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Richardson v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

August 28, 2014

TROY D. RICHARDSON, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE

Argued December 5, 2013

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF1-11069-09). (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Trial Judge).

Edward F.C. Gain, Jr. for appellant.

Peter S. Smith, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Elizabeth H. Danello, Laura Bach, and Melinda Williams, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before FISHER and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

OPINION

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Belson, Senior Judge.

Troy Richardson appeals from a judgment of conviction of voluntary manslaughter while armed and carrying a dangerous weapon (prior felon) (CDW).[1] He contends that the trial court abused its discretion both in excluding evidence that supported his self-defense claim and in admitting evidence that, in the months and years before the stabbing, he regularly used PCP, and that the drug caused him to behave bizarrely. We agree that the trial court erroneously exercised its discretion in excluding certain evidence that supported Richardson's self-defense claim, that the error was not harmless, and that reversal is therefore required. Richardson does not mention the CDW conviction in his appeal brief, but because a finding that Richardson acted in self-defense would control the resolution of the CDW conviction,[2] we conclude that a new trial on both charges is appropriate.

The trial that we order today will be Richardson's third on these two charges. On January 8, 2010, Richardson was charged by indictment with first-degree murder while armed[3] and CDW in the May 17, 2009, stabbing of Tyrone Wheaton. On September 17, 2010, a jury found Richardson not guilty of first-degree and second-degree murder while armed, but was unable to reach a verdict on the charges of voluntary manslaughter while armed and carrying a dangerous weapon, and the court declared a mistrial. On April 6, 2011, a second jury found Richardson guilty of those charges. As we will explain, the first jury heard evidence that Richardson had " snitched" on Wheaton and his family, and that Richardson believed that Wheaton knew that he had done so. The trial court did not allow Richardson to present most of this evidence to the second jury, ruling that Richardson's speculation about what Wheaton believed was not relevant.[4] Because Richardson's self-defense claim was premised substantially on his own reasonable perceptions about what was happening between Wheaton and him, and because evidence that Richardson snitched on Wheaton and his family was relevant to whether his fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm at Wheaton's hands was reasonable, Richardson should have been permitted to present this evidence to the jury.

I.

In the early evening of May 17, 2009, police responded to a 911 call from 2424 Elvans Road in Southeast, D.C., and found Tyrone Wheaton lying motionless and nonresponsive in the doorway to apartment

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203, where he lived. The Chief Medical Examiner for the District of Columbia, who performed an autopsy on Wheaton, testified that he died from acute blood loss from a stabbing that punctured his aorta and left a wound seven to eight inches deep.

Earlier that afternoon, Wheaton had brought his girlfriend and their two sons, then twelve and thirteen, to dinner at his apartment, where he had lived for some years with his mother, Deborah Sparks, and two siblings. Appellant Richardson, another long-time resident, lived across the hall in apartment 202.

According to Deontrae Ingram, a sixteen year-old neighbor, Richardson was outside on the porch in front of 2424 Elvans Road that afternoon smoking a " dipper" (a tobacco or marijuana cigarette dipped in PCP) when Wheaton approached him. The two fought,[5] and a crowd gathered to watch. Ingram, the only member of that crowd to testify, said that after the fight Wheaton returned to his apartment, and Richardson ran up the stairs after him, yelling, " I'm a kill you bitch, I'm a kill you."

Ingram continued inside to an inner stairwell which gave him a view of the landing between Richardson's and Wheaton's apartments. He said that while Wheaton was standing in the hallway between apartments 202 and 203 talking to his mother, Richardson " peeked" out of his door, then stepped out into the hallway and punched Wheaton.

Deborah Sparks, Wheaton's mother, had been inside apartment 203 that afternoon preparing dinner, and she testified that Wheaton went outside the building briefly and returned a few minutes later, appearing upset, and then went into the hallway. Hearing a commotion in the hall, she went to her apartment doorway. She heard Richardson say, " call the police, call the ambulance, because he's about to die." She then saw Richardson emerge from his apartment, stab Wheaton, and quickly return to his apartment.[6] Wheaton's sister, Jessica Sparks, who also lived in apartment 203, said that she was returning home when she heard about the stabbing from a neighbor, at which point she ran up the stairs, retrieved a yellow and black crowbar that the family kept in the living room, and banged on Richardson's door with it.

Wheaton's sons were called by the defense. They saw the events from the living room of apartment 203, which gave them a partial view into the hallway.[7] At trial, one son testified that after Richardson, unarmed, took a swing at Wheaton, Wheaton entered apartment 203, grabbed a yellow and black crowbar from the living room, and returned to the hallway. Richardson, then armed with a knife, swung at Wheaton and missed, and Wheaton swung the crowbar at Richardson. He did not see whether Wheaton hit Richardson with the crowbar. Richardson then backed up and took a third swing at Wheaton with the knife. The other son testified that he saw Wheaton, angry and yelling, grab the crowbar from behind the TV in the living room, and return to the hallway. He said that Richardson stabbed his father twice, and his father then walked back into apartment 203.

Richardson testified at trial, saying that Wheaton approached him when he was

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sitting on the porch outside 2424 Elvans Road that afternoon.[8] He said that Wheaton " came up the steps, stood over top of me. And I looked up and he said 'You snitch-ass bitch.'" Then Wheaton attacked him. Seeking safety, he went upstairs to his apartment. He said he was unlocking his apartment door when he heard a woman's voice say, " kill his ass, kill his ass," and he then felt " something hard hit my back." [9] Richardson said he grabbed a knife that was sitting on a " half-wall" or a ledge by his door as Wheaton was trying to force his way into Richardson's apartment. He admitted to stabbing Wheaton with it. Afterward, Richardson said he returned to his apartment, locked the door, and stayed there for several hours. During that time, according to Officer Kelan Edwards who responded to the 911 call, Richardson was listening to music and popping popcorn. Edwards testified that he banged on Richardson's door with his fist and with a baton, and identified himself as a police officer, only to hear a man's voice say, " get the fuck away from my door." Richardson finally emerged only after police cut the power supply to his apartment.

II.

As the jury in Richardson's first trial learned, but the jury in the trial before us did not, the Sparks-Wheaton family occasionally sold drugs out of apartment 203, and Richardson, a longstanding drug addict, was a regular buyer. Approximately six months before he stabbed Wheaton in May of 2009, Richardson informed police about drug sales from apartment 203. He spoke several times with Sergeant Yurell Washington of the Metropolitan Police Department, providing Wheaton's name and the make and license plate number of the car Wheaton drove. According to Richardson, after he spoke with Sergeant Washington, but well ...


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