ALBANY — The 2019 murder conviction of Dolgeville resident Daniel Nellis in the 2018 murder of 21-year-old St. Johnsville resident Michaela MacVilla was overturned on appeal in a ruling issued Thursday.
The Appellate Division, Third Department, ruling Thursday, without dissent, set the case on course for retrial.
The appeals court overturned the Nellis’ convictions based on multiple instances of what it found to be unchecked prosecutorial misconduct. Most of the instances cited by the court centered on the introduction and use by prosecutors of prior bad acts on the part of Nellis.
Such bad acts usually must be the subject of pretrial rulings, but the appeals court cited instances used that had not been ruled upon and then were cited multiple times at trial.
To make the matters worse, the appeals court found that presiding Judge Polly Hoye did not intervene when she should have.
“Accordingly, for all the reasons articulated above, we conclude that the misconduct of the prosecutor, as exacerbated by County Court’s inaction, caused defendant to suffer substantial prejudice, the result of which was the deprivation of due process,” the appeals court wrote.
Nellis, then 45, was convicted by a Fulton County Court jury in June 2019 of second-degree murder in the September 2018 death of MacVilla, along with a separate charge of first-degree criminal possession of a weapon, based on weapons police found while searching his residence. The case was prosecuted by then-Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown.
Nellis was then sentenced to a total of 40 years-to-life in prison.
The 21-year-old St. Johnsville woman was shot in the back of the head in a remote area of the town of Oppenheim Sept. 25, 2018, after having spent the previous night with Nellis, according to trial testimony.
During the trial, prosecutors presented the videos of MacVilla with Nellis at his home the morning she was believed to have been killed, DNA evidence placing Nellis with MacVilla at the time of her death, cellphone evidence showing she had called Nellis after midnight the day she was believed to have been killed, and cellphone location evidence placing him in proximity to her at the time of her death.
Data from a Fitbit heart rate monitor MacVilla wore showed her heart rate spiked at 12:24 p.m. that day, and then stopped six minutes later.
MacVilla was reported missing after she left a Stewart’s Shop where she worked in St. Johnsville at about 12:10 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2018. The case was initially treated as a missing person, but she was found dead Oct. 2 in heavy brush on a property on Kringsbush Road in Oppenheim. The property’s owner discovered her body.
In overturning Nellis’ convictions, the appeals court cited the prosecutor eliciting testimony from three different witnesses about a prior bad act that prosecutors hadn’t even asked to use, that they had made no showing of its probative value or that it was material to the case. Thursday’s ruling was first reported by the Albany Times-Union.
The bad act related to Nellis allegedly volunteering that he had shot someone off a motorcycle. The appeals court found that bad act evidence “particularly damning” and risked the jury seeing it “as evidence of the defendant’s criminal propensity.”
Later, as the prosecutor cross-examined Nellis, the appeals court found the questioning problematic related to an allowed bad act and cited questioning related to an alleged bad act in jail related to threats.
“The above-referenced questions by the prosecutor — some of which focused on matters outside of (court rulings) — were plainly improper, bearing, as they did, not upon defendant’s credibility or veracity but upon his criminal propensity,” the appeals court wrote.
The appeals court then noted the magnitude of the misconduct was compounded as the trial judge “made no effort to intervene or otherwise attempt to minimize or alleviate the prejudice being caused to the defendant.”
“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 appeals court wrote.
“In short, faced with a brutally violent crime with no apparent motive,” the appeals court wrote later, “the jury was given the highly prejudicial impression that defendant acted in the manner that he did because he was hotheaded and prone to violence.”
The appeals court also noted that the defense did not object to the issues at trial, but found that “given the magnitude and frequency of the errors, we find it appropriate to address them in the interest of justice.”