November 19, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Cumulative Effect of Numerous Errors Required Reversal

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Stewart on Thursday, July 27, 2017.

Felony Menacing—Obstructing a Peace Officer—Witness—CRE 611—CRE 612—CRE 404(b)—Jury Instruction—Request for Continuance—Cumulative Effect of Errors—Prejudice.

Inebriated, defendant took a cab from a friend’s house and refused to pay his $4.85 cab fare. Defendant jumped from the cab and, chased by the cab driver and a nearby police officer, ran to his apartment, which was surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence that enclosed defendant’s private patio and was secured by a locked gate. At least one officer scaled the fence and opened the gate for remaining officers to enter. After officers breached the fence, they saw defendant behind his window blinds with a plastic BB gun, which they believed to be real. Officers opened fire and defendant suffered two gunshot wounds. A jury convicted defendant of felony menacing and obstructing a peace officer.

On appeal, defendant raised evidentiary errors. The court of appeals determined that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to improperly lead a witness, in violation of CRE 611(c). The court’s failure to follow the appropriate procedure to refresh recollection also violated CRE 612. This error was prejudicial, but harmless in isolation. The trial court further erred by allowing the prosecution to present evidence that defendant previously hid from the police, in violation of CRE 404(b). This evidence was irrelevant to any issue at trial other than the habit and character of defendant; it prejudiced defendant and affected the fairness of the proceedings.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury concerning exigent circumstances. The court was unable to determine the relevance of the instruction, and it appeared that the instruction was not an accurate or complete statement of the law. This error alone did not require reversal, but it contributed to the cumulative effect of the other errors.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a continuance to subpoena the cab driver. Refusing the continuance prejudiced defendant by denying him a key witness, affecting the fairness of the trial proceedings.

Considered in isolation, each of the errors might be viewed as harmless, but in the context of a single trial, the cumulative effect of the errors requires reversal of defendant’s conviction.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Multiple Errors from Prosecutorial Overreach Did Not Influence Outcome of Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Howard-Walker on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Batson Challenges—Peremptory Strikes—Jurors—Testimony—Expert Opinion—Lay Witness—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Jury Instructions—Cumulative Error Doctrine.

Defendant was charged with first degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first degree burglary. Among other evidence presented, his girlfriend and Detective Garcia testified at his trial. He was convicted as charged and sentenced.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred when it denied his challenges, under Batson v. Kentucky, to the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes excusing three prospective jurors—one who identified himself as African-American and two who identified themselves as Hispanic—asserting that the prosecutor’s “race-neutral” reasons for removing the jurors were not worthy of belief. One challenged juror was disinterested, the second juror had a negative experience with law enforcement and a belief that police officers sometimes misidentify suspects, and the third juror had previously faced criminal charges from the same district attorney’s office and had a negative view of law enforcement. Therefore, the trial court’s Batson findings are supported by the record.

Defendant next argued that the admission of several portions of Garcia’s testimony constituted reversible error: (1) Garcia was not admitted as an expert witness, but gave opinions regarding whether the gun depicted in the video surveillance was real. Although this was improper, it did not constitute plain error. (2) Garcia testified about the manner in which the gun was being used. Any error in admitting this testimony was harmless. (3) It was not error for Garcia to identify defendant. No specialized knowledge is necessary to recognize an individual in a video and this evidence was probative of a material fact. (4) Garcia testified regarding probable cause, which was not relevant; however, this was not plain error. (5) Garcia testified but had no personal information about the reasons why defendant’s girlfriend was crying during the police interview. This testimony was not obviously improper and did not undermine the fairness of the trial. (6) Garcia opined about defendant’s statement regarding another perpetrator. Even if this was improper, it did not undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial. (7) Garcia opined about the truthfulness of defendant’s statements to police. Though this testimony was improper, it does not rise to the level of plain error because there was other sufficient evidence to support his conviction.

Defendant next asserted that the prosecutor engaged in reversible misconduct. Although the prosecutor stepped over the line when he repeatedly suggested that the girlfriend was committing perjury, the prosecutor did not threaten or coerce her, and any misconduct was not reversible. The prosecutor also commented on the girlfriend’s truthfulness. The evidence supported a reasonable inference that her testimony was false, and thus these comments were proper. Finally, although the court did not condone the prosecutor’s comment on defendant’s decision not to testify, the comment did not amount to plain error.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury on the predicate crime of theft and when it failed to define the word “intent.” While the jury instructions were deficient, (1) the record demonstrates that the specification of the underlying crime was not a controverted element of the burglary offense; therefore, the court’s failure to instruct the jury on theft was not plain error, and (2) under the circumstances of this case, the court’s failure to define the culpable mental state similarly did not constitute plain error.

Finally, defendant argued that the cumulative effect of the trial court’s errors and prosecutorial misconduct violated his right to a fair trial. The errors were relatively small events occurring over a two-day trial during which substantial evidence was presented. Defendant received a fair trial in spite of the identified errors.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Speedy Trial Violation for Continuances Requested by Defendants

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Banks on Monday, August 4, 2014.

Defendants Banks, Barnes, Harper, Stewart, Walker, and Zirpolo operated or were associated with the entities Leading Team, Inc. (LT) and DKH, Inc. (DKH). In 2003, Defendants stopped operating LT and began operating a third entity, IRP Solutions Corporation (IRP). IRP was formed to develop computer software, and one of its software offerings was purportedly designed for sale to law enforcement to develop a nationwide database for law enforcement.

Beginning in about October 2002, Defendants began contacting various staffing agencies and soliciting payrolling services, in which the staffing agency would hire and pay Defendant’s choice of employee and then Defendant would repay the staffing agencies, plus a small increase for profit for the staffing agency. In order to convince the staffing agencies to agree to the payrolling services, Defendants claimed that their law enforcement database software was on the verge of being sold to the Department of Justice and several law enforcement agencies. Over the course of several years, Defendants received over $5 million in staffing payments from 42 different staffing companies that they did not repay.

Defendants were indicted in June 2009, and in 2011 they were convicted after a jury trial of several counts of wire fraud and mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment ranging from 87 months to 135 months. They appealed, asserting four issues: (1) their speedy trial right was violated when the district court granted four continuances at Defendants’ request; (2) the district court compelled co-defendant Barnes to testify in violation of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination; (3) the district court abused its discretion by excluding the testimony of two of Defendants’ potential witnesses; and (4) the cumulative effect of the court’s otherwise harmless errors necessitated reversal.

The Tenth Circuit first examined the speedy trial claim. Four different times, Defendants requested continuances from the district court. Defendants asserted that, due to the prolonged investigation beginning in 2004, discovery in the case was voluminous (totaling over 20,000 pages of documents), and they would not be able to adequately prepare for trial without the continuances. Each time, the district court examined the circumstances and issued findings that the ends of justice served by granting the continuance outweighed the public’s and Defendants’ interest in the speedy trial. Although the total continuance time was quite long, the Tenth Circuit determined no error in the district court’s decisions, finding instead that the unique circumstances of this case, including the high volume of discovery materials and potential witnesses, supported the district court’s decisions to grant continuances. Further, the Tenth Circuit noted that each continuance was requested by Defendants, and they could not assert prejudice from delays they requested.

Next, the Tenth Circuit turned to Defendants’ claim that Barnes was compelled to testify in violation of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the district court declined to give a curative instruction to satisfy the Sixth Amendment. The Tenth Circuit found that although the district court requested the defense to call a witness, Barnes was not the only witness available to testify at that time, and he testified voluntarily at the behest of his co-defendants. Further, when offered a curative instruction, Barnes declined. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the actions of the district court.

As to the third claim regarding the district court’s denial of testimony by the two defense witnesses, the Tenth Circuit again found no error. The district court denied the testimony because Defendants failed to disclose the witnesses in violation of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16 and Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Although Defendants concede that they violated Rule 16 and FRE 702, they argue that the record reflects their efforts were made in good faith and the court’s chosen remedy of exclusion violated precedent. The Tenth Circuit rejected these claims. The district court had allowed testimony similar to that proffered from the two rejected witnesses, and concluded that the testimony of those two witnesses would be cumulative. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in this action.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed Defendants’ argument that the effect of the harmless errors in their case caused cumulative error requiring reversal. The Tenth Circuit rejected this claim, noting that Defendants failed to show any error, much less error requiring reversal.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Defendant Not Entitled to New Trial Because No Error in Conviction

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Smalls on Monday, April 28, 2014.

Defendant Smalls was in pre-trial custody at the Doña Ana County Detention Center in New Mexico awaiting trial on charges of assaulting his ex-wife. He had three cellmates: Gantz, Cook, and Melgar. Gantz had provided information to law enforcement, and, according to testimony, Smalls considered Gantz a “snitch” and developed a plan to kill him. Smalls reportedly told Cook and Melgar that they could suffocate Gantz with a plastic bag and make it look like he had died of an asthma attack. They carried out the plan – Melgar held the bag over Gantz’s face while Cook and Smalls restrained him.

Cook discussed the murder with another inmate who, unbeknownst to him, was wearing a wire. Melgar suffered severe psychological trauma from the murder and began to cut himself, claiming to have seen Gantz’s ghost. He confessed to killing Gantz and gave a videotaped statement to the FBI describing the circumstances. This confession was largely consistent with Cook’s account to the other inmate. Cook and Melgar testified against Smalls, and he was convicted of five federal offenses: (1) conspiracy to retaliate against a witness; (2) retaliating against a witness; (3) conspiracy to tamper with a witness; (4) tampering with a witness; and (5) killing a person aiding in a federal investigation.

Smalls asserted four classes of error that he argued constitute cumulative error, entitling him to a new trial. His contentions of error were (1) evidentiary error, (2) prosecutorial misconduct, (3) jury instructions, and (4) sufficiency of the evidence. The Tenth Circuit reviewed each point of error separately and determined that the district court had proceeded correctly. The Tenth Circuit determined that because the district court had not committed error, no cumulative error analysis was necessary, and the judgment of the district court was affirmed on all counts.