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Charles A. Hood v. United States

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


September 15, 2011

CHARLES A. HOOD, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (FEL-5686-89) (Hon. Lynn Leibovitz, Motion Judge)

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

Argued December 17, 2010

Before GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, RUIZ, Associate Judge, Retired,*fn1 and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Appellant Charles A. Hood was tried by a jury and found guilty of first-degree felony murder and related offenses stemming from an attack on an elderly woman in her home on the morning of May 18, 1989. This court affirmed his convictions on direct appeal in an unpublished opinion. Appellant was sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment and remains incarcerated.

In September 2002, appellant filed a pro se motion to set aside his convictions pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 (2001). The trial court construed the motion as raising a claim for relief under the then recently enacted Innocence Protection Act of 2001 ("IPA"), D.C. Code § 22-4133 et. seq. (2010 Supp.). In the ensuing litigation over that claim, the government and appellant eventually agreed to DNA testing of physical evidence in the case -- a knife and appellant's clothing -- on which human blood had been found. This testing was inconclusive. Appellant then moved to have other items that had been recovered from the scene of the crime tested for the presence of DNA in any trace skin cells that might have been deposited on the items. In November 2008, the motion judge rejected this request and denied appellant's motion for a new trial. From those rulings, appellant noted this appeal. We conclude that appellant has not demonstrated his entitlement under the IPA to the additional DNA testing he seeks. Accordingly, we affirm the denial of relief.

I.

Appellant was convicted for attacking Ms. Helen Chappelle in her home shortly after midnight on May 18, 1989. Ms. Chappelle died from her injuries eleven days later. The 78-year-old victim lived on Decatur Street with her nephew, Edward Simms. Mr. Simms was not home at the time of the attack, but the incident was witnessed by two neighbors who happened to be sitting on a stoop across the street.

As they sat there talking, the neighbors -- Ms. Arrington and Mr. Johnson -- noticed Ms. Chappelle standing on her front porch. She was hollering that she was being robbed. This was not as disturbing as might be supposed, because it was something Ms. Chappelle, who suffered from dementia, did almost every night. Knowing this, and seeing that she appeared to be unharmed, Ms. Arrington and Mr. Johnson were not alarmed by her cries for help. After a while, they saw appellant and a female companion walking up the sidewalk in their direction. They overheard the woman tell appellant that people took Ms. Chappelle's hollering as a joke.*fn2 Then something unusual happened: Appellant suddenly took off running across the street to Ms. Chappelle's house. Ms. Arrington and Mr. Johnson saw him run onto Ms. Chappelle's front porch, pass by Ms. Chappelle to enter the front door of her house, and run up the interior staircase to the second floor. After a few moments, Ms. Chappelle followed appellant inside. From across the street, Ms. Arrington and Mr. Johnson heard sounds of a struggle and Ms. Chappelle yelling. Her yells turned to what sounded like screams of pain, which continued for several minutes. Then there was silence.

Ms. Arrington called the police. Mr. Johnson kept watch on Ms. Chappelle's home until the police arrived a few minutes later. By then, appellant had been inside the house for a total of about fifteen or twenty minutes. During that time, Mr. Johnson saw no one else enter or leave the premises.

As Officers Presley and Hester approached Ms. Chappelle's house, they saw appellant inside, coming down the stairs from the second floor. They lost sight of him briefly as he appeared to duck to one side at the foot of the stairs, and then he walked out the front door and approached them. In response to the officers' questions, appellant falsely said that he was Ms. Chappelle's nephew "Tyrone Jefferson," and that she was out wandering the neighborhood, drunk. The officers asked appellant for some identification. In response, he led them inside the house to the kitchen. On the way, appellant passed momentarily out of the officers' sight as he walked by a refrigerator. In the kitchen, appellant began searching the cabinets but could not produce any identification papers. The officers noticed that appellant's pockets were bulging and asked him what was in them. Appellant removed four cans of "potted" meat. One of the officers opened the refrigerator and saw identical cans inside.*fn3

Officer Hester then left the kitchen to search the house for Ms. Chappelle. He found her lying semi-conscious in the hallway at the top of the stairs to the second floor. The medical examiner testified at trial that she had sustained blunt force injuries to her head and face (which led to her death eleven days later from a pulmonary embolism). Officer Hester observed that Ms. Chappelle's left ring finger had been severed and that there was a pool of blood around her hand. On the floor nearby were a pair of scissors and a purse with a torn shoulder strap. Ms. Chappelle's bedroom appeared to have been ransacked.

The officers placed appellant under arrest, handcuffed him, and took him upstairs while they continued to search the house. They found no one else present and no signs of forced entry. Other than the front door, there were no other means of ingress to or egress from the house.*fn4

Later that morning, the police found a bloody butcher knife sitting on a chair near the front door, at the foot of the interior staircase where Officers Presley and Hester had seen appellant duck down. Both the knife and the scissors were collected as evidence. After the police left, Mr. Simms's wife found two rings sitting on top of the refrigerator that appellant had passed when he led the police into the kitchen. According to her family, Ms. Chappelle normally wore these rings on her hand. A crime scene search officer retrieved the rings twelve days later, on May 30, and returned in July to collect Ms. Chappelle's torn purse. During that visit, he also received a pipe wrench from Mr. Simms, who explained that it normally was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but was found in the dining room the day after the assault on his aunt.

The knife, scissors, rings, and appellant's clothing were submitted to the FBI for serologic, hair, and fiber analysis.*fn5 (DNA testing apparently was unavailable at the time.) The FBI laboratory examination revealed the presence of human blood on the knife and on appellant's shorts, sweat pants, and right shoe. The blood could not be typed, nor could the examination identify its source or determine when it had been deposited on appellant's clothing. No blood (or hair or fibers) were found on the scissors or rings.*fn6

Appellant was charged with armed first-degree murder, armed mayhem, armed robbery of a senior citizen, and first-degree burglary. The prosecution theory at trial was that appellant entered Ms. Chappelle's house to rob her, and that he bludgeoned her and severed her left ring finger with the butcher knife in order to steal her rings. The theory of appellant's defense was innocent presence. Although appellant did not testify or present any other material evidence in his defense, his counsel contended that he had entered Ms. Chappelle's home to defend her after hearing her call out for help, and that she had been attacked and robbed by an unidentified assailant who was already inside. Counsel argued that appellant's clothing became blood-stained because the arresting officers had directed him to lie down on the bloody floor near Ms. Chappelle's body during his initial detention. The jury rejected appellant's defense and found him guilty as charged.

II.

On September 25, 2002, appellant filed a pro se motion to vacate his conviction and sentence pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110. The trial judge construed the motion as encompassing a claim under the IPA and appointed counsel to represent appellant. To establish that he was not Ms. Chappelle's assailant, appellant sought DNA testing of the evidence recovered by the police. The government opposed testing of the scissors, rings, purse, and wrench on the ground, among others, that no "biological material" within the meaning of the IPA was present on those items. The government eventually consented, however, to DNA testing of appellant's clothing and the knife, on which some biological material (blood) had been found. The parties accordingly agreed to have the clothing and knife tested by Molecular World, Inc., an independent laboratory of appellant's choosing. Appellant reserved his right to request analysis of the other items if necessary.

Molecular World was able to recover DNA from the blood it found on the knife and appellant's shoes, but it could not obtain a DNA profile from its samples, "indicating that the DNA isolated from these items was highly degraded." [App. 3 at 3] The laboratory could find no blood, and hence could not isolate any DNA, on the other articles of clothing it tested. Although its test results were inconclusive, Molecular World noted that it might be possible to derive a nuclear DNA profile from other, untested evidence, "if [a] sufficient amount of biological material (such as blood, semen or skin cells) is present." [Id.]

Over a year after receiving Molecular World's report, appellant filed a supplemental motion for additional DNA testing. Appellant argued that the perpetrator of the crime must have handled the items of evidence not yet tested and could have deposited trace epithelial (skin) cells on them. It is possible, appellant maintained, that those skin cells, though too small to be seen by the naked eye, still might be present and might have recoverable DNA from which a profile could be obtained -- a profile that would demonstrate he was not the person who assaulted Ms. Chappelle and, perhaps, enable the authorities to identify the actual culprit. The same possibility exists, appellant argued, with respect to the handle of the butcher knife (which Molecular World had not examined for the presence of skin cells). Accordingly, invoking both the IPA and the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, appellant asked the court to order testing for DNA in trace skin cells on the scissors, rings, purse, wrench, and knife handle. The government opposed this request on the principal grounds that (1) trace skin cells are not within the IPA's definition of "biological material" subject to DNA testing, and (2) even if they were, further DNA testing would not help establish appellant's innocence. In an order issued on November 13, 2008, the motion judge agreed with those reasons for rejecting appellant's request and denied his motion for relief from his convictions. Before us now is appellant's timely appeal of those rulings.

III.

Upon proper application by a person in custody pursuant to a judgment of conviction for a crime of violence, the IPA authorizes and requires the Superior Court to order post- conviction DNA testing of "biological material" that was recovered as evidence in the case.*fn7

"Biological material" is a defined term. It "means a sexual assault forensic examination kit, semen, vaginal fluid, blood, saliva, visible skin tissue, or hair which apparently derived from the perpetrator of a crime or, under circumstances that may be probative of the perpetrator's identity, apparently derived from the victim of a crime."*fn8 An applicant must show that the evidence comes within this definition; the IPA does not authorize the court to order post-conviction DNA testing if it does not.

Another condition an applicant must meet in order to obtain post-conviction DNA testing is a materiality requirement. The court must "determin[e] that . . . there is a reasonable probability that testing will produce non-cumulative evidence that would help establish that the applicant was actually innocent of the crime for which the applicant was convicted[.]"*fn9

We conclude that appellant failed to satisfy the foregoing statutory requirements. We also conclude that appellant was not denied due process of law by the judge's refusal to order the additional DNA testing he requested.

A. Appellant's Failure to Identify "Biological Material" for Testing

Whether trace skin cells are "biological material" under the IPA is a question of statutory interpretation that this Court reviews de novo.*fn10 "Statutory interpretation is a holistic endeavor, and, at a minimum, must account for the statute's full text, language as well as punctuation, structure, and subject matter."*fn11 Generally speaking, "if the 'plain meaning' of statutory language 'is clear and unambiguous and will not produce an absurd result, we will look no further.'"*fn12 When the terms of a statute are undefined and not recognized terms of art, we presumptively accord them their ordinary meaning in common usage, taking into account the context in which they are employed;*fn13 but "[w]hen a legislature defines the language it uses, its definition is binding upon the court even though the definition does not coincide with the ordinary meaning of the words."*fn14 The primacy of the statutory text means that resort to legislative history to construe a statute is generally unnecessary (if not, indeed, disfavored); usually it is appropriate only to resolve a genuine ambiguity or a claim that the "plain meaning" leads to a result that would be absurd, unreasonable, or contrary to the clear purpose of the legislation.*fn15

We do not doubt that trace skin cells are, in common parlance, "biological material." But that is not the issue; "biological material" is a defined term in the IPA, and the definition is not nearly as broad as common parlance would permit it to be. The statutory definition is limited to seven categories of material derived from living tissue. Skin cells are included as one of those categories, but only if they are "visible." The word "visible" is not defined in the statute, but we do not find it to be ambiguous. It is not a technical term, and therefore we presumptively should construe it according to its meaning in ordinary or common speech. For that meaning we may look to the dictionary.*fn16 There we find that, as used adjectivally in a context such as this one, "visible" means "capable of being seen: perceptible by vision."*fn17 This ordinary meaning of "visible" excludes the trace skin cells appellant seeks to find and test, because those cells are microscopic and certainly not perceptible to normal (or even exceptional) eyesight.

Appellant, supported by the amicus, resists this conclusion. He contends that the ordinary meaning of "visible" is too narrow to effectuate the purpose of the IPA, which is to enable wrongly convicted persons to use the powerful techniques of DNA analysis to prove their innocence. Skin cells (and other biological evidence) can be transferred and deposited by touch in minute amounts and need not be visible to the naked eye to be amenable to those techniques. Consequently, appellant and amicus argue, to avoid a result that is absurdly at odds with the statutory purpose, the word "visible" must be construed broadly to include what is perceptible with a microscope or other advanced technology. In other words, amicus contends, we should construe the term "visible" in the context of a statute such as the IPA as meaning "observable using standard DNA collection and analysis practice."*fn18

This may be a good prescription for legislative action, but we think it does not pass muster as statutory interpretation. To begin with, given the extraordinary sensitivity and refinement of current DNA testing techniques, the alternative construction of "visible" proposed by appellant and amicus would render the word superfluous. It is indeed possible for laboratory technicians to obtain an individual's genetic profile from minuscule samples. The Short Tandem Repeat technology now in use "requires literally cellular-size samples only," and "can often yield reliable results from even a single cell."*fn19 If "visible skin tissue" meant any skin tissue usefully observable through an available enhancement technique, then any amount of skin tissue, even down to a single skin cell or cell fragment (though the word "tissue" connotes an aggregation of cells*fn20 ) would be considered "visible" through magnification, and the adjective "visible" would be devoid of meaning.

An interpretation of "visible" that deprives the term of any significance is difficult to justify, even if it might facilitate efforts to exonerate the innocent.*fn21 We do not agree with appellant that such an interpretation is necessary because construing the word "visible" in its ordinary sense would be inconsistent with the IPA's purpose and distort the Council's handiwork. The legislative history of the IPA -- which we properly may examine to evaluate whether our interpretation would sabotage the statute -- refutes appellant's claim. It shows the Council deliberately and rationally adopted a definition of "biological material" that excludes trace skin cells in order to reduce the burdens that the new right to DNA testing would place on law enforcement.

Bill 14-153, the "Innocence Protection Act of 2001," was introduced in the Council of the District of Columbia on March 20, 2001, and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. As originally introduced, the bill did not define the term "biological material."*fn22

But the bill required the police to preserve such material for DNA testing, and at a public hearing on the legislation, the Executive Assistant Chief of Police expressed concern that this duty would impose a heavy burden on the Police Department -- one it was not equipped to undertake -- to handle and store voluminous DNA evidence for long and indeterminate periods of time.*fn23 In its first report on the legislation, the Judiciary Committee identified this as a "very valid concern." The Committee recommended addressing the concern, in part, by defining "biological material" so that the police "would have [to] preserve small samples of blood, or hair, [but] not entire automobiles and couches."*fn24 The Committee's suggested definition read as follows:

"Biological material" means evidence of an organic nature allegedly derived from the perpetrator of a crime. The term "biological material" includes:

(A) A sexual assault forensic examination kit; and

(B) Semen, blood, saliva, skin tissue or hair sample.*fn25

As a means of reducing the evidence preservation burden on the police, this initial attempt was imperfect -- most obviously because the list of evidence encompassed in the definition was not necessarily all-inclusive, and because the list included "skin tissue" without qualification.

Subsequently, however, the Judiciary Committee revised the definition and corrected these problematic features. The amended statute accompanying the second report of the Committee defined "biological material" in terms of an all-inclusive list, and -- more importantly, for present purposes -- it inserted the word "observable" to modify "skin tissue."*fn26 Shortly thereafter, in the final enrolled version of the bill that became law, the word "visible" was substituted for "observable."*fn27 The changes reduced the burden on the police to identify and preserve biological material for future DNA testing.*fn28 We would be thwarting the Council's intent if we were to interpret the word "visible" as appellant and amicus propose; indeed, given the ease with which trace skin cells can be deposited on all manner of surfaces and substances, and remain on them indefinitely, such an interpretation might require police to collect anything and everything at a crime scene that the perpetrator could have touched.*fn29

Appellant argues that the exclusion of trace amounts of skin tissue (and any other readily available source of potentially relevant DNA, for that matter) from the class of biological material subject to post-conviction DNA testing is arbitrary and irrational, and contravenes his right to due process. He acknowledges that the Supreme Court has declined to recognize "a freestanding right to DNA evidence" as a matter of substantive due process.*fn30

Even so, he asserts, he has "a liberty interest in demonstrating his innocence with new evidence under [District of Columbia] law" (the IPA), and this statutorily-created right "beget[s] yet other rights to procedures essential to the realization of the parent right"*fn31 --

including a right to test any DNA-containing evidence that has been preserved in this case and that might show his innocence. If the IPA is interpreted to withhold that right, appellant contends, it denies him procedural due process.

We agree with appellant's premise: The IPA has created a liberty interest in providing for post-conviction relief, and the District's procedures for vindicating that interest must satisfy due process.*fn32 But the Supreme Court emphasized in Osborne that a state (or, as in this case, the District of Columbia) is allowed considerable "flexibility in deciding what procedures are needed in the context of post-conviction relief," because "[a] criminal defendant proved guilty after a fair trial does not have the same liberty interests as a free man."*fn33 We therefore are obliged to uphold the IPA's limitation on the types of biological materials that will be subject to post-conviction DNA testing unless appellant can establish that it "'offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,' or 'transgresses [a] recognized principle of fundamental fairness in operation.'"*fn34 Otherwise put, we "may upset [the District's] post-conviction relief procedures only if they are fundamentally inadequate to vindicate the substantive rights provided."*fn35

We conclude that, to resolve this appeal, we need not decide the constitutional challenge that appellant presents to the IPA's limited definition of "biological material" subject to post-conviction DNA testing. We would find his challenge a pressing and difficult one if we thought it reasonably probable that the DNA testing he requests actually would help him establish his innocence and thus provide him with the key to the door of his prison cell. The District of Columbia appears to be the only jurisdiction in the United States with a statutory right to post-conviction DNA testing that would deny testing on trace amounts of skin tissue that might provide exoneration;*fn36 and outside of § 22-4133 of the IPA, it is at best unclear whether any procedural route exists for someone in appellant's position to obtain a court order for such testing.*fn37 Moreover, while there are practical reasons for alleviating the burden on law enforcement to preserve any and all evidence that might contain invisible traces of a perpetrator's skin cells, we are aware of no practical, or scientific, reasons for categorically excluding such evidence from DNA testing, regardless of its value, when in fact it has been preserved.*fn38

But like its counterparts in other jurisdictions, the IPA requires the applicant to demonstrate the materiality of the post-conviction testing sought -- the reasonable probability that it will help prove the applicant's innocence.*fn39 The imposition of this requirement is compatible with due process, and appellant does not contend otherwise.*fn40 As we proceed to explain, appellant cannot establish a due process violation because he has not satisfied the IPA's materiality requirement.

B. Appellant's Failure to Demonstrate Materiality

Whether an applicant for post-conviction DNA testing has demonstrated "a reasonable probability that testing will produce non-cumulative evidence that would help establish that the applicant was actually innocent"*fn41 is, typically, a mixed question of fact and law. We defer to the trial court's reasonable determination of disputed facts. Whether the established or uncontested facts suffice to demonstrate the requisite degree of materiality is a question of law for our de novo review.

"Reasonable probability" is a legal term of art borrowed from constitutional jurisprudence. When a defendant is required to show a "reasonable probability" of prejudice in order to obtain post-conviction relief for a violation of his constitutional rights, the harm of which he complains (suppression or exclusion of exculpatory evidence, or deficient performance of counsel, for example) must be significant enough that it "undermines confidence" in the trial's outcome.*fn42 This means more than a mere possibility of prejudice. The IPA evidently requires an applicant for post-conviction DNA testing to make a comparable showing and demonstrate something more than a mere possibility that the test results would help him prove his actual innocence in spite of all the evidence of his guilt.*fn43

In the present case, assuming that trace skin cells are present, and that the requested testing would result in the recovery of a usable DNA profile (of someone other than appellant or the victim),*fn44 appellant cannot show a reasonable probability that this would assist him to establish his actual innocence of Ms. Chappelle's murder. Appellant has advanced no plausible scenario in which traces of a third person's skin cells (years after the event) would exonerate him. Indeed, there is no evidence that anyone other than appellant and Ms. Chappelle was even present at the time of the assault (and appellant certainly has not identified or described another possible perpetrator whose link to the crime could be corroborated through DNA testing).*fn45 Appellant did not testify and offered no such evidence at his trial; nor did he set forth the facts in the bare-bones affidavit of innocence that he filed in support of his IPA motion.*fn46 Thus, as far as the evidentiary record is concerned, we have only the uncontradicted testimony at trial that appellant was alone in the house with Ms. Chappelle when she was attacked; he was the only person seen leaving the premises after the crime; and no one besides appellant and Ms. Chappelle was there when the police arrived.*fn47

Moreover, if we nonetheless entertain the suggestion that another person somehow could have committed the assault, traces of a third person's skin cells on the items of evidence in this case would not prove it. These items were ordinary personal and household objects that Ms. Chappelle wore (the rings) or carried around with her (the purse), or that she and others put to everyday use (the knife, scissors and wrench). As the judge below found, the presence of third-party skin cells on these objects might mean someone other than appellant or Ms. Chappelle touched them at some point in time; but that proves nothing, because it would not mean that the cells were deposited on the items during or around the time of the attack. They just as easily could have been left on the objects before or after the crime was committed, under circumstances having nothing to do with it -- for example, by family members, acquaintances, or strangers making use of the objects or merely touching them in ordinary social interactions with Ms. Chappelle; or, for that matter, by investigators or unknown persons who could have handled the objects after the police acquired custody of them.*fn48

In short, the discovery of a stranger's DNA in trace skin cells would do exceedingly little, if anything, to rebut the overwhelming evidence of appellant's guilt. All things considered, we readily conclude that appellant failed to show a reasonable probability that the testing he requested would produce non-cumulative evidence that would help establish his actual innocence of the crimes for which he was convicted.

IV.

We hold that appellant's supplemental application for post-conviction DNA testing did not meet the requirements of the post-conviction testing provision of the IPA, D.C. Code § 4133, and the rejection of that application did not deprive appellant of due process of law. We affirm the order of the Superior Court denying appellant relief from his convictions under the IPA.

So ordered.


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