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Angela Ball’s appeal granted in murder conviction

November 10, 2017
By GLYNIS HART - For the News (ghart@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

New York state Supreme Court judges have granted an appeal in the case of Angela Ball, convicted in April 2015 of murdering Ward Wilbur.

The case is to be re-heard in Franklin County Court at a date yet to be determined in January 2018. The judge will be Robert Main Jr., who issued the original sentence.

Franklin County District Attorney Craig Carriero said Ball has been returned to the Franklin County Jail in Malone to await a new trial.

Article Photos

Angela Ball is escorted by a police officer in September 2014 during the murder trial.
(News photo — Chris Knight)

"The conviction was overturned on the basis that the jury wasn't allowed to consider self-defense as a justification," Carriero explained.

The undisputed facts are that on the morning of Nov. 25, 2013, Ball called 911 from her apartment at 19 Morris Way in Saranac Lake. When police arrived, they found the lifeless body of Wilbur, covered by a sheet and a blanket inside Ball's apartment. He had been severely beaten with a baseball bat, then stabbed to death.

Ball, then 29, and Wilbur, 65, had been in an intimate relationship, but at the time of the murder they were no longer living together.

Ball admitted to killing Wilbur, but said she had been a victim of prolonged sexual and physical abuse by Wilbur and she had killed him in self-defense. She told the police he had threatened to kill her during a fight a few days earlier, and that he had attacked her when he came in the apartment.

A witness during the trial corroborated Ball's claim that the relationship was abusive, saying he had seen Wilbur become "agitated" if he made Ball smile or laugh, and also said he had seen her with a black eye and scratches on her neck. When Ball's public defender, Thomas Soucia, attempted to bring up instances in which Wilbur had behaved violently, Judge Main ruled that they could present such evidence, but that the prosecution could then bring up prior "bad acts" by Ball.

In the New York state court system, the Supreme Court, unlike the federal court system, is the lowest level of appeals court.

Reviewing the arguments of Mitch Kessler, the attorney assigned to represent Ball in the appeals process, the Supreme Court found that Judge Main had acted wrongly in denying key parts of Ball's defense.

The Supreme Court wrote: "There is a reasonable view of the evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the defendant was justified in using deadly force." Reviewing Ball's statements to police, the court noted, "defendant claimed that the victim had previously perpetrated acts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against her," and also noted the testimony of an employee of Wilbur's that indicated a history of physical abuse. Because of the self-defense argument, Judge Main "was required to charge the jury with the defense of justification," but did not. In his directions to the jury before they were sequestered to decide upon a verdict, Main didn't include justification. Further, the jury had sent the judge a note asking him to "clarify motive if it should be considered," but the judge did not provide the lawyers "meaningful notice of the content of the note." Therefore, the conviction was reversed and sent back for a new trial.

The Supreme Court justices also felt compelled to comment on another aspect of Judge Main's proceedings - whether Ball's prior bad acts could be used by the prosecution, and whether Wilbur's prior bad acts could be used by the defense. Ball's defense attorney wanted to call a former boyfriend of Ball to testify about an event when he had allegedly had to pull Wilbur off Ball while Wilbur was holding her down. Main said he would admit that, but then he would also permit the prosecution to present evidence that Ball had behaved aggressively toward other people.

The Supreme Court justices took issue with this second part, writing: "Evidence of a defendant's prior uncharged crimes or bad acts may not be admitted into evidence solely to demonstrate his or her bad character or criminal propensity," except with a few noted exceptions, which they found did not apply. "The prior bad acts ... would serve only to demonstrate that defendant had a propensity to initiate or engage in physical altercations. ... As such, County Court should have ruled that evidence of these alleged prior bad acts was inadmissible."

They further commented that Main's decision to let the prosecution bring up these incidents "no doubt" influenced Ball's decision not to testify on her own behalf and not to call her ex-boyfriend to testify on her behalf.

The Supreme Court ruled that the defense can present witnesses and evidence to support Ball's claim of self-defense, since it would establish whether she had a reasonable fear for her life at the time of the murder.

Nevertheless, neither Kessler nor Carriero anticipates that Ball's conviction will be overturned.

"Likely much of the evidence will be the same," said Carriero.

The case may not go to trial in January, the attorneys said.

"There's always a possibility of a plea bargain," said Kessler.

After the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts, on April 21, 2015, Judge Main sentenced Ball to serve 20 years to life for murder, and 20 years for assault.

 
 

 

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