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Coates v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

April 23, 2015

CHARLES M. COATES, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE

Argued December 10, 2014

Page 565

Editorial Note:

This is an unpublished decision under D.C.App. R. 28 (h) and is of no precedential value except when used under res judicata, collateral estoppel, in a criminal action against same defendant or in a disciplinary action against the same respondent.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF1-7379-11). (Hon. William M. Jackson, Trial Judge).

Daniel Gonen, Public Defender Service, with whom James Klein, Samia Fam, and Sonam Henderson, Public Defender Service, were on the briefs, for appellant.

John Cummings, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman and Michael Liebman, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before GLICKMAN and FISHER, Associate Judges, and RUIZ, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Page 566

Glickman, Associate Judge.

On trial for murder, appellant Charles Coates admitted having shot and killed his cousin and close friend Eddie Leonard, but claimed he did so unintentionally and in self-defense when Leonard, freaking out on PCP, threatened him with a gun. The key witness against appellant--the government's only witness capable of disputing his account of the shooting--was a jailhouse informant, who testified that appellant confessed to killing Leonard, not in self-defense, but in a fight over the proceeds of a robbery they committed. Appellant denied having confessed to this, but the jury, evidently crediting the informant's testimony, found him guilty of second-degree murder while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and other related firearm offenses.

In a trial that pitted appellant's credibility against that of the informant, appellant claims the trial court made two erroneous evidentiary rulings that unfairly skewed the contest against him. First, appellant argues that the court violated his Sixth Amendment right of confrontation by precluding him from impeaching the informant with evidence of his bias--specifically, evidence implying the informant had corruptly fabricated a murder confession by an innocent man in another case in order to curry favor with the government. Second, appellant contends the court also erred in allowing the prosecutor to impeach his (appellant's) veracity by introducing extrinsic evidence of his prior uncharged misconduct--specifically, his statement to police that he had committed what he called " trick" robberies factually unrelated to the charges in this case.

We agree with appellant that each of these rulings was erroneous, and that the ruling limiting his ability to establish the informant's corruption bias cannot be

Page 567

deemed harmless. We therefore vacate appellant's convictions and remand for a new trial.[1]

I.

The evidence at trial established that the decedent, Eddie Leonard, left his father's house in Southeast Washington, D.C., around 11:30 p.m. on the night of February 20, 2011, to meet up with appellant and another man. Leonard and appellant were cousins. Witnesses described the two men as very close friends who frequently hung out together. On this occasion, Leonard was carrying his .380 pistol with him. By appellant's own account, he and Leonard planned to rob the man accompanying them, who was a PCP dealer.[2]

Within fifteen to twenty minutes, Leonard was lying dead in an alley in Northeast Washington, D.C. He was killed by a single gunshot to his head, fired at close range from his own pistol.[3] A toxicology report concluded that Leonard had ingested PCP within six hours of his death. Other than appellant, there were no eyewitnesses to the killing.[4]

Around 4:30 a.m. the next morning, appellant arrived at his mother's house, sweating and crying. He asked his mother to call the police and tell them he had information about Leonard's death. Appellant told his family members and the detectives who interviewed him that Leonard was shot by a drug dealer. His accounts of how that happened were inconsistent. Ultimately, though, appellant stated to the police that he and Leonard tried to rob a PCP dealer (the person who was with appellant when Leonard joined them); that Leonard drew his gun and attempted to shoot the dealer but the gun failed to fire; and that the dealer then pulled out his own gun and shot Leonard.

The parties agree that appellant's stories of Leonard having been shot by a drug dealer were fabrications. The government and appellant disagreed at trial as to what actually occurred.

The government's theory of the case was that appellant and Leonard robbed someone, possibly a drug dealer, and that appellant afterwards shot Leonard in a dispute over how to divide up the proceeds between them. The evidentiary basis for this theory was the uncorroborated testimony of a self-described jailhouse informant named Robert Bethea. Bethea, who was 37 years old at the time of trial, had a lengthy criminal record and had spent most of his adult life in prison.[5] He had acted as a government informant and witness in seven different homicide cases (including

Page 568

this one). In exchange for his cooperation, he had received numerous benefits, including the dismissal or reduction of charges, sentencing concessions, and tens of thousands of dollars in housing and living expenses through the witness protection program. " If I'm going to put my life on the line, yeah, there's got to be some benefits," Bethea testified. " [I]f I'm going to provide information, I'm going to receive something in return." Bethea insisted, though, that " receiv[ing] something in return" was not his only reason for serving as a government informant: " I'm cooperating because of the benefits of cooperating," he stated, " and because, also, it's the right thing to do. You're talking about murder." On cross-examination, Bethea readily admitted that he was " not the most honest guy in the world," that he had committed " a lot" of crimes, and that if he were caught, he would lie about what he had done to " weasel out of it." [6] However, Bethea was adamant that he was " always truthful" and " very honest" when he provided information about a murder committed by someone else. He would lie about his own misconduct to get out of trouble, he said, but " for me to sit and lie on somebody else to where it can cost them their whole life, never."

Bethea claimed he earned appellant's confidence while the two were locked up together following appellant's arrest in this case. Initially, Bethea testified, appellant told him the same story he had told his family and police--that Leonard was shot by a drug dealer in a robbery gone awry. Eventually, however, after a number of conversations on the subject and some prodding by Bethea, appellant confessed his own involvement in the shooting: " What [appellant] said," Bethea testified, " was that him and his cousin went on a robbery, they got the money, got away and then his cousin be tripping off the PCP . . . and they got to arguing about some money. Then he said he--he said, yeah." Prompted to elaborate, Bethea continued:

I said, you keep telling me that some other guy shot your cousin, this and that. I said, man, I think you did it. And then that's when he just came out smiling and he said, yeah, man, we were on the move,[7] man, we got the money. Once we came back he be tripping off the [PCP] and, yeah. And he had a smile on his face. ...

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