Category Archives: Accomplice

Corpus Delicti & Murder Confessions

Image result for criminal interrogation and confessions

In State v. Young, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s confession to murder was properly admitted because the State presented ample independent evidence of (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

On the morning of July 4, 2013, John Young entered the Desert Food Mart in Benton City and asked the cashier to call 911 because he had witnessed a shooting of a man named Jacob. Police were summoned. As the investigation proceeded, Mr. Young became a suspect. He was brought in for questioning, and consented to audio and video recording of an interview.

During the interview, an officer read Mr. Young Miranda warnings and obtained his agreement that he understood he was now a suspect and any statements he made could be used against him. Mr. Young then confessed that Jacob was involved in a drug deal gone wrong. With the assistance of an accomplice named Joshua Hunt,  Mr. Young admitted he fired one shot into Jacob’s head near the temple-cheek region, killing him.

Mr. Young also confessed that he and Mr. Hunt disposed of their shoes and gun by putting the items into a backpack and throwing the backpack into a river. Later, police recovered the shoes and gun.  The shoes matched footprints and shoe patterns that had been found in the sand near Jacob’s body. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory determined that all of the bullets recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the Charter pistol found in the backpack.

Mr. Young was charged with first degree murder.

During a 3.5 hearing, Young’s attorney lawyer stipulated to the admission of the videotaped interview, telling the court:

“We believe it’s in our interests to actually stipulate to the 3.5 hearing, and I’ve discussed that with Mr. Young, and I know the Court will make its own inquiries, but he knows and understands he has a right to that hearing, but we believe it’s in our benefit and strategic interest to proceed with the stipulation.”

The court questioned Mr. Young, who stated he understood he had a right to a hearing on the admissibility of the statements but was agreeing instead that all of his statements were admissible.

During trial, Mr. Young’s videotaped confession was played for the jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Young appeals.

Mr. Young argued his defense counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by stipulating to the admission of Mr. Young’s confession when there was no independent evidence apart from his confession, under the corpus delecti rule, sufficient to establish all the elements of first degree murder.

For those who don’t know, corpus delicti is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must be proved to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.

The Court of Appeals rejected Young’s arguments. It reasoned that in a homicide case, the corpus delecti generally consists of two elements: (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act. It can be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, which need not be enough to support a conviction or send the case to the jury. In assessing whether there is sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti independent of a defendant’s statements, the Court assumes the truth of the State’s evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in a light most favorable to the State.

Here, the corpus of the crime of murder was amply established by (1) a dead person; (2) multiple gunshot wounds that established a casual connection with a criminal act; (3) testimony eliminating the possibility of self-inflicted wounds; and (4) the recovery of the weapon miles away from the dead body.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State is not required to present independent evidence of the defendant’s mental state. It reasoned the State is not required to present independent evidence sufficient to demonstrate anything other than the fact of death and a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Young’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

“It appears from his closing argument that Mr. Young’s trial lawyer believed his client’s videotaped interview would advance that argument. Mr. Young fails to demonstrate that his trial lawyer lacked a strategic reason for the stipulation.”

With that, the Court of Appeals confirmed Mr. Young’s conviction.

My opinion? This case represents a fairly straightforward analysis of the corpus delicti defense. I’ve had great success when it applies, and have managed to get many criminal charges reduced or dismissed under this defense. However, the corpus delicti defense is extremely narrow. Aside from the defendant’s confession, there must be virtually NO independent evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Here, other evidence existed which implicated Mr. Young and the defense was found inapplicable.

State v. Walker: WA Supreme Court Decides Prosecutor’s Powerpoint Presentation Violates Defendant’s Right to Fair Trial

EXCELLENT opinion. In State v. Walker, the Washington Supreme Court decided the Prosecutor improperly used a PowerPoint presentation during closing argument to convey egrigious misstatements which violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

At his jury trial, defendant Odies Delandus Walker was convicted as an accomplice to Murder in the First Degree, Assault in the First Degree, Robbery in the First Degree Solicitation and Conspiracy. The WA Supreme Court addressed the issue as whether those convictions must be reversed in light of the Power Point presentation the prosecuting attorney used during closing argument.

The Prosecutor’s presentation repeatedly expressed the prosecutor’s personal opinion on guilt-over 100 of its approximately 250 slides were headed with the words “DEFENDANT WALKER GUILTY OF PREMEDITATED MURDER,” and one slide showed Walker’s booking photograph altered with the words “GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT,” which were superimposed over his face in bold red letters. The prosecutor also appealed to passion and prejudice by juxtaposing photographs of the victim with photographs of Walker and his family, some altered with the addition of inflammatory captions and superimposed text (please click the above link to the Walker opinion for a look at the specific Powerpoint slides and images).

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that while the prosecutor is entitled to draw the jury’s attention to admitted evidence, those slides, as presented, served no legitimate purpose. Their prejudicial effect could not have been cured by a timely objection, and we cannot conclude with any confidence that Walker’s convictions were the result of a fair trial. Consistent with both long-standing precedent and our recent holding in In re Personal Restraint of Glasmann, 175 Wn.2d 696, 286 P.3d 673 (2012), the court reversed Walker’s convictions and remanded for a new trial.

The Court also gave some powerful language regarding how the prosecution committed serious misconduct in the portions of the PowerPoint presentation discussed above:

“We have no difficulty in holding the prosecutor’s conduct in this case was improper. Closing argument provides an opportunity to draw the jury’s attention to the evidence presented, but it does not give a prosecutor the right to present altered version of admitted evidence to support the State’s theory of the case, to present derogatory depictions of the defendant, or to express personal opinions on the defendant’s guilt. Furthermore, RPC3.4(e) expressly prohibits a lawyer from vouching for any witness’s credibility or stating a personal opinion ‘on the guilt or innocence of the accused.’”

My opinion? Good decision. It’s very encouraging for trial attorneys to learn from these opinions. For example, we can argue Motions in Limine asking that the State’s PowerPoint presentations are disclosed in advance of closing arguments. The Walker opinion expressly endorses this approach.

Furthermore, this is the second opinion this month handed down by the WA Supremes regarding Prosecutorial Misconduct during closing arguments (please read my blog on State v. Allen). It appears the WA Supremes are on a roll.

Good opinion!

State v. Allen: Prosecutor Commits Misconduct With Phrase, “Should Have Known.”

In State v. Allen, the WA Supremes ruled that the Prosecuting Attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury may convict an accomplice.

This case involves the Lakewood police officer shootings.

The defendant Mr. Allen was friend and co-worker of Maurice Clemmons, who fatally shot four police officers in a coffee shop on November 29, 2009. Mr. Allen’s involvement transpired on the days leading up to the shooting.

This tragic story began in May 2009 when officers responded to reports that Clemmons was throwing rocks through his neighbors’ windows. Clemmons responded violently when officers arrived at the scene, and he was arrested for punching officers. He posted bail in November 2009, the month of the shootings.

Shortly after his release, Clemmons attended Thanksgiving dinner at his aunt’s house, where he expressed animosity toward the police. Specifically, he announced that if the police arrived to look for him, he would kill them and then go across the street to the elementary school and commit further acts of violence. Clemmons brandished a handgun while he described these acts. Allen, who was a friend and employee of Clemmons, was present at that dinner.

Three days later, Clemmons contacted Allen and told him they were going to wash the company truck. With Allen driving, Clemmons directed him to a car wash near a coffee shop in Lakewood. Upon arriving at the car wash, Allen parked the truck, got out, and walked across the street to a minimart. During that time, Clemmons also left the car wash and entered the coffee shop, where the shootings occurred. When Allen returned to the truck, Clemmons appeared and told Allen that they had to leave. Allen claimed he drove only a few blocks until he left the truck upon discovering Clemmons was wounded. Allen also claimed that he did not know Clemmons was going to commit the murders.

Clemmons eventually ended up at his aunt’s house, and the truck was abandoned in a nearby parking lot. A few days later, Clemmons was killed by a Seattle police officer. Allen was arrested shortly afterward.

Allen was charged with four counts of Aggravated Murder in the first Degree. During trial, several spectators wore T -shirts that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police,”‘ followed by the names of the four murdered officers. Allen objected to these T-shirts and asked that the shirts be covered. The trial court denied Allen’s motion.

At closing argument, the State was required to prove that Allen had actual knowledge that Clemmons would commit the murders. During closing argument, the prosecuting attorney initially stated the correct definition of “knowledge” as it was used in the jury instruction. However, immediately afterward, the prosecuting attorney stated that “for shorthand we’re going to call that ‘should have known.'” Also, the prosecuting attorney went on to repeatedly and improperly use the phrase “should have known” when describing the definition of “knowledge.” The prosecuting attorney also presented a slide show simultaneously with his closing argument. This slide show repeatedly referred to the incorrect “should have known” standard. One slide even stated, “You are an accomplice if: … you know or should have known,” with the words “should have known” in bold. The prosecuting attorney made several more “should have known” comments in rebuttal argument.

The jury received instructions that correctly stated the law regarding “knowledge.” Particularly, instruction 9 said the following:

A person knows or acts knowingly or with knowledge with respect to a fact or circumstance when he or she is aware of that fact or circumstance. If a person has information that would lead a reasonable person in the same situation to believe that a fact exists, the jury is permitted but not required to find that he or she acted with knowledge of that fact.

 Allen was convicted of four counts of Murder in the First Degree. Based on the aggravating circumstance, the trial court imposed an exceptional sentence of 400 years.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

The Court granted review on three issues: (1) Did the prosecuting attorney commit prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could convict Allen? (2) Does the “aggravator” found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) apply to a defendant charged as an accomplice? (3) Was Allen prejudiced when spectators at trial wore T -shirts bearing the names of the murdered officers?

1. DID THE PROSECUTOR COMMIT MISCONDUCT?

The court ruled the Prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could find Allen guilty. Here, the prosecuting attorney repeatedly misstated that the jury could convict Allen if it found that he should have known Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers.

The Court reasoned that, for example, the prosecuting attorney stated that “under the law, even if he doesn’t actually know, if a reasonable person would have known, he’s guilty.” As noted above, the “should have known” standard is incorrect; the jury must find that Allen actually knew Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers. Consequently, the Court concluded that the remarks were improper.

Furthermore, the improper comments prejudiced the defendant. First, the Prosecutor misstated a key issue of the case – knowledge. Second, the misstatement of law was repeated multiple times. Repetitive misconduct can have a “cumulative effect.” Third, the trial court twice overruled Allen’s timely objections in the jury’s presence, potentially leading the jury to believe that the “should have known” standard was a proper interpretation of law. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the record reveals that the jury was influenced by the improper statement of law during deliberations. Finally, the misconduct by the State was particularly egregious. Based on the foregoing factors, the Court found that there was a substantial likelihood that the Prosecutor’s misconduct affected the jury verdict and thus prejudiced Allen.

 2. DOES THE “AGGRAVATOR” SENTENCING ENHANCEMENT APPLY TO AN ACCOMPLICE?

The Court answered “Yes” to this question. Here, the court sentenced Allen to an exceptional sentence based on the sentencing aggravator found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v). That statute contains no express triggering language automatically authorizing an exceptional sentence for accomplices. Therefore, Allen’s own misconduct must form the basis upon which the exceptional sentence applies. The operative language of the statute here allows the court to sentence Allen above the standard range if the offense was committed against a law enforcement officer who was performing his or her official duties at the time of the offense, the offender knew that the victim was a law enforcement officer, and the victim’s status as a law enforcement officer is not an element of the offense.” Consequently, an exceptional sentence under RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) may be imposed on remand if the jury finds the required elements based on Allen’s own misconduct.

3. DID THE SPECTATORS WEARING T-SHIRTS IN THE COURTROOM PREJUDICE ALLEN’S CASE?

The court decided that, based on the limited information in the record, it was unlikely that the t-shirts were inherently prejudicial. The T-shirts bore a message that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police”‘ followed by a list of the victims’ names. The court said this message does not advocate for a message of guilt or innocence. Rather, the shirts were merely a silent showing of sympathy for the victims. Contrary to Allen’s arguments, the mere presence of words does not make a spectator display inherently prejudicial.

In conclusion, the prosecuting attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the proper standard upon which the jury could find Allen acted with knowledge. Based on that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion?

The shootings were exceptionally tragic. These officers left friends and family in the wake of their senseless death. That said, the Prosecutor in this case clearly committed misconduct. i’ve been in jury trials where Prosecutors will bend and stretch the the law when it comes to whether a defendant had knoweldge they were committing a crime. Similar to the Prosecutor in this case, they’ll say “Well, the defendant should have known they were committing a crime.” This is an ABSOLUTE mistatement of the law. “Knowing” and “Should Have Known” are two very, very different levels of understanding. Here, saying Mr. Allen “Should Have Known” that Clemmons would commit murder implies that Mr. Allen had a legal duty to know what Clemmons was thinking about before committing the heinous murders he committed. That’s wrong, and an improper statement of the law.

 Again, I extend my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the police officers who lost their lives. 

Proposed Law Changes To Prevent Future Police Murders

I read this topic with great interest.

http://www.snohomishtimes.com/snohomishNEWS.cfm?inc=story&newsID=909

In the wake of the Lakewood police officer tragedy, Representative Mike Hope (R-Lake Stevens) is drafting legislation to prevent serial offenders like Maurice Clemmons from having an opportunity to harm others. Hope, a Seattle police officer who works patrol when not in session, said this was at the top of his legislative agenda.

The three-part legislation will include two proposed changes to the Washington State Constitution and a sentencing enhancement, proposals he says would have prevented the murders of four Lakewood police officers Nov. 29.

The first bill would remove bail opportunities for dangerous individuals who have committed two felonies and are charged with a possible “third strike” felony offense.   The second bill would prevent defendants from receiving bail if they commit another violent crime in Washington and are proven dangerous to the public.  The third bill would require a sentencing enhancement against those who aid and abet criminals who are not bailable.

A change to the state constitution requires a two-thirds approval in both the House and the Senate and simple majority approval from voters.

My opinion?  Like everyone, I’m deeply saddened with the deaths of the four Lakewood Officers.  Their murders were completely meaningless and senseless.  I’m also disturbed the defendant’s friends/relatives assisted him.

That said, I question whether altering the WA Constitution and chipping away at a defendant’s rights is the answer to preventing similar murders from happening in the future.  I’m a staunch defender of constitutional rights.  Indeed, if I were to wrap an American flag around myself and proclaim my patriotism out loud, then THAT is the platform I stand upon: vigilant, aggressive protection of individual rights against a tyrannical government.

The proposed legislation is strong medicine.  Too strong.  At worst, defendants can be held without bail.  This is disturbing.  Under court rules, judges may hold defendants without bail only if the charge they face is a capital charge; like murder.  Additionally, judges must impose the least restrictive release alternatives to defendants.  Disallowing bail and indefinitely holding defendants in jail laughs in the face of “least restrictive alternative.” Finally, holding defendants without bail leads to “plea tenderization” by cutting defendants off from work and family.  As a result, defendants may plead guilty not because they committed a crime; but simply to get out of jail and move on with their lives.  That’s an utterly inhumane result if the defendant is innocent of the charges.

We’ll see what happens.  The bill needs extremely strong support.  More on this later . . .