Should “Youthful Offender” Treatment Impair Self-Defense?

Under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 720.35, minor defendants given youthful offender treatment may not have their convictions used against them, thus providing an opportunity for them to change their evil ways and have a second chance (or fourth) at turning their lives around. This is a wonderful thing, although it held little promise for Dylan Pitt when he was stabbed by Santino Guerra on St. Patrick’s Day, 2016.

At trial, Guerra claimed Pitt was the initial aggressor, and he stabbed Pitt with his penknife in self defense after Pitt came at him with a broken beer bottle. To bolster his defense, Guerra sought to use four YO adjudications for violent assault against Pitt to show that he was no angel, but the sort of fellow who would behave such a way. Even though two of the four assaults were used at trial, they were only admitted for the limited purpose of showing Pitt was still on probation and had a motive to lie. The court refused to allow the defense to use them as prior bad act evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Defendant stabbed the victim in the chest with a small knife, causing life-threatening injuries. At trial, the court determined that defendant was entitled to raise a justification defense. Defendant sought to introduce evidence of the specific violent conduct underlying
four of the victim’s prior youthful offender adjudications to prove that the victim was the
initial aggressor with respect to deadly physical force (see People v Brown, 33 NY3d 316,
321 [2019]). Supreme Court, in accordance with Miller, prohibited the jury from
considering that evidence for that purpose. The Appellate Division affirmed (192 AD3d
563 [1st Dept 2021]).

“Youthful Offender status provides youth four key benefits: relief from [a] record
of a criminal conviction, reduced sentences, privacy from public release of the youth’s
name pending the Youthful Offender determination on misdemeanor offenses only, and
confidentiality of the Youthful Offender record” (Report of the Governor’s Commission
on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice 135 [2014]). Youthful offender designations are given
to those who have “a real likelihood of turning their lives around,” and the protection gives
these individuals “the opportunity for a fresh start, without a criminal record” (People v
Rudolph, 21 NY3d 497, 501 [2013]). Given these policy concerns, we see no reason to
revisit the Miller rule in this case.

The rationale for only allowing the defendant to use the violent YO adjudications when he knew about them beforehand was to find a middle ground between protecting youth and allowing the defense to make its case. If a defendant knew about Pitt’s violent tendencies beforehand, it would reasonably influence his recognition of the threat Pitt posed based on his prior inclination toward violence.

As the dissent argues, however, whether Guerra knew or not had nothing to do with whether Pitt was a violent dude and the initial aggressor. As the evidence of justification cut both ways, any evidence to suggest to the jury that Pitt was the sort of kid inclined to attack first mattered.

Imagine for a moment that you are a juror in a criminal case. On trial is a young man with no history of violence. He is charged with stabbing another young man, one who on four prior occasions has, without provocation, assaulted and beaten up strangers. The defendant says he stabbed the victim with a penknife attached to his keys because the other man wielded a broken beer bottle as a weapon, hit him and was attempting to cut him with the beer bottle. The victim says he never had a beer bottle, never threatened the defendant, and it was the defendant who pulled out a knife and stabbed him following a minute of name-calling back and forth. As a juror, would you feel better able to determine who was the initial aggressor if you knew of the victim’s history of violence, or would you be better able to determine the truth without any information about the victim’s prior violent attacks? Under the doctrine the majority leaves in place today, no court can ever allow you to consider that information in deciding who was the initial aggressor.

The overly emotional framing by Judge Rowan Wilson aside, he’s got a point. Propensity evidence always appeals to the jury’s gut instinct, that people behave consistently with past behavior, and bad dudes continue to be bad. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the purpose of Youthful Offender treatment, which is to provide a youth with the opportunity to break that trend.

But here, Pitt wasn’t on trial, and wasn’t subject to sanction based upon the introduction of his four prior violent adjudications. Here, Guerra was in the dock, and he had a constitutional right to present his defense in the most effective manner possible. Should Pitt’s YO adjudication impair that? Should the strong arguments against admission of prior bad act evidence by the prosecution to obtain a conviction apply as well to the defense seeking to avoid one?

The sole issue on this appeal is the propriety of the limiting instruction. There is no challenge to the unsealing of the youthful offender records and no challenge to the presentation to the jury of the underlying facts of Mr. Pitt’s violent acts leading up to those
adjudications. The majority says, in essence, that we should uphold the limiting instruction
to protect Mr. Pitt’s confidentiality and give him a chance to turn his life around. Whatever force that position might have in a different case, it has none here, because that very evidence was exposed to the jurors (and anyone who attended the trial) in this case. Moreover, a defendant’s right to put the People to their burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—including proof that the defendant was the initial aggressor—is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Mr. Pitt is not on trial; his statutorily protected interest in confidentiality pales in comparison and cannot be asserted to deprive Mr. Guerra of a fair trial.

When the roles are shifted, and the YO kid isn’t the one on trial, the right of the defendant to put his proof to the jury is primary, just as the purposes of youthful offender treatment have nothing to do with the evidence in the case on trial. Should Pitt get his chance to clean up his act? Absolutely, but denying Guerra the evidence to make his self-defense claim stick isn’t the price of Pitt’s future. Guerra’s future is every bit as much at risk here, and if he stabbed Pitt in self-defense, then he should be acquitted. Any evidence that would help the jury to find reasonable doubt that Guerra was the initial aggressor should have been allowed.

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