Category Archives: Homicide & Manslaughter

Juvenile Life Sentences Ruled Unconstitutional

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Excellent article in the Seattle Times by reporters and  discusses how in State v. Bassett, the Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, joining 20 states and Washington D.C. who’ve already outlawed the practice.

In 1996, at the age of 16, Mr. Bassett was convicted of three counts of aggravated first degree murder for the deaths of his mother, father, and brother. The judge commented that Bassett, still a child, was “a walking advertisement” for the death penalty and sentenced him to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, 1996, life without parole was the mandatory sentence under our state statute, former RCW 10.95.030 (1993).

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that trial courts may not impose a minimum term of life, as that would mean a life without parole sentence, for people convicted of committing a crime when they were younger than 18 years old. The sentencing “constitutes cruel punishment,” and doesn’t achieve the legal goals of retribution or deterrence because children are less culpable than adults, it said. Children convicted of crimes, including the highest degree of murder, are also entitled in Washington to special protections from sentencing courts when possible, the court said.

The ruling comes on the heels of a unanimous decision by the state’s justices earlier this week that struck down the death penalty, declaring its current application to be in violation of Washington’s constitution.

A pediatric psychologist testified that the teenager had suffered from adjustment disorder and struggled to cope with homelessness after his parents kicked him out of the house. Bassett later said that at the time, he wasn’t able to comprehend the long-term consequences of his actions, according to court records.

He hasn’t had any prison violations for 15 years, has earned his GED and was on the Edmonds Community College honor roll. He got married in 2010.

Following research on juvenile brain development, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. The state Legislature responded two years later with a law that allowed youth inmates who were sentenced to life as juveniles to have their sentences reconsidered, although they could still be sentenced to life in prison.

Thursday’s ruling eliminates that option for judges.

FBI Historical Cell Site Analysis

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In State v. Ramirez, the WA Court of Appeals held that cell site location testimony is widely accepted throughout the country, and it is not error under ER 702, to allow an FBI agent with sufficient training and experience to testify regarding historical cell site analysis.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Ramirez was charged with two counts of premeditated first degree murder and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm. All crimes occurred at Spokane County’s Broadway Square Apartments.

In addition to other pretrial motions, the defense also filed a motion to exclude a report and testimony from FBI Special Agent Jennifer Banks. The State named Special Agent Banks as an expert witness on historical cell site analysis. According to Banks’s report, records obtained from Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone provider placed him near the Broadway Square Apartments 10 minutes before the first 911 call was placed. The defense argued that Banks’s testimony should be struck based on late disclosure and because it failed to meet both the Frye standard for admissibility and the criteria for expert testimony under ER 702.

The parties argued the pending pretrial motions on the morning set for trial. Prior to jury selection, the trial court also held a Frye hearing to determine the admissibility of Special Agent Banks’s testimony. She testified that due to being a member of the FBI’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team (CAST), she received training in deciphering cell phone records.

Agent Banks also described two components to her work. First, she interprets historic call detail records from cellular telephone providers in order to discern the location of cell towers activated by a particular voice call or text message. Second, she performs field tests of geographic areas to determine the strength of various cell towers. These tests involve driving through a location with a scanning device which uploads cellular frequencies in a given area to a computer program and plots signal strengths on an area map. Agent Banks testified that CAST agents had testified in approximately 400 courts throughout the country and that the CAST methodology is more widely accepted in the law enforcement community than any other cellular location method.

Defense counsel argued that Agent Banks’s testimony should be struck because her expert report was untimely and because the FBI’s mapping software had not been validated. The State made clear that it would not object to a continuance if Mr. Ramirez wanted more time to evaluate Agent Banks’s report. However, Mr. Ramirez insisted on moving forward with trial as scheduled. The trial court ultimately permitted the State to go forward with Agent Banks’s testimony, finding that the substance of the testimony was not novel.

TRIAL

During her testimony, Agent Banks explained how her CAST analysis applied to Mr. Ramirez’s case. Agent Banks said Mr. Ramirez’s call detail records included not only a code for each cell site antenna activated by Mr. Ramirez’s phone calls and texts, but also the 120-degree angle that the antenna had been pointed at the time of connection. By plotting the call detail data onto a map, Agent Banks determined Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone was in the area of the Broadway Square Apartments at 9:24 p.m. on November 1, 2014. This was approximately 10 minutes before the first 911 calls.

In addition to interpreting the call detail records, Agent Banks explained the field test she performed in connection to Mr. Ramirez’s case. To perform the test, Special Agent Banks drove through Spokane Valley, collecting cell tower frequencies with an FBI scanner. The FBI’s scanning software was then able to generate a map, showing the coverage strength area for each of the cell towers activated by Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone. The maps developed from the drive-through process largely corroborated the information indicated from the maps developed solely from the call detail records.

The jury found Mr. Ramirez guilty as charged. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Among other issues, Mr. Ramirez argued the trial court erred when it found Agent Banks’s cell site analysis admissible under Frye and ER 702. Mr. Ramirez complained that the software program used by the FBI is proprietary, and thus has not been subject to independent peer review. He also claimed Agent Banks’s testimony was unhelpful to the jury because the FBI cell site location methodology failed to account for imperfections in the cell transmission process, such as weather, obstructions, and network traffic.

The Court of Appeals discussed the Frye standard for determining the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. The standard has two parts. It asks (1) whether the underlying theory is generally accepted in the scientific community, and (2) whether there are techniques utilizing the theory that are capable of producing reliable results. Evidence not involving “new methods of proof or new scientific principles” is not subject to examination under Frye. The Court also reasoned that with respect to the Frye standard, cell site location testimony is not novel; and is widely accepted throughout the country:

“Historical cell-site analysis can show with sufficient reliability that a phone was in a general area, especially in a well-populated one. It also shows the cell sites with which the person’s cell phone connected, and the science is well understood.”

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Agent Banks bolstered the reliability of her historical analysis by performing a drive-through analysis of the signal strength of the cell towers activated by Mr. Ramirez’s cell phone and evaluating the particular characteristics of the cell tower with which Mr. Ramirez’s phone connected, including its power and the direction its antennae were facing.

“The theories behind the drive-through test/cell tower strength testimony were sound,” reasoned the Court. It is not novel or uncommon to measure the strength of cell tower or radio frequencies. In addition, computer programs routinely generate maps that correspond to real-world data. “Concerns about the FBI’s software program did not present a reason for excluding Agent Banks’s testimony under Frye, said the Court.

Finally, the Court of Appeals decided the trial court also did not abuse its discretion in admitting Agent Banks’s testimony under ER 702. “It is undisputed that Agent Banks qualifies as an expert in historical cell site analysis,” said the Court. “Her testimony was also helpful to the jury.” The Court explained that Agent Banks did not overestimate the quality of her cell site analysis. Throughout her testimony, she made the jury aware of the imprecision of cell site location information. She cross tested the information obtained from the cell location records with information from her drive-through signal strength test. “Mr. Ramirez cannot identify any realistic risk that the jury would have been confused by the nature of this testimony. The evidence was therefore properly admitted.”

With that the Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Ramirez’s judgment and sentence.

My opinion? Interesting decision. The admissibility of this evidence involves challenges which, in turn, involve very complex questions of physics, signal timing, reliability, etc. First, does the network reliably collect and report the underlying data, in particular the signal timing and power measurements? Second, is the enhanced historical cell sector analysis a reliable method to determine accurate location information for a target cell phone at a point in the past? A closely related third question is what scope of expertise required to establish the reliability of the data collected and the methods used to interpret that data.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving historical cell site analysis from a law enforcement officer.

Inadmissible & Irrelevant Evidence

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In State v. Burnam, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly excluded evidence that the woman the defendant killed had four years earlier dated a man accused of murder and that she had hid the murder weapon.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Burnam was charged with first degree murder or, in the alternative, second degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. As trial approached, Mr. Burnam wanted to testify in support of his self-defense claim. He also wanted to testify that the victim Ms. Sweet had been involved in a prior homicide.

Apparently, four years earlier, Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and she had hid the murder weapon, which was a firearm. Sometime after the homicide, Ms. Sweet briefly gave the firearm away and then attempted to get it back. When law enforcement questioned her, she was evasive and misleading. She was charged and convicted of first degree rendering criminal assistance by means of concealing, altering, or destroying the gun.

Mr. Burnam claimed that this was character evidence and asked the court to analyze its admissibility under ER 404(b). Under this evidence rule, evidence of prior acts can be admissible for certain other reasons, including motive, opportunity, and intent

Mr. Burnam made a lengthy offer of proof in support of his motion. He argued that the evidence would help establish the reasonableness of his fear of serious harm or death during his struggle with Ms. Sweet. He repeatedly asserted the jury should know that Ms. Sweet was involved with a homicide or capable of being involved with a person who had committed a homicide.

Despite defense counsel’s offer of proof, the court nevertheless excluded all evidence of the homicide case that Ms. Sweet was involved in.

At trial, Mr. Burnam testified he responded in self-defense to Ms. Sweet. Despite his testimony, the jury found Mr. Burnam guilty of first degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. Mr. Burnam appealed on arguments that the court should have admitted evidence that Ms. Sweet was involved in a murder from four years ago.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that both the United States Constitution and the Washington Constitution guarantee the right to present testimony in one’s defense. Furthermore, a defendant’s right to an opportunity to be heard in his defense, including the rights to examine witnesses against him and to offer testimony, is basic in our system of jurisprudence. However, defendants can present only relevant evidence and have no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. If relevant, the burden is on the State to show the evidence is so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial.

Admissibility of Self-Defense Evidence.

The Court further reasoned that in considering a claim of self-defense, the jury must take into account all of 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. “Thus, such evidence is admissible to show the defendant’s reason for fear and the basis for acting in self-defense.”

Moreover, evidence of a victim’s violent actions may be admissible to show the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime and to indicate whether he had reason to fear bodily harm. Thus, a defendant may, in addition to the character evidence, show specific acts of the victim which are not too remote and of which the defendant had knowledge at the time of the crime with which he is charged. Evidence of specific acts may be admissible for the limited purpose of showing the defendant had a reasonable apprehension of danger.

Finally, the court reasoned that an offer of proof should (1) inform the trial court of the legal theory under which the offered evidence is admissible, (2) inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence so the court can judge its admissibility, and (3) create an adequate record for appellate review.

The Court of Appelas concluded that Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof failed to inform the trial judge of the specific nature of the offered evidence.

“Mr. Burnam’s offer of proof was lengthy but repeatedly vague on the specific nature of the offered evidence.”

The Court further concluded that Ms. Sweet merely pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance by disposing of a firearm used previously in a homicide. Nevertheless, rendering criminal assistance is a nonviolent felony.

“The mere fact that Ms. Sweet dated a man accused of murder and hid the murder weapon does not strongly imply that Ms. Sweet was violent. The prejudicial effect of excluding this questionable evidence is minimal. We conclude the trial court did not violate Mr. Burnam’s constitutional right to present a defense when it excluded this evidence.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence that Ms. Sweet was indirectly involved in a homicide from four years earlier.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are involved in cases involving assault or self-defense. Generally speaking, evidence that the victim had prior bad acts and/or had violent tendencies is admissible. However, court must undergo a balancing test under the evidence rules to determine if the evidence being offered is relevant, probative and/or unfairly prejudicial. This case was fairly straightforward in determining that the dead victim’s prior conviction for a non-violent crime was irrelevant.

Accomplices & Drive-By Shooting

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In State v. Jameison, the WA Court of Appeals held that (1) Drive-By Shooting charges may not be maintained against an accused who merely retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire, and (2) the defendant’s arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of the other shooter does not amount to accomplice liability with the co-defendant.

BACKGROUND FACTS

This prosecution arises from a confrontation between Kwame Bates and defendant
Lashawn Jameison, on the one hand, and Anthony Williams, on the other hand, during
which skirmish Williams fired his gun and killed bystander Eduardo Villagomez. A
video partially captures the confrontation and shooting.

On the night of January 17-18, 2016, Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates joined
a group of five hundred young adults at the Palomino Club in Spokane to celebrate
Martin Luther King Day. Bates drove Jameison to the club in a white Toyota Camry
owned by Bates’ girlfriend, which car gains significance as events transpire. Bates
parked the Camry on Lidgerwood Street in front of a Department of Licensing building
adjacent to the club. A Chrysler parked behind the Camry on the street. We do not know
the time of night that Bates and Jameison arrived at the celebration.

The Palomino Club closed at 2 a.m. on January 18. As Lashawn Jameison and Kwame Bates exited the club at closing, another patron, Anthony Williams, shoved Sierra, a female friend of Bates. The shove began a deadly chain of events. As a result of the push, Bates and Williams argued. Jameison did not participate in the quarrel.

Williams jumped a metal fence bordering the club parking lot, retrieved a handgun from
a car parked in the adjacent Department of Licensing parking lot, and returned to the entrance of the club. Williams paced to and from the club building, the adjacent lot, and
Lidgerwood Street.

Both Kwame Bates and Lashawn Jameison, knowing that Anthony Williams possessed a firearm, returned to the white Toyota Camry and armed themselves. Both Bates and Jameison lawfully owned firearms. During this activity, other patrons of the Palomino Club departed the building and walked to their cars parked in the club parking lot, in the adjacent parking lot, and on the street.

Lashawn Jameison, with gun in hand, retreated and separated himself from Kwame Bates and Anthony Williams. Jameison hid at the rear of the Chrysler parked behind the Camry while Bates stood by a power pole near the Camry. Bates and Williams, with Williams then in the Department of Licensing parking lot, faced one another as Martin Luther King Day celebrants continued to walk to their cars. According to Bates, he “does not back down” from a fight as long as the fight is fair. Jameison crouched behind the Chrysler.

A friend of Anthony Williams drove the friend’s car into the parking lot. Williams stepped behind his friend’s vehicle and discharged his gun in Bates’ direction. The bullet missed Bates and struck Eduardo Villagomez, a bystander walking along the street. Villagomez slumped to the street. Tragically. an unsuspecting driver of a car drove over Villagomez’s stricken body. Villagomez died as a result of the bullet wound and the force of the vehicle.

After Anthony Williams’ discharge of gunfire, Kwame Bates ran from the power
pole and joined Lashawn Jameison behind the stationary Chrysler. Seconds after
Williams fired the first shot, Bates and Jameison stood, returned fire, and crouched again
behind the Chrysler. Jameison fired, at most, two shots toward Williams. Williams
returned additional shots toward Bates and Jameison. Bates rose again and returned fire as Williams entered the vehicle driven by his friend. The friend drove the vehicle from
the parking lot and club. Bates and Jameison entered the Camry and also departed the
neighborhood.

The State of Washington charged Lashawn Jameison with first degree murder by extreme indifference and, in the alternative, first degree manslaughter as the result of the
death of Eduardo Villagomez. The State acknowledged that Anthony Williams shot
Eduardo Villagomez but charged Jameison with accomplice liability. The State also
charged Jameison with fourteen counts of Drive-By Shooting as a result of Jameison’s
returning of gunfire. The fourteen charges arise from the presence of at least fourteen
club patrons in the vicinity at the time of the shooting.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Lashawn Jameison moved to dismiss the homicide charges pursuant to State v.
Knapstad. Jameison emphasized that the video of the scene and law enforcement officers’ reports and affidavits demonstrated beyond dispute that Anthony Williams killed the decedent while Jameison ducked behind a car, shielding himself from Williams’ attack. Jameison added that, because he had not fired a shot by the time Williams’ bullet struck Eduardo Villagomez and because he himself was a victim of Williams’ violence, he could not be guilty of murder even as an accomplice. Jameison posited the same arguments for the alternative charge of manslaughter.

Lashawn Jameison also moved to dismiss the Drive-By Shooting charges for insufficient evidence of recklessness. In the alternative, he argued that all but one count should be dismissed because he fired only one shot. He based the latter argument on law enforcement’s discovering, at the crime scene, only one shell casing matching his gun.

The trial court dismissed the first degree murder and first degree manslaughter
charges on the basis, in part, that Lashawn Jameison did not cause the death of Eduardo
Villagomez. The trial court also ruled that the unit of prosecution for drive-by shooting
charges was the number of shots fired by Jameison. Because of a dispute of fact as to
whether Jameison fired one or two shots, the trial court dismissed all but two of the
fourteen drive-by shooting counts.

The State requested and this court granted discretionary review of the trial court’s
dismissal of some of the pending charges. After we accepted discretionary review, this
court decided State v. Vasquez, which delineates the elements of a Drive-By Shooting prosecution. We requested that both parties address Vasquez during oral argument.

LEGAL ISSUES

  • Whether an accused, who, in response to an antagonist retrieving a gun, also arms himself and hides behind a vehicle, suffers Accomplice Liability for Homicide when, without the accused shooting his firearm, the antagonist fires his gun and the bullet strikes and kills an innocent bystander.
  • Whether the same accused may be convicted of a Drive-By Shooting when he retrieves a gun from the car in which he arrived to the scene of the homicide but crouches behind another car at the time he returns fire.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the legal mechanisms of a CrR 8.3 Motion to Dismiss and a Knapstad Motion to dismiss and reasoned that ultimately the two motions are essentially the same.

Next, and interestingly, the Court of Appeals engaged a semi-esoteric discussion on how to handle criminal cases involving the accomplice liability of co-defendants who give more than one version of events.

“We struggle in the abstract with what assay to employ when adjudging what reasonable inferences we may deduce from established facts,” said the Court. “Therefore, we first comb for definitions and synonyms for our key word ‘inference.'” The Court elaborated that our state high court has defined an “inference” as a logical deduction or conclusion from an established fact. for example, State v. Aten refers to a “reasonable and logical” inference, again suggesting that a permissible inference must be logical.

“Based on these definitions, we must summon logic, common sense, and experience in surmising additional or circumstantial facts from already established or direct facts. We hope that our experience coincides with common sense and our common sense abides logic.”

The Court further reasoned that when evidence is equally consistent with two hypotheses, the evidence tends to prove neither. We will not infer a circumstance when no more than a possibility is shown,” said the Court. “We are not justified in inferring, from mere possibilities the existence of facts.”

Moreover, the Court said that Washington law, if not the federal constitution, demands that inferences in the criminal setting be based only on likelihood, not possibility. When an inference supports an element of the crime, due process requires the presumed fact to flow more likely than not from proof of the basic fact. “Whether an inference meets the appropriate standard must be determined on a case-by-case basis in light of the particular evidence presented to the jury in each case.”

The Court concluded that we should not draw an inference that Lashawn Jameison agreed
to fight with Anthony Williams. “No evidence directly confirms that Jameison concurred in Williams shooting at Jameison’s direction. Experience, common sense and logic easily depict Williams acting on his own without any consent from Jameison or Bates.”

The Court of Appeals also said the State in essence portrays Lashawn Jameison and Anthony Williams as agreeing to a duel. “The totality of the undisputed facts, however, leads one to conclude that Jameison never consented to a duel,” said the Court. “Jameison retrieved his firearm only after Williams grabbed his weapon and in order to defend himself. He could have, but never did, shoot at Williams before Williams first shot in his direction.

HOMICIDE & ACCOMPLICE LIABILITY

The Court of Appeals described the accomplice liability statute. In short, a person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of a crime if, with knowledge that it will promote or facilitate the commission of the crime, he or she: (i) solicits, commands, encourages, or requests such other person to commit it; or (ii) aids or agrees to aid such other person in planning or committing it; or (iii) his or her conduct is expressly declared by law to establish his or her complicity.

The Court of Appeals held that under Washington case law, an accomplice must associate himself with the principal’s criminal undertaking, participate in it as something he desires to bring about, and seek by his action to make it succeed. Presence and knowledge alone are insufficient, absent evidence from which a readiness to assist or an intent to encourage could be inferred, to support a finding of accomplice liability.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held that Lashawn Jameison never sought to assist Anthony Williams. “He never directly encouraged Williams to shoot either himself or Kwame Bates,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Williams wanted to shoot or wound Bates or Jameison. Jameison did not seek this goal. Jameison and Williams acted as antagonists. “They entered any fight from opposite poles.”

“We find that the conduct of Jameison in arming himself and hiding behind a car from the bullets of Anthony Williams ineptly fulfills the meaning of “encouragement” and his situation borders on victimhood. In turn, imposing criminal liability on Jameison conflicts with general principles of accomplice liability and disserves policies behind imposing accomplice liability.”

DRIVE-BY SHOOTING

On this issue, the Court of Appeals addressed what constitutes the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that transported the shooter.

The Court reasoned that under Drive-By Shooting statute, a person is guilty of drive-by shooting when he or she recklessly discharges a firearm in a manner which creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person and the discharge is either from a motor vehicle or from the “immediate area” of a motor vehicle that was used to transport the shooter or the firearm, or both, to the scene of the discharge.

The Court also turned to State v. Vasquez and State v. Rodgers in fashioning language to assist in measuring the “immediate area” in individual circumstances. In State v. Vasquez, the Court ruled that “immediate area” was either inside the vehicle or from within a few feet or yards of the vehicle. Also, the crime of Drive-By Shooting applies to a shooter who is either inside a vehicle or within easy or immediate reach of the vehicle.

“In State v. Rodgers, the Supreme Court held two blocks did not fall within the immediate area. In State v. Vasquez, we held that a distance of sixty-three feet did not qualify as the immediate area.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that here, When Lashawn Jameison fired his responding shots, Jameison likely stood closer than sixty-three feet of the Toyota Camry, the car in which he traveled to the Palomino Club.

“We hold that Jameison did not stand within the immediate area,” said the Court. “The obstacle of an additional car and a telephone pole stood between Jameison and the Camry. The Camry was not within his immediate reach. Jameison stood more than a few feet or yards from the Camry.”

CONCLUSION

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the murder and manslaughter charges and twelve of fourteen drive-by shooting charges brought against Lashawn Jameison.

My opinion? This is an  excellent decision from the Court of Appeals. It is well written, and clarifies important definitions and legal terms applied to accomplice liability and Drive-By Shooting. Great opinion.

Vehicular Homicide

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In State v. Frahm, the WA Court of Appeals held the defendant was properly convicted of vehicular homicide for the death of a Good Samaritan who was struck by another vehicle while rendering assistance to the occupant of the vehicle that was initially struck by the defendant’s vehicle. The defendant’s rear-ending of the first vehicle proximately caused the death of the Good Samaritan.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Shortly before dawn on December 7, 2014, a Ford F-150 truck driven by Frahm rear-ended a Honda CR-V sport utility vehicle (SUV) driven by Steven Klase. The impact caused the SUV to spin out of control, strike a concrete barrier in the freeway median, and come to rest partially blocking the left and middle lanes of I-205. Klase sustained serious injuries and remained in his vehicle. Frahm fled the scene.

An eyewitness, Richard Irvine, stopped his vehicle on the right shoulder. Irvine activated
his vehicle’s emergency flashers, exited his vehicle, and crossed the freeway on foot. Seeing Klase’s injuries, Irvine called 911. While Irvine spoke with a 911 dispatcher, a Honda Odyssey minivan driven by Fredy Dela Cruz-Moreno approached in the left lane. Cruz-Moreno’s minivan struck Klase’s vehicle and propelled it into Irvine. As a result, Irvine died.

Later that same day, Frahm, the registered owner of the F-150, contacted police to report
his vehicle as stolen. When the police later recovered Frahm’s truck, it had front end damage. The police processed the vehicle, and Frahm’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) matched DNA taken from the deployed airbag.

The police interrogated Frahm, and he maintained both that his truck had been stolen and that he had not been driving at the time of the accident. In February 2015, a witness, Dusty Nielsen, contacted the police. Nielsen provided an alibi for Frahm for the time of the accident. Nielsen lied. Frahm had not been with Nielsen the night of the accident. The two men did not know each other until they met in jail, after the accident.

When questioned by police about discrepancies in his story, Nielsen recanted. He insisted that he alone came up with the idea to provide the false alibi. The State charged Frahm with six crimes: vehicular homicide, manslaughter in the first degree, vehicular assault, hit and run, false reporting, and conspiracy to commit perjury in the first degree.

At trial, and without objection, the State played an unredacted recording of Frahm’s
interrogation by the police. During the interrogation, the police repeatedly accused Frahm of lying. Frahm admitted to drinking the night before the accident but iterated that somebody stole his truck, and that he was not the driver at the time of the accident.

The jury convicted Frahm of vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, hit and run, false
reporting, and conspiracy to commit perjury. Frahm appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that sufficient evidence supported Frahm’s Vehicular Homicide conviction. It reasoned that a driver is guilty of vehicular homicide when the death of any person ensues within three years as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by the driving of any vehicle by any person. Furthermore, “legal causation” involves a determination of whether liability should attach as a matter of law given the existence of cause in fact.

“If the factual elements of the tort are proved, determination of legal liability will be dependent on ‘mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent,” said the Court.

The Court further reasoned that a defendant’s conduct is a proximate cause of harm to another if, in direct sequence, unbroken by any new independent cause, it produces the harm, and without it the harm would not have happened. Here, the issue was whether any rational jury could find the essential elements of the crime of Vehicular Homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Although this specific victim may not have been foreseeable, the general field of danger was clearly foreseeable. And the record as a whole supports that a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Frahm’s rear-ending Klase’s vehicle proximately caused Irvine’s death.”

Second, the Court of Appeals held that sufficient evidence supports the charge of Conspiracy to Commit Perjury.

The Court said a person is guilty of conspiracy if, with the intent to commit a crime, he or she agrees with one or more persons to engage in or cause the performance of such [criminal] conduct, and any one of them takes a substantial step in pursuance of such agreement. Consequently, making “materially false” statements to police who are conducting investigations is a crime.

“Nielsen and Frahm met in jail,” said the Court of Appeals. “They hatched the plan to provide Frahm with a false alibi.” The Court further explained that Frahm provided Nielsen with the details necessary to make the lie appear more credible, including a description of his truck’s interior on the night of the accident. “When viewing the evidence and its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the State, sufficient evidence supports Frahm’s conspiracy conviction,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court rejected Frahm’s arguments that his defense counsel was ineffective and his speedy trial rights were violated. With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Frahm’s convictions.

My opinion? First, my sympathies to all parties involved. This case is tragic for all sides. Second, this case presents an interesting blend of criminal and tort law – specifically, negligence – which is not typically seen in everyday court. Issues of duty, breach of duty, proximate cause and damages rarely arise in criminal statutes. Typically, the State need only probe intent and not negligence. However, the specific language of the vehicular homicide statute includes criminal liability for negligent acts.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Hiring competent counsel is the first step toward achieving a just result in court.

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.