Category Archives: Jury Trial

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.

Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

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.

Unlawful Opinion Testimony of Police Officer

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In State v. Winborne, the WA Court of Appeals held that an officer’s use of the word “reckless” or “eluding” while testifying in a Felony Eluding trial was improper opinion testimony.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State of Washington charged Tishawn Winborne with Theft of a Motor Vehicle, two counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, one count of Second Degree Assault, and one count of Third Degree Assault. The assault charges arise from his resisting
of police officers.

At the start of trial, Tishawn Winborne made a motion in limine to prohibit the State’s witnesses from testifying regarding ultimate factual issues such as whether Winborne “eluded” or drove “recklessly.” However, the trial court denied the motion. For those who don’t know, a motion in limine is a pretrial motion asking that certain evidence be found inadmissible, and that it not be referred to or offered at trial.

During trial, State witnesses repeatedly testified to Tishawn Winborne’s driving “recklessly” or “eluding” law enforcement. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court dismissed the Theft of a Motor Vehicle charge because of insufficient evidence.

The jury found Tishawn Winborne guilty of both counts of Attempting to Elude a Police Vehicle, but acquitted Winborne of both assault charges.

Winborne appealed. Among other issues, he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion in limine to prohibit any witness from testifying that Winborne drove “recklessly” or “eluded” police.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that no witness, lay or expert, may testify to his or her opinion as to the guilt of a defendant, whether by direct statement or inference. Whether testimony provides an improper opinion turns on the circumstances of the case, including (1) the type of witness involved, (2) the specific nature of the testimony, (3) the nature of the charges, (4) the type of defense, and (5) the other evidence before the trier of fact.

Next, the Court held this case was similar to the controlling precedent of State v. Farr-Lenzini:

“The state trooper in State v. Farr-Lenzini did not employ the word “reckless” in his testimony as did officers in Tishawn Winborne’s trial. Nevertheless, the same reasoning behind excluding the testimony applies. An officer can testify to his observations of the driving of the defendant without drawing conclusions assigned to the jury.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Tishawn Winborne’s motion in limine. It reasoned that the State’s police officer witnesses testified by direct statements to Tishawn Winborne’s guilt. “Whether Tishawn Winborne drove ‘recklessly’ or ‘eluded’ the officer is an element of attempting to elude a police vehicle,” said the Court. “A law enforcement officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Tishawn Winbome’s convictions for Felony Eluding a Police Officer and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. The Court of Appeals is correct in saying that a police officer’s improper opinion testimony may be particularly prejudicial because it carries a special aura of reliability. This is true. Instinctively, most jurors give much weight to the testimony of police officers. And the police officers know that. For those reasons, it is imperative for defense attorneys to argue pretrial motions in limine asking the trial judge to prohibit the police officers from offering their opinions at trial and to take exception to the court’s adverse rulings; thus preserving the issue for appeal. Kudos to the defense attorney in this case.

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.

A Vehicle is a “Premises”

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In State v. Joseph, the WA Supreme Court held that a vehicle is a “premises” for the purpose of the second degree criminal trespass statute because a vehicle is a type of “building” and “premises” includes “any building.”

BACKGROUND FACTS

On October 4, 2014, police responded to a report of vehicle prowling. The responding officer found defendant Anthony Joseph asleep in an unlocked Chevy Blazer on a public street in Ellensburg. The officer recognized Joseph and knew that he was homeless. The officer contacted Joseph and told him to exit the vehicle.

Initially, Joseph said that he had the owner’s permission; however, he then admitted he did not, and was arrested for vehicle prowling. The State filed charges of third degree assault and second degree vehicle prowling.’ The matter proceeded to a jury trial. The State sought jury instructions on first and second degree criminal trespass as lesser included offenses of the vehicle prowling charge. The trial court refused to instruct the jury on first degree trespass, but instructed the jury on second degree trespass, over Joseph’s objection. The State asked the court to define the term “premises” used in the second degree criminal trespass statute, but did not submit a definitional instruction. The trial court did not define “premises,” but allowed the parties to argue whether this term included a motor vehicle.

The jury acquitted Joseph of vehicle prowling, but found him guilty of second degree criminal trespass. Joseph appealed, and the Court of Appeals, Division Three affirmed his conviction, holding that a motor vehicle constitutes premises for purposes of second degree criminal trespass.

ISSUE

Whether second degree criminal trespass is a lesser included offense of second degree vehicle prowling.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“This case presents a challenging question of statutory interpretation because of the overlapping and intersecting definitions of ‘building’ and ‘premises’ in Title 9A RCW,” said the Court. It reasoned that although no definition of the word “building” is available in the criminal statutes, a definition of “building” is found in RCW 9A.04.110(5), which states the following:

“(5) ‘Building,’ in addition to its ordinary meaning, includes any dwelling, fenced area, vehicle, railway car, cargo container, or any other structure used for lodging of persons or for carrying on business therein, or for the use, sale, or deposit of goods; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building.”

Next, the Court engaged a lengthy discussion about overlapping definitions of “premises” and “building” as they applied to legislative amendments to the criminal trespass statute and the Washington Pattern Jury Instructions.

Also, the court said that the legislature plainly intended second degree criminal trespass to encompass trespass into any “building” as defined in the criminal code, RCW 9A.04.110(5), save for trespass into a building in its ordinary sense. “This interpretation properly restricts first degree trespass to unlawful entries into ordinary ‘buildings,’ a descriptor that needs no further definition,” said the Court.

The more severe charge (a gross misdemeanor) is justified by the increased likelihood of trespass into a home or business.

“All other trespasses fall under the term “premises” and are treated as simple misdemeanors. RCW 9A.52.080. This includes trespasses into premises that are “buildings” broadly conceived, but are not ordinarily thought of as buildings—as relevant here, vehicles.”

The Court reasoned that under this interpretation, the trial court properly instructed the jury on second degree criminal trespass as a lesser included offense of second degree vehicle prowling. “Because the evidence supports the jury’s verdict, we affirm Joseph’s
conviction.”

My opinion? Clearly, legal definitions can be broadly interpreted; sometimes to the point of absurdity. However, it is not unreasonable to accept the notion that vehicles can actually be a premises. Many impoverished people live and sleep in their vehicles. If a man’s home is his castle, and the castle is a vehicle, then the vehicle is his castle, no?

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

Extortion & Promises

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In State v. McClure, the WA Court of Appeals held that extortion was satisfied by evidence that the defendant attempted to obtain valuable intangible property – a promise from the victim that he would not pursue criminal charges or a civil remedy against the defendant for the damaged property.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In late 2013, Williams and McClure entered into an agreement under which McClure would reside in a double wide trailer Williams owned that needed repairs. McClure would perform the repairs. In return, he would live in the trailer rent free for one year and then he would start paying rent. After a year, Williams contacted McClure and told him that if he did not pay rent, Williams would evict him.

McClure responded by threatening to destroy the trailer if Williams evicted him.

McClure did not pay his rent and Williams began the eviction process. Williams visited
the trailer on the day McClure was to be evicted and discovered that the sliding glass door, the front door, the kitchen cabinets, and the wood stove had been removed. In addition, pipes were ripped out of the ceiling and electrical lines had been cut. Williams contacted the sheriff.

A few days later, Williams returned to the trailer and observed people on the property who were removing siding, electrical wire, plumbing, appliances, and fixtures from the trailer and portions of his shed. A deputy sheriff informed Williams that someone had taken out a Craigslist ad inviting people onto the property to take what they wanted. Williams sent a text message to McClure asking him to remove the ad. McClure texted a response:

“I will pull the ads if you take a letter . . . signed and notarized by both you and Lisa (Williams’ wife) that will not allow any charges to be placed against me or my wife for
anything related to the property. I don’t need the hassle. I will also not have the signs placed that I made for the same purpose.” After Williams again asked McClure to remove the ad, McClure texted, “A simple letter will take you 15 minutes and it will be done.”

The State charged McClure with first degree extortion and first degree malicious
mischief. A jury convicted him of both charges.

LEGAL ISSUE

McClure appeals only his first degree extortion conviction on the issue of whether that “promise” sought by the defendant  constituted valuable intangible “property” supporting an extortion conviction or merely involved coercion under RCW 9A.36.070 – Williams abstaining from conduct that he had the legal right to engage in.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under RCW 9A.56.120(1), a person is guilty of first degree extortion if that person commits “extortion” by means of specific types of threats. “Extortion” means “knowingly to obtain or attempt to obtain by threat property or services of the owner.” “Property” means “anything of value, whether tangible or intangible, real or personal.”

It further reasoned that McClure clearly was seeking a promise to not pursue criminal charges for a crime that involved financial loss to Williams – the cost of repairing damaged property. As a victim of a crime under RCW 9.94A.753(5), Williams would have the ability to receive restitution in a criminal proceeding for the property damage McClure caused.

“This ability to receive restitution for property damage had value to Williams,” reasoned the Court of Appeals.

Furthermore, McClure also arguably was seeking a promise not to pursue any civil remedy for the property damage McClure caused. That is how Williams interpreted the threat. He testified that McClure demanded Williams’ agreement “not to hold me responsible or press any charges for the damage that was done to your property.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that this ability to hold McClure responsible for the property damage in a civil lawsuit had value to Williams:

“A reasonable jury could have inferred from the evidence that McClure was attempting to obtain something intangible that had value – Williams’ promise not to pursue compensation for the property damage that McClure caused.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the State presented sufficient evidence to support McClure’s conviction for first degree extortion.

Race-Based Jury Selection

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In City of Seattle v. Erickson, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s peremptory strike of a minority juror was a prima facie showing of racial discrimination requiring a full analysis under Batson v. Kentucky.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, Matthew Erickson, a black man, was charged in Seattle Municipal Court with Unlawful Use of a Weapon and Resisting Arrest. After voir dire, the City of Seattle (City) exercised a peremptory challenge against tjuror #5, who was the only black juror on the jury panel. After the jury was empaneled and excused from the courthouse with the rest of the venire, Erickson objected to the peremptory challenge, claiming the strike was racially motivated. The court found that there was no prima facie showing of racial discrimination and overruled Erickson’s objection.

Erickson was convicted on both counts.

Erickson appealed the municipal court’s decision to King County Superior Court. The superior court affirmed the municipal court, finding that the circumstances surrounding the challenge did not raise any inference that the juror was stricken because of his race. The judge did not address whether Erickson’s motion was timely.

ISSUES

The WA Supreme Court granted review of Erickson’s appeal on the following issues:

1. Did Erickson waive his right to a Batson challenge when he objected after the jury was empaneled and both the jury and venire excused?

2. Did the trial court error in finding that Erickson did not make a prima facie showing of racial discrimination when the City struck juror #5?

BATSON V. KENTUCKY: THE LEGAL BACKGROUND ON RACE-BASED PEREMPTORY STRIKES

For those who don’t know, in Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court created a 3-step process for enforcing the constitutional rule against excluding a potential juror based on race. First, the defense must show that the circumstances at trial raise an inference of discrimination. Second, the prosecutor must give a nonracial reason for the strike. Third, the court decides if the prosecutor intentionally discriminated against the juror because of race. The decision was made to stop the unfair practice of race-based peremptory strikes of qualified minority jurors because at that time, prosecutors could easily mask their efforts to exclude racial minorities from jury service.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court ruled that Erickson did not waive His Right to a Batson challenge when he objected to the striking of a juror after the jury was empaneled but before testimony was heard. It reasoned that a number of federal courts also allow Batson challenges after the jury has been sworn. Read together, the case law has adopted rules requiring that a Batson challenge be brought at the earliest reasonable time while the trial court still has the ability to remedy the wrong.

“These cases recognize that judges and parties do not have instantaneous reaction time, and so have given both trial courts and litigants some lenience to bring Batson challenges after the jury was been sworn,” said the Court. “This is in line with our own jurisprudence.”

The Court further stated that objections should generally be brought when the trial court has the ability to remedy the error, and allowing some challenges after the swearing in of the jury does not offend that ability.

“Although the timing was not ideal, the Batson challenge was raised when the trial court still had an opportunity to correct it,” said the Court. “So even though Erickson brought his Batson challenge after the jury was empaneled, the trial court still had adequate ability to remedy any error. Therefore, Erickson made a timely Batson challenge.”

Second, the WA Supreme Court Court ruled that the trial court did, in fact, error in finding that Erickson did not make a prima facie showing of racial discrimination when the Prosecutor struck juror #5.

Here, and in bold strokes, the Court changed how Batson is applied in Washington so that striking a juror who is the only member of a cognizable racial group automatically triggers a full Batson analysis by the trial court:

“The evil of racial discrimination is still the evil this rule seeks to eradicate,” the court explained, writing that “this alteration provides parties and courts with a new tool, allowing them an alternate route to defend the protections espoused by Batson. A prima facie case can always be made based on overt racism or a pattern of impermissible strikes. Now, it can also be made when the sole member of a racially cognizable group is removed using a peremptory strike.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court carved the following bright-line rule adopted from State v. Rhone:

“We hold that the trial court must recognize a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose when the sole member of a racially cognizable group has been struck from the jury. The trial court must then require an explanation from the striking party and analyze, based on the explanation and the totality of the circumstances, whether the strike was racially motivated.”

In other words, the peremptory strike of a juror who is the only member of a cognizable racial group on a jury panel does in fact, constitute a prima facie showing of racial motivation. Also, the trial court must ask for a race-neutral reason from the striking party and then determine, based on the facts and surrounding circumstances, whether the strike was driven by racial reasons.

The WA Supreme Court reverse Erickson’s conviction and remanded his case back to the trial court for a new trial.

My opinion? I’m very pleased. I wrote about unlawful race-based peremptory strikes in my blog on State v. Saintcalle; a WA Supreme Court case having similar dynamics, peremptory strikes and Batson challenges to the case at hand. In that post, I was very disappointed that the WA Supreme Court failed to fix a systemic problem of Prosecutors exercising race-based peremptory strikes during jury selection.

Finally, the WA Supreme Court has become more proactive in stopping this unfair, unconstitutional practice. It’s not enough for Prosecutors to give utterly superficial reasons for striking minority jurors when the real reason for striking them is blatantly staring us in the face. Now, and finally, Prosecutors must prove that their decision to strike is not race-based. This subtle, yet oh-so-important shift in perspective effectively addresses what’s really happening during jury selection and makes a solution toward preventing race-based peremptory strikes. Excellent.

Join Offenses = Bad Results

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In State v. Linville, the WA Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s numerous criminal charges cannot be “joined” to a charge of leading organized crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Following an increase in residential burglaries in Thurston County, law enforcement
officers noticed similarities among several burglaries. Officers ultimately recovered numerous items taken during the burglaries from Linville’s home.

The State charged Linville with 1 count of leading organized crime, 35 counts of
residential burglary, 1 count of attempted residential burglary, 4 counts of first degree burglary, 3 counts of second degree burglary, 39 counts of trafficking in stolen property, 17 counts of first degree theft, 18 counts of second degree theft, 1 count of attempted second degree theft, 3 counts of third degree theft, 5 counts of theft of a firearm, 5 counts of identity theft, 4 counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, 1 count of possession of stolen property, and 1 count of possession of a controlled substance, for a total of 138 charges with numerous deadly weapon sentencing enhancements. The State alleged that Linville was armed with a firearm during the commission of the four first degree burglaries.

At no point did Linville argue that joinder of any offenses was improper under RCW 9A.82.085.

During the jury trial, the State presented testimony from numerous co-defendants who identified Linville as the instigator and leader of the burglary scheme. The co-defendants’ testimony was corroborated by law enforcement officers and victims who described the common characteristics among the burglaries and identified stolen goods recovered from the homes of Linville and his co-defendants. The jury found Linville guilty of 137 offenses, and he was sentenced to 914 months in prison, which included 240 months for four firearm sentencing enhancements.

Linville appealed on the argument that his defense counsel gave ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to move for severance of offenses that were not part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity from the charge of leading organized crime under RCW 9A.82.085.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court agreed with Linville. It reasoned that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the effective assistance of counsel in criminal proceedings. To show ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that (1) defense counsel’s conduct was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice. To show deficient performance, Linville must show that defense counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. To show prejudice, Linville must show a reasonable possibility that, but for counsel’s purportedly deficient conduct, the outcome of the proceeding would have differed.

  1. Counsel Rendered Deficient Performance.

First, the Court reasoned that RCW 9A.82.085 states the following, in relevant part:

“In a criminal prosecution alleging a violation of leading organized crime, the state is barred from joining any offense other than the offenses alleged to be part of the pattern of criminal profiteering activity.”

RCW 9A.82.010(12) defines “pattern of criminal profiteering activity” as “engaging in at least three acts of criminal profiteering.” RCW 9A.82.010(4) defines “criminal profiteering” as:

“any act, including any anticipatory or completed offense, committed for financial gain, that is chargeable or indictable under the laws of the state in which the act occurred and, if the act occurred in a state other than this state, would be chargeable or indictable under the laws of this state had the act occurred in this state and punishable as a felony and by imprisonment for more than one year, regardless of whether the act is charged or indicted, as any of the following: . . . .”

RCW 9A.82.010(4) then lists 46 crimes and their defining statutes. First and second degree theft, trafficking in stolen property, leading organized crime, and identity theft are included in the list. However, residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property are NOT included in the list. 

Consequently, the Court reasoned that a plain reading of the statutes made it clear that the State was barred from joining charges of residential burglary, first degree burglary, second degree burglary, attempted residential burglary, theft of a firearm, third degree theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of stolen property to Linville’s prosecution for leading organized crime.

“The unreasonable failure to research and apply relevant statutes without any tactical purpose constitutes deficient performance. Here, defense counsel’s failure to object to the State’s improper joinder of charges was unreasonable and constitutes deficient performance.”

2. Counsel’s Deficient Performance Resulted in Prejudice to the Defendant’s Case.

The Court said that in order to succeed on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Linville must also show that but for his attorney’s deficient performance the outcome of the trial would have differed, and therefore the deficient performance was prejudicial.

To this end, the Court reasoned that this issue is somewhat different than the related issue of discretionary joinder or severance pursuant to CrR 4.4(b). Under CrR 4.4(b), a trial court must grant a motion to sever offenses if it determines that “severance will promote a fair determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence of each offense.” A defendant seeking such a severance under CrR 4.4(b) must show that a trial involving all counts would be so manifestly prejudicial as to outweigh the concern for judicial economy.

In contrast, the Court explained that RCW 9A.82.085 leaves no room for the trial court’s discretion. Under that statute, the State is barred from joining offenses other than those alleged to be part of the criminal profiteering activity in a prosecution for leading organized crime.

“Because of defense counsel’s failure to object, Linville was improperly tried for 138 total charges and convicted of 137 offenses,” said the Court. “Had counsel properly objected to the joinder, 56 of the charges, including all of the burglary charges, would have been severed, the trial would not have included convictions for those 56 improperly joined charges, and the outcome of this trial would have been different.”

The Court extrapolated the prejudicial consequences of the joinder. It explained that each of the four firearm enhancements – which resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months – were associated with the four counts of first degree burglary. The firearm enhancements would not have been considered but for defense counsel’s deficient performance.

“The improper joinder had additional prejudicial consequences,” stated the Court. For example, by improperly joining four charges of unlawful possession of a firearm, the State was permitted to introduce evidence of Linville’s prior felony for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. This prior conviction evidence was highly prejudicial given that the State’s theory was that Linville’s crime ring was motivated by drugs. Also, the State relied heavily on the burglaries as evidence of Linville’s guilt for leading organized crime. A jury separately considering the burglary charges would not necessarily have heard testimony of Linville’s accomplices accusing him of orchestrating a broad scheme.

Consequently, the Court held that Linville’s defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to object to the joinder of offenses in violation of RCW 9A.82.085. The Court therefore reversed Linville’s convictions and remanded them back to the trial court for separate trials.

My opinion? Good decision. A defense attorney’s failure to sever “joined” offenses into separate trials can have profoundly devastating effects. Put simply, juries are more biased against the defendant in a joinder trial versus a trial with a single charge. Consequently, they are more likely to convict on a particular charge in a joinder trial with multiple charges than in a trial on the same single charge. It’s imperative that competent defense attorneys sever counts whenever possible.