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McDonald v. United States

August 3, 2006


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DV 1466-04) (Hon. Jeanette Clark, Trial Judge).

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

Argued December 8, 2005

Before GLICKMAN and KRAMER, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Appellant Andre McDonald was convicted after a bench trial on one count of simple assault, a violation of D.C. Code § 22-404 (2001). On appeal, McDonald challenges the trial judge's sua sponte refusal to hear his testimony about the injuries he allegedly suffered during his arrest. McDonald contends that with this decision, the judge abused her discretion and infringed his constitutional right to present a complete defense. We agree, and since we cannot say that the error was harmless, we reverse McDonald's conviction and remand for a new trial.


McDonald was arrested for assaulting his wife, Brenda Harris, when he met her at a restaurant to pick her up after work. On the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, the couple began to argue. McDonald was apparently upset because Harris had been at the restaurant with a male co-worker.

What happened next was disputed at trial. The government's only witness, Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") Officer David Carter, testified that he happened to be parked across the street from the restaurant, monitoring the area for underage drinking, when he saw McDonald grab Harris by the throat and throw her to the ground. Almost immediately after Carter witnessed this assault, he saw another police officer, Gregory Kurtz, ride up to the couple on a bicycle, dismount, and "put" McDonald on the ground. Carter then left his vehicle and helped Kurtz handcuff and arrest McDonald. (Kurtz did not appear at trial.)

In contrast, McDonald and Harris both testified that McDonald never touched Harris. Rather, they claimed, they were merely having an admittedly heated but purely verbal and non-violent argument when, without warning, Officer Kurtz suddenly "rode up on his bike, dropped [it] . . . and pushed [McDonald] up against the wall." McDonald testified that Officer Kurtz "came up on my left side with his bicycle and I felt the wheel hit my left leg." "The next thing I know," McDonald said, "I'm being bum-rushed," pushed "against the wall" of a building, and then "thrown to the ground and kneeled [sic] with his knee in my back." McDonald and Harris protested in vain that he had done nothing to merit such treatment.

The theory of McDonald's defense was that the assault charge was a fabrication to protect Kurtz and cover up the fact that he had overreacted, rashly intervened without justification, used excessive force, and physically injured McDonald. To support this theory, defense counsel questioned Harris about her husband's injuries, and she reported seeing a bruise on McDonald's arm, some smudges on his shirt, and a scrape on his pants. When counsel cross-examined Officer Carter, however, the officer did not recall noticing that McDonald was hurt in any way.

Defense counsel also sought to question McDonald about his injuries, but he was prevented from doing so. As McDonald began to explain how he was hurt, the trial judge cut him off sua sponte, declaring that she could not see how the testimony was relevant, as the case was not about police brutality but about whether McDonald had assaulted his wife. Defense counsel proffered that the testimony would establish that McDonald was injured during his arrest and that this injury "was visible to the officers on the scene." This fact, counsel contended, "would present the police with a reason to make sure they had some sort of charge to cover themselves in case of a complaint or something to that effect." The judge was not persuaded by this argument, and after the bench conference, defense counsel had no further questions to ask his client.

When the trial judge delivered her verdict at the conclusion of this one-day bench trial, she made no express finding as to whether McDonald had or had not been injured during his arrest. Stating, however, that the police had no motive to arrest McDonald without cause, the judge disbelieved McDonald and Harris and credited Officer Carter's testimony that McDonald assaulted his wife. Accordingly, the judge found McDonald guilty of simple assault and imposed a sixty-day suspended sentence with one year of supervised probation. From this judgment McDonald appeals, focusing his challenge primarily on the preclusion of his testimony regarding his injuries.


"Whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause . . . , or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense." Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690 (1986) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Among other things, we have said, this guarantee means that defendants must be afforded "some opportunity" -- a fair and meaningful opportunity -- to show that the government's witnesses are biased. Hollingsworth v. United States, 531 A.2d 973, 979 (D.C. 1987) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A defendant may demonstrate such bias not only by cross-examining the witnesses, but also with extrinsic evidence. Id. (citation omitted). If the trial court erroneously impaired the exercise of this constitutional right, and the objection to the error has been preserved, the defendant's conviction may stand only if the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).

McDonald argues that, in preventing him from testifying about his injuries, the trial judge in this case committed a constitutional violation. He contends that this testimony was central to his theory of bias (namely, that Officer Carter lied about the assault to cover up the fact that his fellow officer apprehended McDonald for no reason and injured him in the process). Although the government responds that McDonald's testimony was repetitive if not irrelevant and that the judge properly exercised her discretion in excluding ...

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