Harmless Error

New York Court of Appeals Says Judge Cannot Instruct on Lesser Included Offense Over Defense Objection

On October 23, 2012, New York’s highest court held that defense counsel has the ultimate authority in making the strategic decision whether the request lesser-included-offense jury instructions, and that the trial judge’s decision not to give lesser include offense instructions that defense counsel requested because the defendant objected was error requiring a new trial.  People v. Colville, No. 161, 2012 NY Slip Op 07047.  The appellate court refused to find the error harmless. The Court held that "that the decision whether to seek a jury charge on lesser-included offenses is a matter of strategy and tactics which ultimately rests with defense counsel." Thus, the Court held it was reversible error for the trial court to refuse to charge lesser offenses as requested by counsel " because defendant objected." The majority, noting that this was the near unanimous position of other courts, rejected the District Attorney's argument that the decision as to whether to request a lesser offense was a fundamental one to be made by the defendant, such as the decision as to whether to enter a guilty plea , or to request consideration of an affirmative defense.