Criminal Law Blog

I'm Sure the Jury Didn't Hear That!



Christopher T. Holmes v. United States (decided July 21, 2016)

Players: Associate Judges Thompson and McLeese, and Senior Judge King. Opinion by Judge King; Judge McLeese dissenting in part. Peters H. Meyers for Mr. Holmes.  Trial Judge: Rhonda Reid Winston.

Facts: After David Tucker accused his friend, Mr. Holmes, of being up to no good and looking for someone to rob, the two men got into a heated verbal altercation. The altercation, which began in a barber shop, got physical and spilled out into the street, where, eventually, Mr. Holmes shot and killed Mr. Tucker. The incident occurred during the day, and was witnessed by two men, Akeem Young and Carlton Clemons, who identified Mr. Holmes as the shooter.

At trial, Nicholas Proctor was permitted to testify that he had been the victim of a robbery and that prior to the shooting he had told Mr. Tucker that Mr. Holmes might have been the perpetrator. Additionally, both Mr. Young and Mr. Clemons were permitted to explain their reluctance to testify and additions to their accounts with statements that they were scared of being involved in a homicide case. Finally, during the trial, a potential defense witness, who was never called, started “screaming” right outside the courtroom, “There are people in this room. My life is in danger.” The trial court denied the defense’s request for a mistrial as a result of this outburst, after finding that it was not clear if the jury had heard the outburst or realized it was connected to the trial. Further, the court gave the jury no curative instruction related to the outburst.

Issue 1: Did the trial court abuse its discretion in admitting Mr. Proctor’s testimony about a prior robbery as more probative than prejudicial?

Holding: No. The evidence was admitted to explain Mr. Tucker’s argument with Mr. Holmes (accusing his friend of looking to rob someone), see Johnson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1087, 1098 (D.C. 1996) (en banc), and not to show criminal propensity. Moreover, the trial court instructed that the evidence be carefully limited to no more than that Mr. Proctor had made an accusation to Mr. Tucker, excluding any testimony about the robbery or what led Mr. Proctor to believe Mr. Holmes was responsible. Under these circumstances, the testimony was not more prejudicial than probative.

Issue 2: Did the trial court abuse its discretion in admitting Mr. Young and Mr. Clemons fear testimony as more prejudicial than probative?

Holding: No. The DCCA finds that Clemons’s testimony was properly admitted because he testified very generically about being scared of testifying in a homicide case. Such “generic” testimony did not reasonably give rise to a concern that Clemons was specifically scarred of Mr. Holmes. Young’s testimony was a closer call for the DCCA because his testimony included fear based on his claim to have been twice told by Mr. Holmes himself not to testify. Ultimately, the DCCA relies on Young’s testimony on cross examination that he did not perceive his two encounters with Mr. Holmes as “threats” to find that Young’s fear testimony would not unfairly lead the jury to believe Mr. Holmes had engaged in witness intimidation.

Issue 3: Did the trial court abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Holmes’s motion for a mistrial, or for failing to conduct further inquiry into whether or not the jury might have been influenced by the outburst outside the courtroom?

Holding: No. Although both the majority and the dissent agree that where the jury’s impartiality has been “plausibly called into question, it is the responsibility of the trial judge to hold a hearing to determine whether the allegation of bias had merit,” Tann v. United States, 127 A.3d 400, 470 (D.C. 2015), and that the government has the burden “to demonstrate that the [jury’s] contact with extraneous information was harmless or non-prejudicial,” id., the majority concludes that the trial court’s colloquy with counsel was sufficient for the court to determine that no further questioning of the jury or instruction was required, and to deny the request for a mistrial. The majority relies on the fact that the trial court found that it was not clear that members of the jury had heard the outburst, or that they would have any reason to connect the outburst with the trial proceedings.

Dissent: Judge McLeese parts ways with the majority as to Issue 3. He would find that the trial court abused its discretion for failing to make any inquiry of the members of the jury as to whether and to what extent any of them might have been influenced by the outburst. Judge McLeese would hold that such an inquiry was required before the court could properly decide what, if any, corrective action was required. This dissent is important because it carefully applies the ruling of Tann, and can therefore be used as a template in future arguments about this heavily fact specific question.  CP

Read full opinion here.