Criminal Law Blog

Conviction Affirmed Based on Proof of Motive and Discredited Defendant Testimony


Dominique Bassil v. United States (decided October 6, 2016).

Players: Chief Judge Washington, Associate Judge Glickman, and Senior Judge Belson.  Opinion by Judge Glickman.  PDS for Ms. Bassil.  Trial Judge Robert E. Morin.

Facts: Ms. Bassil was tried and convicted for second-degree murder after stabbing her boyfriend, Vance Harris, in the kitchen of their apartment sometime after 2 A.M. on August 13, 2011. Three weeks before the homicide, Ms. Bassil had threatened to evict Mr. Harris for spending money on a trip to Miami instead of contributing to the rent. Later, she texted that she would “fuck [Mr. Harris] up if [he didn’t] stop playing with [her].” On August 12, at a wedding reception, Ms. Bassil became agitated when Mr. Harris ignored and ridiculed her and danced with other women. Ms. Bassil yelled, hit Mr. Harris, and called him names. Police later encountered Ms. Bassil sitting outside of Mr. Harris’s truck in Capitol Heights, MD, on the couple’s way home from the wedding. Ms. Bassil later told homicide detectives that Mr. Harris had physically abused her but recanted this allegation at trial.

Early the next morning, Ms. Bassil left the apartment and told building security to call an ambulance or police because she had stabbed her boyfriend.  When police came, she said Mr. Harris had come into their bedroom, hit her in the face and neck, dragged her out of bed, and cornered her in the kitchen, where she stabbed him to escape. She said she had to stab Mr. Harris because he was pushing and choking her. Her later statements to police and the jury differed as to how the incident began and ended and were undermined by Mr. Harris’s stature, injuries, and level of intoxication, testimony about the lack of injury to Ms. Bassil, and testimony about the scene.

Issue: Whether the evidence was sufficient to prove that Ms. Bassil did not act in self-defense.

Holding: Yes. Even crediting Ms. Bassil’s testimony, she never claimed her life was in danger from Mr. Harris and given her failure to flee during the purported attack, the jury could have found that she did not fear for her life or that any such fear was objectively unreasonable. Evidence of Mr. Harris’s size, intoxication, and injuries, the lack of injury to Ms. Bassil, and the crime scene, as well as direct evidence of motive (e.g., text messages and public outbursts) supported the government’s position that Ms. Bassil attacked Mr. Harris in the bedroom out of pent-up rage and that she later ambushed him in the kitchen for the same reason.  The jury could have found that Ms. Bassil’s statements about the stabbing and the events leading up to it were false in a way that implied consciousness of guilt. 

Of Note: Particularly in light of this opinion, advocates should be mindful of how client testimony may affect a possible sufficiency argument, when advising them on their right to remain silent or testify at trial.  WC

Read the opinion here.