Ronald L. Atkinson v. United States (decided July 30, 2015).
Players: Associate Judges Beckwith and McLeese, Senior Judge Nebeker. Opinion by Judge Nebeker. Judith L. Wheat and Marlon C. Griffith for Mr. Atkinson. Trial Judge: Robert I. Richter
Facts: This is a case of love gone wrong. Ronald Atkinson and the complaining witness, Ms. Roebuck, had an intimate relationship that subsequently soured. Ms. Roebuck moved on, Mr. Atkinson did not. Mr. Atkinson repeatedly attempted to contact Ms. Roebuck even though she wanted nothing to do with him; she eventually obtained a civil protection order against him. Contrary to the order, Mr. Atkinson did not stay away. As a result, he was charged with and convicted of one count of stalking and six counts of violating the terms of the CPO.
Issue: Did the trial court err when it merged alternative theories of liability with respect to the stalking charge?
Holding: Yes, but the error was harmless. At the government’s urging, the trial court instructed the jury that to be guilty of stalking, it needs to find that Mr. Atkinson “knew or should have known that his conduct would cause Halima Roebuck or a reasonable person in Halima Roebuck’s circumstances” to fear for her safety. This was error because the inquiry for stalking is objective, considering how a reasonable person in the complainant’s shoes would feel. The instruction here “impermissibly reduced the government’s burden to convict by allowing the jury to find appellant guilty if he caused Ms. Roebuck to subjectively but unreasonably experience the enumerated emotional harm.” However, applying the Chapman standard of harmless error, the court found that because the jury was presented with “overwhelming evidence” of Mr. Atkinson’s “objectively frightening behavior,” his conviction must be affirmed. DH