Category Archives: Homicide & Manslaughter

Murder Rates Decline

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Wonderful article by German Lopez of Vox discusses how crime and murder rates generally declined in the U.S.’s 30 largest cities in 2017, following two years of sharp increases in the murder rate nationwide.

According to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the overall crime rate fell in the 30 largest cities by 2.1 percent compared to 2016, the violent crime rate by 1 percent, and the murder rate by 3.4 percent.

“Large decreases in Chicago and Houston, as well as small decreases in other cities, contributed to this decline [in the murder rate],” researchers Ames Grawert, James Cullen, and Vienna Thompkins wrote.

One caveat to the findings: Murder rates in some US cities, including Chicago, remain elevated compared to a couple of years ago. “The murder rate in Chicago, which increased significantly in 2015 and 2016, declined by 12.3 percent in 2017, but remains more than 60 percent above 2014 levels,” the report found.

And some cities, including Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Baltimore, did see increases in the murder rate in 2017. This kind of local variance and fluctuation is typical in US crime statistics: Even as national trends head in one direction, that doesn’t mean all cities and states always follow the same path.

According to Lopez, the report updated Brennan’s preliminary findings from December, broadly reaching the same conclusions.

The full official numbers for the entire US, compiled by the FBI, will come out later this year. Lopez reasons that generally, though, the Brennan Center’s reports have done a good job predicting national trends in the past few years. And the news, overall, is good.

Lopez says the past two years’ increases in the murder rate got a lot of attention, with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions often bringing them up in speeches to justify “tough on crime” policies. But before they’ve been able to implement such policies and let them take root (especially in local and state jurisdictions, where federal policymakers have very limited power), these rates appear to be coming down.

Lopez says criminologists still aren’t sure why murder in particular appeared to spike so much in 2015 and 2016. Some argued that there might have been a “Ferguson effect,” named after the city in Missouri that exploded into protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown: Due to protests against police brutality over the past few years, police were, the theory goes, scared off from doing proactive policing, emboldening criminals.

Other experts argued a different kind of Ferguson effect: Widely reported incidents of police brutality and racial disparities in police use of force led to elevated distrust in law enforcement, which makes it much harder for police to solve and prevent crimes.

Yet many criminologists cautioned that it’s also possible the two years’ increases were blips in the data, not a new long-term trend. This isn’t unprecedented; in 2005 and 2006, the murder rate in the US increased before continuing its long-term decline — to new record lows — in the ensuing years.

“It now looks possible — though we’ll need more years of data to confirm — that 2015 and 2016 were replays of 2005 and 2006. If that holds, then perhaps the US isn’t in the middle of the “American carnage” that Trump warned about.”

Since the murder rate in particular is generally low, it’s prone to big statistical fluctuations. As one example, Brennan found that Las Vegas saw a 23.5 percent spike in its murder rate last year, but that was due to the mass shooting at a country music concert there that killed 58 people. A single event, albeit a very bad one, led to a dramatic shift in the murder rate.

“That’s why criminologists generally demand several years of data before they declare a significant crime trend,” said Lopez.

Expert Witnesses & Meth

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In State v. Richmond, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defense expert witness’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine was properly barred at trial because the expert never met or examined the victim and increased aggression is only one possible effect of methamphetamine ingestion.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dennis Higginbotham went to Joseph Richmond’s property with two other individuals, Veronica Dresp and Lonnie Zackuse. Ms. Dresp was Mr. Richmond’s estranged girlfriend. Ms. Dresp had asked Mr. Higginbotham and Ms. Zackuse to accompany her to Mr. Richmond’s property so that she could remove some of her belongings.

A verbal argument ensued between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham. After the verbal argument, Mr. Richmond went into his house. His return to the house was a relief. It appeared the hostility had come to an end.

Unfortunately, this turned out not to be true. Instead, Mr. Richmond ran out of his house, armed with a two-by-four piece of lumber that was nearly four feet in length. Mr. Richmond and Mr. Higginbotham then started exchanging more words. Mr. Richmond warned Mr. Higginbotham not to come any closer to him. When Mr. Higginbotham took a step forward, Mr. Richmond struck Mr. Higginbotham with the two-by-four. According to Ms. Dresp and Ms. Zackuse, Mr. Richmond held the two-by-four like a baseball bat and swung it at Mr. Higginbotham’s head. After he was hit, Mr. Higginbotham spun around and fell face first on the ground.

When emergency personnel arrived at the scene, it was determined Mr. Higginbotham had suffered severe head trauma. He was unconscious and eventually transported to
Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He died shortly thereafter.

Mr. Richmond was charged with second degree murder.

Mr. Richmond lodged a self-defense theory against the State’s murder charges. In support of this theory, Mr. Richmond sought to introduce testimony from several experts. One of the experts was David Predmore. Mr. Predmore was offered to testify about the general effects of methamphetamine consumption on human behavior. According to the defense, this testimony was relevant because high levels of methamphetamine had been found in Mr. Higginbotham’s system at the time of his death.

Although Mr. Richmond was not aware of Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine consumption at the time of the assault, the defense theorized that Mr. Predmore’s testimony was relevant to corroborate Mr. Richmond’s claim that Mr. Higginbotham was behaving aggressively the night of the attack. However, the trial court excluded Mr. Predmore’s testimony as speculative and irrelevant. The jury convicted Mr. Richmond of second degree murder. He appealed.

ISSUE

On appeal, the issue was whether the trial court violated Mr. Richmond’s constitutional right to present a defense by excluding his expert’s testimony.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“Mr. Richmond argues the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a
defense by excluding expert testimony,” said the Court of Appeals. “We disagree.”

The Court of Appeals reasoned that Evidence Rule 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. “Under this rule, a witness may provide expert opinion testimony to the jury if (1) the witness is qualified as an expert, and (2) the witness’s testimony would help the trier of fact,” said the Court of Appeals.

“Expert testimony is helpful if it concerns matters beyond the common knowledge of the average layperson and does not mislead the jury. A proposed expert’s testimony is not helpful or relevant if it is based on speculation.”

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court properly excluded Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony regarding the effects of methamphetamine because it was not shown to be potentially helpful to the jury. “Mr. Predmore had never met or examined Mr. Higginbotham. He had no basis to assess how Mr. Higginbotham’s body may have processed methamphetamine,” said the Court of Appeals. It further reasoned that according to Mr. Predmore’s proposed testimony, methamphetamine can have a wide range of effects. Increased aggression is only one possibility. “It is therefore nothing but speculation to connect Mr. Higginbotham’s methamphetamine use with Mr. Richmond’s claim of victim aggression,” said the Court of Appeals. “The evidence was properly excluded, consistent with long standing case law.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime after responding in self-defense. Hiring competent and experienced counsel is the first step toward receiving a just resolution.

Warrantless Search & “Community Caretaking”

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In State v. Boisselle, the WA Court of Appeals held that the officers’ warrantless entry into a duplex was lawful as the officers were worried that someone might be injured or dead inside, the officers were unable to locate the individuals who were believed to being living in the duplex, the officers did not intend to conduct a criminal investigation inside the duplex, and from the time the officers arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively worked to ascertain the situation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In July 2014, Michael Boisselle encountered Brandon Zomalt, an old acquaintance. Zomalt told Boisselle that he was homeless, had nowhere to sleep, and that he needed assistance obtaining a food handler’s permit in order to secure a job. Boisselle offered to let Zomalt stay with him in his duplex unit. With Boisselle’s assistance, Zomalt received his food handler’s permit and began working at a nearby restaurant. However, Zomalt was fired after one week for fighting at work.

Zomalt was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine. He also had a history of violence. Several people, including Zomalt’s mother and two of his former girlfriends, had been granted protection orders against him. After losing his job, Zomalt drank throughout the day. Boisselle did not feel safe around Zomalt and avoided him when possible.

The tension in the house culminated into a confrontation. Apparently, Zomalt began to behave strangely. He also drank heavily. One night, Boiselle and Zomalt were home. According to Boiselle, Zomalt held him hostage in their home and threatened Boiselle with a firearm. Later that night, Boiselle managed to reach the gun. He fired the weapon at Boiselle, apparently in self-defense. No witnesses summoned police or heard the firearm.

On September 1, 2014, South Sound 911 dispatch received an anonymous telephone call from an individual who reported that “somebody by the name of Mike” stated that he shot someone at the duplex. Shortly thereafter, the Puyallup Police Department anonymous tip line received a telephone call from an individual who reported that “Mike” had “shot someone” and “possibly killed him, and it was in self-defense.” Deputies Ryan Olivarez and Fredrick Wiggins were dispatched to the scene.

Olivarez and Wiggins knocked on the door of the duplex but received no response. There was, however, a dog inside that was barking aggressively. The deputies walked around the outside of the duplex and attempted to look inside, but all of the windows were closed and covered with blinds. There was a light on in the upstairs western bedroom. The deputies smelled a foul odor coming from the house and the garage. Olivarez thought that “something about it just seemed off’ and was concerned with “trying to figure out if someone needed help.” Olivarez and Wiggins then contacted the neighbors in order to gather more information. Two neighbors informed the deputies that they had not seen anyone coming or going from the duplex for about “four or five days.”

With no person apparently able to consent to a police entry of the unit and believing that they did not have a sufficient basis to obtain a search warrant, Adamson and Clarkson made a joint decision to force entry into the duplex. Clarkson broke through the front door. An animal control officer secured the dog. The officers then performed a security sweep of the duplex, looking for anyone who was hurt. Adamson and Clarkson searched the second floor of the duplex while Wiggins and Olivarez searched the first floor. The officers checked all of the rooms, looking in closets and other large spaces for a person or a body but ignoring drawers and other areas where a person could not fit.

Sergeant Clarkson believed that the smell was coming from inside of the garage and was consistent with a dead body. Once all of the rooms inside the duplex had been checked, deputies Wiggins and Olivarez forced entry into the garage from inside of the duplex. Once inside the garage, all four officers could see a large, rolled up carpet with a shoe sticking out and maggots pouring out of the bottom. Sergeant Clarkson opened the garage door using the automatic door opener and all four officers went around to the outside of the garage for a clear view of the carpet. From outside of the house, the officers saw an arm hanging out of the front end of the carpet. Clarkson told the other officers that “this is a crime scene now,” and that “it’s time we have to seal this off.” None of the officers collected evidence or touched the carpet.

Boisselle was charged with second degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. Before trial, he argued a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress. The judge denied the motion. At trial he was convicted of both charges.

On appeal, and among other issues Boisselle contends that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the search of his home.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. “The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit ‘reasonable’ warrantless searches and seizures,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court said the analysis under the Fourth Amendment focuses on whether the police have acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Additionally, the Court explained that Article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution is more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned. “Article 1, section 7 provides that ‘no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law,'” said the Court.  The WA Constitution also prohibits any disturbance of an individual’s private affairs without authority of law. The Court said this language prohibits unreasonable searches.

However, the Court also explained that a search conducted pursuant to a police officer’s community caretaking function is one exception to the warrant requirement; and the community caretaking function was first announced by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski. From there, subsequent Washington cases have expanded the community caretaking function exception to encompass not only the search and seizure of automobiles, but also situations involving either emergency aid or routine checks on health and safety.

Here, the court reasoned the police officers rightfully conducted a community caretaking search under the circumstances:

“In any event, the record establishes that the officers acted promptly given the circumstances. From the moment they arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively began to ascertain the situation at hand. This included checking doors and windows to determine whether anyone was inside the duplex, contacting both the owner of the duplex and the individual listed on the lease in attempts to obtain consent to enter, questioning neighbors, and contacting animal control.”

The Court emphasized that, ultimately, the officers reached a point where two things were clear: (1) obtaining consent to enter was not possible as no person entitled to consent could be identified, and (2) there was nothing further the officers could do to discern the welfare of any person inside the unit absent entry. “At this point, the officers reasonably concluded that forcible entry was necessary to determine the need for and to render assistance. Given the circumstances, this was an immediate response to a likely emergency,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court reasoned the officers’ warrantless search of the duplex was justified pursuant to the community caretaking function exception as considered by a majority of the Supreme Court in State v. Smith.

“Accordingly, the trial court did not err by denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress,” said the Court of Appeals. With that – and following discussion of other issues – the Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Boisselle’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member is charged with a crime involving a search and seizure issue. Under the law, we are entitled to protections from unlawful searches of our homes, cars and persons.

Death Penalty Repealed?

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“Original Gangster” Comment Improper, But Not Prejudicial

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In In re Personal Restraint of Sandoval, the WA Supreme Court held that it was improper for the prosecutor to refer to the defendant as an “OG” (original gangster) in closing argument, where no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for “OG” status.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Sandoval is a member of the Eastside Lokotes Surefios (ELS) gang in Tacoma.
On February 7, 2010, ELS members, in a stolen van, pulled up to a car and fired no less
than 12 gunshots from at least two firearms into the passenger door of the car. The
driver, Camilla Love, was hit three times and died from her injuries.

Sandoval was arrested in September 2010. The State ultimately charged Sandoval
with three counts: first degree murder (by extreme indifference) of Camilla Love (count
I), first degree assault of Joshua Love (count 2), and conspiracy to commit first degree murder (count 3). The other ELS members involved in the shooting were similarly
charged. They were tried along with Sandoval in the same proceeding, but pleaded guilty
after the prosecution rested in exchange for reduced charges. Only Sandoval took his
case to the jury.

During trial, the Prosecutor presented evidence indicating that Sandoval was a longtime ELS member. Sandoval concedes this. Evidence was also presented that OGs have elevated status. The trial court found this evidence sufficient to support a reasonable inference that
Sandoval was an OG.

Later, the jury ultimately convicted Sandoval as charged. The court sentenced Sandoval to a total sentence of 904 months of confinement. The ELS members who pleaded guilty received reduced charges.

Sandoval appealed. Among other issues on appeal, he argued that comments made by the prosecutor during rebuttal closing argument constituted misconduct and that this misconduct violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Prosecutor’s “OG” References were Improper But Did Not Prejudice
    Sandoval.

The court explained that in order to make a successful claim of prosecutor misconduct, the defense must establish that the prosecuting attorney’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. To be prejudicial, a substantial likelihood must exist that the misconduct affected the jury’s verdict. The Court further reasoned that when a defendant objects to an allegedly improper comment, it evaluates the trial court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion. Failure to object to an allegedly improper remark constitutes waiver unless the remark is so flagrant and ill-intentioned that it evinces an enduring and resulting prejudice that could not have been neutralized by an admonition to the jury.

“While some of the prosecutor’s comments were improper, Sandoval fails to demonstrate prejudice,” said the Court. The Supreme Court agreed that the prosecutor’s repeated references to Sandoval being an “OG” during his rebuttal closing argument was an improper attempt to embellish Sandoval’s culpability to the jury because the inference was not reasonably supported by the record.

“But no one testified that simply being a longtime gang member was sufficient for OG status,” said the Court. The court reasoned that although a witness testified that an OG was one of the older original members of the gang, the witness did not identify Sandoval as such, instead naming older gang members who were incarcerated at the time of the Love shooting. “Thus, the evidence presented at trial was insufficient for the prosecutor to reasonably infer that Sandoval was an OG,” said the Court. “As a result, the OG comments were improper.”

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court also reasoned that the prejudice generated from such comments is negligible. Sandoval freely admitted he needed to be involved in the attack, attended planning meetings for the attack, and voluntarily assisted a co-defendant in searching out a target and keeping an eye on police that evening. “Given these admissions, it is not substantially likely that the jury’s mistaken belief that Sandoval may have been an OG would have affected the outcome in this case. “This claim has no merit,” said the Court.

2. The Prosecutor’s Racial Comments Were Not Improper.

Here, Sandoval claimed that the prosecutor improperly distinguished between the
gang status of Asian/Pacific Islanders and Latinos during rebuttal closing argument.
The Supreme Court explained that it is improper and a Sixth Amendment violation for a
prosecutor to “flagrantly or apparently intentionally appeals to racial bias in a way that
undermines the defendant’s credibility or the presumption of innocence.”

The court explained that when racial bias is implicated, the normal prejudicial standard for prosecutorial misconduct is elevated. To avoid a constitutional violation from prosecutorial misconduct based on comments appealing to racial bias, the State must demonstrate that the misconduct did not affect the verdict “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“However, this heightened standard does not apply every time a prosecutor mentions
race,” said the Court. “It applies only when a prosecutor mentions race in an effort to appeal to a juror’s potential racial bias, i.e., to support assertions based on stereotypes rather than evidence.”

The Supreme Court reasoned that here, the prosecutor referred to Asian/Pacific Islanders one time and did so to explain the hierarchy of the ELS membership; that is, only Latinos such as Sandoval could be full-fledged members.

The Supreme Court further reasoned that Sandoval, rather than the State, has the burden of demonstrating that the prosecutor’s comment regarding the role of Asian/Pacific Islanders was improper and prejudicial, and he fails to do so. The trial court did not err when it held that the prosecutor’s statement about gang hierarchy was a reasonable inference based on all the testimony that came out at trial.

“It is not substantially likely that any alleged improper comments by the prosecutor
prejudiced Sandoval,” said the Supreme Court. “This claim has no merit.”

With that, the Supreme Court upheld Sandoval’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? Prosecutors are bound by a sets of rules which outline fair and dispassionate conduct, especially during trial. Generally, prosecutorial misconduct is an illegal act or failing to act, on the part of a prosecutor, especially an attempt to sway the jury to wrongly convict a defendant or to impose a harsher than appropriate punishment. If prosecutors break these rules, then misconduct might have happened.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces criminal charges, especially if it appears the prosecution is unfairly prosecuting your case. It’s important to hire defense counsel who know the scope and limits of which the government can go about proving its case.

Self-Defense

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In State v. Vela, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present evidence was violated when the trial court excluded testimony regarding why the defendant, who claimed self-defense, feared the victim.
BACKGROUND FACTS
On February 20, 2014, Duarte Vela shot and killed Antonio Menchaca in Okanogan County. The question at trial was why Duarte Vela shot and killed Menchaca.

Apparently, Menchaca was the ex-brother-in-law of Duarte. Vela and his family were living in Okanogan County. Apparently, Vela and his family were afraid of Menchaca, who just finished serving a prison sentence in California. Also, Vela had already contacted Menchaca when Menchaca returned from California and told Menchaca to stay away from his family.

On the date of the incident, Vela’s wife called Vela and said she thought she saw Menchaca driving by their house. Vela went home, retrieved a firearm and then was heading to Brewster to pick up a child, when he saw Menchaca parked along the road on old Hwy 97 near the Chiliwist Road. Vela stopped and confronted Menchaca. According to a witness at the scene, Vela then pulled out a pistol and shot the Menchaca two or three times. Menchaca died at the scene from the gunshots.

Vela then drove back to his home, put the gun away and called 911 to report the shooting. Vela told Deputies he was at his home and would be waiting for them. Deputies arrived and picked up Vela without incident. Vela was transported to the Okanogan County Jail and booked for various firearm offenses and Murder in the Second Degree.

The trial occurred in January 2015. Prior to jury selection, the State moved in limine to exclude evidence of Menchaca’s prior bad acts. Vela responded that he sought to admit certain prior bad acts of Menchaca known to him to establish the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca. Specifically, Vela wanted to introduce testimony that (1) Menchaca threatened to return to Okanogan and kill Duarte Vela’s after being released from prison, (2) Menchaca kidnapped Vela’s younger sister in 2007 when she was just 15 years old, (3)
Menchaca had repeatedly battered Vela’s sister throughout their marriage, and that she had told Vela about this, (4) Vela’s wife witnessed the domestic violence abuse from Manchaca to Vela’s sister (5) Vela was told by his family members about Menchaca’s threat to kill his family and Menchaca’s domestic violence against Blanca, (6) Vela feared Menchaca being around his family, (7) Vela believed he needed to arm himself when he went to his sister’s apartment to confront Menchaca, (8) Vela’s wife told him the SUV driver  Martinez and Menchaca gave her a threatening look when the SUV first parked in or near the pullout, (9) why Vela followed the SUV the first time, (10) why Vela believed there were two people in the car when he followed the SUV the first time, (11) Martinez’s statement to him that he was alone in the SUV, (12) what he felt when he saw Martinez later drive by with Menchaca in the passenger seat, (13) why Vela had an elevated fear as he went after the SUV for the second time, (14) Vela’s wife being upset when he returned and explained that Menchaca was not in the SUV, (15) Vela’s belief that something was wrong when Martinez and Menchaca both got out of the car and walked toward him, (16) what Vela feared Menchaca and Martinez might do as they walked toward him, and (17) the degree of bodily harm Vela feared just before he shot Menchaca, as Menchaca became upset and reached into his pocket.

However, the trial court excluded the proferred evidence on the basis that the testimony was irrelevant, too remote in time and ultimately inadmissible.

Also, toward the end of trial, Duarte Vela requested a “no duty to retreat” jury instruction.
However, the trial court denied the instruction. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Vela appealed.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that right to present testimony in one’s defense is guaranteed by both the United States and the Washington Constitution. Here, Vela argued the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated his right to present a defense. He principally argues the trial court committed reversible error when it excluded evidence relating to: (1) Menchaca’s prison threat, (2) Menchaca’s years of domestic abuse against Blanca, (3) Menchaca’s abduction of Maricruz, (4) why he feared Menchaca, and (5) the type of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca.
The Court reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all the facts and circumstances known to the defendant. “Because the vital question is the reasonableness of the defendant’s apprehension of danger, the jury must stand as nearly as practicable in the shoes of the defendant, and from this point of view determine the character of the act,” said the Court of Appeals.
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence of a victim’s propensity toward violence that is known by the defendant is relevant to a claim of self-defense because such testimony tends to show the state of mind of the defendant and to indicate whether he, at that time, had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.
“Here, Vela sought to introduce Menchaca’ s threat to kill Vela’s family and Menchaca’s past domestic violence not to prove they were true, but for the very relevant purpose of showing the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “The evidence, therefore, was not hearsay. To the extent the trial court excluded this and
several miscellaneous statements offered by Duarte Vela to show his state of mind, the
trial court erred,” said the Court.
The Court also said that the reasonableness of Vela’s fear of Menchaca is one of two components of his self-defense claim, the other component being the degree of bodily harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca:
“Menchaca’s past threat to kill Vela’s family was central to Duarte Vela’s ability to explain the reasonableness of his fear. Unless the evidence was inadmissible under the State’s other arguments, the trial court’s exclusion of this evidence deprived Vela of the ability to testify to his versions of the incident.”
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s evidentiary rulings precluded Vela from presenting a legal defense to the killing that he admitted to and omitted evidence that would have created a reasonable doubt that did not otherwise exist. “For this reason, the trial court’s evidentiary rulings violated Duarte Vela’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense,” said the Court of Appeals.
Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the trail court erred in refusing to allow Vela the “No Duty to Retreat” jury instruction. “Because the facts would not support retreat as an option to someone pulling a gun at close range and because the State did not argue that Vela could have retreated, the trial court did not err in refusing the instruction.”
CONCLUSION
Although the Court of Appeals denied Vela’s argument of instructional error, it concluded the trial court’s evidentiary rulings denied his Sixth Amendment right to present
a defense. It therefore reversed and remanded for a new trial.
My opinion? Good decision. It’s wrong to hobble defendants of their right to self-defense when the defense is justified. For more on this topic, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Self-Defense.”  And don’t hesitate to call the Law Office of Alexander Ransom if you have friends or family accused of crimes involving self-defense.

Juror Misconduct

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In Godoy v. Spearman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a murder conviction because a juror inappropriately communicated with a “judge friend” about the case during deliberations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Enrique Godoy was convicted of second-degree murder by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury. A week before his June 12, 2006 sentencing, he moved for a new trial alleging that Juror 10 had improperly communicated about the case with a “judge friend” during deliberations. To substantiate his allegations, Godoy brought brought alternate juror “E.M.” to his sentencing hearing. The trial court continued Godoy’s sentencing to a future court date. Later, Godoy sent the Prosecutor a declaration about Juror 10’s misconduct from alternate juror N.L., who wrote the following:

“During the course of the trial, juror number ten kept continuous communication with a gentleman up north, who she referred to as her “judge friend.” Juror number ten explained to us, the jury as a whole, that she had a friend that was a judge up north. From the time of jury selection until the time of verdict, juror number ten would communicate with her “judge friend” about the case via her TMobile Blackberry, a two way text paging system. When the jury was not sure what was going on or what procedurally would happen next, juror number ten would communicate with her friend and disclose to the jury what he said.”

Despite this “smoking gun” declaration, the trial court nevertheless sentenced Godoy to 16 years’ to life imprisonment. Godoy appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeal, arguing the trial court erred by (1) refusing to presume Juror 10’s communications prejudiced the verdict and (2) refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the alleged misconduct. However, the California Court of Appeal rejected both of these arguments on the merits and affirmed Godoy’s conviction. Gody again appealed, this time going to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

This Ninth Circuit’s opinion began with the following:

“One of the most fundamental rights in our system of criminal justice is the right to trial before an impartial jury. Its common law origin can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It was enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and it has been embraced by the Supreme Court in numerous cases . . .”

Against this backdrop, the Ninth Circuit held that the California Court of Appeal decision violated the clearly established Supreme Court law that governs this case. It reasoned that under Mattox v. United States, due process does not tolerate any ground of suspicion that the administration of justice has been interfered with by external influence.

“Thus, when faced with allegations of improper contact between a juror and an outside party, courts apply a settled two-step framework,” said the Ninth Circuit. At step one, the court asks whether the contact was “possibly prejudicial,” meaning it had a tendency to be injurious to the defendant. If so, the contact is deemed presumptively prejudicial and the court proceeds to step two, where the burden rests heavily upon the State to establish the contact was, in fact, harmless. If the State does not show harmlessness – or in other words, if the defendant was, in fact, harmed by the juror’s contact with an outside party – then the court must grant the defendant a new trial.  However, when the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear, then the trial court must hold a hearing to determine the circumstances of the contact, the impact thereof upon the juror, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

“Here, the California Court of Appeal failed to adhere to this framework in three key respects,” said the Ninth Circuit. First, although the State court correctly acknowledged at step one that N.L.’s declaration raised a presumption of prejudice, it never required the State to rebut that presumption at step two. It concluded instead that the presumption was rebutted because Godoy’s evidence failed to prove prejudice.” The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that under Mattox and Remmer, however, Mr. Godoy was not required to prove prejudice at step two. Once he triggered the presumption, the burden rested heavily upon the State to disprove prejudice. “Thus, in denying relief because Godoy’s evidence did not prove prejudice at step two, the State court acted contrary to well established law,” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Second, the California Court of Appeal decision to set aside the State court’s failure to hold the State to its burden was error. In other words, it was wrong for the California Court of Appeal to rely on the very same statement from N.L.’s declaration both to raise the presumption of prejudice and to rebut it.  “This defies not only logic, but also the clearly established definition of a ‘presumption,’” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Third, the California Court of Appeal denied Godoy a hearing on prejudice under the wrong legal rule. It held he had to show a “strong possibility” of prejudice, but Remmer requires a hearing whenever, as here, the presumption attaches but the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear from the record. “Because the state court’s decision contravened these bedrock principles, it was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1),” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that because Godoy showed the presumption of prejudice, he was entitled to the evidentiary hearing that he never had to begin with. With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded the case back with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the circumstances of Juror 10’s misconduct, the impact thereof upon the jury, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

My opinion? There’s a lot to be learned from this case. First, in all of my trials I admit a jury instruction prohibiting the jurors from accessing the internet and/or their smartphone devices. Jurors must rely on the evidence and the law and not be guided by outside influences. Second, I try and discuss the case with jurors immediately after they render verdicts. These conversations are very helpful teaching moments because jurors reveal what swayed their decisions. Also – and important to the defense of my clients – jurors may reveal whether their fellow jurors committed misconducts  similar to the type described in this case.

Good decision. And kudos to the defense attorney who discovered the juror misconduct. Although my heart goes out to the friends and family of the murder victim, justice is not served when our courts fail to administer their obligation to give defendants a fair trial.

Diminished Capacity Defense Denied

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In a deeply divided decision of 5-4, = the WA Supreme Court held in State v. Clark that the defendant’s Diminished Capacity defense was properly excluded at trial, even though lay witnesses could testify that the defendant was “slow,” participated in special education, and received Social Security disability benefits.

The defendant Anthony Clark killed the victim, D.D., with a single gunshot to the back of his head. D.D.’s body was found in a garbage can behind the triplex apartment building where Clark lived. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting other than Clark himself. The State theorized that Clark killed D.D. with premeditation in order to steal D.D.’s gun and cocaine. Clark contended the shooting was an accident. The primary disputed issue was thus Clark’s level of intent.

CHARGES

Clark was charged with premeditated first degree murder, first degree felony murder, first degree robbery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Clark pleaded not guilty on all counts.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Before trial, the defense moved to suppress statements Clark made to police after the shooting, contending that he did not validly waive his Miranda rights before speaking to police. To support its motion, the defense offered an expert evaluation from a doctor. At the suppression hearing, Dr. Oneal testified that Clark scored in the bottom first to third percentile in standardized intelligence tests. The court found that Dr. Oneal was a credible witness but denied Clark’s motion to suppress.

The State then moved to exclude testimony about Clark’s “intellectual deficits” for trial purposes. However, Clark argued that the doctor’s testimony was admissible for three purposes: (1) to help the jury understand Clark’s affect during testimony, (2) to explain why Clark does not work, and (3) to contest the State’s evidence of intent.

The court granted the State’s motion in part and excluded the doctor’s expert testimony because, in light of the fact that Clark specifically disavowed any intention to argue diminished capacity, expert testimony on Clark’s intellectual deficits would be irrelevant and confusing to the jury. It did, however, allow for relevant observation testimony bearing on Clark’s intellectual deficits, including his participation in special education, his receipt of Social Security disability benefits, and “that people who knew him considered him slow or tended to discount his testimony.”

JURY TRIAL

At trial, the defense renewed its request to admit the doctor’s expert testimony; arguing that the testimony was necessary to rebut the State’s evidence of intent and to explain Clark’s affect when he testified. Nevertheless, the defense consistently maintained that it was not asserting diminished capacity. The court adhered to its ruling excluding the doctor’s testimony and reminded counsel that relevant observation testimony by lay witnesses was admissible.

The defense brought testimony that Clark had been in special education, had an individualized education plan, and received Social Security disability benefits. It relied on this evidence in its closing argument, emphasizing that Clark was “not your average 20 year old” and arguing that in light of Clark’s actual intellectual abilities, the State had not proved intent to commit murder.

Clark was convicted of premeditated first degree murder as charged, as well as all the other charged counts.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

  1. Did the trial court properly exclude expert testimony regarding Clark’s intellectual deficits?
  2. Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to object when the State informed prospective jurors that it was not seeking the death penalty?
  3. Did cumulative error deprive Clark of his right to a fair trial?

ANALYSIS

1. The Court Properly Excluded Expert Testimony of Diminished Capacity Evidence.

The Court gave background that under ER 702, expert testimony is admissible “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” It also reasoned that diminished capacity “allows a defendant to undermine a specific element of the offense, a culpable mental state, by showing that a given mental disorder had a specific effect by which his ability to entertain that mental state was diminished.” Also, the intent to assert diminished capacity must be declared before trial. Pretrial disclosure is required because when asserting diminished capacity, the defense must obtain a corroborating expert opinion and disclose that evidence to the prosecution pretrial, giving the State a reasonable opportunity to decide whether to obtain its own evaluation depending on the strength of the defense’s showing,” citing CrR 4.7(b).

Ultimately, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s expert testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of rebutting the State’s evidence of intent.

“However, expert opinion testimony that a defendant has a mental disorder that impaired the defendant’s ability to form a culpable mental state is, by definition, evidence of diminished capacity. And where, as here, the defense does not plead diminished capacity, such testimony is properly excluded.”

Additionally, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of explaining Clark’s unusually flat affect while testifying:

“The jury had the ability to evaluate Clark’s affect to the same extent it had the ability to evaluate the affect of every testifying witness, and Clark has not shown that Dr. Oneal’s expert testimony would have been helpful for that purpose.”

2. Defense Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failing to Object When the State Informed Prospective Jurors It Was Not Seeking the Death Penalty.

The Court gave background that in order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that trial counsel’s performance was “deficient,” and that, “but for counsel’s deficient performance, there is a ‘reasonable probability’ that the outcome would have been different.”

Here, the Court reasoned there was no indication that the jury disregarded its instructions or paid less attention to the evidence presented throughout Clark’s trial because it was told that the death penalty was not at issue.  Additionally, there was also no reason to believe that a contemporaneous objection by defense counsel would have reduced any potential for prejudice more than the court’s proper, written instructions did. “We thus hold that Clark has not carried his burden of showing prejudice and therefore has not established ineffective assistance of counsel.”

3. Cumulative Error Did Not Deprive Clark of His Right to a Fair Trial.

The Court reasoned Clark does not show any error, so the cumulative error doctrine does not apply.

CONCLUSION.

The Court concluded that Clark’s defense consisted of diminished capacity evidence. With that, the trial court properly excluded expert testimony from Clark’s doctor because Clark did not assert or plead diminished capacity or show that his doctor’s testimony was otherwise relevant. Moreover, the court properly allowed relevant observation testimony, which the defense relied on in its attempt to rebut the State’s evidence of intent. The Court affirmed his conviction.

THE DISSENT.

The dissenting judges reasoned that the trial court admitted certain lay observation testimony supporting the defense, but excluded the more neutral and more persuasive medical expert testimony supporting the same defense theory.  It also reasoned that the majority judges wrongfully equated all expert testimony about intellectual deficits with a diminished capacity defense. Additionally, the dissenting judges reasoned that by excluding defense evidence that could rebut the State’s evidence of intent, the trial court violated Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense. Finally, the dissenters reasoned that the exclusion of expert testimony on Clark’s mild mental retardation was not harmless error:

“To rebut the State’s evidence that he was a cold, calculated killer, Clark offered lay and expert testimony about how he was slow and did not process information the way other people his age did. But the trial court excluded most of it. It barred all testimony from Dr. Oneal about Clark’s substantial intellectual deficits. 6 Dr. Oneal would have testified, based on his personal testing and evaluation of Clark, that Clark was born prematurely and with significant developmental delays, was highly suggestible and therefore prone to change his story when pressured, and had a very low IQ score indicating that he had extremely poor perceptional reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension skills compared to others his age.”

With that, the dissenting judges held that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of Clark’s intellectual deficits in violation of the Evidence Rules and Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense; and that this error was not harmless.

My opinion? Diminished Capacity is a worthwhile – and difficult – defense to bring forward. Prosecutors consistently try to preclude defense counsel from bringing the defense. Here, it’s too difficult to determine why defense counsel did not assert the defense from the beginning. We’ll never know.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, it the majority court believed Mr. Clark did not properly assert the defense. Instead, it allowed Clark to get some evidence of his mental deficits through law witnesses. This is lawful, albeit not enough. A defendant can assert a roundabout defense of diminished capacity through law witness observations. What’s problematic, however, is that law witnesses won’t bring the requisite level of insight that experts bring.

Interesting opinion.

 

Protective Sweeps of Homes

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In State v. Chambers, the WA Court of Appeals decided (1) the police’s “protective sweep” of the defendant’s home was improper because the defendant was arrested outside his home and the officers did not have specific facts that other armed individuals might be inside the defendant’s home, and (2) the defendant’s 3.5 Motion to Suppress statements made to police was rightfully denied because police scrupulously honored the defendant’s Fifth Amendment invocation of his right to remain silent.

In this case, defendant Lovett Chambers was drinking at the Feedback Lounge, a neighborhood bar in West Seattle that he frequented. Chambers was a convicted felon of African-American descent who moved to Seattle in 1989, worked in the construction industry, obtained degrees in computer science and started an IT business. In 1992, he got married and later purchased a house in West Seattle with his wife. A few years later, Chambers asked his wife to buy him a Colt .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun. She did so, apparently unaware that he was a convicted felon.

On the night of the incident, Mr. Chambers had numerous drinks at the Feedback Lounge. He carried and concealed his .45 pistol.   At some point, two Caucasian men entered the bar and began drinking. The gentlemen did not know Mr. Chambers. Later, all of the gentlemen departed the bar simultaneously and walked to their respective vehicles which were parked nearby each other in the parking lot.

For reasons unknown, words were exchanged between Chambers and the two gentlemen, who apparently uttered racial epitaphs to each other, Mr. Chambers, or both. One of the gentleman – Michael Travis Hood – pulled a shovel from his vehicle; apparently to defend himself from Mr. Chambers. However, Chambers shot Mr. Hood three times with his .45 pistol. Chambers walked away, got into his car and drove home in his BMW.

Mr. Hood died from lethal gunshot wounds to his back.

Seattle police arrested Chambers at his home at 10:49 p.m. Officer Belgarde read Chambers his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. Chambers smelled of alcohol. He was “swaying,” had trouble balancing, slurred his words, and was argumentative. Officer Galbraith drove Chambers to the precinct. Officers obtained a warrant to search Chambers’ home and seized a loaded .45 caliber handgun, a spare magazine, and the BMW keys. The police impounded the BMW. Later, officers interrogated Chambers and obtained numerous incriminating statements regarding the shooting.

The State charged Chambers with murder in the second degree of Hood while armed with a deadly weapon. Chambers asserted a claim of self-defense. Before trial, Chambers filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence seized from his house and the statements he made. The court denied the motion to suppress the evidence seized from the house. The court concluded the police “were authorized to enter the house to conduct a protective sweep to ensure their safety.” The court also denied the motion to suppress Chambers’ statements to police and reasoned his “right to remain silent was scrupulously honored” under Michigan v. Mosley.

The jury found Chambers guilty of the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree. By special verdict, the jury found Chambers was armed with a firearm at the time he committed the crime. The court imposed the low-end standard range sentence of 78 months plus the mandatory consecutive 60-month firearm enhancement. Chambers appealed.

  1. Evidence Seized from the House Was Obtained Through a Unlawfully Conducted “Protective Sweep,” However, The Trial Court’s Decision to Deny Chambers’ Suppression Motion Was Harmless Error.

Chambers contends the court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence the police seized from his house: the Colt .45, a magazine clip with .45 caliber bullets, and the keys to the BMW.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search and seizure unless the State demonstrates that one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a “protective sweep” of the home. The court further reasoned that under Maryland v. Buie the U.S. Supreme Court describes a protective sweep as a limited cursory search incident to arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.

The Court of Appeals decided the trial court erred in concluding the police had the authority to conduct a protective sweep of Chambers’ house. First, a warrantless search of “spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest” without probable cause or reasonable suspicion does not apply when the police arrest an individual outside his home.

Here, the undisputed facts do not support the warrantless entry and protective sweep of the kitchen under Buie and the court erred in denying the motion to suppress:

“The record does not support the conclusion that there were “articulable facts” that the kitchen harbored “an individual posing a danger.” The police had information that only Chambers shot Hood and was alone when he drove away. The findings establish the only individual in the house when police arrested Chambers was his spouse. The front door was open after the arrest and the police could see Sara was sitting on the living room couch watching television and remained in the living room.”

However, the Court of Appeals also ruled that the verdict would have been the same absent the trial court’s error. Chambers testified he acted in self-defense when he shot Hood with the Colt .45. Chambers admitted that he parked his BMW in front of the Beveridge Place Pub on January 21, that he kept a .45 caliber gun under the passenger seat of the BMW, and that he used the Colt .45 to shoot Hood near Morgan Junction Park. For these reasons, the trial court’s decision to deny Chamber’s motion to suppress was harmless error.

2. Chamber’s Incriminating Statements Are Admissible.

On appeal, Mr. Chambers asserts the detectives did not “scrupulously honor” his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “No person shall be . .. compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court adopted “procedural safeguards” to protect the privilege and held that before questioning an individual in custody, the police must clearly inform the suspect of the following:

That he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Here, the Court of Appeals decided that because the circumstances leading up to the police’s interview with Chambers show the police scrupulously honored Chambers’ right to cut off questioning, the court did not err in denying the motion to suppress the statements Chambers made.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the record shows the police advised Chambers of his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. when he was arrested on January 21. Chambers stated he understood his rights and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police. The record establishes the police did not “ask the defendant any questions or persist in repeated efforts to wear him down or change his mind after he invoked his rights.” After he invoked his right to remain silent at 10:51 p.m. on January 21, the police did not question Chambers while at police headquarters. And while driving to Harborview to obtain a blood draw at 3:07 a.m. on January 22, the detectives did not ask Chambers any questions.

Nonetheless, on the way to Harborview, Chambers said he did not want to talk about what happened. While at Harborview, Chambers seemed to have “sobered up.” When they left Harborview approximately 45 minutes later, Detective Steiger advised Chambers of his Miranda rights again. Chambers stated he understood his rights and did not invoke the right to remain silent.

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the undisputed facts support the conclusion that the right to cut off questioning was scrupulously honored.

The Court affirmed the jury verdict.

My opinion? The police should have advised Mr. Chambers of his Ferrier warnings, a topic which I have blogged many times. Ferrier warnings must be given if police officers seek to enter the home to conduct a warrantless search for evidence of a crime or contraband. Still, even if Ferrier warnings were given and Mr. Chambers denied the police entry into his home, his incriminating statements to police ultimately assigned harmless error to the unlawful search.

State v. Ortuno-Perez: “Other Suspect” Evidence

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In State v. Ortuno-Perez, the WA Court of Appeals held that a murder defendant was wrongfully prohibited from introducing evidence that another person, who was armed at the murder scene, actually committed the murder.

In the early morning hours of October 12, 2013, Jesus Castro was shot in the head while standing outside of a house in Renton. He died several days later.

The single shot was fired at close range from a .22 caliber firearm. At the time the shot was fired, anywhere between 5 to 12 people were standing in close proximity to Castro. In that group were 2 individuals particularly pertinent here, the defendant Santiago Ortuno-Perez and Austin Agnish—each of whom was armed with a handgun at the time.

On the same day that Castro was shot, Ortuno-Perez was identified as a suspect and subsequently arrested outside of a house in Kent. In the days that followed, Ortuno-Perez was identified as the shooter by several witnesses who were present at the scene, including Agnish. Ortuno-Perez was subsequently charged with one count of murder in the first degree, committed while armed with a firearm.

Crucial to his defense at trial, Ortuno-Perez sought to introduce evidence that another person, not him, killed Castro. In particular, his counsel sought to identify Austin Agnish as the shooter, to cross-examine the State’s witnesses for potential bias in their testimony, and to present additional evidence indicating that a person other than Ortuno-Perez was the shooter.

However, the trial court denied Ortuno-Perez’s request because Ortuno-Perez had not demonstrated that Agnish had taken steps to commit the crime.

Four days later, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel filed a detailed offer of proof regarding the “other suspect” evidence that the defense would have introduced but for the trial court’s adverse ruling. Again, the trial court excluded the “other suspect” defense.

On the 10th day of testimony, Ortuno-Perez moved for a mistrial, arguing that his right to present a defense had been denied by the trial court’s “other suspect” rulings. The judge denied the motion for mistrial.

The jury convicted Ortuno-Perez of murder in the second degree, committed while armed with a firearm. He was sentenced to 280 months of confinement. Ortuno-Perez appealed.

Ultimately, the WA Court of Appeals reversed  Ortuno-Perez’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

“OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE.

The court reasoned that Washington’s “other suspect” evidence rule—applicable to proffered evidence that a specific person other than the defendant committed the charged crime—has developed from a broad common law rule to a specific and focused application of well established principles of materiality and probative value. Furthermore, the court reasoned that State v. Franklin holds that such evidence should be admitted if there is an adequate nexus between the alleged other suspect and the crime. Thus, the threshold analysis for “other suspect” evidence involves a straightforward, but focused, relevance inquiry, reviewing the evidence’s materiality and probative value for whether the evidence has a logical connection to the crime.

THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.

The Court further reasoned that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. This right, however, is not absolute. It may, in appropriate cases, bow to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process, including the exclusion of evidence considered irrelevant or otherwise inadmissible. As with all evidence, the proponent bears the burden of establishing the admissibility of “other suspect” evidence.

Because the premise underlying the introduction of “other suspect” evidence is to show that someone other than the defendant committed the charged crime, the standard for admission is whether the proffered evidence tends to indicate a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. Evidence is relevant when it is both material—the fact to be proved is of consequence in the context of the other facts and the applicable substantive law — and probative — the evidence has a tendency to prove or disprove a fact.

SUPPRESSING “OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE VIOLATED ORTUNO-PEREZ’S RIGHTS UNDER THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.

Here, the Court of Appeals agreed that the “other suspect” evidence that Ortuno-Perez proffered actually supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Prior to trial, defense counsel sought permission to present evidence to the jury that Agnish, not Ortuno-Perez, killed Castro. In his briefing, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel indicated that it planned to present evidence that Agnish (1) was using prescription drugs at the time that Castro was shot, potentially altering his perception of the shooting and his memory thereof, (2) was armed with a handgun and in close proximity to Castro at the time of the shooting, (3) lied about having access to guns other than the one he admitted carrying at the time of the shooting, and (4) was a member of a gang and had expressed a belief that Castro belonged to a rival gang.

However, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court abused its discretion by improperly excluding the proffered evidence. It said the evidence proffered by Ortuno-Perez relating to Agnish’s potential culpability was of a type that tended to logically connect Agnish to Castro’s murder:

“If credited by the jury, it would establish Agnish’s motive (a gang clash), his opportunity (he was present at the murder scene and in close proximity to Castro at the instant of the shooting), and his means (he was armed with a handgun). Thus, the evidence proffered was plainly relevant to the question of the identity of Castro’s murderer and was of a type that, if credited by the jury, would support a reasonable doubt as to Ortuno-Perez’s guilt.”

The Court of Appeals said that as a result of the trial court’s erroneous rulings , Ortuno-Perez was unfairly prejudiced in two major respects: (1) his ability to confront the witnesses against him was compromised by the rulings preventing him from exploring the potential biases of witnesses who may have been covering for Agnish out of either affinity or fear; and (2) his ability to argue in closing argument that logical inferences from the evidence actually admitted during trial supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt was compromised by rulings precluding him from suggesting to the jury that anyone other than Ortuno-Perez himself had shot Castro.

The trial court’s erroneous rulings were not harmless. The “other suspect” evidence which the trial judge excluded could have caused a reasonable juror to doubt whether Ortuno-Perez was guilty as charged. Consequently, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, allowing attorneys to argue inferences from the evidence is a rudimentary aspect of this right.  Defense Counsel must be afforded the utmost freedom in the argument of the case and some latitude in the discussion of their causes before the jury.