Law School Case Brief
People v. Vilardi - 76 N.Y.2d 67, 556 N.Y.S.2d 518, 555 N.E.2d 915 (1990)
A showing of a reasonable possibility that the failure to disclose the exculpatory report contributed to the verdict is the appropriate standard to measure materiality, where the prosecutor was made aware by a specific discovery request that defendant considered the material important to the defense.
In New York state court, defendant Antonio Vilardi was convicted of arson in the first degree, attempted arson in the first degree and conspiracy, for having conspired with Ronnie and William Bernacet, Ephraim Flores and Gino Romano to plant and set off one pipe bomb below a pizzeria on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, and a second below a nearby laundromat. The first bomb did not explode. It was the People's theory, however, that the bomb planted in the laundromat basement had exploded as planned, and thus defendants were charged with arson in the first degree, as well as attempt. Damage caused by an explosion was an element of arson in the first degree. The Bernacet brothers—who unlike defendant had made fairly extensive inculpatory statements—were tried first, on the same charges on which defendant were later tried. Among the prosecution witnesses was Officer Daniel Kiely, a member of the Bomb Squad, who had inspected the laundromat basement the day after the alleged explosion. At the Bernacets' trial, Kiely was cross-examined at length about a report he wrote the day after the incident, in which he stated that a thorough inspection of the basement revealed no evidence that there had been an explosion. Before defendant's trial, counsel made a pretrial request for all reports "by ballistics, firearm and explosive experts" concerning the laundromat explosion. At trial, no questions about that first report were asked during the brief cross-examination of Kiely, and no effort was made to argue that the People had failed to establish the explosion element of the top count. While preparing defendant's appeal, appellate counsel reviewed the transcript of the Bernacets' trial and realized that there was an undisclosed explosives report. Defendant made a motion to vacate the judgment of conviction, pursuant to CPL 440.10, arguing both that the undisclosed report was Brady material (and failure to disclose violated his due process rights under the State and Federal Constitutions) and that his trial counsel had been ineffective. The People responded that non-disclosure did not require reversal, as there was overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt, including Officer Kiely's ultimate conclusion that the laundromat bomb had indeed caused an explosion and testimony by residents of the building that there had been a "bang" and that the building had shaken. The trial court summarily denied defendant's motion, holding that the Brady claim should have been raised on direct appeal and that defendant had received the effective assistance of counsel. The appellate court modified and concluded that defendant's Brady claim was properly raised pursuant to CPL 440.10, and granted defendant's motion to the extent of vacating his conviction of arson in the first degree. According to the court, the report was exculpatory, that the prosecution violated defendant's constitutional right to be informed of exculpatory information known to the People, and that reversal was required if there was a reasonable possibility that the undisclosed material contributed to defendant's conviction. The court ordered a new trial on the completed arson charge to which the exculpatory material was relevant. The People appealed.
Did the appellate court properly order a new trail on the on the completed arson charge against defendant?
The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the appellate court's decision granting defendant a new trial. The court ruled that, as a matter of State constitutional law, in determining whether a defendant was entitled to a new trial based upon the prosecution's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence material to the defense which the defendant has specifically requested, a showing of a "reasonable possibility" that the failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence contributed to the verdict was the appropriate standard to measure materiality. Thus, undisclosed evidence was material only if there was a "reasonable probability" that it would have altered the outcome of the trial. In the case at bar, the court held that that defendant was entitled to a new trial because there was a reasonable possibility the exculpatory evidence that had not been disclosed contributed to defendant's conviction. The court ruled that the evidence was material because it was a report that the bomb in question had never exploded. According to the court, reversal was required because it was a reasonable possibility that the undisclosed evidence might have led to a trial strategy resulting in a different outcome at trial.
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