The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. McFee on Thursday, June 30, 2016.
L.E. was an in-house manager of a residential facility for people with HIV and AIDS. One night, a resident found her lying in a pool of blood in the hallway. By the time police arrived, L.E. was dead. A few months later, police arrested Jonathan McFee, L.E.’s ex-boyfriend, for the murder. At trial, numerous witnesses testified about hearing McFee threaten to kill L.E., and the prosecution introduced an audio recording of a statement muttered by McFee during a break in interviewing that sounded like “I did it. That bitch.” A handwritten note from L.E. was admitted into evidence, which expressed that McFee had threatened to kill her and it was only a matter of time until he succeeded. The jury convicted McFee of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
McFee appealed, arguing that testimony of L.E.’s mother, daughter, and cousin about McFee’s intention to kill L.E. were hearsay and were improperly admitted. McFee also argued that the handwritten note was testimonial hearsay that was improperly admitted. The district court determined that the statements of the mother, daughter, and cousin were admissible under CRE 807 (residual exception), and arguably under CRE 803(3) (state of mind exception). The court of appeals agreed with the district court that the statements were properly admitted under CRE 807. The court of appeals found that L.E.’s statements were trustworthy because they were made spontaneously to close family members, they were not self-serving, and L.E. had no motive to lie about McFee’s threats. Additionally, all of the witnesses testified that L.E. seemed afraid when describing the threats. Further, the statements tended to show that L.E.’s and McFee’s relationship was volatile and he had a motive to kill. The court found that the statements were properly admitted.
Next, McFee argued that L.E.’s note was testimonial hearsay and should have been excluded because it violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause rights. The court of appeals agreed, but found that any error in admitting the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court of appeals found that the note was created out of court to substitute for testimony in the event of L.E.’s death and therefore was “testimonial.” And because L.E. was unavailable at trial and McFee had not had prior opportunity for cross-examination, admission of the note violated McFee’s Confrontation Clause rights. However, the court found that any error in admitting the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Several witnesses testified as to threats McFee had made to kill L.E., McFee’s DNA was on the murder weapon, he had a key to the facility where L.E. lived on his key ring at the time of his arrest, he failed to contact L.E.’s daughter after the murder despite his close relationship with her, and he may have said “I did it” on the audio recording. Given the plentiful evidence of McFee’s guilt, the court found that admission of the note was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
The court of appeals affirmed McFee’s conviction.