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Lanton v. United States

August 16, 2001

WAYNE LANTON, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE



Before Schwelb, Farrell, and Ruiz, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Linda K. Davis, Trial Judge)

Submitted June 12, 2001

On February 16, 1999, following a bench trial, Wayne Lanton was found guilty of assaulting his wife, Nnennaya Oti Lanton. He received a suspended sentence of imprisonment and was placed on probation. On August 18, 1999, Lanton filed a motion to vacate his sentence pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 (1998), alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. On March 22, 2000, the trial judge issued a written order in which she denied Lanton's motion without a hearing. Lanton's appeals from his conviction (No. 99-CM-245) and from the order denying his post-trial motion (No. 00-CO-487) were consolidated by order of this court. We conclude that the trial judge erred in denying Lanton's § 23-110 motion without a hearing.

I.

This case arose from a domestic dispute between Lanton and his wife which occurred on July 30, 1998 at the home that the couple shared with their two young children, aged five and two. When Mrs. Lanton arrived at home early that afternoon, it appeared that her husband was attempting to clean up the apartment. In doing so, Mr. Lanton was apparently disposing of some old furniture and clothing. Mrs. Lanton became concerned that Mr. Lanton was throwing away clothes that still fit the children, including, in particular, some shoes that belonged to the Lantons' daughter. According to Mrs. Lanton, her husband ridiculed her concerns.

It is undisputed that Mrs. Lanton began yelling at her husband, pointing out forcefully that he had not paid for the shoes and that he had no right to throw them away. The two principals' accounts diverge as to exactly what happened after Mrs. Lanton began berating her spouse.

According to Mrs. Lanton, her husband told her to "get out of his face" and warned that, if she did not, he was going to "smack" her. Although Mrs. Lanton was much shorter and lighter than her husband, *fn1 she apparently gave as good as she got; she testified that when she did not "get out of [Mr. Lanton's] face," her husband responded by striking his wife in her face. Mrs. Lanton admitted that she hit her husband back and that she continued to yell at him. According to the wife's account, Mr. Lanton threatened to hurt her and

the argument started a little louder, so he smacked me again. So I hit him back. And he told me to back off or he [was] going to throw me out a window. So I told him to go ahead and throw me out the window.

Mrs. Lanton claimed that her husband then "smacked me again and punched me and kicked me a lot," but that she continued to hit him back because, in her words, she "wasn't going to let him kick me or punch me around. So he left." Mrs. Lanton testified that she locked her husband out and refused to let him in, but Mr. Lanton managed to kick the door open, bragging that he was a "mighty man." When Mr. Lanton went into the kitchen to try to cook some food, Mrs. Lanton insisted that her husband "can't cook that food because that's my food, I just bought it."

On the key question regarding who was the initial aggressor, Mrs. Lanton insisted that it was her husband who struck the first blow. *fn2 She testified that she suffered "a little bit of [a] bruise" which she showed to an officer when the police arrived a short time later. *fn3 The officers arrested Mr. Lanton but not his wife.

Mr. Lanton testified that he was cleaning the apartment when his wife asked him about the location of their daughter's missing shoes. According to Mr. Lanton, his wife was "pissed" that he had seemingly thrown the shoes away, and she began to yell at him, tried to throw out his books, and generally became very aggressive. Mr. Lanton testified that he left the apartment to "chill out" in the hallway, but that his wife followed him and continued to scream at him and berate him. Mr. Lanton eventually returned to the apartment to cook some food, but his wife, who was still in a rage, insisted that it was her food because she had paid for it. *fn4 According to Lanton, his wife punched him in the face, continued to yell at him, and tried to beat him. Mr. Lanton denied striking his wife, and he insisted that, throughout the entire episode, he simply attempted to protect himself and to ward off his wife's blows. According to Mr. Lanton, his wife was the aggressor and initiated the physical confrontation. Lanton indicated that he was trained in martial arts, and he implied that if he had wanted to fight his wife, she would have got by far the worst of it.

The trial judge found Mr. Lanton guilty of assault. She found the wife to be a more credible witness than her husband, and noted that the wife had a far better recollection of what occurred. The judge continued:

I also find telling the difference in admitting of wrongdoing. To hear the Defendant tell it, he did everything right this day; he was just the picture of calm, intervening only to prevent the complaining witness from becoming out of control. Whereas, Mrs. Lanton admitted to her own wrongdoing but also was quite clear that she did not engage in any physical misconduct, which is what this case is about.

I will also say that I found the Defendant to be a very arrogant man as he testified. And, again, the very poor memory that he has of what happened on this day, I just find it not credible.

II.

On August 20, 1999, Lanton filed a motion pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 in which he claimed that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Lanton alleged, inter alia, that his attorney

1. failed to adequately confer with Lanton prior to trial;

2. neglected to interview favorable witnesses whose names Mr. Lanton claimed to have provided counsel; and

3. conducted an inadequate cross-examination of Mrs. Lanton.

Attached to Lanton's motion were letters from two of his neighbors, Santos Manuel and Daiv Johnson. Manuel's letter, which was framed as a kind of ...


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