This case, the second appeal from a death sentence under the State’s recently enacted death-penalty law to reach the New York Court of Appeals, involved claims of prejudicial pretrial publicity. The defendant James Cahill was accused first of having assaulted his wife with a baseball bat in their Syracuse home and then of having murdered her by sneaking into her hospital room and poisoning her. After two motions for a change of venue were denied, Mr. Cahill was convicted and sentenced to death. His lawyers argued to the Court of Appeals that he was denied a fair trial because of the adverse publicity surrounding the case and because of the failure to excuse several jurors. Among many other challenges, they also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence with respect to two aggravating factors that qualified this murder as a capital offense under the statute.
On Aug. 28, 2002, the NYCLU filed an amicus brief addressing the fair trial/adverse publicity issue. The brief reviewed the very sparse case law in New York in this area and discussed a number of professional standards and empirical studies focusing on the impact of adverse pretrial publicity on jurors. The brief then urged the Court of Appeals to use this case as an opportunity to develop clear legal standards for lower courts facing change-of-venue motions based on adverse pretrial publicity. The Court of Appeals vacated the death sentence, determining that the penalty phase of the trial was conducted without legal foundation. The Court reduced the conviction to second degree murder and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. As a result, the ultimate question of the constitutionality of the death-penalty in New York was not addressed.
New York Court of Appeals, Index No. 123 (amicus)