Law School Case Brief
People v. Sepe - 2013 NY Slip Op 6030, 111 A.D.3d 75, 972 N.Y.S.2d 273 (App. Div. 1st Dept.)
Penal Law §§ 125.25(1)(a) and 125.20(2), read in tandem, together provide that a defendant who proves by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she committed a homicide while under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse is guilty of manslaughter and not murder. The defense of extreme emotional disturbance does not negate intent. Penal Law § 125.20(2). Instead, the defense allows a defendant charged with the commission of acts which would otherwise constitute murder to demonstrate the existence of mitigating factors which indicate that, although not free from responsibility for the crime, the defendant ought to be punished less severely. Although the defense of extreme emotional disturbance is an outgrowth of the heat of passion doctrine which had for some time been recognized by New York as a distinguishing factor between the crimes of manslaughter and murder, the defense is broader than the heat of passion doctrine, and was intended to apply to a wider range of circumstances.
On March 22, 2008, the defendant beat his girlfriend to death with a baseball bat inside the home they shared in New York. At trial, the defendant relied on the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance, presenting evidence that he had a long history of psychiatric illness, and that in the months leading up to the homicide, his mental state deteriorated. The defendant was also experiencing a great deal of stress over the prospect of hosting a large family dinner for the upcoming Easter holiday. Defendant claimed that he reached his breaking point and lost control of his actions when his girlfriend rebuffed his suggestion that they cancel the planned gathering. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury rejected the proffered extreme emotional disturbance defense, and convicted the defendant of murder in the second degree. The defendant appealed, arguing that the jury’s failure to accept his defense of extreme emotional disturbance in mitigation of his conduct in killing his girlfriend, and accordingly reduce the degree of his conviction to manslaughter in the first degree, was against the weight of the evidence.
Did the defendant prove that he acted under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance when he killed his girlfriend, thereby warranting the reduction of his conviction from murder in the second degree to manslaughter in the first degree?
The Court held that the jury’s rejection of defendant's extreme emotional disturbance defense under Penal Law §§ 125.25(1)(a) and 125.20(2) was against the weight of the evidence because the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that defendant was in a fragile mental state when he attacked his girlfriend, the attack was a barbaric frenzy that was indicative of defendant's loss of self-control, defendant made no effort to evade capture, significant mental trauma caused defendant's condition to deteriorate in the six months preceding the attack, and defendant's emotionally disturbed actions, amidst his seriously weakened psychiatric state, were triggered when his girlfriend rebuffed his suggestion that they cancel a family dinner party.
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