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People v. Grassi, 1999 N.Y. Int. 0020 (Feb. 18, 1999).

CRIMINAL LAW - MOTION TO SET ASIDE VERDICT - CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE


ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Whether the totality of the evidence, with permissible inferences, would allow a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant was an accessory to the crime of arson, even though the evidence was exclusively circumstantial.

Disposition

Yes. There was sufficient evidence in this case for a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant was an accessory to the crime of arson, thus making the County Court's grant to set aside the verdict inappropriate.

SUMMARY

In connection with an October 1994 fire that damaged a nightclub co-owned by Defendant, Defendant was indicted for arson in the second degree upon a theory of accessorial liability. Following a lengthy trial, Defendant was convicted of arson in the second degree. The County Court granted Defendant's motion to set aside the verdict, stating that the evidence established that Defendant was not physically present in the county when the fire took place. A divided Appellate Division reversed, and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court stated that the standard of appellate review in determining whether there was legally sufficient evidence before the jury to support a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is the same for both circumstantial and non-circumstantial cases. That standard is whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, would allow a rational trier of fact to find the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, Defendant was fifty percent owner in the nightclub that was burned down. The club was at risk due to financial difficulties; it was at risk of losing its liquor license; the police received many complaints about the club; and there was no prospect of sale. The fire alarm system had been disabled before the arson and much expensive equipment had been removed from the club a few nights before the fire. Defendant removed an expensive lighting system he had purchased, hid it at his house, and then said it had been destroyed in the fire. This circumstantial evidence was found by the Court to be legally sufficient to sustain Defendant's conviction.


Prepared by the liibulletin-ny Editorial Board.