A New York appeals court has overturned the conviction of a man accused of murdering a woman last seen alive walking home from work and dumping her body on a plot of land.
Michaela MacVilla was 21 when she was killed in September 2018. She never made it home after leaving her job at the Stewart’s Shop in the Village of St. Johnsville, some 65 miles northwest of Albany, on Sept. 25. Her body was found on Oct. 2 after having been dragged into underbrush; her pants were pulled down, and she had been shot in the head at close range.
The investigation revealed that MacVilla had been at the apartment of Daniel A. Nellis Sr. at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 25 and left with him at around noon the next day. Surveillance video showed Nellis’ car heading to the location where MacVilla’s body would eventually be found, and evidence from MacVilla’s Fitbit showed her heart rate spiking shortly after 12:30 p.m. before stopping. Nellis’ DNA was found on MacVilla’s remains, including under her fingernails.
Nellis, now 50, was convicted of second-degree murder in August 2019 and eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison.
On Thursday, a four-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling overturning that conviction, finding that it was the result of “prosecutorial misconduct” that went unchecked by the trial judge.
“[I]n light of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, in response to which [Fulton County Court Judge Polly Hoye] failed to intervene, we are compelled to reverse defendant’s conviction and order a new trial,” Justice Andrew Ceresia wrote. He was joined in the ruling by Justices Stan Pritzker, Christine Clark, and Michael Lynch.
Although the judges acknowledged that “the weight of the evidence supports the [guilty] verdict in all respects” — even though an acquittal “would not have been unreasonable” considering that no murder weapon was ever found — the real problem was that the prosecutor appears to have won a conviction using innuendo and prejudicial questioning, rather than relying on evidence relating to MacVilla’s death.
Normally, the ruling notes evidence of a defendant’s prior convictions and bad acts will be allowed at trial only if a judge has previously deemed it to be material to the case. In this trial, however, the prosecutor apparently went well outside the bounds of what Hoye had allowed in pretrial motions.
“During their direct case, however, the People elicited testimony from three different witnesses about a prior bad act that had not been included in their [pretrial motions],” the ruling says. One witness testified that Nellis had told them that he had shot someone off of a motorcycle — evidence, according to the ruling, that was “particularly damning and indeed gave rise to a significant risk that the jury would view it as evidence of defendant’s criminal propensity, particularly in the absence of any limiting instruction.”
Other questions by the prosecutor during trial, the judges found, were “plainly improper,” as they didn’t relate to Nellis’ credibility but instead to his “criminal propensity,” in such a way that it was prejudicial against his defense.
“Said another way, the prosecutor, through his questioning, did not merely attempt to impeach defendant’s testimony, but instead sought to create the impression that defendant had a propensity for acting violently when angry,” the ruling says.
The judges also excoriated the trial judge for failing to intervene.
“It bears further mentioning that compounding the magnitude of the prosecutor’s misconduct was the fact that County Court made no effort to intervene or otherwise attempt to minimize or alleviate the prejudice being caused to defendant,” the ruling says. “County Court certainly must have been aware that some of the evidence introduced by the prosecutor, both on the People’s direct case and upon cross-examination of defendant, fell outside the scope of the court’s pretrial evidentiary rulings.”
Hoye, the trial judge, should have taken “corrective actions,” such as striking the testimony or giving limiting instructions to the jury, the ruling says.
“The prejudice that resulted from the aforementioned evidence and questioning concerning defendant’s purported propensity for violence cannot be overstated, as there was no proof at trial of defendant’s motive to commit murder,” the ruling says, adding that “this point was driven home at several points” during the prosecutor’s closing arguments.
“By way of example, at one point the prosecutor made the inflammatory comment that ‘the devil is in the details. I’m sorry, Daniel Nellis is in the details,'” the ruling says.
The judges note that the basis of its ruling was not, technically, preserved for appeal since Nellis’ trial attorney doesn’t appear to have objected to the prosecutor’s overstepping. In the panel’s view, however, the due process violations were egregious enough to warrant the drastic step of overturning the conviction.
“In making our ruling herein, we are mindful that no defense objections were lodged to a number of the most serious errors, rendering them unpreserved for review,” the ruling says. “Nevertheless, under these circumstances and given the magnitude and frequency of the errors, we find it appropriate to address them in the interest of justice.”
Lawyers for Nellis and the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.
Read the appellate division’s ruling here.
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