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Strahan v. State

July 23, 1998

ROBERT STRAHAN
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI



Before Prather, C.j., Roberts And Mills, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Prather, Chief Justice

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/27/96

TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JAMES E. GRAVES, JR.

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT

BY: JEFFREY A. KLINGFUSS

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: EDWARD J. PETERS

NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY

DISPOSITION AFFIRMED

I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶1. This case arises from the April 28, 1995, shooting death of seventeen-year-old Jason Brown. The record reflects that Jason Brown and Patrick Holiday left the Metrocenter Shopping Mall that night in Brown's blue Malibu. The Malibu had very expensive hubcaps and a good stereo system.

¶2. The appellant, Robert Strahan, was riding in the backseat of a maroon Cougar. The Cougar was driven by Patrick Cavett, who followed Brown's car "bumper-to-bumper" for several miles, while flashing the headlights. Glynn Stevens and Calvin "Kenyatta" Shelton were also riding in the Cougar. Holiday knew Shelton from church and school.

¶3. Brown stopped at an intersection. Holiday got out of Brown's car and asked "why the [expletive]" they were being followed. Several shots were fired from the maroon Cougar. Holiday, who had been shot in the leg, ran back to Brown's car. Cavett drove the Cougar away from the scene. Brown, who never left his vehicle, had been fatally shot in the head.

¶4. On August 8, 1995, Robert Strahan and three others (Calvin Shelton, Glynn Stevens, and Patrick Cavett) were indicted for Brown's murder in the First Judicial District of the Hinds County Circuit Court. Strahan was arraigned August 31, 1995. On October 25, 1995, Strahan moved to sever the cases, but the motion was denied December 4, 1995.

¶5. However, as an alternative to severance, the trial Judge granted Strahan's motion in limine prohibiting any testimony on Strahan's exercising his right to remain silent during the police investigation and at trial. In February, 1996, Strahan, Cavett and Stevens were tried together, and co-indictee Shelton testified against them. Strahan was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. His subsequent motion for judgment not withstanding the verdict (JNOV), or, in the alternative, a new trial, was denied April 5, 1996. On appeal, Strahan raises the following issues for consideration by this Court:

A. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING A SEVERANCE?

B. WHETHER THE CONVICTION WAS SUPPORTED BY SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE?

C. WHETHER THE EVIDENCE ADEQUATELY SUPPORTED A MURDER CONVICTION AS OPPOSED TO MANSLAUGHTER?

D. WHETHER THE COURT ERRED IN ALLOWING COMMENT DURING CLOSING ARGUMENTS ON STRAHAN'S SILENCE?

E. WHETHER THE COURT ERRED IN NOT CAUTIONING THE JURY TO DISREGARD IMPROPER EVIDENCE?

F. WHETHER SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD STRAHAN WAS ENTITLED TO A SENTENCING HEARING OR CONSIDERATION OF ALTERNATIVE SENTENCES?

G. WHETHER THE COURT ERRED IN REFUSING TO STRIKE JUROR CLIFF BOWEN FOR CAUSE?

H. WHETHER THE COURT ERRED IN DENYING STRAHAN A CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE INSTRUCTION?

¶6. The issues raised by the appellant are without merit, and the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING A SEVERANCE?

¶7. Strahan first argues that the trial Judge should have severed his trial from that of his co-defendants, Cavett and Stevens. Specifically, Strahan argues that 1) he could not cross-examine the redacted statements of his co-defendants, which exculpated them at Strahan's expense; 2) he was prejudiced by the overwhelming weight of evidence against his co-defendants; 3) his defense was inconsistent with the defenses of his co-defendants; and 4) his "silence compared detrimentally with willingness to talk of his co-defendants."

¶8. The record reflects that Strahan waived his objection to a joint trial. During argument on the defendants' motions to sever, Strahan's attorney made the following comment before the trial court: [STRAHAN'S ATTORNEY]: Judge, we filed a motion to sever, too. But in the alternative to that, we would be ready to proceed without severance if the Court would grant a motion in limine that no party could mention Robert Strahan not testifying. Additionally, we would waive the motion to sever if, as part of the in limine, that none of the co-defendants would call Robert Strahan to testify; in other words, forcing him to take the Fifth.

¶9. Subsequently, the trial Judge entered the following order denying the motion to sever, and granting the motion in limine : ... All parties including the state and all co-defendant herein, are strictly prohibited from commenting in any manner about Robert Strahan not giving a statement to law enforcement following any invocation of his right to remain silent in this matter.

... All parties, including the state and all co-defendants in this case are strictly prohibited from making comment in any manner about Robert Strahan not testifying at trial, if in fact he does not testify.

... Based on representations of counsel for Patrick Cavett and Glenn Stevens, neither shall call Robert Strahan as a witness at the trial of this action, without first announcing the same to the Court and counsel for Robert Strahan outside the presence and hearing of the jury, and allowing counsel for Robert Strahan to object.

... The State is required to strictly adhere to the ruling in Bruton v. U.S. , 391 U.S. 123... and its progeny, specifically, no verbal or written statement of any non-testifying defendant in this case, which is introduced into evidence or referred to at trial with the jury present, shall contain any reference to Robert Strahan, and all existing references to Robert Strahan contained in any such statements shall be redacted and removed from the same.

¶10. The record clearly reflects Strahan's willingness to proceed with the joint trial, if the trial Judge granted the motion in limine. The trial judge granted the motion in limine , and Strahan agreed to proceed with the joint trial. Therefore, any objection to the joint trial was waived.

¶11. Even if this Court were to consider Strahan's argument, it is without merit. The trial Judge has the discretion to grant a severance if it is necessary to promote a fair determination of the defendant's guilt or innocence. In Duckworth v. State , 477 So.2d 935, 937 (Miss.1985), this Court stated that there are a number of criteria to be used to determine if the denial of a motion for severance is proper. These criteria are whether or not the testimony of one co-defendant tends to exculpate that defendant at the expense of the other defendant and whether the balance of the evidence introduced at trial tends to go more to the guilt of one defendant rather than the other. Absent a showing of prejudice, there are no grounds to hold that the trial court abused its discretion. Id. at 937.

Hawkins v. State , 538 So. 2d 1204, 1207 (Miss. 1989); See Gossett v. State , 660 So. 2d 1285, 1289 (Miss. 1995); Tillman v. State , 606 So. 2d 1103, 1106 (Miss. 1992) ("the trial court has the discretion to grant a severance if it is necessary to promote a fair determination of the defendant's guilt or innocence"); Johnson v. State , 512 So. 2d 1246, 1254 (Miss. 1987); Price v. State , 336 So. 2d 1311, 1312 (Miss. 1976); URCCC 9.03 ; Miss. Code Ann. § 99-15-47 (1994).

¶12. It is noteworthy that the United States Supreme Court has recognized the importance of joint trials in the criminal Justice system. Richardson v. Marsh , 481 U. S. 200, 209-10 (1987) ("Joint trials generally serve the interests of Justice by avoiding inconsistent verdicts and enabling more accurate assessment of relative culpability -- advantages which sometimes operate to the defendant's benefit.").

¶13. Basically, Strahan contends that, because his two co-defendants gave statements to the police which were later admitted into evidence, he was penalized for not speaking to the police and not testifying at trial. Even though all references to Strahan were redacted from the statements of his co-defendants, Strahan argues that the jury found him guilty by association.

¶14. It was clearly not a violation of Strahan's confrontation rights for the trial court to conduct a joint trial and admit the co-defendants' redacted statements. Richardson , 481 U.S. at 209-210 ; Walker v. State , 430 So. 2d 418, 421 (Miss. 1983). The record reflects that all references to Strahan were deleted from those statements.

¶15. Moreover, a similar "guilt by association" claim was raised in Gossett v. State , 660 So 2d 1285 (Miss. 1995). In that case, this Court found that the "balance of the evidence demonstrated that [the defendants] separately shot [the victim] implicating them equally in the murder. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying either of the co[-]defendants' requests for a severance." Id. at 1290. See also Rigby v. State , 485 So. 2d 1060, 1061 (Miss. 1986) (quoting Blanks v. State , 451 So. 2d 775 (Miss. 1984) ("we found no error in a circuit Judge's refusal to grant a severance 'where all the evidence at the trial went to the guilt of both appellants and not to one more than the other.'").

¶16. Strahan withdrew his motion for severance in favor of a motion in limine. In addition, Strahan has not demonstrated that any of the evidence exculpated his co-defendants at his expense. He has not demonstrated that the balance of the evidence was tilted. He has not demonstrated any prejudice by the joint trial. The evidence in this case tended to implicate all defendants equally. That is, there was evidence that they all three fired guns that night. Although the statements of Strahan's co-defendants were admitted, all references to Strahan were carefully deleted therefrom. Strahan has not demonstrated any prejudice from the joint trial. Therefore, his argument on this point was previously waived and is also without merit.

B. WHETHER THE CONVICTION WAS SUPPORTED BY SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE?

ΒΆ17. Strahan also argues that the testimony of co-indictee Calvin Shelton was incompetent and should be disregarded. Specifically, Strahan contends that Shelton did not understand the consequences of lying under oath, and, therefore, Shelton's testimony should ...


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