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Jackson v. United States

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

June 27, 2019

Ronald J. Jackson, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Argued March 13, 2019

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia CF3-15862-15) (Hon. Marisa J. Demeo, Trial Judge

          Mindy A. Daniels for appellant.

          Eric Hansford, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Jessie K. Liu, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Michael P. McCarthy, and Ryan Creighton, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Fisher and Beckwith, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.


         A jury found appellant Ronald Jackson guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon. The sole question before this court is whether the trial court abused its discretion by admitting evidence that appellant used PCP eighteen hours before the attack without any accompanying expert testimony enabling the jury to evaluate whether Jackson was under the influence of the drug at the time of the assault. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Factual Background

         Appellant Ronald Jackson and Desmon Beasley had been best friends for over forty years. In 2014, Jackson moved into Beasley's apartment. At that time, Beasley weighed over 600 pounds and, as a result, had limited mobility. Jackson paid Beasley a small amount in rent and assisted Beasley with daily activities.

         By November 2015, the situation between Beasley and Jackson had changed, and Beasley wanted Jackson to move out. Beasley had lost a considerable amount of weight and was better able to move around. He began to pursue a romantic relationship with his friend, Erika Williams, and found it difficult to do so with Jackson in the apartment. Additionally, Beasley was frustrated by Jackson's inability to maintain a steady job and had difficulty supporting both himself and Jackson on his Social Security income.

         Tensions between Jackson and Beasley came to a head on November 13, 2015. That morning, Beasley told Jackson to leave the apartment and offered him money for a Metro fare. Beasley heard Jackson leave, and then went back to sleep in the bedroom with Williams. Later that afternoon, Williams woke up and asked Beasley to escort her to the bathroom. From the hallway, Beasley saw Jackson sitting on the couch in the living room, shucking clams and eating ice cream.

         According to the evidence at trial, Beasley approached Jackson and demanded multiple times that he leave the apartment. Jackson did not respond to Beasley and, instead, stared at the television with a blank face and glassy eyes. Beasley grew upset that Jackson was not responding to him. Although Beasley and Jackson had never physically fought during their forty-year friendship, Beasley struck Jackson hard on the head. During the ensuing scuffle, Jackson picked up the knife he was using to shuck clams and swung it at Beasley's face, striking him in the eye. By all accounts, the attack was out of character for Jackson, who is normally a peaceful person. The attack left Beasley blind in his left eye.

         II. Relevant Trial Testimony

         A. Evidence of Drug Use

         Prior to trial, the government moved in limine to admit evidence that Jackson used phencyclidine (PCP) on November 12, 2015, the night before the fight. The government contended that such evidence provided important context that would serve to explain Jackson's odd behavior, why Beasley wanted Jackson to leave the apartment, and why Beasley was in the living room when he was assaulted. Jackson opposed the motion, arguing that any evidence of PCP use was evidence of other crimes or bad acts which was unfairly prejudicial.

         Judge Marisa Demeo ruled the evidence admissible. Citing cases which we discuss below, the court found that such testimony would provide context and serve to explain the witnesses' observations, beliefs, and behaviors. The court determined that there was a close temporal relationship between Jackson's use of PCP on November 12 and the attack the following afternoon. After reviewing the proffered evidence, the court found that its probative value was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The court denied the government's request to admit testimony of Jackson's use of PCP prior to November 12, 2015.

         At trial, both Williams and Beasley testified that they smelled PCP in the apartment prior to the assault. Williams testified that at around 8:00 p.m. on November 12, while she was at the apartment, she saw Jackson smoke a cigarette which had a "plastic" odor, similar to embalming fluid. Over objection, Williams testified that the cigarette smelled like PCP, an odor she recognized from walking past individuals smoking it on the streets. Williams further testified that Jackson began acting strangely after smoking the cigarette. She described Jackson's movements as being "disconjointed" and "demonic." Williams stated that the apartment smelled like PCP the following morning as well. Beasley, who had used PCP in the past, corroborated this testimony, stating that he smelled the odor in the apartment on November 13. Williams testified that because she felt uncomfortable around PCP, and "wasn't sure what was ...

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