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Williams v. U.S.

June 9, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Peter H. Wolf, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

FARRELL, Associate Judge: Found guilty by a jury of assault with a dangerous weapon (D.C. Code § 22-502 (1989)), appellant assigns three errors relating to the conduct of the trial. Although we conclude there was error in the manner by which the prosecutor sought to impeach a defense witness, we find insufficient resultant prejudice to require reversal of appellant's conviction.


On the evening of August 23, 1991, the band "Raw Productions" played a free concert in Fort Stanton Park. Appellant was a vocalist with the band that evening, and the complaining witness, Al Campbell, played bass guitar. When the concert ended and the band was breaking down its equipment, appellant began playing the drums. Campbell eventually asked him to stop playing and, when appellant refused, took the drum sticks from his hands. The pair shoved each other and exchanged ineffectual punches, until a third band member stepped between them and appellant walked away. Campbell continued disassembling his guitar, and as he was carrying it toward the band's truck, told appellant that "the only thing I did was to tell you to stop beating on the drums." According to Campbell and three other eyewitnesses, appellant yelled obscenities and words such as "This ain't over, it's not over yet." Appellant then hurdled a low stone wall and ran toward Campbell. *fn1 The two squared off, Campbell threw a punch that missed, and appellant responded by stabbing Campbell in the chest. (Although none of the government's witnesses actually saw the knife, appellant testified and admitted stabbing Campbell, claiming self-defense). Campbell was hospitalized for a knife-wound to the chest. Altogether four witnesses, including Campbell, testified that appellant was the aggressor in the fray in that it was he who had run toward Campbell after the initial fight terminated.


Appellant contends that the trial Judge abused his discretion in permitting the government, on redirect examination of John Young, a band member and eyewitness, to introduce the entirety of a song Young had written chronicling the events of the August 23rd evening. The Judge admitted the complete text of the song under the rule of completeness. The issue originated when, on cross-examination of Young, appellant's counsel established that Young was a friend of Campbell and had written a song about the altercation with appellant. Counsel directed Young's attention to the last three sentences of the song, which stated in part, "Remember what I told you. You not locked up yet. It ain't over." Counsel asked if this language did not reveal Young's intent "to get even" with appellant. *fn2 Young replied that it was not his "place to get even," and that the words "It ain't over" were a phrase appellant had used at the time of the fight, which Young had "rephrased . . . into a meaning that I felt was safe to me."

On redirect examination of Young, over defense objection, Young was allowed to read the entirety of the song, which began by chronicling the band's successful performance that night ("They cranked, they grooved, they moved the crowd"), then blamed appellant for "starting this mess" that followed:

Couldn't handle yourself. You knew you were wrong. Started eating at your mind before too long. You took a walk with Hawk. We thought this mess was done. Walked down around the wall, then you started to run. Jumped over the wall.

What happened next? Swung a hook, but, look, you stabbed Al in the chest. Wrong. Wrong. Two strikes not enough. Had to follow them across the street. You're tough. Stopped half way. Started talking back, going after Hawk with a verbal attack. It ain't over. It ain't over. It ain't finished yet. Wrong. You finished, but we're not.

You want it to get hot, screaming, yelling, stabbing and telling. Everybody out there what was up. You wrote a check with your mouth. You couldn't cash with your -- but take a listen and remember what I told you. You not locked up yet. It ain't over. [Emphasis added.]

In Butler v. United States, 614 A.2d 875 (D.C.), cert. denied, U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 625, 121 L. Ed. 2d 558 (1992), this court stated:

The rule of completeness allows a party, once part of a document or recorded statement has been introduced into evidence, to seek admission of other parts of that same statement "in order to secure for the tribunal a complete understanding of the total tenor and effect of the ."

Id. at 882 (quoting Warren v. United States, 515 A.2d 208, 210 (D.C. 1986)). See also Henderson v. United States, 632 A.2d 419, 424 (D.C. 1993) (citing this portion of Butler for a general explanation of the rule of completeness). We review the trial court's decision to admit or exclude a statement under this doctrine for abuse of discretion. Butler, 614 A.2d at 882; Warren, 515 A.2d at 211. Applying that standard, we sustain the Judge's admission of the entire song. Appellant placed the last three sentences of the song before the jury as evidence of Young's bias as a witness -- his desire to "get even." It was relevant to the strength of this inference whether the words "It ain't over yet" were Young's own, or whether in using them he was, in some measure, mimicking appellant's own words, perhaps facetiously. Although Young had already testified that appellant cursed and yelled "It ain't over" before assaulting Campbell, the jury's "understanding of the total tenor and effect" of the song itself, Butler, supra, was aided by knowing that some of the words attributed to Young -- and implying bias on his part -- appeared elsewhere in the song as appellant's own. The Judge ...

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