Category Archives: Violent Crime

Violation of No-Contact Order & Defense of Property

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In State v. Yelovich, the WA Supreme Court held that a “Defense of Property” jury instruction is not available when there is a valid court order prohibiting the defendant from contacting the protected party.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Yelovich and Ms. De Armond dated for more than five years. At some point, and during all times relevant to this case, there was a valid no-contact order prohibiting Yelovich from contacting De Armond. The order forbids Yelovich from “coming near and from having any contact whatsoever, in person or through others, by phone, mail or any means, directly or indirectly” with De Armond. It also prohibited Yelovich from causing any physical harm or bodily injury to De Armond.

On the day in question, Yelovich parked his car in the driveway of his son’s house. He was moving boxes from the garage, and an approximately four-and-a-half-foot wood fence separated him and his car. After about an hour, Yelovich believed he saw someone through the fence, but he could not identify the person. When he went to his car, which had a broken passenger window, he saw that his cell phone and other personal belongings were missing. He saw De Armond walking down the street, and he testified at trial that he “knew then that she did it.”

Yelovich was aware that he was prohibited from contacting De Armond, but he thought the police would not arrive in time to recover his phone. Although he admitted it “was an irrational, radical move,” he chased after her in his car. When he found her a few blocks later, he got out of his car and attempted to take her purse because he believed she had put his phone in it.  A struggle ensued, and De Armond testified that he was “bouncing her off the ground.” Her testimony was corroborated by a Good Samaritan who intervened. He testified that he “saw a man straddling a female. I saw him striking her,” and “he was lifting her up off the ground and slamming her on the ground.”

Both the fire department and police responded to the incident. De Armond was treated for minor injuries, including redness, bruising, and a small laceration. The responding police officer who interviewed De Armond noted she seemed intoxicated and “she had a really hard time keeping herself together.”

The State charged Yelovich with one count of felony violation of a no-contact order predicated on his assault of De Armond and one count of Bail Jumping. At trial, he argued that he was entitled to a jury instruction on defense of property because he was protecting his cell phone, which he believed De Armond had stolen.

For those who don’t know, a jury instruction is a guideline given by the judge to the jury about the law they will have to apply to the facts they have found to be true. The purpose of the instructions is to help the jury arrive at a verdict that follows the law of that jurisdiction. AT any rate, the judge refused, reasoning that Yelovich “was acting offensively, not defensively to protect property.”

The jury convicted Yelovich as charged. He appealed only his felony violation of the no-contact order on the basis that he was improperly denied a jury instruction. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, and Yelovich appealed.

ISSUE

Whether the trial court improperly refuse to instruct the jury on the affirmative defense of defense of property.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The SUpreme Court reasoned that under statute, Violation of a No-Contact Order is usually a gross misdemeanor, but it is elevated to a Class C felony if the restrained party assaults the protected party during the violation. Therefore, assault is an essential element of the crime of felony violation of a no-contact order, and the State must prove it occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yelovich relies on Washington’s Self-Defense and Defense of Property Statute to claim that he may use defense of property as an affirmative defense. The statute states:

“The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful . . . whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary.”

Yelovich argues the statute provides “a valid affirmative defense whenever assault is charged or whenever assault is an element of the charged crime,” and therefore it may be used when the charged crime is felony violation of a no-contact order. However, Yelovich’s position ignores the critical role of the underlying no-contact order in this case.

The Court further reasoned that the standard language included in the order warned Yelovich that as the restrained party, he has the sole responsibility to avoid or refrain from violating the order’s provisions.

“By the terms of the order, Yelovich has no power to engage in self-help if doing so brings him into contact with De Armond. This bright line rule ensures that victims are not left wondering whether conduct prohibited by the no-contact order might later be deemed lawful. It therefore furthers the legislature’s goal to provide victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from abuse.”

The Court concluded that, in sum, Yelovich had sole responsibility for not violating the terms of a valid court order that forbids him from contacting De Armond, and so he had no authority to chase De Armond when he believed she had taken his phone. Accordingly, Yelovich was not entitled to a jury instruction on defense of property because his conduct violated the court order.

My opinion? Although the statute is very clear that mutual violations of the order and Defense of Property is not a defense, other defenses do exist. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges for violating a no-contact order.

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.

Studies Show Immigration Does Not Increase Violent Crimes

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Informative article from John Burnett of NPR discusses four academic studies showing that illegal immigration does not increase the prevalence of violent crime or drug and alcohol problems.

Michael Light, a criminologist at the University of Wisconsin, looked at whether the soaring increase in illegal immigration over the last three decades caused a commensurate jump in violent crimes: murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

“Increased undocumented immigration since 1990 has not increased violent crime over that same time period,” Light said in a phone interview.

Those findings are published in the current edition of the peer-reviewed journal Criminology.

In a separate study, these same researchers previously looked at nonviolent crime. They found that the dramatic influx of undocumented immigrants, similarly, did not drive up rates of drug and alcohol arrests or the number of drug overdoses and DUI deaths.

“We found no evidence that undocumented immigration increases the prevalence of any of those outcomes,” Light said.

third study, by the libertarian Cato Institute, recently looked at criminality among undocumented immigrants just in Texas. The state records the immigration status of arrestees, creating a gold mine for criminologists.

Cato found that in 2015, criminal conviction and arrest rates in Texas for undocumented immigrants were lower than those of native-born Americans for murder, sexual assault and larceny.

Finally, a research paper appearing in the current edition of the U.K. journal Migration Letters shows that youthful undocumented immigrants engage in less crime than do legal immigrants or U.S.-born peers.

According to reporter Burnett, social science has focused on the extent of crime committed by legal immigrants for decades. These new studies are important because they’re among the first to explore the link between crime and illegal immigration.

However, Burnett also indicates that the new research may not move the needle in the immigration debate. Texas Republicans, for instance, have potent opinions about undocumented immigrants. A recent poll showed that 7 out of 10 GOP voters in Texas support the proposition that all undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately regardless of whether they have committed a crime there.

My opinion? Immigration certainly is a hot-button political issue. Hopefully, the research is exposing some critical truths which may shed light on the issues and change the narrative.

DV & Cohabitating Parties

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In State v. Shelley, the WA Court of Appeals reversed the the defendant’s domestic violence convictions and held that a man, who is cohabitating with a woman and her child, does not necessarily have a “family or household” relationship to the child.

BACKGROUND FACTS

From late 2013 until April 2015, Defendant Aaron Shelley, his girlfriend Cheri Burgess, and her son from another relationship, A.S., lived with Shelley’s aunt and uncle.

On the evening of April 29, 2015, Shelley became angry and wanted Burgess to leave the house. After attempting to force Burgess out of the house, Shelley placed a knife against Burgess’s throat and stated he was going to kill her because she was not leaving. Shelley’s uncle, Mr. Sovey, intervened and convinced Shelley to give him the knife.

While Burgess and Sovey were talking in the kitchen, Shelley took A.S. out to the car. When Burgess confronted Shelley, Shelley grabbed A.S. by the throat. A.S. made a choking noise, “like he couldn’t breathe.” And when Burgess tried to grab A.S., Shelley said, “If you don’t leave or get away, I’m just gonna squeeze him, keep squeezing him. Get away from me. Leave, leave. Just effing leave. Leave my boy.” After Sovey came outside, Burgess walked away and called the police.

The State charged Shelley with, among other things, two counts of second degree assault as to Burgess, one count of second degree assault of a child as to A.S., and one count of felony harassment for threatening to kill A.S. The State alleged each crime was one of domestic violence.

The jury convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to Burgess. The jury found this was a crime of domestic violence because Shelley and Burgess were members of the same family or household. The jury also convicted Shelley of one count of assault as to A.S. and one count of felony harassment.

Shelley appealed on the issue of whether he was properly convicted of domestic violence acts against A.S.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 10.99.020(3) and RCW 26.50.010(6), “family or household members” includes the following:

“Spouses, former spouses, persons who have a child in common regardless of whether they have been married or have lived together at any time, adult persons related by blood or marriage, adult persons who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past, persons sixteen years of age or older who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past and who have or have had a dating relationship, persons sixteen years of age or older with whom a person sixteen years of age or older has or has had a dating relationship, and persons who have a biological or legal parent-child relationship, including stepparents and stepchildren and grandparents and grandchildren.”

“The State had the burden of establishing Shelley and A.S. had a biological or
legal parent-child relationship,” said the Court. “It is undisputed that Shelley is not A.S.’s biological father because Shelley and Burgess did not meet until she was six months
pregnant.”

The Court also raised and dismissed the State’s arguments that Shelley’s presumption of parentage was proven under RCW 26.26.116 of the Uniform Parentage Act. “The State did not present the trial court with any evidence of such a judicial determination,” said the Court of Appeals. “On this record, the State’s presumptive parent and de facto parent
theories fail.”

The Court concluded that because A.S. and Shelley are not family or household members, the domestic violence special verdicts on count 3, second-degree assault of a child, and count 4, felony harassment, were invalid as a matter of law.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DV crimes involving the children of unmarried boyfriends/girlfriends or domestic partners.  Like this case shows, the Prosecution may be unlawfully charging defendants with DV crimes when it lacks the authority to do so.

Unlawful Imprisonment Evidence

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In  State v. Scanlan, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the defendant’s conviction for Unlawful Imprisonment because there was evidence that  the victim told his doctor that he had been imprisoned in his home for two days against his will by the Defendant.

BACKGROUND

In 2013, Bagnell, an 82-year-old widower, was living independently in the Federal Way home that he had shared with his wife of more than 50 years. Sometime in 2013, Bagnell met Scanlan, a woman 30 years his junior. They quickly became friends and about two months later, Scanlan moved in with Bagnell.

On October 16, 2014, the Federal Way Police Department responded to Bagnell’s home after receiving a 911 hang-up call. The officers found Bagnell and Scanlan inside the home. Scanlan was uninjured, but Bagnell, who was dressed in a t-shirt and underwear, had wounds on his head, arms, and legs. After questioning Scanlan, the officers arrested her. As a result of the incident, a court order was issued prohibiting Scanlan from contacting Bagnell.

A few weeks later, on November 6, 2014, Bagnell’s adult children grew concerned after Bagnell missed a scheduled meeting with them. After trying and failing to reach him on his cell phone and home phone, Bagnell’s children went to Bagnell’s house to check on him.

When Bagnell’s children arrived at his house, they found it dark. Its blinds were
drawn and all of the interior and exterior lights were out. The children thought this was
odd and moved up to the front porch to try to see inside. From the porch they could see the glow of the television and shadowy movements. They rang the doorbell and
knocked but received no answer. Bagnell’s children were alarmed and opened the door
with an emergency key.

Inside, they found Bagnell’s home in disarray. Trails of blood ran across the carpet and up the stairs, gouges marked the walls, and broken household items and debris lay on the floor. A golf club leaned against a wall, and a hammer lay on a coffee table. A crowbar was on the dining room table, and a broken broom handle stood in a garbage bucket in the middle of the family room’s floor. Bagnell sat alone in a chair in the family room, dazed, bleeding from several wounds, and severely bruised such that “His face was black.” Bagnell at first appeared to be unconscious, but he began to respond to their attempts to rouse him as they called 911.

Roughly 15 minutes later, Federal Way Police Officer Brian Bassage arrived at Bagnell’s home. Just as Officer Bassage arrived, Scanlan was found hiding under a blanket in the front seat of a car in the garage. As Officer Bassage removed her from the car, Bagnell’s daughter yelled out at her that she had “just beat her father half to death, that there was blood everywhere.” Scanlan shouted back, “It’s not that bad.” At the police station, Scanlan claimed to be injured. The police took pictures, but did not detect any significant injuries. Scanlan did not receive medical treatment.

Bagnell was transported to the hospital where he was treated in the emergency room for his injuries which included: extensive bruising all over his body, four large open wounds on his legs, wounds on his arms, and fractures on both hands. Bagnell was treated in the emergency room by emergency room Nurse Catherine Gay and Dr. Robert Britt. Bagnell also met with social worker Jemina Skjonsby.

After treatment, but prior to his release, Bagnell met with Federal Way Police Department Detective Adrienne Purcella from about midnight to 1:00 a.m. Bagnell signed a form medical records waiver at 12:55 a.m.

Bagnell did not testify at trial. However, the trial court admitted statements that Bagnell made to medical providers in the emergency room, as well as subsequent statements made to his primary care physician and wound care medical team.

In November 2015, the State charged Scanlan with assault in the second degree (count 1), felony violation of a court order (count 2), unlawful imprisonment (count 3), and assault in the fourth degree (count 4). All counts contained a domestic violence allegation. The jury found Scanlan guilty of assault in the second degree, felony violation of a court order, and unlawful imprisonment.

Scanlon appealed her convictions She contends that, among other issues, there was insufficient evidence to support the charge of unlawful imprisonment.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held there is sufficient evidence of unlawful imprisonment.

The Court reasoned that when reviewing a claim for the sufficiency of the evidence, it considers whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, all reasonable inferences from the evidence must be drawn in favor of the State and interpreted most strongly against the defendant. A claim of insufficiency admits the truth of the State’s evidence and all inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom. Finally, circumstantial evidence is as reliable as direct evidence. However, inferences based on circumstantial evidence must be reasonable and cannot be based on speculation.

In this case, the State charged Scanlan with unlawful imprisonment under RCW 9A.40.040 which states: “A person is guilty of unlawful imprisonment if he or she knowingly restrains another person.” To prove restraint, the State had to prove that Scanlan restricted Bagnell’s movements (a) without consent and (b) without legal authority, in a manner which interfered substantially with his liberty. Restraint is without consent if it is accomplished by physical force, intimidation, or deception.

The Court reasoned that first, Bagnell told his physician Dr. Britt that he had been in his home for two days, that he had been imprisoned, or at least held in his home, against his will. Also the physician’s assistant testified that Bagnell told her that Scanlan locked him in a room: “He was living with a girlfriend at the time who had locked him in a room and had beat him with a candlestick, a broom and a hammer over multiple areas,” said the physician’s assistant, who also testified at trial.

Second, circumstantial evidence supports the inference that Scanlan used force or the threat of force to restrain Bagnell. Bagnell’s children found the front door locked, their father in a stupor, the house in disarray, and a broken broom, hammer, golf club, and crowbar. Bagnell’s children were also unable to contact their father by phone. Additionally, Bagnell’s cell phone was found broken, a battery was found to have been removed from a cordless phone in the home, and another phone was found to have no dial tone.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to the State, this is sufficient evidence of unlawful imprisonment.”

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed Scanlan’s conviction for unlawful imprisonment.

Burglary of Inmate’s Cell?

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In State v. Dunleavy, the WA Court of Appeals held that a jail cell is a separate building for purposes of supporting a burglary charge/conviction, and the that the victim’s jail cell need not be secured or occupied at the time of the crime in order to support the charge.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Dunleavy was an inmate at the Walla Walla County jail in Unit E. In Unit E, there are eight cells capable of housing two inmates per cell. The cells open into a day room. In Unit E, the cell doors are open from about 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. An inmate is permitted to close his cell door, but if he does, the door will remain locked until opened the next morning.

Dunleavy was hungry one day, so he asked inmate Kemp LaMunyon for a tortilla. LaMunyon responded that he did not have enough to share, but would buy more later and share with Dunleavy at that time. Dunleavy later bullied LaMunyon and threatened to “smash out.” Soon after, inmate John Owen attacked LaMunyon. During the attack, Dunleavy snuck into LaMunyon’s jail cell and took some of LaMunyon’s food. LaMunyon was seriously injured by Owen. Jail security investigated the fight and the theft, and concluded that the two were related. Security believed that Dunleavy staged the fight between Owen and LaMunyon to give him an opportunity to take LaMunyon’s food.

Because of the seriousness of LaMunyon’s injuries, and because security concluded that the fight and the theft were related, the jail referred charges to the local prosecuting authority. The State charged Dunleavy with second degree burglary, third degree theft, and second degree assault. After the State presented its case, Dunleavy moved to dismiss the second degree burglary charge on the basis that an inmate’s cell is a separate building. The trial court considered the parties’ arguments, denied Dunleavy’s motion to dismiss, and the case continued forward.

Dunleavy called one witness who testified that Dunleavy did not conspire with Owen to assault LaMunyon. After closing arguments, the case was submitted to the jury. The jury began deliberating at 1:30 p.m. At 4:00 p.m., the jury sent a written note to the trial court through the bailiff. The note asked, “Are the Walla Walla county jail policies legally binding? Are they considered law? What if we are not unanimous on a certain count?” The trial court, counsel, and Dunleavy discussed how the trial court should respond. The trial court’s response read, “You are to review the evidence, the exhibits, and the instructions, and continue to deliberate in order to reach a verdict.” No party objected to this response.

Less than one hour later, the jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Dunleavy guilty of second degree burglary and third degree theft but not guilty of second degree assault.

ISSUES

Dunleavy appealed on the issues of whether (1) jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary, and (2) whether there is an  implied license for unlawful entry.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

1. Jail cells are separate buildings for purposes of proving burglary.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under statute, a person is guilty of burglary in the second degree if, with intent to commit a crime against a person or property therein, he or she enters or remains unlawfully in a building other than a vehicle or a dwelling. Furthermore, Washington law defines “building” in relevant part as any structure used for lodging of persons; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building.

With these legal definitions in mind, the court noted that that a jail is a building used for lodging of persons, specifically inmates. Each cell is secured at night and an inmate can secure his cell from others. Furthermore, each cell is separately occupied by two inmates. “We discern no ambiguity,” said the Court of Appeals. “A jail cell is a separate building for purposes of proving burglary.”

2. No implied license for unlawful entry.

The Court of Appeals raised and dismissed Dunleavy’s arguments that he did not commit burglary when he entered LaMunyon’s cell because his entry was lawful from an implied license to enter the cell.

Contrary to Dunleavy’s argument, the Court explained that under Washington law, a person ‘enters or remains unlawfully’ in or upon premises when he or she is not then licensed, invited, or otherwise privileged to so enter or remain.”

The Court of Appeals explained that the victim, LaMunyon, did not give Dunleavy permission to enter his cell. Furthermore, the Jail Sergeant testified that inmates are told when they are first booked into jail that they may not enter another inmate’s jail cell.

“Inmates are subject to punishment for breaking these rules, including criminal charges,” said the Court of Appeals. “A rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Dunleavy entered LaMunyon’s cell unlawfully.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed Dunleavy’s conviction, yet remanded for resentencing on the separate issue that his offender score was incorrectly calculated.

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.

ER 404(B) and “Lustful Disposition”

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In State v. Gonzales, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not commit error in admitting evidence that, after the charged conduct, the victim observed the defendant masturbating while holding the victim’s bra.

BACKGROUND FACTS

When J.G. was six years old, she and her younger brother moved in with their grandfather, defendant Eddy Gonzales and his wife. This sexual abuse ended when J.G. was ten or eleven years old. But after the molestation stopped, J.G. once encountered Gonzales masturbating in his room while holding her bra.

When J.G. was eleven years old, she moved out of the house. She informed family members of the molestation. They, in turn, contacted police; who later arrested Mr. Gonzales.

Gonzales was charged with first degree rape of a child and first degree child molestation. The State later added a second count of first degree child rape and charged him with tampering with a witness.

At trial, the Court admitted testimony that he masturbated while holding J.G.’s bra.

The jury acquitted Gonzales of one count of first degree child rape, but found him guilty of the remaining charges. Among other issues not discussed here, Gonzales appealed on the issue of whether the trial court wrongfully admitted that evidence. He argued this uncharged misconduct goes to propensity and should be excluded under ER 404(b). He argues the trial court wrongfully admitted this testimony to show his “lustful disposition” toward J.G., particularly because it occurred after the charged conduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the rules of evidence which allow or disallow the evidence from getting to the jury. In short, (ER) 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for “other purposes.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that Washington courts have consistently held one such other purpose is evidence of collateral sexual misconduct when it shows the defendant’s lustful disposition toward the victim. This is because a lustful disposition makes it more likely that the defendant committed the crime charged. Evidence of uncharged sexual misconduct occurring before or after the charged acts is admissible. In an ER 404(b) analysis, the trial court must balance and weigh probative value against the potential for unfair prejudice.

Second, the Court of Appeals applied the law to its reasoning. It said that here, the trial court admitted J.G.’s testimony that she saw Gonzales masturbating while holding her bra. The trial court reasoned that Gonzales’s behavior was sexual conduct that showed lustful disposition toward J.G. The trial court also found that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion,” said the Court of Appeals. “Gonzales’s action shows a sexual desire for J.G. Thus, it goes toward an ‘other purpose’ as provided under ER 404(b).”

Third, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that any uncharged sexual misconduct is unfairly prejudicial in a sex abuse prosecution. It reasoned that the admitted evidence was not unfairly prejudicial because his act was not more inflammatory than the charged crime, and J.G. was only indirectly victimized by it.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that the admitted testimony had diminished probative value because the incident occurred after the alleged abuse. The Court of Appeals reasoned that an act occurring after the charged abuse is relevant to lustful disposition. It was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that the probative value of this testimony was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

With that, the Court of appeals affirm the admission of the “lustful disposition” testimony under ER 404(b) and upheld Mr. Gonzalez’s conviction.

My opinion?

It’s tricky to predict whether judges will admit or deny evidence when the evidence is offered for “other purposes” under ER 404(b). Judges have lots of discretion an how and where the rule applies. Still, judges must follow the doctrine of stare decisis and make rulings which are consistent existing case law when rendering decisions.

Fortunately, I’m quite familiar with the case law on this subject. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces charges and the State wants to offer evidence of the offender’s behavior which falls outside the scope of the immediate facts that are alleged. Perhaps a well-argued pretrial motion to suppress evidence could change the complexion of the case and result in reducing or dismissing the charges.

WA Death Penalty To End?

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Excellent article reporter Max Wasserman of the News Tribune reports that lawmakers are optimistic that 2018 may bring the end of Washington’s death penalty, following changes in senate leadership and years of stalled attempts in the state Legislature.

Wasserman reports that under current state law, individuals found guilty of aggravated first-degree murder can be put to death by hanging or lethal injection. The latest bill would replace that sentence with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Should it pass, Washington would a list of other states that have eliminated capital punishment in recent decades.

Wasserman also reports that the new chair on the committee overseeing the bill, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, expects the current push to abolish the death penalty to make it through the senate and possibly to the governor’s desk — the farthest any related bill would have made it in five years.

“The stars may be aligning now for support of doing away with the death penalty,” Pedersen said.

Washington’s death penalty has been seldom used in recent years. In 2014, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on capital punishment, suspending the practice for as long as he’s in office. The state’s last execution occurred in 2010 when Cal Coburn Brown, convicted for the 1991 rape and murder of 21 year-old Holly Washa, was put to death by lethal injection.

Despite its lack of use, the death penalty remains on the books in Washington. Attempts to match the governor’s position in the legislature have stalled in the past five decades, despite widespread support among lawmakers for abolishing it.

Wasserman reports that some place blame with prior leadership of the senate’s Law and Justice Committee. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who has been replaced by Pedersen as chairman of that committee, would not grant past death-penalty bills a hearing.

“I don’t anticipate I’ll be supporting the bill,” Padden said this week. “Some crimes are so heinous and so brutal that I think the death penalty is appropriate”

Padden pointed out that capital punishment also has been used as a negotiating tool against some of the state’s most egregious offenders, including serial killer Gary Ridgway. Ridgway — also known as the Green River killer — agreed to tell prosecutors the whereabouts of victims in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table in his case.

Apparently, the state’s prosecutors are split on whether to abolish the death penalty.

“The death penalty is a question with profound moral implications, certainly worthy of wide discussion,” Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said. “That discussion should not be limited to legislative debate in Olympia, but instead should be the subject of civic dialogue around the entire state.”

Tom McBride, the executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, defended the death penalty while leaving the door open for future reform.

“The constitutionality and evenhanded imposition of the death penalty in Washington State are issues that we will defend; but the costs, timely imposition and ultimate appropriateness of death for aggravated murder is certainly open to debate,” McBride told The News Tribune via email.

CRITICS OF THE DEATH PENALTY

Wasserman reports that critics of the death penalty have long scrutinized the practice as a high-stakes arm of an imperfect justice system that can — and has — executed innocent people. More than 150 people nationwide have been exonerated from death row since 1973, according to data from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP).

One of those cases occurred in Washington. Benjamin Harris was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Jimmie Lee Turner, a Tacoma auto mechanic, only to have the charges dropped on appeal 11 years later. Inadequate defense counsel may have led to Harris’ initial conviction, a point NCADP program director Toni Perry believes is emblematic of wealth disparities in capital sentencing.

“Minorities, persons with diminished capacities who can’t defend themselves, who can’t get a good attorney — it’s arbitrary. There are no rich people on death row,” Perry said.

The death penalty also comes with fiscal baggage. Largely due to legal fees in the appeal process, the death penalty costs an average $1 million more per case than life imprisonment in Washington, according to a 2015 Seattle University study of state convictions.

For these reasons, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson called upon the Legislature to do away with the practice last year. Five states — New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland — have since 2007 passed legislation to eliminate their death penalty.

“There is no role for capital punishment in a fair, equitable and humane justice system,” Ferguson, who requested this year’s bill, said in 2017 press release.

“Whether new leadership and a Democratic majority will be enough to achieve the goal one year later remains to be seen,” reports Wasserman.