Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F-292-05) (Hon. Rhonda Reid Winston, Trial Judge)
Argued September 2, 2009 Decided December 30, 2010
Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judge, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge. BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judge: This case arises from a bizarre and elaborate
scheme devised by appellant to extort sexual favors from two victims, both of whom had been recently released from prison and were on probation or parole, by using a forged document and the threat of re-incarceration to coerce their compliance with certain sexual acts. We are asked in this appeal to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying appellant's motion to sever and permitting the joint trial of the claims. A party seeking reversal must make a showing of the "most compelling prejudice" in order for this court to hold that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to sever properly joined offenses. Winestock v. United States, 429 A.2d 519, 527 (D.C. 1981) (citing United States v. Rhodes, 569 F.2d 384, 390 (5th Cir. 1978)). Here, appellant was not prejudiced by the trial court's refusal to sever, as the evidence of appellant's guilt would have been mutually admissible to prove each offense in separate trials. Therefore, as we will discuss, appellant has failed to make such a showing of compelling prejudice resulting from the denial of the motion to sever.
Following a jury trial, appellant Lafayette Bailey was convicted of
one count of attempted second-degree sexual abuse*fn1
against the first complainant, S.C.*fn2 In addition,
appellant was convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual abuse,
two counts of second-degree sexual abuse, two counts of third-degree
sexual abuse, and two counts of fourth-degree sexual abuse against the
second complainant, M.S. In connection with both complainants,
appellant was convicted of two counts of forgery*fn3
and one count of attempted tampering with evidence.*fn4
Appellant seeks reversal of his convictions and remand to the
trial court for separate trials on the grounds that: (1) the trial
court abused its discretion in
denying appellant's motion to sever the offenses related to each
victim; and (2) the sexual abuse convictions should merge into one
single first-degree sexual abuse conviction. We affirm the denial of
the motion to sever, vacate the forgery convictions*fn5
, and remand for the trial court to merge the eight sexual
abuse convictions into two convictions and re-sentence accordingly.
Appellant devised his plan to extort sexual favors from men recently released from prison by utilizing resources from his job at the District of Columbia Prisoners' Legal Services Project ("Prisoners' Project"), a non-profit organization that assists prisoners with various legal matters. Appellant used his position at the Prisoners' Project to obtain criminal history and other information about convicted felons who were recently released on parole and probation. To support his scheme, appellant recounted his knowledge to the complainants about specific facts from their criminal cases - all of which he learned from the court records that he obtained from Superior Court while working at his job - and showed both victims falsified letters drafted on his work computer on fake letterhead from the Lois and Richard England Foundation, an organization that had donated to the Prisoners' Project in the past.
Appellant targeted his first victim, S.C., in early December 2004, shortly after S.C. was released from prison on parole. Appellant telephoned S.C., who he had previously met through mutual friends, and offered to discuss job opportunities with S.C.He later called S.C. and invited him to his home purportedly to discuss the possibility that S.C. could be reincarcerated for charges originally leveled against him in 1992. When S.C. arrived at the apartment, appellant made sexual advances towards S.C. S.C. refused appellant's advances and requested to see appellant's paperwork relating to the potential charges against S.C. Appellant produced a falsified letter purportedly sent from the Lois and Richard England Family Foundation, which stated that the foundation was interested in hiring appellant to locate S.C. for the purpose of making a recommendation to the Department of Justice regarding S.C.'s re-prosecution. Appellant told S.C. that he could get the charges dismissed if S.C. had sex with him. S.C. rejected appellant's sexual advances and left the apartment.
In early January 2005, M.S., recently released from prison and on probation, received a call from appellant. Appellant invited M.S. to his apartment using the same guise that he used with S.C. - he was preparing a report for the Department of Justice regarding M.S.'s re-prosecution. Once inside the apartment, appellant directed M.S. to sit down in the bedroom to look over the paperwork regarding his case. The paperwork included the same falsified letter from the Lois and Richard England Foundation purportedly hiring appellant to investigate and write a report to support re-prosecuting M.S. on the charges for which M.S. had already been convicted and was serving probation at the time of the meeting. Appellant then told M.S. that he could make the charges disappear in exchange for sex.Appellant then asked M.S. "how [he would] feel if [appellant] was to degrade" him and told M.S. to take off his clothes. When M.S. attempted to leave the bedroom, appellant showed M.S. that he had a gun in his pocket. Appellant then repeated his demand that M.S. remove his clothes, and after M.S. complied, appellant penetrated M.S. with his finger. After asking M.S. if he felt degraded, appellant ordered M.S. into the hallway of the bedroom and penetrated M.S. with his penis.
At trial, the government presented the falsified letter that was found during a search of appellant's desk and computer at work. The letter was addressed to M.S., but was saved under the filename "shon.doc," Shon being an abbreviation of S.C.'s first name. The search of the desk also produced blank Lois and Richard England Foundation letterhead. In addition to the completed letter addressed to M.S., a similar, partially completed letter addressed to S.C. was also on the work computer. Appellant's sister testified that during one of her trips to the jail to visit appellant after his arrest, appellant asked her to remove and destroy a bag of files located in the backyard of his home. After retrieving the bag, which included a hard copy of the completed letter addressed to S.C., appellant's sister did not destroy the papers but instead turned them over to the government.
Before trial, appellant filed a motion to sever the charges related to S.C. from the charges related to M.S. Appellant argued for severance of the offenses on the ground that a joint trial would be "substantially and unfairly prejudicial" because the evidence involving the separate victims had no relevance to each other outside of showing a predisposition to commit similar offenses. See Super. Ct. Crim. R. 14 ("Rule 14"). In opposition to the motion to sever, the government argued that evidence relating to the offenses would be admissible in separate trials for the offenses against M.S. and S.C. because: (1) the incidents were "connected together"; and (2) as evidence showing a "common scheme or plan," motive or intent, and identity. The trial court denied the motion to sever, finding that the two offenses were properly joined*fn6 because the offenses were based on transactions that were "connected together." See Super. Ct. Crim. R. 8 ("Rule 8"). Specifically, Judge Winston found that any prejudicial effect that would result from the charges being tried together was outweighed by the court's interest in judicial economy, as the evidence of both charges would be mutually admissible in separate trials.
Within this jurisdiction, two or more offenses are properly joined in the same indictment if they "are of the same or similar character or are based on the same act or transaction or on 2 or more acts or transactions connected together or constituting parts of a common scheme or plan." Super. Ct. Crim. R. 8 (a) The decision to sever a properly joined case is a discretionary one. Rule 14 states that, "If it appears that a defendant or the government is prejudiced by a joinder of offenses or of defendants in an indictment or information or by such joinder for trial together, the court may . . . grant a severance of defendants or provide whatever other relief justice requires." Super. Ct. Crim. R. 14 (emphasis added). The language of Rule 14 is discretionary. We have long recognized that "[a] motion for severance on the ground of prejudicial joinder is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court." Arnold v. United States, 511 A.2d 399, 404 (D.C. 1986) ("Arnold II").
Moreover, the trial court's discretionary judgment regarding whether to grant a severance motion is entitled to great deference, and "may be reversed only upon a clear showing of abuse of discretion." Winestock, supra, 429 A.2d at 526. Such a showing must clear a high hurdle. In seeking to reverse a trial court's denial of a severance motion, the appellant carries a "difficult" burden. Id. at 527. In order to establish the trial court's abuse of discretion in denying the severance, the appellant "must show the most compelling prejudice, from which the court would be unable to afford protection if both offenses were tried together." Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted). "The most compelling prejudice" does not encompass all prejudice, for there is the possibility of prejudice whenever similar offenses are joined in a single indictment of a single defendant. Arnold v. United States, 358 A.2d 335, 338 (D.C. 1976) (en banc) ("Arnold I"). Such a showing is insufficient to meet the appellant's burden. Winestock, supra, 429 A.2d at 527. In seeking a reversal of the trial court's denial of a severance motion, the appellant must demonstrate more than a simple showing that appellant would have stood a better chance of acquittal had the charges been tried separately. Id.
In the present case, appellant argues that the "similarity of the two crimes dramatically increased the likelihood that the jury would find [him] guilty of one set of offenses based on the evidence of his criminal disposition to commit the same offense against another victim," and that "the evidence of the other sexual assault, with all of its shared peculiarities with the first offense, was the main aspect of the government's case that prevented [him] from trying either case to acquittal." Given the presumption that cases that share a similar character are properly joined, a motion to sever will be granted only where the evidence would not be mutually admissible at separate trials, or the evidence of the multiple charges is likely to be amalgamated in the jury's mind into a single inculpatory mass. Bridges v. United States, 381 A.2d 1073, 1075 (D.C. 1977); see also Bright v. United States, 698 A.2d 450, 456-57 (D.C. 1997). In fact, we have more recently suggested that a trial court is required to find either mutual admissibility or unlikely amalgamation of the evidence in order to deny severance. See McFerguson v. United States, 870 A.2d 1199, 1203 (D.C. 2005) (referring to mutual admissibility and separate and distinct evidence as "the two permissible grounds" for denying severance). We do not think ...