Friday, February 5, 2016

You can burglarize a coal yard or a lumber yard, but not a construction site.

George Sydnor v. United States (decided January 14, 2016)

Players: Associate Judges Fisher and Easterly, Senior Judge Pryor. Opinion by Judge Fisher. PDS for Mr. Sydnor. Trial Judge: John McCabe.

Facts: Mr. Sydnor entered a fenced-in construction site owned by Nicholson Construction Company and took six steel pipes. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and was charged with and convicted of burglary.

Issue 1: Did Mr. Sydnor's actions constitute burglary, where a person who breaks and enters a "yard where any lumber, coal, or other goods or chattels are deposited and kept for the purpose of trade" with the intent to commit an offense is guilty of burglary? More specifically, was the construction site a place where goods or chattels were kept "for the purpose of trade?"

Holding 1: The construction site was not a place where goods or chattels were kept "for the purpose of trade," and so Mr. Sydnor could not be guilty of burglary for his actions there. The Court, in its de novo analysis of the meaning of that clause of the burglary statute, held that "for the purpose of trade" means goods that will eventually be bought or sold. It rejected the interpretation that the government urged: that any goods used in business -- i.e., a trade -- were covered. Applying the principle of "ejusdem generis," the Court held that by naming lumber and coal, Congress indicated that the "goods or chattels" in such a yard had to be commercial objects, like lumber or coal, that would be bought and sold. In this case, none of the items in the construction site were intended for commercial sale; they were stored there to be used in the construction project. Mr. Sydnor's conviction for burglary therefore must be vacated.

Issue 2: Was Mr. Sydnor nevertheless guilty of unlawful entry?

Holding 2: The court seemed to doubt that unlawful entry was a lesser-included offense under the Blockburger test, but because Mr. Sydnor had requested an unlawful entry instruction at trial the Court found that Mr. Sydnor was precluded from raising that argument on appeal. The Court then analyzed the sufficiency of the evidence that Mr. Sydnor committed unlawful entry and found it sufficient. It remanded the case for the court to enter a judgment of guilty on unlawful entry. SN

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

No residue (or other additional evidence), no crime for possession of drug paraphernalia.

DeAndre Brooks v. United States (decided January 28, 2016).

Players: Associate Judges Blackburne-Rigsby and McLeese, Senior Judge Farrell. Opinion by Judge McLeese.  Trial Judge: Truman A. Morrison, III. Jamison Koehler for Mr. Brooks.

Facts: United States Park Police were searching for robbery suspects and encountered Mr. Brooks and three other men. When police asked them to stop, Mr. Brooks began to walk away, and after an officer touched Mr. Brooks’s shoulder, Mr. Brooks “swatted” away the officer’s hand and struck the officer’s forearm. Officers attempted to arrest Mr. Brooks, but he “flailed about, kicking and trying to break free.” Eventually, police placed him under arrest. During the search incident to arrest, an officer with twelve years experience investigating drug offenses found in Mr. Brooks’s pants pocket “a metal grinder with a picture of Bob Marley on the front that is commonly used for grinding up marijuana.” At trial, another officer who had been involved in over 500 drug operations, testified that he had recovered grinders numerous times, that grinders are commonly used to grind up marijuana by people who smoke marijuana, and that there typically is green plant material in the grinders police find on people. Police also seized a black ski mask and four cell phones from Mr. Brooks.

Following a bench trial, the trial court found Mr. Brooks guilty of both possession of drug paraphernalia and assault on a police officer. The trial court explained: “I find that although there is not a rich amount of detail about Bob Marley grinders, the last witness has told us that he has seized them on many occasions, that they are commonly used to grind marijuana and I think that is enough to infer an intent to use in the absence of any other explanation emerging from the evidence that would cast a doubt on that[.]”

Issue 1: Was the evidence sufficient to convict Mr. Brooks of possession of drug paraphernalia?

Holding: No. D.C. Code § 48-1103(a)(1) makes it “unlawful for any person to use, or to possess with intent to use, drug paraphernalia” to “process,” “prepare,” “contain,” “or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled dangerous substance.” Despite viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and that a trial court’s factual findings after a bench trial will not be reversed unless “plainly wrong or without evidence to support [them],” D.C. Code §17-305(a), the Court of Appeals determined that there was insufficient evidence to show that Mr. Brooks intended to use the grinder in a manner prohibited by D.C. Code §48-1103(a)(1). The Court concluded that “there was no evidence that anyone saw Mr. Brooks use the grinder in any way,” “that Mr. Brooks made any statements suggesting an intent to use the grinder for drug-related purposes,” or “that Mr. Brooks possessed or used drugs, either at the time of the offense or at any previous time.” 

The government argued that his intent to use the grinder could be inferred from three pieces of evidence: “(1) the grinder bore the likeness of Bob Marley; (2) an experienced narcotics officer testified that people who smoke marijuana commonly use grinders to grind up marijuana, and (3) another experienced narcotics officer testified that he had recovered grinders numerous times.” The Court disagreed with all three arguments. First, the Court reasoned that even if it is commonly known that Bob Marley is “virtually synonymous” with marijuana, at trial the United States did not introduce any such evidence and did not ask the trial court to take judicial notice of such an association. Ultimately, the Court stated that the picture of Bob Marley on the grinder served “only as an unexplained identifying characteristic, similar to color or physical description, with no independent significance.” Second, the Court stated that the evidence did support a conclusion that there is an association between grinders and marijuana, but that alone is not sufficient, as drug use can be associated with a wide array of items and there needs to be additional evidence. And third, as to the officer testifying that he had recovered grinders numerous times, the Court noted that his testimony also was that those grinders contained green plant material in them, whereas there was no suggestion in the present case that the grinder recovered from Mr. Brooks had such material in it. Lastly, the Court said that it was unaware of “any case upholding a conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia based solely on evidence that a single item possessed by the defendant is commonly used for drug-related purposes.”

Issue 2: Did the trial court err in refusing Mr. Brooks’s request for a continuance?

Holding: No. The government charged Mr. Brooks in the present case on January 16, 2014. After a status hearing in March, 2014, Mr. Brooks rejected a plea offer in this case and trial was set for June 6, 2014. In the meantime, the government charged Mr. Brooks in a number of other cases. On June 4, 2014, Mr. Brooks filed a motion to continue trial because he had “not yet received a global plea offer to resolve all matters,” that he was represented by a different attorney in one of the cases, and that it was “likely that these matters can be resolved short of trial.” That same day, the government communicated via email a global plea offer, and the trial court denied the continuance. On the day of trial, Mr. Brooks’s trial attorney orally renewed the motion to continue, and explained that the most recent plea offer was not valid, as it required Mr. Brooks to plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, but that he had not actually been charged with that offense and did not have a prior felony conviction. The trial court informed counsel that it had scheduling concerns and asked how likely it was that an agreement could be reached. Defense counsel said she would have to discuss that with Mr. Brooks. The trial court agreed to briefly pass the case, but indicated it would not grant a continuance in the absence of an assurance that a plea agreement was likely. When the parties returned after the break, defense counsel made no further representations about a plea agreement and trial began.
The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the request for a continuance. The Court explained that denial of a request based on a desire to continue plea negotiations is “different in character from the kinds of prejudice reflected in cases in which this court has reversed,” such as a request to obtain a witness whose testimony could exonerate the defendant, or a request because new counsel needed the opportunity to be prepared to rebut the government’s evidence.

In the present case, the Court determined there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision for three reasons. First, despite acknowledging the importance of plea bargaining, the Court reasoned that defense counsel “was unable to provide any concrete assurance” about “the likelihood that a global plea agreement would be reached.” Second, the Court noted that the written motion for a continuance was not filed until two days before trial, which was the last day on which such a motion can typically be filed pursuant to Super. Ct. Crim. R. 111(c). The Court stated “that defense counsel could have been more diligent in trying to work out a plea agreement before the trial date, as well as on the trial date.” And third, despite the fact the government did not oppose the request and there was no suggestion that Mr. Brooks was acting in bad faith, the Court concluded that the trial court “reasonably pointed out that trial in this case would only take a few hours and that routinely continuing such minor matters in the hope of obtaining a global plea agreement involving more serious charges could cause delay and congestion on the court’s calendar.” Ultimately, the Court believed that the trial court “reasonably balanced the relevant considerations and acted within its discretion to deny the request for a continuance.”

Of Note:
  • The Court, citing a number of cases from other jurisdictions, made it clear that to convict someone of possession of drug paraphernalia, a single item by itself likely will never be sufficient. It contrasted cases where evidence was found to be insufficient when police found a single pipe, or a syringe, but nothing else, with cases where the evidence was sufficient where police found a needle and syringe and the defendant had track marks on his arm, or a syringe and aluminum bags with traces of heroin, or a scale and glass pipe near a large quantity of crack cocaine. 
  • When asking for a continuance based on a desire to continue plea negotiations, the Court “assume[d], without deciding, that a defendant in some circumstances might be able to establish that a continuance to permit further plea bargaining was ‘reasonably necessary for a just determination of the cause.’” (quoting Kyles v. United States, 759 A.2d 192, 196 n.2 (D.C. 2000). The Court also cited Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012), where the Supreme Court reiterated the “‘central role plea bargaining plays in securing convictions and determining sentences.’” If you are seeking a continuance based on a desire to continue plea negotiations, try to do so as soon as practicable, and be sure to make a clear record as to exactly what the prejudice will be to your client if the court denies the request and the chances of an agreement being reached. See Daley v. United States, 739 A.2d 814, 817 (D.C. 1999) (discussing relevant factors in determining if a trial court abused its discretion in denying a request for a continuance, including “the reasons for the request,” “the prejudice resulting from its denial, the party’s diligence in seeking relief, any lack of good faith, and prejudice to the opposing party”). BM

Thursday, January 28, 2016

OBJECT if a Firearms Examiner Testifies with Any Degree of Certainty That Markings on Recovered Bullets Were Produced By a Specific Gun

Marlon Williams v. United States (decided January 21, 2016)

Players: Associate Judges Thompson and Easterly, Senior Judge Nebeker. Opinion by Judge Easterly. Concurrence by Judge Easterly. Enid Hinkes for Mr. Williams. Trial Judge: Russell F. Canan.

Facts: Soon after Min Soo Kang was found shot to death in Southeast D.C., police used the OnStar navigation system installed in his Cadillac Escalade to recover the vehicle. From a digital database of known fingerprints, they identified Marlon Williams as a possible source of fingerprints found on and inside the Escalade. A subsequent search of Williams’s home turned up a gun in his bedroom. A firearms and toolmark examiner test-fired the gun and compared the resulting bullet markings to markings on bullets recovered from Kang’s vehicle. At trial, the examiner testified that every gun leaves “unique” marks on the bullets it fires, and that based on his comparison, there was not “any doubt in [his] mind” that the bullets recovered from Kang’s vehicle were fired by the gun recovered from Williams’s room. On the basis of this evidence—along with a cooperating witness’s testimony that Williams made incriminating statements and eyewitness testimony that someone matching Williams’s description was opening and closing the hood of the Escalade around the time the OnStar service remotely disabled it—a jury convicted Williams of first-degree felony murder while armed, attempted robbery while armed, PFCV, and CPWL.

Issue: Should the firearms and toolmarks examiner have been permitted to testify that the markings on the bullets recovered from Kang’s Escalade were “unique” and that he was without “any doubt” that they were fired by the gun recovered from Williams’s room?

Holding: The majority opinion strongly implied — and Judge Easterly’s concurrence expressly concluded — that the examiner should not have been permitted to testify with such absolute certainty that the recovered bullets matched Williams’s gun, but the Court declined to reverse on that ground because the unobjected-to testimony did not rise to the level of plain error. Although the same issue was presented in an earlier case, Jones v. United States, 27 A.3d 1130 (D.C. 2011), the government had at that time assured the Court that its policy was “to only elicit firearms examiners’ opinions [of a match] to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” not “100% certain[ty].” In light of this assurance, the Court in Jones merely “assume[d], without deciding, that [firearms and toolmark] experts should not be permitted to testify that they are 100% certain of a match, to the exclusion of all other firearms.” Id. at 1139 (emphasis added). Thus, there was no controlling precedent in this jurisdiction at the time of Williams’s trial, nor was there sufficient weight of authority from other jurisdictions to say that the trial court “plainly” erred in allowing the examiner’s testimony. And while the government concededly violated its own policy in this case, the Court held that such a policy is not binding law and cannot by itself form the basis of a plain error determination.

Concurrence: In addition to authoring the majority opinion, Judge Easterly wrote a separate and forceful concurrence in which she concluded that D.C. courts should “preclude a firearms and toolmark examiner from testifying with unqualified, absolute certainty.” The reason, Judge Easterly explained, can be found in two reports published by committees of the National Research Counsel (NRC), an arm of the publicly chartered National Science Foundation. The first, a 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Justice, found that there is simply not enough scientific research to establish that “firearms-related toolmarks are unique: that is, [that] a particular set of toolmarks can be shown to come from one weapon to the exclusion of all others,” and that experts’ commonplace testimony to that effect “cloak[s] an inherently subjective assessment of a match with an extreme probability statement that has no firm grounding and unrealistically implies an error rate of zero.” The second NRC publication, a 2009 report commissioned by Congress, similarly concluded that there is no statistical basis to say with any particular degree of certainty that toolmarks on a bullet match a specific gun or other bullets fired from that gun. In light of these findings, Judge Easterly concluded, “[c]ertainty statements” like those at issue in this case are not only not helpful to juries, they are misleading, and they create an “alarming” risk of wrongful convictions. As Judge Easterly put it, “a certainty statement regarding toolmark pattern matching has the same probative value as the vision of a psychic . . . .” As such, they are not admissible as expert testimony.

Of Note:
  • So misleading is testimony that an examiner is certain of a match to a specific gun—and likewise, testimony that each gun leaves a “unique” mark on bullets it fires—that Judge Easterly suggested defense counsel is constitutionally ineffective if he or she fails to object, and the government is in violation of its obligation under Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959), to avoid knowingly presenting false or misleading evidence if it elicits or allows such certainty statements to go uncorrected.
  • Judge Easterly’s concurrence could provide substantial support to argue that an examiner’s claim of any degree of certainty in a match, even if not 100% certainty, is impermissibly misleading. The concurrence specifically notes that firearms examiners should not be permitted to claim “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty” about a toolmark match, because the 2009 NRC report found it impossible to say “how many points of similarity are necessary for a given level of confidence in the result.” It also cites with approval cases from federal district courts that have prohibited an examiner from saying he reached his conclusions with any degree of certainty and limited an examiner to describing the observed toolmark similarities without stating any conclusion of a match.
  • The majority opinion rejected, for lack of plain error, an unpreserved claim that the firearms examiner failed to present the images or other “documentation” underlying his opinions for the jury to evaluate for itself. It nevertheless left the door open for a future argument that toolmark pattern-matching testimony must include “sufficient documentation to permit the jury to meaningfully evaluate the expert’s subjective conclusions,” noting one federal district court had so held, and another had urged, but not required, supporting documentation.
  • Williams also raised several other issues on appeal, including sufficiency of the evidence for attempted armed robbery; a hearsay and Confrontation Clause challenge to the firearms examiner’s report, which bore the signature of a second, non-testifying examiner; an unpreserved challenge to the admission of fingerprint evidence; an unpreserved argument that he was entitled to a hearing based on Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), because of a discrepancy between the fingerprint examiner’s testimony and the search warrant issued for his home; and a claim that his attempted robbery and corresponding PFCV conviction must merge with his felony murder conviction. The Court rejected all but the merger argument. FT.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Trust, but Verify

Jesus A. Hernandez v. United States (decided January 14, 2016).

Players:  Associate Judges Fisher and McLeese, Senior Judge Ruiz.  Opinion by Judge McLeese.  Trial judge Fern Flanagan Saddler.  Geneva G. Vanderhorst for Mr. Hernandez.

Facts:  Mr. Hernandez was convicted of simple assault; his girlfriend, Ms. Argueta-Avila, was the complainant.  The government’s evidence consisted of Ms. Argueta-Avila’s testimony that an intoxicated Mr. Hernandez grabbed her and pushed her, the testimony of a bystander who said that he saw Mr. Hernandez choke her, and testimony of a police officer regarding out-of-court statements by Ms. Argueta-Avila (that she had not been assaulted) as well as his observation of her torn shirt and scratches on her chin and arm.

Issue:  After affirming on sufficiency grounds, the Court was presented with the question whether the trial court conducted an adequate Jencks inquiry after the defense established that the prosecutor took notes during an interview with the complainant. 

Held:  The trial court erred in failing to conduct an adequate inquiry into whether the United States was required to disclose the notes of the prosecutor’s interview with the complainant.  After defense counsel established that the complainant had met with the prosecutor and the prosecutor was taking notes, counsel had no further obligation to establish that the notes were “verbatim,” as the trial judge erroneously believed.  Rather, the trial judge had to make an adequate inquiry or review the notes to see if they were Jencks material.  While the trial judge here inquired of the prosecutor whether she was in possession of any Jencks material, the judge erred in relying on the “assurance from the prosecutor, who is an officer of the [c]ourt” that she had no notes that would constitute Jencks.  The Court of Appeals held that because there is “no clear line” between what is substantially verbatim and what is not, a trial court cannot deny a Jencks request solely by accepting a prosecutor’s “bare conclusion,” but rather has “an affirmative duty to make its own determination whether requested notes come within the purview of Jencks.”  

Of Note:

  • The Court distinguished the situation in which a prosecutor represents that she did not take any notes – which is essentially the representation of a prosecutor as to a “pure question of fact as to which the prosecutor had personal knowledge” – something a judge is entitled to credit.  The Court noted that the question whether notes are “substantially verbatim,” by contrast, is “to a degree a legal question” (although the Supreme Court has characterized it as predominantly factual in nature) and therefore “a trial court cannot simply accept, without further inquiry, a prosecutor’s conclusory assertion.”
  • After concluding the Jencks inquiry was inadequate, the Court engaged in a harmless error analysis, noting that when the Court does not have access to the Jencks material in question, it must assess harmlessness by assuming that the undisclosed material contained a Jencks statement and that the trial court therefore would have struck the witness’s direct testimony.  Concluding the error was not harmless under that test, the Court remanded the case for an appropriate Jencks inquiry, noting that if the trial court concluded that there was Jencks material that should have been disclosed, the parties should brief the question whether the nondisclosure was harmless given the content of the notes.  If the trial judge concluded the notes do not contain Jencks material, or that any nondisclosure was harmless, Mr. Hernandez would have the right to seek further appellate review.  Presumably, review of the harmlessness determination by the trial court would have to be de novo, under Davis v. United States, 564 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1989 ) (en banc) (appellate court owes no deference to trial court determination of harmlessness).  JF

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Plain when? Plain now!

Players:  Associate Judges Glickman and McLeese, Senior Judge Newman.  Opinion by Judge Glickman; Judge Newman concurs in the judgment.  Trial judge: Anthony Epstein.  Daniel K. Dorsey for Mr. Muir.

Facts:     Mr. Muir was tried for driving under the influence (DUI) and operating a vehicle while impaired (OWI) in 2011, before the Court of Appeals decided, in Taylor v. District of Columbia, 49 A.2d 1259, 1267 (D.C. 2012), that the alcohol impairment threshold is the same for both offenses, and that both require proof of an “appreciable degree” of impairment.  Mr. Muir’s jury was instructed that it could convict Mr. Muir of OWI if it found that his consumption of alcohol impaired his ability to operate a motor vehicle “in any way,” while in order to convict him of DUI, it would have to find “an appreciable degree” of impairment.  The jury convicted Mr. Muir of OWI and acquitted him of DUI.

Issue:  Whether the erroneous instruction, given at a time when the law was unsettled, constituted plain error necessitating reversal of the OWI conviction.   

Held:  Mr. Muir’s conviction was reversed because the Court of Appeals held that all four prongs of the Olano test were satisfied.  Of interest is the “plainness” analysis.  In 1997, the Supreme Court held in Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461 (1997), that when the law at the time of trial was settled and contrary to the law at the time of appeal, it is sufficient for plain error purposes that the error be “plain” at the time of appellate consideration.  Johnson left open, however, the question whether the same rule applies when the law at the time of trial is unsettled.  This question was decided in Henderson v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 1121, 1130-31 (2013), when the Supreme Court held that “whether a legal question was settled or unsettled at the time of trial, it is enough that an error be plain at the time of appellate consideration for the second [plainness] part of the four-part Olano test to be satisfied.”  

In this case, the Court of Appeals adopted the analysis of the Supreme Court in Henderson for the purpose of interpreting local Super. Ct. Crim. R. 52(b).  Following Henderson, it held that plainness will be determined at the time of appellate review, even when the law was unsettled at the time of trial.  Applying this test, the Court concluded the instruction was error and the error was plain.  Because the Court found the remaining prongs of the plain error test were met, it reversed Mr. Muir’s OWI conviction. JF

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A handcuffed arrestee's statement that he would "fuck up" police if they were not police cannot be taken as a threat

Milon C. High, Jr.  v. United States (decided December 24, 2015)

Players:  Judges Fisher and Easterly, and Senior Judge Ruiz.  Opinion by Judge Ruiz.  Paul J. Riley for Mr. High.

Facts:  As Mr. High sat handcuffed on a curb, surrounded by three or four police officers, he "glared" at one officer and said, "take that gun and badge off and I'll fuck you up."  He then made a second statement, "something to the effect of, too bad it's not like the old days where fucking up an officer is a misdemeanor."  For making these statements, Mr. High was convicted of attempted threats.

Issue:  Was there sufficient evidence that the statements would cause an ordinary hearer to believe that the threatened harm would occur?

Holding:  No.  The statements "are most aptly described as an expression of exasperation or resignation over the fact that appellant had just been arrested by police officers."  On their face, the statements expressed only that if the officer was someone other than a police officer, or if  the penalties for assaulting an officer were not so severe, then Mr. High might want to "fuck up" the officer.  In other words, Mr. High was expressing his displeasure with the way he was being treated, but he did so by stating the reasons why he would not assault the officer despite Mr. High's desire to do so.  The context of the statements confirms they were not threatening:  Mr. High was handcuffed, surrounded by three or four police officers, and spoke in a "conversational tone."  There was also no suggestion that the officer at whom the statements were directed felt threatened.  DG

Read full opinion here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A court should grant a motion to sever if a co-defendant would provide “officially exculpatory” testimony.

Omar Rollerson and Rolita Burns v. United States (decided December 17, 2015).

Players: Chief Judge Washington, Judge Easterly, Senior Judge Belson. Opinion by Chief Judge Washington. PDS for Mr. Rollerson. Mindy A. Daniels for Ms. Burns.

Facts: Omar Rollerson and Rolita Burns were prosecuted together for two separate events that the government contended stemmed from Ms. Burns’ attempt to determine who had slashed the tires on her car. The first incident, which the Court labeled, “The Elvans Road Incident,” began in the early hours of June 18, 2012. Stefanie Harrington got into an argument with Ms. Burns when Ms. Harrington believed Ms. Burns had accused her of slashing the tires. They continued arguing until Mr. Rollerson intervened, but then the group left the apartment and went outside to the parking lot. When Mr. Rollerson saw that Ms. Harrington had a knife, he retreated and then Ms. Harrington tossed it. But Mr. Rollerson picked it up and approached Ms. Harrington. An unidentified man stopped Mr. Rollerson from getting closer to Ms. Harrington, so he threw the knife at her, hitting her arm. Ms. Burns and Ms. Harrington continued yelling at each other, and Robert Teamer heard Mr. Rollerson say, “[F]orget this, I’m about to go get that,” which he believed to be a reference to a gun that Mr. Rollerson had mentioned earlier. Ms. Harrington and Mr. Teamer then returned to Ms. Harrington’s apartment.

Shortly thereafter, a man “busted inside the door” and said, “I’m going to blow a hole in you guys.” Mr. Teamer said that this man then hit him in the nose with the gun and left. At trial, Ms. Harrington identified Mr. Rollerson as the person who hit Mr. Teamer, but Mr. Teamer testified that Mr. Rollerson, as he appeared at trial, did not look like the man who came to Ms. Harrington’s door the night of the burglary.

The second incident, which the Court identified as “The Bowen Road Incident,” occurred later that same day, around 2:00 p.m. Ms. Burns got into a verbal altercation with Jasmine Patterson over whether Ms. Patterson had slashed Ms. Burns’s tires. As the argument continued, Mr. Rollerson said to Ms. Burns, “F that, we’re going to get Nellie and them,” which Ms. Patterson believed meant they were going to go get a group of people to fight them. Mr. Rollerson and Ms. Burns left and drove away in a van. Ms. Patterson, with several other people, walked towards Ms. Patterson’s grandmother’s house. Along the way, Ms. Patterson saw the van return and Mr. Rollerson and Ms. Burns exit with a group of five girls, whom Mr. Rollerson referred to as his nieces. They caught up to Ms. Patterson, threw her to the ground, and began to beat her, including hitting her with a log. Ms. Patterson’s boyfriend attempted to approach, but Mr. Rollerson warned him to not to get involved or else he was going to “get that out of the car and smoke [him].” Ms. Burns, Mr. Rollerson and the five other girls left and Ms. Patterson got up and went to her grandmother’s house, where her grandmother called the police. After speaking with police, Ms. Patterson went to the hospital by ambulance to receive treatment for a cut over her right eye that required nine stitches.

The jury convicted Mr. Rollerson of the following charges for the Elvans Road incident: first-degree burglary while armed, ADW, two counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and felony threats. For the Bowen Road incident, the jury convicted Mr. Rollerson of assault with significant bodily injury and felony threats. Though tried together, Ms. Burns only faced charges for the Bowen Road incident and the jury convicted her of assault with significant bodily injury.

Issue 1: Whether the trial court erred in denying Mr. Rollerson’s motion to sever his trial from Ms. Burns’s trial in order to be able to call her as a witness to testify he was not involved in the Elvans Road Incident?

Holding: Yes. While a trial court has discretion whether to grant a motion to sever, a court must grant such a motion if a defendant can show there will be “manifest prejudice” from being tried jointly. Under Jackson v. United States, 329 A.2d 782 (D.C. 1974), when a defendant wants to sever a trial from a co-defendant in order to have that person testify in his defense, the court should grant the motion if it has been established that the co-defendant is 1) likely to testify and 2) the testimony will be “substantially exculpatory.” Here, the proffer was that Ms. Burns would testify that Mr. Rollerson was not present for the Elvans Road Incident. Although the trial court concluded that she was likely to testify and that her testimony would be “officially exculpatory,” it declined to the grant the motion mainly because the government offered to enter into a stipulation with the defense about what her testimony would have been. The Court of Appeals held that was an abuse of discretion. First, a stipulation is not a valid substitute for live testimony because it forecloses the jury’s ability to hear a witness and determine credibility. The Court stated that only in “very limited circumstances” can a party be forced to accept a stipulation in lieu of live testimony or tangible evidence. This was not such a case. Second, the Court emphasized that judicial administration and concerns for judicial efficiency do not outweigh a defendant’s right to a fair trial and are not valid reasons by themselves to deny a motion to sever. And third, the Court of Appeals concluded that when the trial court found that Ms. Burns’s testimony would have been “officially exculpatory,” that was sufficient to meet the requirement from Jackson that her testimony would have been “substantially exculpatory.” Once the court determined that Ms. Burns was likely to testify and that her testimony would have been “officially exculpatory,” the court should have granted the motion. Failure to do so was an abuse of discretion, resulting in reversal of Mr. Rollerson’s convictions from the Elvans Road Incident.

Issue 2: Whether the trial court erred in denying Ms. Burns’s motion to sever the Elvans Road incident from the Bowen Road incident?

Holding: No. Ms. Burns contended the two incidents should have been tried separately because otherwise she would suffer undue prejudice since most of the charged conduct related only to Mr. Rollerson and she was not even charged in the first incident. However, the Court of Appeals determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The Court reasoned that though she was not charged for both incidents, she played a central role in both, as the government’s theory was it was her desire to learn who had slashed her tires that led to both incidents. While a trial court should sever charges when one defendant played a “de minimis” role in one incident as compared to another, the Court stated that simply the fact Burns was not charged did not mean her role was “de minimis” in the Elvans Road Incident. Also, the Court said that the trial court “properly protected Burns from manifest prejudice” by giving the jury precise instructions, both during the trial and during jury instructions, on how to use the evidence that had been presented against each defendant and that the evidence from Elvans Road only went to certain counts.

Issue 3: Was the evidence sufficient to convict both Mr. Rollerson and Ms. Burns of assault with significant bodily injury?

Holding: Yes. To establish “significant bodily injury,” there had to be evidence of an injury that would require “hospitalization or immediate medical attention.” The Court determined that Ms. Patterson’s injuries met that definition due to her suffering the injuries in a “violent group attack” where she was pushed to the ground, stomped, punched in the face, and hit in the head with a log. There was evidence she was a “bleeding mess,” and went to the hospital to receive nine stitches. Also, the government presented to the jury photographs of her injuries and her medical records.

Of Note:
  • This is a good case to use any time the government attempts to foreclose the defense from calling a witness or introducing evidence by offering a stipulation. The Court of Appeals very clearly indicates a defense does not have to accept such an offer, and that a trial court should not use the offer by itself as a reason to deny a defense motion. 
  • A trial court should grant a motion to sever if there has been a showing the co-defendant would be likely to testify, and that the testimony would be “substantially exculpatory.” This case indicates that the trial court does not have to use those exact words so long as it is established that the testimony meets the standard. However, when moving to sever from a co-defendant on the basis of wanting the co-defendant to testify, it is likely a good idea to use the exact language from Jackson in order to avoid any confusion. This Case reinforces that once a trial court determines that the two Jackson factors have been met, a trial court should grant the motion. 
  • Similarly, if trying to sever a trial from a co-defendant when there are separate incidents, just the fact your client was not charged in one of the incidents is not sufficient by itself to establish your client had a “de minimis role.”
  • There was a fourth issue raised – whether the court should have merged Mr. Rollerson’s convictions for PFCV. The Court declined to reach that issue after ruling in his favor on issue one and reversing those convictions.  BM