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Holmes v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

July 21, 2016

Christopher T. Holmes, Appellant,
v.
United States, Appellee.

          Argued April 7, 2016

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Criminal Division (CF1-15515-12) (Hon. Rhonda Reid Winston, Trial Judge)

          Peters H. Meyers for appellant.

          Nicholas P. Coleman, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Charming D. Phillips, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant United States Attorney, were on the brief, for appellee.

          BEFORE: THOMPSON and MCLEESE, Associate Judge; and KING, Senior Judge.

         JUDGMENT

         This case came to be heard on the transcript of record and the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the appellant's convictions are affirmed.

          OPINION

          Warren R. King Senior Judge.

         Following a jury trial, appellant Christopher Holmes was convicted of second degree murder while armed and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence. On appeal, Holmes argues that the trial court erred in admitting witness testimony about another crime that Holmes reportedly committed and about witness fear. He also argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial after a prospective defense witness yelled outside of the courtroom that her life was in danger. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         I.

         The charges against appellant Christopher Holmes arose from the fatal shooting of David Tucker outside a barbershop located in the Southeast quadrant of the District of Columbia in October 2008. On the day of the shooting, Holmes walked into the Classic Kutz Barbershop on 22nd Street. Larocko Miles, one of the barbers, testified that he saw a young man, later identified as Holmes, come into the barbershop wearing an "Elmer Fudd"-style hat with earflaps. Tucker, who was sitting inside the barbershop, told Holmes, "[W]hat you coming in here for[?] [A]in't nobody in here for you to rob." Holmes replied, "[M]an, you say anything[, ]" and started to leave. As Holmes was leaving, Tucker stated, "[Y]ou're going to do something[, ] young'un[?]" Holmes replied, "[N]aw, I ain't going to do nothing." Although Holmes and Tucker exchanged more words, all Miles could discern was Tucker saying to Holmes, twice, "[W]hat you say, young'un[?]" Tucker then walked out of the barbershop after Holmes.

         Akeem Young, who had known Holmes and Tucker for many years, was standing outside of the barbershop when Holmes came out saying, "[T]his nr got me f**ked up." Tucker then "storm[ed]" out of the barbershop and approached Holmes, grabbed him by the "shoulder and neck area, " and told him to "get the hell away from the barbershop." A struggle ensued between the two men during which Tucker pushed Holmes into the street. Holmes pulled out what appeared to Young to be a .40-caliber gun and pointed it at Tucker. Young began to run away and heard Tucker say to Holmes, "[W]hat you going to do[?] You going to shoot me out here in public, [in] broad day light?" Seconds later, Young heard gunshots.

         Miles, who heard three gunshots after Tucker went outside, saw Tucker come back into the barbershop and fall to the floor. Lee Wade, who was inside the barbershop, also heard gunshots and saw the victim fall in through the front door. Tucker later died from a single gunshot that had penetrated his heart.

         Holmes was indicted on September 5, 2012, for one count of first-degree premeditated murder while armed, [1] one count of possession of a firearm during crime of violence (PFCV), [2] and one count of carrying a pistol without a license (CPWL).[3] Before trial, the trial court granted Holmes's unopposed motion to dismiss the CPWL count. Following a jury trial, Holmes was acquitted of first-degree premeditated murder while armed and its accompanying PFCV charge, but found guilty of the lesser-included offenses of second-degree murder while armed and its accompanying PFCV charge. This appeal followed.

         II.

         On appeal, Holmes argues that the trial court erred in allowing Nicholas Proctor, the victim of a robbery, to testify that prior to the shooting he had told Tucker that the perpetrator of the robbery "might have been someone named Bar Beast, " which the defense stipulated was Holmes's nickname.

         In general, evidence of other uncharged crimes is inadmissible if it is offered to prove a defendant's propensity to commit the charged crime. Drew v. United States, 331 F.2d 85, 89-90 (D.C. Cir. 1964). Other crimes evidence is admissible, however, if it is "necessary to place the charged crime in an understandable context." Johnson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1087, 1098 (D.C. 1996) (en banc); see also Toliver v. United States, 468 A.2d 958, 961 (D.C. 1983). Such evidence may still be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by danger of unfair prejudice. Johnson, supra, 683 A.2d at 1100-01. "[T]he evaluation and weighing of evidence for relevance and potential prejudice is quintessentially a discretionary function of the trial court, and we owe a great degree of deference to its decision." Id. at 1095.

         Here, Proctor's testimony was not admitted for the purposes of proving Holmes's criminal propensity; rather it was offered to explain the confrontation between Holmes and Tucker. We conclude that not only did the trial court exercise its proper discretion, the court did so with caution to prevent potential prejudice from the testimony. More specifically, at the pretrial hearing on the matter, the court found that Proctor's testimony was relevant to help explain Tucker's accusatory statements toward Holmes in the barbershop, giving context to the animosity between the two men leading up to the shooting. The trial court twice expressed its concern regarding the potential prejudice against Holmes, and, thus, limited Proctor's testimony to only what he had told Tucker prior to the shooting, not why Proctor thought Holmes might have been the perpetrator. For reasons stated below, we are satisfied that such testimony was admissible as Johnson evidence given the circumstances here and that the trial court acted properly to "control the development and use of the evidence at trial" in minimizing the testimony's potential prejudice. Id. at 1101.

         Holmes argues that Proctor's testimony was not necessary to place the shooting in an understandable context because Tucker was just "trash talking" when he told Holmes, "[A]in't nobody in here for you to rob." This argument fails because evidence at trial showed that the two men had a close relationship prior to the shooting, with Tucker having treated Holmes like a "son, " including buying him clothes and giving him money. With this history between Holmes and Tucker, Proctor's testimony was necessary to explain why Tucker would now accuse Holmes of robbery. Deprived of Proctor's testimony, the jury would have been left uninformed and unable to bridge the gap between the men's previous close relationship and Tucker's accusation against Holmes which escalated to angry exchanges and the eventual fatal shooting. See, e.g., Brown v. United States, 934 A.2d 930, 940-41 (D.C. 2007) (evidence of defendant's uncharged possession of illegal drugs was admissible to help explain the reason why defendant and codefendant, as part of a turf war over drugs, would approach two strangers and immediately shoot them in the back); Bonhart v. United States, 691 A.2d 160 (D.C. 1997) (evidence that defendant sold drugs to victim for years, supplied crack cocaine to victim and roommate two days before fire, and had threatened to burn down apartment building if victim did not pay him for recent drug sale was admissible in prosecution for arson and murder to put arson in context).

         Holmes also contends that the probative value of Proctor's testimony was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. This argument is without merit. The record on appeal shows that the trial court twice expressed its concern regarding the potential prejudice of Proctor's testimony, and, as a precautionary measure, limited the testimony to only what Proctor had told Tucker prior to the shooting. See Johnson, supra, 683 A.2d at 1104-05 & n.22 (evidence of uncharged murders was properly admitted because it was not offered to prove the defendant's criminal disposition but as identity evidence and direct evidence of the charged crimes, also the trial court took appropriate actions to minimize undue prejudice by denying the prosecutor's request to admit an autopsy photo and distressed 911 call reporting the murders). The jury was allowed to only hear that Proctor had told Tucker the robber "might have been someone named Bar Beast, " not why and how Proctor arrived at that conclusion. Furthermore, the government, in its closing argument, limited its use of this testimony to only explaining Tucker's statements:

There's nobody in here for you to rob is a pretty specific thing to say to somebody. Now ask yourself who did Mr. Tucker have a reason to say those words to and now at the end of this trial you know the answer to that question too. Mr. Tucker had a reason to say those words to Bar Beast, the Defendant, Christopher Holmes. What was that reason? Mr. Tucker thought that Bar Beast had robbed Nicholas Proctor, a long-time friend of Mr. Tucker. ...

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