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Al-Mahdi v. United States

February 10, 2005

MUHAMMAD AL-MAHDI, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (No. F-2019-98). (Hon. Russell F. Canan, Trial Judge).

Before Ruiz, Reid and Glickman, Associate Judges.

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

Argued September 23, 2003

Appellant Muhammad Al-Mahdi was found guilty after a jury trial of voluntary manslaughter while armed and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence. After his sentencing, appellant moved to set aside his convictions on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial judge denied that request. In this consolidated appeal, appellant raises several claims of error, the foremost of which are first, that he was entitled to a mistrial after a juror received an extra-judicial communication during deliberations, and second, that his trial counsel was ineffective in not moving to suppress his confessions on Fourth Amendment grounds. Appellant's arguments do not persuade us, and we affirm his convictions.

I.

According to the evidence adduced at trial, appellant's mother, Nailah Al-Mahdi, called 911 early on the morning of March 17, 1999, to report that a man had been shot in her home in Northeast Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer Darnell Benton, the first of several officers responding to the scene, arrived while Ms. Al-Mahdi was still on the phone with the dispatcher. As Officer Benton knocked on the front door, he heard Ms. Al-Mahdi ask "Muhammad" to let him in.*fn1 For several minutes, however, no one opened the door. Officer Benton continued to knock until, finally, Ms. Al-Mahdi let him in.

Officer Benton entered and saw the body of William Marshall lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood. Ms. Al-Mahdi was too "hysterical" at this point to tell Officer Benton what had occurred. The officer then noticed appellant standing against a nearby wall. Startled, Officer Benton grabbed appellant and asked him what had happened. Appellant, who was "much calmer than his mother," responded by saying, "he tried to hurt my mother." Officer Benton immediately handcuffed appellant and directed another officer to put him in a police cruiser.

Meanwhile, Ms. Al-Mahdi was still on the phone frantically trying to summon medical assistance for Marshall. MPD Officer Regina Grier told Ms. Al-Mahdi that help was on the way but that she needed to find the weapon that had been used in the shooting. Ms. Al-Mahdi then handed Officer Grier a towel that she was holding. Wrapped inside the towel was a semi-automatic pistol.

Detective Daniel Whalen, the lead detective assigned to the case, arrived as Marshall was being taken away in an ambulance.*fn2 Detective Whalen saw appellant sitting in the back of a patrol car "in custody" and perceived him to be already under arrest.*fn3 Officers who had arrived at the scene before Detective Whalen told him that Ms. Al-Mahdi had "implicated her son as being responsible" for the shooting and that appellant was "now in police custody." The detective directed that appellant be transported to the office of the homicide branch at police headquarters.

At the homicide branch, appellant was interrogated by Detective Eric Gainey. Waiving his Fifth Amendment rights, appellant told Detective Gainey that he shot William Marshall in self-defense while trying to break up a violent argument between Marshall and his mother. After taking appellant's statement, Detective Gainey met with Detective Whalen, who by this time had interviewed Ms. Al-Mahdi himself. Detective Whalen reported that Ms. Al-Mahdi denied having been in an argument with Marshall. She told the detective that her son was angry that she was "entertaining" Marshall, provoked an altercation with him, and "basically was very upset and went off." Detective Gainey returned to appellant and told him that his account conflicted with what his mother said. Appellant then admitted that he was upset that Marshall was going to spend the night with his mother and shot him after Marshall refused to leave or back down as the argument escalated.*fn4

Appellant was charged in a three-count indictment with first-degree murder while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence (PFCV), and carrying a pistol without a license (CPWL). His motion to suppress his statements to the police as having been taken without a valid waiver of his Miranda*fn5 rights was denied after a hearing. At trial, appellant repudiated his confessions, claiming that he had lied in order to protect his mother from being charged with Marshall's murder. The jury acquitted appellant of first-degree murder while armed but found him guilty of the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter while armed. In addition, the jury found appellant guilty of PFCV but acquitted him of CPWL.

Appellant appealed his convictions and, a few months later, filed a motion pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 (2001) to set aside his convictions on the basis of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Appellant charged that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress his statements to the police on the ground that he was taken into custody for questioning without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Based on the record of the trial and the pretrial motions hearing, the trial judge denied appellant's § 23-110 motion in a written opinion without a hearing. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal from that denial. His two appeals have been consolidated and are now before us.

II.

Appellant's primary argument in his direct appeal -- and the only one that merits extended discussion -- is that the trial judge should have granted his motion for a mistrial upon learning that a juror was contacted about the case during deliberations. We are persuaded otherwise. Once the judge was informed of the contact, he conducted a thorough voir dire of all the jurors and concluded that the incident did not imperil appellant's right to a fair and impartial jury. We approve of the judge's careful handling of the matter and are satisfied that he did not abuse his discretion in denying a mistrial.*fn6

A.

On the second day of jury deliberations, the trial judge informed the parties that he had received a note earlier that morning from a juror. The note read as follows: "Judge, I was approached by a cousin of the Defendant and asked if I was going to find her cousin guilty or his mom. Juror 561." With the parties' agreement, Juror 561 was brought into the courtroom so that the judge and the parties' counsel could question her on the record about the incident. In response to the judge's questions, the juror said that on the previous evening, while she was standing at a bus stop near the courthouse, she was approached by two unfamiliar persons, a teenage girl and her mother. The teenager asked the juror, "What are you going to do? Are you going to find my cousin guilty, him or his mother?" Receiving no reply, the girl repeated her question. Her mother then admonished the girl to leave Juror 561 alone, saying, "She can't talk about that." The girl obeyed the admonition and stopped speaking to Juror 561. When the bus arrived at the stop, Juror 561 boarded it, leaving her teenage inquisitor behind.*fn7

Although, as the judge confirmed, nothing overtly threatening was said to her, Juror 561 "felt threatened" and was "really scared" by the confrontation she described. Later that evening, Juror 561 went to her church and asked her fellow congregants to pray for her. She then spent a sleepless night before getting up and coming to court.

Upon further questioning, Juror 561 told the judge that, while the episode had made her "very frightened," she believed that she could go on deliberating with her fellow jurors without being biased or leaning toward one side or the other. "I think I can perform my duty," she stated. "[W]e had started deliberating yesterday and we're doing pretty good now. So I don't think anything will interfere with my judgment."

In response to additional questions from the judge, Juror 561 disclosed that she had informed all the other jurors about her encounter and told them that it had frightened her. They responded that she should ...


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