Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Defendant Troy Son was charged with murder with an enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon. A jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder, unanimously finding that the murder was willful, deliberate and premeditated and committed by lying in wait. The jury found the weapon use allegation to be true. Defendant was sentenced to a state prison term of 26 years to life, comprised of 25 years to life for the murder, plus a consecutive one year for the enhancement. Defendant raises three issues on appeal. The first was that the trial court erred by permitting a detective to describe the events of a surveillance video that was subsequently watched by the jury. Defendant’s second and third arguments went to each of the first-degree murder theories. The jury made separate findings on two theories of first-degree murder: premeditation, and lying in wait. Defendant contended both were infected with error. To prevail on appeal, he had to prevail on both arguments: if either the premeditation or lying-in-wait finding was upheld, then any error in the other is necessarily harmless. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion, in admitting the detective’s narration - it was admissible lay testimony based on her extensive review of the video. The Court found no misconduct as to how the prosecutor explained the concept of premeditation to the jury: "the example was harmless: the multiple-shots example is not entirely wrong, the prosecutor mentioned it only briefly, this was not a gun case, the issue of premeditation hinged on defendant’s mental health, and the court properly instructed the jury. Because we uphold the first-degree murder conviction on a theory of premeditation, we need not address lying in wait." Conviction was affirmed. View "California v. Son" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for first degree burglary. The court held that, although the trial court erred when instructing the jury on mistake of fact, the instructional error was harmless because there is no reasonable probability defendant would have obtained a more favorable result had it not been made. The court also held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by using defendant's July 2017 conviction as a first strike and as a five-year prior serious felony conviction for purposes of sentencing. Finally, the court held that defendant's 10 year sentence did not violate federal and state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, given defendant's status as a recidivist whose offenses are growing more serious, the sentence imposed does not shock the conscience or offend fundamental notions of human dignity. View "People v. Hendrix" on Justia Law

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Michael Struckmeyer was convicted by jury of class 3 felony child abuse (knowingly or recklessly), and class 4 child abuse (criminal negligence). A division of the court of appeals concluded that the verdicts were logically and legally inconsistent and could not be sustained because the class 3 felony child abuse conviction required the jury to determine that Struckmeyer was aware of the risk of serious bodily injury to the child victim, while the class 4 felony child abuse conviction required the jury to find that Struckmeyer was unaware of the risk of serious bodily injury to the child victim. Because the division believed that the trial court had accepted mutually exclusive guilty verdicts, it found plain error, reversed the judgment of conviction, and remanded for a new trial. The State appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed. Following Colorado v. Rigsby, 471 P.3d 1068, the guilty verdict for child abuse (knowingly or recklessly) and the guilty verdict for child abuse (criminal negligence), even if logically inconsistent, are not legally inconsistent. "By proving that Struckmeyer acted knowingly or recklessly, the People necessarily established that he acted with criminal negligence. It follows that by returning a guilty verdict on child abuse (knowingly or recklessly), the jury, as a matter of law, necessarily found that he acted with criminal negligence. Therefore, even if there is a logical inconsistency between acting knowingly and acting with criminal negligence, and between acting recklessly and acting with criminal negligence, no legal inconsistency exists in either scenario based on section 18-1-503(3) [C.R.S. 2019]. After all, inasmuch as criminal negligence is subsumed within knowingly and within recklessly, acting with criminal negligence cannot be legally inconsistent with acting knowingly or acting recklessly. And guilty verdicts that are legally consistent are not mutually exclusive and do not require a new trial." View "Colorado v. Struckmeyer" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of habeas relief to petitioner based on the ineffective assistance of counsel. Petitioner was convicted for two counts of first degree murder among other things and was sentenced to death. Petitioner claims that counsel at his third penalty-phase trial was ineffective for failing to argue that the passage of time had undermined his mitigation case.The court held that petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is not "substantial enough" to excuse his procedural default. The court explained that when postconviction counsel filed petitioner's petition in 2010, the law was far from settled that a 10-year delay between conviction and sentencing would give rise to a constitutional claim, much less that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the argument two years earlier. The court stated that failing to make an argument that would require the resolution of unsettled legal questions is generally not outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance. In this case, postconviction counsel's performance was reasonable and the Martinez exception—the only conceivable basis for excusing petitioner's procedural default—is unavailable to him. Finally, the court held that petitioner is not entitled to an evidentiary hearing. View "Deck v. Jennings" on Justia Law

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After Christina and Marshall Wellington were unable to pay a drug debt, Otis Hill shot them. Christina died; Marshall survived, but lost an eye. Hill and Aviance Marshall (“Aviance”), who drove Hill and the Wellingtons to the location of the shooting, were charged with malice murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and related offenses. Hill was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Christina, kidnapping, battering, and attempting to murder Marshall, and a weapons charge. On appeal, Hill contended the evidence was insufficient as to kidnapping. In addition, Hill argued the trial court erred: in using a deficient master jury list; in failing to determine whether a juror was proficient in English; in instructing the jury regarding note taking; in admitting evidence of cell site location information, the effects of cocaine on memory, and witness intimidation; in excluding evidence of the maximum penalty Aviance faced; in instructing the jury regarding the reasonable-doubt standard; and in denying his motion for a new trial on the general grounds. Hill also claimed he received ineffective assistance of counsel. But for an error in sentencing, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Hill's convictions. The matter was remanded for correction in sentence: because there was no evidence that Hill committed aggravated battery in the manner alleged independent of the act which was intended to cause Marshall’s death, the count of aggravated battery merged with the conviction for attempted murder for sentencing purposes. View "Hill v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Appellant Dakota Swann challenged his 2014 convictions for murder and other crimes in connection with the 2008 shooting death of Shannon Williams. Appellant argued trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to fully investigate an earlier shooting incident involving Appellant or to utilize it at trial and for not discussing the parole implications of the State’s plea offer. After review of the trial court record, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed with Appellant's contentions and affirmed his convictions. View "Swann v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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David Sharpe was convicted by jury of felony murder and other related crimes in connection with the 2016 shooting death of Devonte Coney. On appeal. Sharpe argued he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to object to the testimony of a GBI special agent and failed to poll the jury. The Georgia Supreme Court did not find Sharpe received ineffective assistance of counsel, however, the Court did find the evidence legally insufficient to sustain Sharpe's conviction for theft by receiving stolen property. "Although the State produced evidence that the gun had been stolen approximately ten months prior to the shooting and that Sharpe was in possession of it shortly after the shooting, the State offered no other evidence relevant to this count. Specifically, there is no evidence from which the jury could infer that Sharpe knew or should have known that the gun was stolen." This conviction was reversed; judgment was affirmed in all other respects. View "Sharpe v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Arion Henderson was convicted by jury of malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault in connection with the death of his grandfather, William Stridiron. Henderson contended on appeal that the State violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial and that his trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance in several regards. Finding no reversible error, however, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Henderson's convictions. View "Henderson v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Brian Atkins was convicted by jury of felony murder predicated on aggravated assault and possession of a firearm, all in connection with the 2016 shooting death of Brian Parks. On appeal, Atkins argued the evidence was insufficient to prove he assaulted Parks with a deadly weapon, the trial court erred in excluding an unavailable witness’s out-of-court statement, and that the verdict form was misleading. Finding no reversible error, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Atkins' convictions. View "Atkins v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Appellant Shane Hinkson appeals from his conviction for felony murder predicated on aggravated assault stemming from the death of his eight-month-old son, Alexander Cabanayan. On appeal, Hinkson argued the jury returned invalid verdicts, his indictment was defective, and that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence a pre-trial statement he made to police and evidence of a gun found in his apartment. After review, the Georgia Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed Hinkson's conviction. View "Hinkson v. Georgia" on Justia Law