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Minka v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi

July 27, 2017

ADOFO MINKA
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/19/2015

         HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JEFF WEILL, SR. TRIAL JUDGE.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: GREG RICHARD SPORE MICHELE PURVIS HARRIS MERRIDA COXWELL ROBERT SHULER SMITH JACK BRADLEY McCULLOUCH

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: JOSEPH SCOTT HEMLEBEN

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: DAVID NEIL McCARTY MERRIDA COXWELL

          DISTRICT ATTORNEY: ROBERT SHULER SMITH

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., KITCHENS AND BEAM, JJ.

          BEAM, JUSTICE

         ¶1. Adofo Minka was held in direct criminal contempt by Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Weill Sr. for unprofessional and contumacious behavior during the trial of his client which resulted in a mistrial. Minka was fined $100 and ordered to pay the costs of the jury in the amount of $1, 350. Minka appeals to this Court, claiming (1) he did not improperly comment during opening statements on a potential sentence his client might receive, which triggered a sua sponte objection from the trial court and was a key basis for the State's request(s) for a mistrial; (2) Minka's comments do not warrant criminal sanction because counsel have broad latitude during opening statements and closing arguments; (3) the record does not support a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that any of Minka's comments or conduct constitute criminal contempt; and (4) even if this Court affirms the trial court's contempt and sanction order, the monetary fine was $650 more than it should have been; therefore, the sanction amount must be reversed, lowered, and rendered.

         ¶2. We find no merit in any of the points of contention argued by Minka on appeal. The record[1] before this Court proves Minka is guilty of criminal contempt beyond a reasonable doubt. And the trial court had the authority to issue a monetary fine and costs in the amounts imposed. Therefore, we affirm the trial court's contempt and sanctions order.

         FACTS

         ¶3. On November 18, 2015, Minka appeared before Hinds County Circuit Court for the criminal trial of his client William Wilson, charged with the crime of felon in possession of a firearm. After the State concluded its opening statement, Minka began his opening statement, saying:

I've sat through just listening to the State's opening statement. I've sat over at the defense counsel table and I've talked to my client. And as I sat over there, I've been trying to take care of my fear. Fear is such a harrowing emotion. It grabs you, it takes hold of you; it can control you.

         ¶4. At that point, the trial court interjected and asked defense counsel and counsel for the State to approach the bench. Citing Rule 3.02 of the Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice (URCCC), the trial court told Minka that his argument was "not appropriate argument[; t]he purpose of opening statement is to lay out what you believe the evidence will show." The court said, "I don't know where this is headed, but it doesn't sound like it's headed toward the evidence." Minka responded, "It's headed there Judge. . . . I'm going to move quickly through this, Judge. I'm not going to take time. I understand what you're saying." The court replied, "All right. Well it's not just a question of time. This is not an emotional appeal, this is a laying out of the evidence. And so I'm just telling you, you need to not only move along, but move into what you expect the evidence will show."

         ¶5. Minka resumed his opening statement:

Sorry ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just trying to have a conversation with you. You've heard the prosecution's story of this case. But fortunately ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there's two sides to every story. The prosecution wants you to merely believe that this is a case about somebody who is convicted of a felony and they were in possession of some firearm. According to what the prosecution is saying the evidence will show, my client . . . over there, should already be on the bus to Parchman Penitentiary. Simple enough: right? Wrong.

         ¶6. The trial court again interjected and asked counsel for both parties to approach the bench. The court instructed Minka not to go into what potential sentence the defendant might face. A back-and-forth ensued between Minka and the trial court, with Minka denying he had commented on any potential sentence his client faced. The trial court said its ruling had been made and told Minka to finish his opening statement.

         ¶7. After the bench conference concluded, Minka said aloud in front of the jury, "I want the record to reflect that I never . . . made any statements . . . about . . . ." The trial court told counsel to approach the bench.

         ¶8. The court warned Minka that if he interrupted the court again and continued to talk after being instructed by the court not to, there would be serious consequences. The court then instructed Minka to finish his opening statement.

         ¶9. Minka continued his opening statement, saying:

This is not what that case is about ladies and gentlemen. The case theory, that's not what it's about. This case is about unrestrained and unchecked power. It is about the power of the vice and narcotics task force and bout [sic] the power of the district attorney's office represented by Mr. Smith and Mr. Muccllouch [sic] sitting over here. It is about how power only cares about taking care of itself. It's about power betraying our trust. During the course of this trial you're going to hear from men who represent the powerful entities . . . .

         ¶10. The State requested a bench conference and objected to Minka's statement on the ground it was improper. The trial court asked Minka to explain why his statement was not improper. Minka responded:

Because I said they [will] hear from the people coming up here, what the evidence [will] show. You want me to say what the evidence [will] show? Would that make the Court feel more comfortable?

         ¶11. The trial court sustained the State's objection, and instructed Minka to proceed. Continuing with his opening statement, Minka said to the jury:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just interested in the truth. I'm just trying to tell you what the evidence in this case is going to show. During the course of this trial, you're going to hear from detectives who give voice to the power of the Narcotics and Vice Task Force of the Jackson Police Department. During the course of this trial, you're going to hear about how the Vice and Narcotics Task Force of the Jackson Police Department betrayed our trust. They betrayed our trust by hunting and surveilling [my client] over there until they had a grand - until they believed that they had a grand opportunity to ensnare him. You're going to hear about how the vice and narcotics task force betrayed our trust when they relied on the unreliable evidence of a snitch. Then the prosecutor, they have betrayed our trust -

         ¶12. The State objected, and the trial court sustained the objection. Minka then asked if they could approach the bench. The trial court excused the jury, and a lengthy bench conference ensued.

         ¶13. The State argued that Minka was attempting to bias the jury or appeal to their sympathy, which was inappropriate. The State also argued that Minka had opened the door for the State to introduce otherwise inadmissible drug evidence into the case. Minka responded that he had no objection to any such evidence being introduced by the State, and he planned to talk to the jury about that during his opening statement. The trial court first queried Minka about the dispensation pertaining to the drug evidence. Afterward, the trial court addressed the State's objection regarding Minka's other remarks, which the record provides as follows:

THE COURT: All right. Now as far as the rest of the objection of the State, I do find that it's an improper objection -- I mean it's an improper argument. Your argument is at full throttle. It talks about fearing the powerful, and it's a completely inappropriate opening statement. You need to simply lay out what you believe the evidence will show without reference to -- hyperbole, there may be a place for that in closing argument, I'm not foreclosing that. But when you when you [sic] say that the prosecutors sitting at this table have betrayed trust, that's way out of bounds, even for closing argument. So I'm going to sustain the objection. And I'm going to caution you to lay it out in a professional and calm manner, what you expect the evidence to show. You've got an opportunity to do it. And if you can't refrain from that, you're not going to go further with your opening statement. Are we clear on that?
MR. MINKA: I don't understand what I've done wrong.
THE COURT: I'm sorry?
MR. MINKA: I do not understand what I have done wrong, Judge. I do not understand what is improper. I do not understand what is wrong with saying that - what is wrong with the truth. I don't understand that, Judge. If the DA's office is not powerful then I won't say it. But they are powerful. They're powerful enough to have this man sitting over here today on charges.
THE COURT: There's a way to do it right and there's a way not to do [sic]. And you're not doing it right.
MR. MINKA: Can you instruct me -
THE COURT: Excuse me. It's really important that you not interrupt me Mr. Minka. That's really important. If you do it again I'm going to find you in contempt. Now the way opening statement works, and has in every trial I've ever had in my courtroom - - many of which [your co-counsel] has participated in, you have not yet - - you lay out in a calm professional way what you expect the evidence to show; and without going into an emotional appeal to the biases that the jury may hold. To appeal to any sense of fear that they may have of the powerful and so forth, is just not an appropriate opening statement. I don't know how further to explain it to you -
. . .
MR. MINKA: My tone is inappropriate, ...

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