Category Archives: Homicide & Manslaughter

Overcoming Implicit Bias

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In State v. Berhe, the WA Supreme Court held that a trial court failed to adequately oversee allegations of racism and implicit bias among jurors deliberating in a Shoreline man’s first degree murder and first degree assault trial in 2016.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2016, a King County jury convicted Tomas Berhe, then 31, of murder and assault in a shooting in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. Mr. Behre is African-American. He was convicted of killing 21-year-old Everett Williams, whom Berhe thought had shot his cousin. A second man who was in the Eastlake alley with Williams was also shot.

After the trial concluded with a guilty verdict in early 2016, the sixth juror contacted both defense attorneys and the court with concern, according to the opinion. Weeks later, Berhe asked the judge for a new trial and requested an evidentiary hearing to investigate the allegations of racial bias, among other concerns.

In a written declaration presented by the defense, the sixth juror said she was the only African American on the jury in the trial of an African American defendant and described being the last holdout among four jurors who had initially leaned against conviction.

By the trial’s end, the sixth juror said she only agreed to vote for a guilty verdict because she felt “emotionally and mentally exhausted from the personal and implicit race-based derision from other jurors,” the opinion quotes the declaration as saying.

The juror said others had mocked her as stupid and illogical when she suggested that Berhe could have taken the murder weapon from someone else. She described two jurors as taunting her, saying that she would “let him walk,” and said she felt mocked after several jurors interpreted something she’d said as commentary on police misconduct toward African Americans.

Responding to the defense’s declaration, prosecutors sent questions to several jurors asking if they themselves, or another juror, had done anything to the sixth juror that was motivated by racial bias during deliberations. Results were not conclusive, and the Superior Court judge found insufficient evidence of juror misconduct and denied a request for a new trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the WA Supreme Court described how racial bias harms trial verdicts:

“Unlike isolated incidents of juror misbehavior, racial bias is a common and pervasive evil that causes systemic harm to the administration of justice. Also unlike other types of juror misconduct, racial bias is uniquely difficult to identify.”

Second, the Court reasoned that Courts must carefully oversee any inquiry into whether explicit or implicit racial bias influenced a jury verdict.

“Rather than permitting the parties alone to investigate allegations of racial bias, once a claim of racial bias is raised, inquiries into the influence of that racial bias on a jury’s verdict must be conducted under the court’s supervision and on the record,” said the Court. “Therefore, as soon as any party becomes aware that there are sufficient facts to support allegations that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the court and opposing counsel must be notified.”

Third, the Court reasoned that the unique challenge of assessing implicit racial bias requires a searching inquiry before a court can decide whether an evidentiary hearing is needed. “Implicit racial bias is a unique problem that requires tailored solutions,” said the Court. “Therefore, when it is alleged that racial bias was a factor in the verdict, the trial court must oversee and conduct a thorough investigation that is tailored to the specific allegations presented before deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing and before ruling on a defendant’s motion for a new trial,” said the Court.

The Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to exercise adequate oversight over the investigations into juror 6’s allegations of racial bias and by failing to conduct a sufficient inquiry before denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial without an evidentiaiy hearing. “We therefore vacate the trial court’s order denying Berhe’s motion for a new trial and remand for further proceedings.”

My opinion? Excellent decision. Groundbreaking, even. In what could be a first-of-its-kind rule nationwide, the judges’ opinion establishes procedures for trial court judges to investigate implicit racial bias reported during jury deliberations.

This isn’t the first time our Supreme Court has openly exercised judicial activism. In April, the state Supreme Court published General Rule 37, a rule for courts saying that challenges during jury selection based on implicit, institutional and unconscious race and ethnic biases should be rejected, she noted. Now, similar protection from bias extends into the jury room.

Excellent decision.

Flowers v. Mississippi: Supreme Court Finds Race-Based Peremptory Strikes Unlawful

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In Flowers v. Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State’s peremptory strikes in the defendant’s first four trials strongly supported the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in the defendant’s sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Curtis Flowers was tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store. Flowers is black. Three of the four victims were white. At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors.

In each case, the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, but the convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed again, this time concluding that the State exercised its peremptory strikes on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the fourth, the State exercised 11 peremptory strikes—all against black prospective jurors. No available racial information exists about the prospective jurors in the fifth trial.

At the sixth trial, the State exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. Flowers again raised a Batson challenge, but the trial court concluded that the State had offered race-neutral reasons for each of the five peremptory strikes. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. Flowers appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan joined. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissented.

Kavanaugh began by discussing the history behind the landmark Batson v. Kentucky. In his majority opinion he explained that under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination has been shown by a defendant, the State must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The trial judge then must determine whether the prosecutor’s stated reasons were the actual reasons or instead were a pretext for discrimination.

“Four categories of evidence loom large in assessing the Batson issue here, where the State had a persistent pattern of striking black prospective jurors from Flowers’ first through his sixth trial,” said Justice Kavanaugh.

The Court reasoned that here, a review of the history of the State’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four trials strongly supports the conclusion that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent:

“The State tried to strike all 36 black prospective jurors over the course of the first four trials. And the state courts themselves concluded that the State had violated Batson on two separate occasions. The State’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”

The Court also reasoned that the State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial followed the same discriminatory pattern as the first four trials.

“Disparate questioning can be probative of discriminatory intent,” said the Court.  “Here, the State spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of 5 black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors.”

Consequently, along with the historical evidence from the earlier trials, as well as the State’s striking of five of six black prospective jurors at the sixth trial, the dramatically disparate questioning and investigation of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors at the sixth trial strongly suggest that the State was motivated in substantial part by a discriminatory intent.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that comparing prospective jurors who were struck and not struck is an important step in determining whether a Batson violation occurred. “Here, Carolyn Wright, a black prospective juror, was struck, the State says, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked,” said the Court. “But three white prospective jurors also knew many individuals involved in the case, and the State asked them no individual questions about their connections to witnesses. White prospective jurors also had relationships with members of Flowers’ family, but the State did not ask them follow-up questions in order to explore the depth of those relationships.”

Finally, the Court ruled that the State also incorrectly explained that it exercised a peremptory strike against Wright because she had worked with one of Flowers’ sisters and made apparently incorrect statements to justify the strikes of other black prospective jurors. “When considered with other evidence, a series of factually inaccurate explanations for striking black prospective jurors can be another clue showing discriminatory intent,” said the Court. Consequently, the trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Pp. 26–30.

With that, the Supreme Court reversed Flowers’ conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court.

My opinion? Good decision. Although the facts and allegations are terrible for Mr. Flowers, prosecutors simply cannot use exercise race-based peremptory challenges to get justice.

38-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial

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In State v. Ross, the WA Court of Appeals held that a criminal defendant’s constitutional speedy trial rights were violated by a 38-year gap between charging and the defendant’s first appearance in the trial court on the murder charges.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Here, the State charged Tommy Ross in Clallam County with aggravated first degree murder in 1978. But the State did not pursue prosecution of that charge for over 38 years. Instead, the State allowed Ross to be extradited to Canada for trial on another murder charge without ensuring that he would be returned for trial in Clallam County.

And then while Ross was incarcerated in Canada the State made no meaningful effort for decades to obtain his return to the United States for trial. The trial court ruled that the State violated Ross’s constitutional right to a speedy trial by not prosecuting the murder charge against him for over 38 years, and the court dismissed that charge. The State appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the analysis for the speedy trial right under article I, section 22 of the WA Constitution is substantially the same as the analysis under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Court of Appeals used the balancing analysis stated in Barker v. Wingo to determine whether the defendant’s constitutional right to speedy trial was violated. Among the nonexclusive factors we consider are the length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.

Length of Delay.

Here, the Court ruled that the The 38-year delay here was extraordinary and significant to the speedy trial analysis. Consequently, the length of delay factor weighs heavily against the State.

Reason for Delay.

The court explained that the “reason for delay” factor focuses on whether the government or the criminal defendant is more to blame for the delay. A court looks to each party’s responsibility for the delay, and different weights are assigned to delay, primarily related to blameworthiness and the impact of the delay on defendant’s right to a fair trial.

“The State’s deliberate delays will be weighed heavily against it, but even negligence that causes delay will be weighed against the State,” said the Court. Consequently, the Court reasoned that the Prosecutor’s decision to release Ross to Canada without obtaining an enforceable agreement to return him to Clallam County was negligent and weighs against the State.

State Failing to Request Extradition.

The Court reiterated the general rule that when a defendant is incarcerated outside of the country, the State has a constitutional obligation for speedy trial purposes to make a good faith, diligent effort to secure his or her return to the United States for trial. Here, the State’s failure after 1980 to seek extradition or even inquire about obtaining Ross’s transfer to Clallam County weighs against the State.

Assertion of Speedy Trial Right.

The court explained that during the time he was incarcerated in Canada, Mr. Ross made no effort to facilitate a trial on the murder charge. He never demanded that the State bring him to trial or that the State figure out a way to remove him to the United States. He did not waive extradition or request that Canada transfer him to Clallam County for trial. And when given opportunities to return to the United States and face the murder charge, Ross declined and decided to remain in Canada. This conduct is inconsistent with an assertion of the right to a speedy trial.

“Based on Ross’s failure to assert his speedy trial right while incarcerated in Canada, we conclude that the assertion of the right factor weighs against Ross even though his failure is mitigated to some extent,” said the Court.

Prejudice from Delay.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that prejudice to the defendant as a result of delay may consist of (1) oppressive pretrial incarceration, (2) the defendant’s anxiety and concern, and (3) the possibility that dimming memories and loss of exculpatory evidence will impair the defense.

In general, a defendant must show actual prejudice to establish a speedy trial right violation. However, prejudice will be presumed when the delay results from the State’s negligence and there has been “extraordinary delay.”

“Courts generally have presumed prejudice in cases where the delay has lasted at least five years,” said the Court, citing  State v. Ollivier. The Court also cited Doggett v. U.S., a case where the U.S. Supreme Court presumed prejudice against the defendant when the State’s inexcusable oversights caused a delay of six years.

“Applying the four-part balancing analysis set out in Barker, we also conclude that the extraordinary delay in prosecuting Ross violated his speedy trial right. Accordingly, we are constrained to affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the murder charges against Ross.”

In addition, the Court of Appeals found the 38-year length of the delay significant, as was the very strong presumption of prejudice resulting from that lengthy delay. “Considering all the Barker factors, we are constrained to conclude that the balancing test weighs against the State,” said the Court. “Accordingly, we hold that the State violated Ross’s speedy trial right under the United States and Washington Constitutions. Dismissal of the charges against the accused is the only possible remedy for a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and there’s question whether the defendant’s right to a speedy trial were violated. Washington Court rule CrRLJ 3.3(b)(2) states that a defendant must be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment if he is detained in jail and within 90 days if he is not. The purpose o f this rule is to provide a prompt trial for the defendant once they are prosecuted. Under the rule, a charge not brought to trial within the time limit will usually be dismissed with prejudice unless the defendant requests continuances.

 

Washington Crime Report Released

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The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) just released its 2017 Crime in Washington Annual Report.

It was compiled from data submitted to the Washington State Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the WASPC by Washington State law enforcement agencies.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

  • In 2017, Crimes Against Persons showed an increase of 0.4% with 84,145 offenses reported; compared to 2016 offenses reported of 83,771.
  • In 2017, Crimes Against Property showed an decrease of 6.7% with 295,274 offenses reported; compared to 316,361 offenses reported in 2016.
  • In 2017, Crimes Against Society showed an increase of 5.9% with 32,011 offenses reported; compared to 30,230 offenses reported in 2016.
  • Group A offenses were cleared by arrest or exceptional means 25.6% of the time.
  • The crime rate (per 1,000 in population) for Group A offenses was 69.1.
  • The total arrest rate per 1,000 in population was 25.6.
  • Juveniles comprised of 6.9% of the total arrests.
  • Domestic Violence offenses made up 50.4% of all Crimes Against Persons.
  • A total of 25,400 persons were arrested for DUI, including 163 juveniles.
  • A total of 531 hate crime incidents were reported.
  • There were a total of 1,643 assaults on law enforcement officers and no officers killed in the line of duty.
  • Full-time law enforcement employees totaled 15,873; of these 11,078 were commissioned officers.
  • There were 11,986 arrests for drug abuse violations; of that number, 10.2% were persons under 18 years of age.
  • Possessing/concealing of marijuana constituted 16.7% of the total drug abuse incidents; the distributing/selling of marijuana accounted for 1.1% of incidents(type of criminal activity can be entered three times in each incident).
  • Possessing/concealing of heroin constituted 32.2% of the total drug abuse incidents; the distributing/selling of heroin accounted for 4.6% of incidents (type of criminal activity can be entered three times in each incident).
  • The weapon type of “Personal Weapons” (hands, fists or feet) was reported in 51,817 incidents; firearms were reported in 8,465 incidents (up to three weapons can be reported in each incident).
  • There were 6,212 sexual assault (forcible and non-forcible) incidents reported in 2017. There were a total of 6,212 victims in these incidents; with a total of 6,300 offenders.
  • There were a total of 54,294 domestic violence incidents reported; 12,023 of these incidents were Violations of Protection or No Contact Orders.

Overall, the data is very interesting.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Consultations are free. I provide effective criminal defense for people charged with felonies and misdemeanors. It is extremely important to hire an attorney like myself who is willing to devote significant attention to the case. I say this because people convicted of a crime face more than just criminal penalties. They also face a potential lifelong social stigma, as well as diminished employment, housing and educational opportunities. I proudly represent clients in Skagit and Whatcom County, Washington.

 

Autopsy Photos Admitted

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In State v. Whitaker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly admitted 15 of 100 autopsy photographs over the objection of the defendant who was charged with aggravated murder. The probative value of the photographs in helping to illustrate the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed their prejudicial effect.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Whitaker was charged with helping his friend Mr. Anderson and several others kidnap and Ms. Burkheimer, who was Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. Whitaker helped to bind, hide, and transport Burkheimer. He helped to dig her grave, rob her, bury her, and destroy evidence
of her murder.

At trial, the court admitted 15 autopsy photographs during the testimony of the medical examiner. The medical examiner testified that around 100 photographs were taken during Burkheimer’s autopsy and that the 15 selected for trial showed the injuries to Burkheimer’s body, what the medical examiner looked at when he decided where the bullet exit and entry wounds were, and how Burkheimer’s injuries related to one another.

The jury found Whitaker guilty of premeditated first degree murder, with an aggravating factor of kidnapping and a firearm enhancement, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. During the trial, Whitaker moved for a mistrial several times, alleging numerous errors were made during trial; one of the errors being whether the trial court improperly admitted the photographs of the victim’s autopsy.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals upheld Whitaker’s conviction and reasoned that accurate photographic representations are admissible, even if gruesome, if their probative value outweighs their prejudicial effect.

“A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner.”

“The admission of autopsy photographs is in the sound discretion of the trial court,” said the Court of Appeals. “Photographs have probative value where they are used to illustrate or explain the testimony of the pathologist performing the autopsy. Unless it is clear from the record that the primary reason to admit gruesome photographs is to inflame the jury’s passion, appellate courts will uphold the decision of the trial court.” Furthermore, reasoned the Court, the law requires an exercise of restraint, not a preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.

The medical examiner’s testimony explaining the photographs and his conclusions about Burkheimer’s injuries was straightforward and not inflammatory.

“There is no doubt that these photographs are disturbing,” said the court. “But this was a brutal crime, and the record does not show that the primary reason for admitting the photographs was to inflame the jury.” Rather, reasoned the Court, the photographs were admitted to support the testimony of the medical examiner. “The State did not offer all 100 of the photographs but instead selected 15 that best illustrated Burkheimer’s injuries,” said the Court. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Whitaker’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? The admissibility of evidence is one of the most important battles in trial practice. Courts conduct balancing tests on this issue under Evidence Rules 401, 402 and 403. Under these evidence rules, judges can admit evidence which is relevant and probative as long as the evidence is also not prejudicial to the defendant’s case.  Prejudicial evidence includes evidence which may inflame the passions of the jury. Understandably, however, the prejudicial effect can be outweighed by the probative value. In this case, the probative value of the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect these photos may have had on the jury.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving photographic evidence which could be prejudicial to the case.

Online Research By Juror

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In State v. Arndt, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s numerous high-level criminal convictions even though one of the jurors performed online research against the court’s instructions.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On February 23, 2014, Ms. Arndt and her boyfriend, Mr. Veeder Jr., spent the night at their
friends’ home. Late that night, the house caught fire. Everyone in the home escaped except Mr. Veeder, who died.

After an investigation, the State charged Arndt with murder in the first degree with an
aggravating circumstance of arson in the first degree, felony murder in the first degree with
aggravating circumstances, arson in the first degree, and six counts of assault in the second degree.

The jury found Arndt guilty as charged. The trial court sentenced Arndt to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

Months after the verdict, Juror 2 approached a woman whom she did not know was the
sister of Arndt’s trial attorney. Juror 2 said that in Arndt’s trial, she struggled with the term
“premeditation.” She further related that to better understand the term, she looked it up on the internet. The attorney’s sister told her brother what she had learned.

Defense investigator James Harris then met with Juror 2, explained that he worked for Arndt’s trial attorney, and asked to speak with her about her experience as a juror. Juror 2 spoke with Harris and told him that during deliberations she did internet research on the word “premeditation.” Juror 2 provided Harris with additional information, including sites she may have viewed. The State’s investigator also interviewed Juror 2.

Arndt moved for a new trial on grounds of juror misconduct. At a hearing on the motion,
the court heard testimony from Juror 2 and Harris. Juror 2 testified that she had researched the term “premeditation” and had found different sites, but did not remember whether she had viewed any of the specific sites she had showed Harris when he earlier interviewed her. She said that she looked at a couple different definitions, but it was the word “short” that made her understand. Juror 2 also testified that she had not shared her
research with other jurors.

Ultimately, the trial court held Arndt should not get a new trial:

“In substance, the Court finds that the definitions viewed by Juror #2 were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law. Because the known research results, as presented to the Court, were consistent with the jury instruction on premeditation and the law, the Court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror #2’s research could not have affected the verdict. Therefore, the motion for a new trial is denied.”

Arndt appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that Juror 2 committed misconduct. Also, the consideration of novel or extrinsic evidence by a jury is misconduct and can be grounds for a new trial. Furthermore, juror use of extraneous evidence is misconduct and entitles a defendant to a new trial, if the defendant has been prejudiced.

“Once juror misconduct is established, prejudice is presumed,” said the Court of Appeals. “The court must grant a new trial unless it is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict.”

The Court of Appeals also reviewed the trial court’s instructions to the jury on the definition of “Premeditation.” It stated the following:

“Premeditated means thought over beforehand. When a person, after any deliberation, forms an intent to take human life, the killing may follow immediately after the formation of the settled purpose and it will still be premeditated. Premeditation must involve more than a moment in point of time. The law requires some time, however long or short, in which a design to kill is deliberately formed.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the exact websites Juror 2 visited and the precise definitions she viewed are unknown, the part of those definitions that had an impression on her and affected her verdict were the word “short” and phrase “however short.”

“As the trial court ruled, these definitions were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law,” said the Court of Appeals. “This ruling is sufficient to satisfy beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict and to overcome the presumption of prejudice. The court did not abuse its discretion.”

With that the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Juror 2’s research did not contribute to the verdict. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Arndt’s conviction.

My opinion? The Court’s decision is frustrating. It placed too much weight on whether the juror’s misconduct prejudiced the defendant. Instead, the Court should have focused on the fact that juror misconduct happened in the first place.

If you stole a candy bar from a grocery store, would your shoplifting affect the store’s bottom line? Probably not. However, the simple fact that you stole a candy bar is, in fact, a crime which demands an effective and just remedy. Otherwise, a crime which goes unpunished is essentially not a crime, correct?

Here, Juror 2 blatantly disregarded the court’s instructions to not perform online research. Did Juror 2’s research affect her decision on the verdict? Did Juror 2 discuss her research with other jurors behind closed doors when they deliberated the case? Therein lies the threat to justice; not only to this defendant, but criminal defendants everywhere. Online research should not be tolerated, even if it can be willed away away as having no impact on the outcome. Bad decision.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges.

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.