without a hearing.

On her affirmative defense of insanity, defendant presented expert testimony which tended to establish that (1) she completely denied the existence of her pregnancy, (2) such denial occurs in almost all cases in which women kill their newborn infants immediately after birth, and (3) in a large number of those cases the women believed that they were not pregnant. Defense experts also testified that, upon giving birth, defendant suffered from a brief reactive psychosis because she was no longer able to deny her pregnancy. The trial court permitted all this testimony but precluded defendant's expert witnesses only from additionally describing a profile of the symptoms of women who have killed their children under similar circumstances. Defendant [****6]  objected to the limitation, arguing that CPL 60.55 (1) permits a psychiatric expert to testify as to the basis of an opinion in connection with an insanity claim and restricts courts from discretely evaluating the appropriateness of the basis of an expert's opinion.

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89 N.Y.2d 111 *; 674 N.E.2d 322 **; 651 N.Y.S.2d 392 ***; 1996 N.Y. LEXIS 3578 ****

The People of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Stephanie Wernick, Appellant.

Prior History:  [****1]  Appeal, by permission of an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Second Judicial Department, from an order of that Court, entered October 23, 1995, which affirmed a judgment of the Nassau County Court (Abbey L. Boklan, J.), rendered upon a verdict convicting defendant of criminally negligent homicide.

People v Wernick, 215 AD2d 50, affirmed.

Disposition:  Order affirmed.


reliability, syndrome, neonaticide, psychiatrist, affirmative defense, expert testimony, scientific, diagnosis, expert opinion, novel, psychiatric expert, circumstances, common-law, rape, trial court, insanity, scientific community, scientific evidence, mental disease, out-of-court, testifying, clarify, newborn, profile, infant, birth, kill

Evidence, Admissibility, Expert Witnesses, Daubert Standard, Scientific Evidence, General Overview, Standards for Admissibility, Testimony, Kelly Frye Standard, Criminal Law & Procedure, Defenses, Insanity, Insanity Defense, Criminal Proceedings, Psychiatric & Psychological Evidence