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In re C.A.

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

June 14, 2018

In re C.A., Appellant.

          Argued April 5, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DEL-1027-15) (Hon. Kimberley S. Knowles, Trial Judge

          Claire Pavlovic, Public Defender Service, with whom Samia Fam, Jonathan Anderson, and Jaclyn Frankfurt, Public Defender Service, were on the brief for appellant.

          Janice Y. Sheppard, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General at the time the brief was filed, and Rosalyn Calbert Groce, Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief for appellee.

          Before Easterly and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

          EASTERLY, ASSOCIATE JUDGE

         Appellant C.A. appeals from a determination that he was "involved" in two counts of attempted first degree murder while armed and related lesser charges.[1] He argues both that the trial court should not have precluded his impeachment of a key government witness and that it should not have admitted a prior consistent statement by that same witness. We review the trial court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion, recognizing that it is necessarily such an abuse for the trial court to employ "incorrect legal standards." Mayhand v. United States, 127 A.3d 1198, 1205 (D.C. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). We conclude that the trial court's adverse rulings were each an abuse of discretion and were not harmless. Accordingly, we reverse.

         I. Facts

         The government's case against C.A. turned on the testimony of the two complainants, A.H. and his brother, M.L. At trial, A.H. and M.L. testified that two males-one dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans (identified as C.A.), the other dressed in all black (identified as C.A.'s adult companion, Mike)-had confronted and followed A.H. and M.L. down the street. The brothers further testified that Mike handed a gun to C.A. and that C.A. then shot at them. Counsel for C.A. sought to challenge this narrative and impeach A.H. with the fact that he failed to correct Officer Wertz-one of the first police officers to respond to the scene and speak to A.H. and his brother-when Officer Wertz told another uniformed officer that "the one in black" (Mike) was the shooter. But the trial court precluded counsel from pursuing this line of impeachment. The trial court subsequently permitted the government to introduce a prior consistent statement by A.H. to a plainclothes detective, identifying C.A. as the shooter. Ultimately, the trial court found that C.A. was the shooter, based on (1) the "adamant" and "consistent" testimony of A.H. and his brother; (2) the shell casings found at the scene; and (3) a surveillance video from a home a block away from the shooting.

         II. Evidentiary Rulings

         A. Preclusion of Impeachment

         C.A. first argues that the trial court erred when it prevented him from impeaching A.H. as to the identity of the shooter with the fact that A.H. failed to correct Officer Wertz when Officer Wertz told another uniformed officer that "the one in black" (Mike) was the shooter. We agree.

         On cross-examination, C.A.'s counsel asked A.H. if it was correct that:

this entire scene was going on around you when all the first officers came there, and they all thought Mike was the shooter, and you never corrected them . . . . There were people going on - or there were cops all around you, talking about Mike being the shooter, or ...

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