By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Darryl Littlejohn, former bouncer at a New York City club, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the murder of a young clubgoer in Brooklyn, appealed to the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, for a new trial claiming that errors during trial deprived him of a right to a fair trial.
The court, while acknowledging errors were present in the previous trial, denied Littlejohn’s request.
In February 2006, the body of Imette St. Guillen was found at the intersection of Fountain and Seaview avenues, wrapped in a quilt, her wrists tied behind her back with zip ties, a sock stuffed into her mouth, and packing tape wrapped around her head from her eyebrows to her chin. St. Guillen had been beaten, raped and sodomized; the medical examiner determined she died from suffocation.
At trial, it was revealed that Littlejohn’s DNA was on one of the zip ties and other evidence near the body lead to the conclusion that Littlejohn committed the heinous crime. The prosecution bolstered the DNA and other physical evidence with the introduction of other crimes Littlejohn had been accused of, but not charged with, in an attempt to show that Littlejohn acted with a specific modus operandi.
One accusation was that Littlejohn accosted a young woman—identified by the initials M.S.—tied her hands behind her back, taped a knit hat around her eyes and sexually assaulted her. The victim was unable to identify her attacker and Littlejohn, though a person of interest, was not charged with the crime.
New York case law generally prohibits evidence of uncharged crimes where “its only purpose is to show bad character or propensity towards crime." However, where evidence of other crimes is used to prove something other than a defendant’s “propensity towards crime,” such as motive or intent, proof of uncharged crimes is admissible evidence at trial.
Prosecutors in Litteljohn’s case claimed that the evidence of other crimes was offered to establish the defendant's identity as St. Guillen's killer. Justice William Mastro deemed this assertion valid. Evidence tying Littlejohn to St. Guillen’s murder “was compelling…[but] it was also entirely circumstantial,” Mastro noted in opinion of the court.
Because Littlejohn “vigorously contested” his identification, the law allowed for the admission of evidence of similar crimes to show that the “defendant employs some unique, unusual, or distinctive modus operandi,” Mastro ruled. In this case, the attack on M.S. possessed characteristics common to the attack on St. Guillen. “[T]he hands of both victims were bound behind their backs… and significantly, both had large amounts of tape wrapped around their heads and over their faces,” the court found.
Littlejohn’s attorneys argued that factual differences existed between the two attacks. The court agreed that there were some factual discrepancies. However, the court concluded, the legal rule “does not require that the crimes be committed in an identical manner.”
The prosecutors did introduce evidence of another uncharged crime where Littlejohn was accused of abducting a female — identified as S.W. — and tying her hands behind her back and throwing her in the back of a vehicle, with the suspected intention of sexually violating her. S.W. was able to escape from the moving car, and no charges were formally filed against Littlejohn.
The introduction of this alleged crime was erroneous, the court ruled in favor of Littlejohn. However, although the prosecution acted in error, that error, due to the abundance of additional evidence presented to prove that Littlejohn attacked and killed St. Guillen, did not “deprive the defendant of a fair trial.”
“The proof of the defendant's guilt may fairly be characterized as overwhelming, and there is no significant probability that the verdict would have been different if the court had excluded the evidence of the S.W. incident,” the court held.
The court affirmed the life sentence imposed by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Abraham G. Gerges. Justices Priscilla Hall, Plummer Lott and Sandra Sgroi concurred. William Kastin represented Littlejohn. Attorneys Leonard Joblove and Victor Barall appeared for the prosecution.