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Hart v. United States

December 30, 2004


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F7388-01). (Hon. Thomas J. Motley, Trial Judge).

Before Terry and Ruiz, Associate Judges,andKING, Senior Judge.

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

Argued October 14, 2004

Appellant was charged with aggravated assault while armed and possession of a prohibited dangerous weapon. See D.C. Code §§ 22-404.01 (a), 4502 (a) & 4514 (b) (2001). At trial, she claimed she acted in self-defense against the complaining witness's unprovoked aggression. In the course of doing so, she sought to present evidence of the complainant's reputation for violence, in addition to evidence of her prior specific acts of violence. The court permitted evidence of specific acts only and excluded reputation evidence. The trial court also limited the defense's cross-examination of the complainant to three of her prior acts of violence.

The appellant challenges these rulings by the trial court, as well as its failure to instruct the jury on the meaning of "serious bodily injury" as an element of aggravated assault. Appellant also challenges the evidentiary sufficiency of the jury's verdict finding her guilty of aggravated assault while armed, and further claims that the verdict should be set aside because the jury acted irrationally in finding her guilty of aggravated assault while armed, while acquitting her of possession of a prohibited dangerous weapon. We affirm.


On September 21, 2001, appellant, Patricia Hart, with her son, Ricky, visited the neighboring apartment of Mr. Williams and Ms. Jenkins.*fn1 The complainant, Wanda Arrington, was also visiting the apartment at that time. She testified that she had been smoking crack cocaine and drinking alcohol earlier in the day, and that she asked appellant for some crack cocaine to smoke. The complainant testified that appellant thereupon became "nasty" which prompted the complainant to want to leave the apartment because appellant was "blowing [her] high." As she attempted to exit the apartment, she turned around, and the appellant started to stab at her with a kitchen knife, lacerating her in both arms. The complainant knocked the appellant to the ground, from where the appellant stabbed her in the vagina. The complainant testified that she did not have a weapon and did not attack the appellant. A neighbor from across the street heard the fight, came over and broke it up. When he arrived, the appellant was standing with the knife in her hand, raised, while the complainant had retreated to near the bathroom.

Appellant testified to a different course of events. According to her, she did visit the Williams apartment with her son, and then stepped out briefly. When she returned, appellant became angry because she found the complainant smoking crack in front of appellant's six-year old son. According to appellant, the complainant physically attacked her in order to get money from her, choking her and punching her five or six times in the mouth. "To defend herself," the appellant retreated into the kitchen and grabbed a twelve-inch kitchen knife. She testified that the complainant followed her into the kitchen and started swinging her fists at her. In response, appellant swung the knife and cut the complainant in both arms. The complainant nevertheless managed to knock the appellant to the ground and started to trample her. Lying on her back, the appellant swung the blade and stabbed the complainant in the vagina. The appellant testified that Mr. Williams pulled the complainant off of her before the neighbor arrived.

The complainant was taken to the hospital as a result of the injuries and had to have forty-two stitches in her left arm, twenty in her right arm, and fourteen in her vagina.


1. Evidence of the Complainant's Reputation for Violence in the Community

In support of appellant's claim of self-defense, counsel sought to introduce evidence showing that the appellant had knowledge of prior aggressive acts by the complainant and of the complainant's reputation for violence in the community. The trial court admitted testimony from the appellant, as well as from three other defense witnesses, regarding at least ten specific prior acts, known to the appellant, in which the complainant had either assaulted the appellant or another person.*fn2 The trial court did not permit, however, evidence of the complainant's reputation in the community for violence.

As the trial court correctly observed, "[t]here is no dispute that to support a self-defense claim, the accused may show prior acts of violence committed by the victim about which the accused knew," because "[s]uch evidence is relevant to the reasonableness of the accused's fear of the victim." Harris v. United States, 618 A.2d 140, 143 (D.C. 1992) (citing Matter of M.W.G., 427 A.2d 440, 443 (D.C. 1981); United States v. Akers, 374 A.2d 874, 877 (D.C. 1977)). Evidence of the defendant's knowledge of the victim's reputation for violence is similarly admissible, because "it tends to support the contention that the accused acted from an honest and reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm because of the information imparted to him about the complainant." King v. United States, 177 A.2d 912, 913 (D.C. 1962); see also Cooper v. Untited States, 353 A.2d 696, 700 n.8 (D.C. 1976) (evidence of either victim's reputation for violence or victim's specific prior acts of violence, if known by the defendant at the time in question, may be admitted to show the reasonableness of defendant's fear of the victim). Except in homicide cases (where the person alleged to have been the aggressor is unavailable for questioning), however, neither evidence of the victim's prior violent acts nor evidence of reputation for violence can be admitted for the purpose of proving that the victim was the first aggressor. See King, 177 A.2d at 913.*fn3

Our review of the record suggests there was confusion about the application and interplay of the specific act/reputation rules and the state-of-mind/first-aggressor rules. This confusion is evident in the bench conference concerning defense counsel's attempt to ask ...

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