People v. Allweiss (1978)

US Criminal Law

People v. Allweiss
‘Greenwich Village at Night’ by Amy Stewart

Circumstantial evidence of crimes committed beyond the realm of an immediate offence, can be used to support the conviction of a defendant, but only when such information demonstrates an overwhelming similarity to that used in the matter at hand, as was found in a truly disturbing case involving multiple rapes and eventual murder of an innocent victim that instead chose to fight back during her ordeal.

Sometime in 1977, the appellant was indicted and convicted of second degree murder in the New York County Supreme Court, following the stabbing and strangulation of what was to be his seventh victim in less than six months.

Upon his appeal in the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, the appellant argued that in the absence of any witnesses, and with its verdict resting solely upon the witness testimony of his six previous rape victims, there was insufficient grounds to sustain his conviction beyond a reusable doubt.

In response, the court first turned to People v. Molineux, in which the New York Court of Appeals had held that:

“[W]hen evidence of an extraneous crime is admissible to prove the crime for which a defendant is on trial, it is not necessary to prove every fact and circumstance relating to the extraneous crime that would be essential to sustain a conviction thereof.”

And so in order to ascertain the weight of evidence before them, the court went on to note that in each of the previous six rapes, the appellant had (i) informed the victims that his alleged wife or fiancée had been recently attacked and injured, (ii) seized his victims by the throat, (iii) threatened his victims with a knife, (iv) made physical contact with their lingerie collection, (v) forced his victims to wear specifically chosen underwear, and (vi) stolen property from their apartments after raping them.

While on this occasion, the victim had screamed out for help, a resistance which resulted in the appellant strangling her with her own underwear before wounding her with a knife multiple times, both of which, while different in their effect, bore very close resemblance to his previous methodology, and to which the appellant contested that in People v. Goldstein the New York Court of Appeals had later held that:

“[E]vidence that defendant committed other or similar offenses is not admissible to prove his guilt of the crime for which he is being tried. One may not be convicted of one crime on proof that he probably is guilty because he committed another crime.”

However the court rightly determined that in addition to the circumstantial similarities shown by the six previous rapes, there was also compelling witness testimony as to the appellant’s voice pattern, and his whereabouts both before and after the offence discussed, and so with little hesitation the court upheld the supreme court conviction in full, while holding that:

“Another crime or crimes of the defendant are not admissible to establish that the defendant committed the crime charged where the only connection between the crimes is a similar modus operandi. If, however, the modus operandi is sufficiently unique logically to point to the defendant as the perpetrator of the crime charged, evidence of the other crimes is admissible.”

Martin v. Herzog (1917)

US Tort Law

Martin v Herzog
Image: ‘Horse Drawn Cabs at Evening, New York’ by Frederick Childe Hassam

Liability for negligence arising from a breach of statute is unquestionable in terms of culpability, however when both parties have acted beyond their prescribed rights, it becomes a matter of priority in reaching summary judgment.

In dusk of August 21 1915, a husband and wife were entering a stretch of road in a wagon, that whilst doing so on a bend, was unequipped with lights, as required by s.286 of the New York Highway Laws 1909, which explained that:

“Every motor vehicle, operated or driven upon the public highways of this state…shall, during the period from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise, display at least two lighted lamps on the front and on the rear of such vehicle…”

It was at this point that a car driven by the now appellant collided with the wagon, killing the respondent’s husband. Upon litigation, the appellant remarked that he was unable to see the wagon, and thus had been straining to peer into the darkness at the time of the accident. In defence, the respondent argued that the inability to avoid the wagon constituted negligence under s.332(1) of the same Act, and which read:

“Whenever a person operating a motor vehicle shall meet on a public highway any other person riding or driving a horse or horses or other draft animals or any other vehicle, the person so operating such motor vehicle shall seasonably turn the same to the right of the centre of such highways so as to pass without interference.”

In the first instance, the jury upheld the respondent’s contention of negligent driving, while reducing the culpability of the deceased to that of contributory negligence when failing to upholster his vehicle with lights. The matter was then put before the Appellate Division, who reversed the judgment in favour of the appellant.

Challenged again, the New York Supreme Court examined the importance of statute, further noting that while both sections were essentially safeguarding the rights and lives of road users, the failure to install and use lights was by design, tantamount to absolute negligence, as had been found in both Massoth v. D & H Canal Co. and Cordell v. N.Y.C & H.R.R. Co.

It was also held that legislation is not something privy to the whims of a jury, regardless of how trivial such details might appear when taken in context, and that the misdirection of the trial judge was unlawful and in therefore in need of redress. So it was for these reasons, that the appellate court ruling was sustained and damages awarded to the appellant with costs.