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Jackson v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 26, 2016

LARRY JACKSON
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Krauser, C. J., Woodward, Salmon, James P. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          WOODWARD, J.

         A jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Larry Jackson, appellant, of second-degree assault[1] following a domestic dispute at the home occupied by his girlfriend and her family. The court sentenced appellant to a term of imprisonment of ten years. Appellant presents three questions on appeal:

1. Did the court err in admitting other crimes evidence and other irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial evidence?
2. Did the court abuse its discretion in denying appellant's mistrial motion?
3. Did the court improperly consider a murder charge for which appellant had been acquitted, in imposing sentence?

         For the reasons that follow, we answer these questions in the negative and affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 1, 2014, Tiffani Wilson hosted a birthday party for her husband, Javon Evans, at their home at 1816 McCulloh Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Several family members were in attendance, including Tiffani's daughter and Evans's stepdaughter, Shakeara Wilson. Shakeara lived in the basement of the home with her boyfriend, appellant. At this time, Shakeara was five or six months pregnant with a child conceived with appellant. When the festivities concluded around 11:00 p.m. or midnight and party-goers had gone home, Tiffani was cleaning up on the main floor. Evans had gone upstairs to the bedroom, and Shakeara was in the basement with appellant.

         Shakeara testified that she and appellant began to argue, which led to a fight, which Shakeara described as "words and pushing." After some mutual pushing, appellant "restrained" Shakeara by grabbing her around the throat, but "didn't squeeze." When appellant released Shakeara, she ran upstairs to get Evans.

         Tiffani observed that Shakeara was upset when she came upstairs; she was "hollering and screaming, " crying, and saying "Larry" repeatedly. According to Tiffani, Shakeara, Evans, and Tiffani went down to the basement to confront appellant.

         Evans approached appellant and said, "Didn't I tell you about putting your hands on my daughter" before punching appellant. In response, appellant pulled out a gun and fired it into the ceiling.[2]

         Tiffani testified that after this incident, she went upstairs to keep others from coming down to the basement. Later, she observed that Shakeara had a "swollen and red" eye, like she "had a blood clot." When Tiffani asked Shakeara about her injuries, Shakeara stated that appellant punched her in the face and stomach before leaving the house.

         By contrast, Shakeara testified that, when Evans and Tiffani went downstairs to confront appellant, she remained upstairs and could hear arguing. Shakeara stated that she never saw anyone with a gun, nor did she hear a gunshot. Shakeara's taped statement to police was played for the jury. In that taped statement, Shakeara stated that she heard her mother say, "oh you got a gun" meaning appellant, and Shakeara heard a shot go off. During the interview, a detective asked Shakeara, "did you pass out when you were choked?" Shakeara responded "borderline." Shakeara stated that, as she was breaking free from appellant, she "felt herself going out a little bit, " but she was able to run upstairs and tell Evans. Shakeara further stated that appellant punched her in the face at some point before leaving the house.

         The record is unclear as to how the police were summoned to the Evans/Wilson residence. Nevertheless, Officer Joseph Banks Jr., from the Baltimore City Police Department, responded to the residence and assisted in the investigation of the incident. Officer Banks interviewed Shakeara, who stated that appellant hit her.

         Detective Valencia Vaughn from the Baltimore City Police Department later executed a search warrant at the residence, and a gun, shell casing, cell phone, and wallet were recovered. Tassew Mekuria, a technician with the Baltimore Crime Laboratory, recovered the gun from the third floor bedroom. Tiffani testified that she found that gun by the back door and asked Evans to take it upstairs. She stated that the recovered gun was not the one appellant had used in the September 1st incident. Tiffani had intended to turn it over to the police, but the police searched the house before she had the opportunity to do so. The gun had Evans's DNA on it, but not appellant's.

         Mekuria also noted that the ceiling in the basement had a bullet hole in it, but he was unable to recover the bullet. He did, however, recover a shell casing from the basement floor. Christopher Faber, a firearms examiner with the Baltimore City Police Crime Lab Mobile Unit, was accepted as an expert in firearms and tool mark identification. Faber examined the recovered gun and shell casing. He testified that the recovered gun was a Taurus PT908 9mm handgun, and the recovered shell casing had been fired from a 9mm handgun. Faber opined, however, that the shell casing did not come from the recovered gun. He testified that another 9mm semi-automatic handgun was used to fire it.

         In continuing the investigation, the police were unable to find another handgun. Detective Vaughn interviewed appellant, and he admitted assaulting Shakeara. The prosecutor played portions of this interview for the jury. Appellant denied any knowledge of a handgun, however.

         Additional facts will be included as needed in the discussion below.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Evidentiary Issues

         A.

         Appellant contends that the court committed several evidentiary errors in the course of the trial. First, appellant contends that the court erred in admitting three pieces of evidence in violation of Maryland Rule 5-404(b). These three pieces of evidence were testimony: (1) from Tiffani that appellant and Shakeara had a "violent" relationship; (2) from Tiffani as to an incident wherein appellant "knocked [Shakeara's] bottom tooth out" with a phone; and (3) from Shakeara, during her redirect examination, that appellant had assaulted her before. Appellant contends that the above testimony did not fall into any exception of Rule 5-404(b) and also had no probative value.

         The State argues that evidence of appellant's prior conduct with his girlfriend -domestic abuse - is probative of his motive, which is a recognized exception of Rule 5-404(b). If the court erred in admitting this testimony, however, the State argues any error was harmless, because appellant admitted to striking Shakeara, the photographs depicting Shakeara's injuries were admitted into evidence, and the jury convicted appellant of second-degree assault instead of first-degree assault.

         Rule 5-404(b) provides: "Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts . . . is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. Such evidence, however, may be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, common scheme or plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident." Md. Rule 5-404(b). Ordinarily, we review the trial court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. See Wilder v. State, 191 Md.App. 319, 335, cert. denied, 415 Md. 43 (2010).

         As to other crimes evidence, however, the Court of Appeals has established a three-part test for its admission:

When a trial court is faced with the need to decide whether to admit evidence of another crime - that is, evidence that relates to an offense separate from that for which the defendant is presently on trial - it first determines whether the evidence fits within one or more of the Ross [v. State, 276 Md. 664 [ ] (1976)] exceptions. That is a legal determination and does not involve any exercise of discretion.
If one or more of the exceptions applies, the next step is to decide whether the accused's involvement in the other crimes is established by clear and convincing evidence. We will review this decision to determine whether the evidence was sufficient to support the trial judge's finding.
If this requirement is met, the trial court proceeds to the final step. The necessity for and probative value of the other crimes evidence is to be carefully weighed against any undue prejudice likely to result from its admission. This segment of the analysis implicates the exercise of the trial court's discretion.

Snyder v. State, 361 Md. 580, 603-04 (2000) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Faulkner, 314 Md. 630, 634-35 (1989)). In the instant case, appellant finds fault with the trial court's determinations as to the first and third elements of the three-part test.

         Motive is a recognized exception to the general rule against admission of other crimes evidence. See Md. Rule 5-404(b). The Court of Appeals has defined motive as "'the catalyst that provides the reason for a person to engage in criminal activity.'" Ayala v. State, 174 Md.App. 647, 658 (2007) (quoting Snyder, 361 Md. at 604), cert. denied, 401 Md. 173 (2007). "To be admissible as evidence of motive, however, the prior conduct must be committed within such time, or show such relationship to the main charge, as to make connection obvious, . . . that is to say they are so linked in point of time or circumstances as to show intent or motive." Snyder, 361 Md. at 605 (ellipses in original) (internal quotations marks omitted).

         The Court of Appeals has held that "[e]vidence of previous quarrels and difficulties between a victim and a defendant is generally admissible to show motive." Snyder, 361 Md. at 605. For example, in Jones v. State, the State sought to admit evidence that Jones had committed violent acts against his wife during the course of the marriage in his trial for her murder. 182 Md. 653, 657 (1944). The Court noted: "[T]here was almost a continuous state of hostility between them. These other crimes of the accused, having been committed on the same person, are so closely connected to the offense charged as to be evidence as to the intent and motive of the accused in this case." Id.

         In Snyder, where Snyder was on trial for the murder of his wife, the Court held that the trial court had properly admitted testimony of a physical dispute between Snyder and his wife that occurred nearly a year before her murder, that the couple had a "stormy" relationship, and a fight the night before the murder during which Snyder said that his wife was "a dead woman." Snyder, 361 Md. at 608. The Court stated: "That evidence was probative of a continuing hostility and animosity, on the part of [Snyder], toward the victim and, therefore, of a motive to murder, not simply the propensity to commit murder." Id. at 608-09. Similarly, the Court held that the trial court had properly admitted testimony from the couple's daughter of prior instances of Snyder hitting his wife. Id. at 609. Snyder argued that these past episodes were too remote in time to the murder to be relevant, but the Court held that "the incidents [which occurred over a period of at least the previous thirteen years] are logically related to motive 'to show that the accused made declarations reflecting on his wife, the deceased, to show a long course of ill treatment; to show that they quarreled, [and] that he [ ] maltreated her.'" Id. at 611 (quoting Jones, 182 Md. at 656-57); see also Stevenson v. State, 222 Md.App. 118, 148-50 (finding evidence that a witness observed Stevenson argue with his wife a week before her death, that the wife told the witness that Stevenson tried to force her to have sex, and that the wife had a slap mark and other bruises on her face two weeks before her death was admissible to show motive), cert. denied, 443 Md. 737 (2015).

         In this case, the challenged evidence is probative of appellant's motive in that it shows a history of abuse by appellant of Shakeara, similar to the properly admitted evidence in Jones, Snyder, and Stevenson. It is of no moment that those cases were for murder, and the case at bar is for assault. The motive is the same: the exertion of control over the victim through the perpetration of a cycle of violence. Accordingly, the evidence of appellant's previous history of abuse of Shakeara was properly admitted as evidence of motive pursuant to Rule 5-404(b).

         As to the third element of the three-part test, we are not persuaded that the court abused its discretion in admitting the subject evidence. A court abuses its discretion where the ruling "is 'well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court and beyond the fringe of what that court deems minimally acceptable.'" Hebron Vol. Fire Dep't, Inc. v. Whitelock, 166 Md.App. 619, 644 (2006) (quoting Rolley v. Sanford, 126 Md.App. 124, 131 (1999)). Stated another way, a court abuses its discretion "'where no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the [trial] court [ ] or when the court acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles.'" Nash v. State, 439 Md. 53, 67 (quoting North v. North, 102 Md.App. 1, 13 (1994)) (internal quotation marks omitted), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 284 (2014).

         The challenged evidence was clearly probative of appellant's motive. We, therefore, disagree with appellant's contention that this evidence had no probative value whatsoever. Consequently, appellant has failed to convince us that the trial court abused its discretion in determining that the subject evidence's probative value was not outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice.

         Even if the trial court admitted the subject evidence in error, any such error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In a recording played to the jury, appellant admitted that he struck Shakeara. The photographs of Shakeara's battered face also were in evidence for the jury to review. Finally, and most importantly, defense counsel repeatedly stated in closing argument that "this is a second[-]degree assault, " and told the jury "that conviction, if you find one, should only involve second[-]degree assault, because that's all that this is." The jury apparently agreed with defense counsel's argument, convicting appellant of one count of second[-]degree assault and acquitting him of all other more serious charges. Therefore, any testimony relating to appellant's prior assaults on Shakeara could not have had any effect on the verdict.

         B.

         As part of his case, appellant recalled Detective Vaughn to the stand, and the following occurred:

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Detective Vaughn, if you could refer to your progress ...

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