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Wells v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

October 5, 2017

WILLIAM B. WELLS a/k/a WILLIAM WELLS
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/23/2016

         MADISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. STEVE S. RATCLIFF, III TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JOHN W. CHRISTOPHER ERIK GREGORY FARIES.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: BILLY L. GORE.

          DISTRICT ATTORNEY: MICHAEL GUEST.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JOHN W. CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL GUEST ERIK GREGORY FARIES.

          COLEMAN, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. It is undisputed that on August 3, 2015, William B. Wells shot and killed Kendrick Brown in front of the Madison County Courthouse. A jury convicted Wells of first degree murder, but according to Wells, the jury never got to hear why he shot Brown, due to the circuit court's decision to grant several of the State's motions in limine. Wells argues that the circuit court committed reversible error by granting the motions in limine. We disagree, and we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On the morning of August 3, 2015, Attorney Rusty Willard was waiting in front of the Madison County Courthouse for his client Kendrick Brown. Brown arrived and sat down outside with Willard. According to Willard's testimony, as he turned to look at Brown, he saw a man holding a silver semiautomatic gun coming toward them quickly. The man, later identified as Wells, approached Brown, pointed the gun at Brown's chest and screamed at Brown. Brown yelled back: "I didn't do it[.] I didn't do it." Wells then shot Brown in chest, and Brown later died from the gunshot wound. Willard testified that Brown did not make a threatening gesture toward Wells or "do anything that would cause someone to shoot him at that time[.]" Madison County Sheriff's Department Deputy Jesse Smith testified that he was working inside the courthouse on the morning of the incident. He was alerted to the shooting, and when he went outside, he saw Wells, standing over Brown's body, still pointing a gun at Brown. Wells immediately complied with Deputy Smith's requests to drop the gun and to lie flat on the ground. He did not attempt to flee or resist arrest.

         ¶3. Prior to trial, the State filed several motions in limine, and on February 16, 2016, the circuit court heard arguments on four motions. A few days later, the State filed a fifth motion in limine. The circuit court granted all of the motions in limine, but only four of the five are at issue here. The first motion sought to prohibit Wells from eliciting testimony about any statements that he made "at or near the time of the shooting." Wells urged that the circuit court "just keep this motion open, carry it with the case, and then . . . determine whether or not we have laid a proper foundation to make the statement admissible as an excited utterance . . . under [Rule ] 803(2), or it could qualify as a statement that was made by [Wells] in relation to express his fear, which would also be admissible under [Rule] 803(3)[.]" The next motion involved prohibiting any references to Brown's prior felony convictions for the possession or sale of controlled substances. The State explained that Wells could use the fact that Brown was a drug dealer who had sold drugs to Sherry Wells, Wells's mother, while she was acting as a confidential informant, just not Brown's prior convictions. Wells countered that Brown's convictions were relevant and added probative value because they showed that Brown was the type of person who would put out a hit on Sherry to avoid going back to prison. Next, the State sought to exclude statements regarding warnings, via phone calls from unidentified individuals, that Brown had put a hit on Sherry. The State argued that such statements amounted to double hearsay with no applicable exceptions to get both statements into evidence. Wells explained that a phone call he received from "Bird" and "Bear" is admissible under Rule 803(3) to show his state of mind when he shot Brown and also under Rule 803(24) to show Brown's intent.[1] The State's final motion in limine hearing was held several days later. Arguing that the evidence was irrelevant, was hearsay, and was more prejudicial than probative, the State sought to exclude the testimony of a defense witness expected to testify that Brown tried to get him to kill Sherry. Wells argued that the evidence was relevant pursuant to Rule 404(b) as motive of Brown to kill Sherry and perspective to show Wells's fearful state of mind and the effect of the statement on him. Wells further explained that the evidence was not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but it was being offered only for the fact that it was said at all.

         ¶4. The following describes the excluded evidence that Wells proffered at trial. Wells proffered the testimony of Canton's Chief of Police Otha Brown. Chief Brown testified that on August 1, 2015, he received a call that a tall black male had shot into Sherry Wells's vehicle as she was driving to work. Sherry received gunshot wounds in her legs but survived the shooting. On cross-examination, the State asked Chief Brown if "the only way in which Kendrick Brown was associated with the shooting would have been if Kendrick Brown would have inquired or attempted to get somebody to shoot Ms. Wells because clearly he was not the shooter [based on the description given of the shooter and the police department's investigation]." Chief Brown agreed. Wells, through his attorney, proffered the testimony of his mother, Sherry Wells. According to Wells, Sherry's testimony would have been that she was a confidential informant involved in drug buys from area drug dealers that resulted in the indictment of, among others, Brown. After the indictments, Sherry began receiving threats from Brown and another individual named Dexter Jackson. For example, while Sherry was working the graveyard shift at the Motel 8, Brown would drive into the parking lot around 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. about once a week and position his vehicle so Sherry could see him. He then would stare at her, make a gun shape with his hand, point it at her, and mouth "bang, bang." Sherry became fearful for her life and would not leave the house. She parked behind her house instead of on the side so her vehicle would not be visible from the street. Everything came to a head on the night of August 1, 2015, when she was driving to work and someone shot out her windshield and back window.[2] Sherry confided in Wells about her fears and the threats, which "only heightened his fear."

         ¶5. Next, Wells, through his attorney, submitted his proffer. He did not take the stand. Wells explained that beginning in February 2015, "he began to hear on the street that his mama . . . had been serving as a snitch for the narcs and had set up some of the drug dealers in town and they were out to get her." The information heightened Wells's fears and anxiety. Then, in April 2015, Wells received a call from his father that someone had broken into Sherry's house by kicking in the back door. Nothing was taken or destroyed, but "[t]he only thing that was disturbed was the clothes hanging in the closet that had been moved around" implying that the person was looking for someone hiding in the closet. Several months later, Dexter Jackson, a drug dealer from whom Sherry had bought drugs as a confidential informant, bought the house next to Sherry's house and began threatening her from across the shared fence. Finally, Wells heard directly from "Bird" that Brown offered him and "Bear" money to kill Sherry. Meanwhile, Wells had remained in contact with members of the Madison County Sheriff's Department regarding the threats and his concern for his mother. After Sherry was injured in the shooting, Wells again contacted the sheriff's department, and he was told to be at the courthouse the following Monday to make arrangements for Sherry to move to a safe house. According to Wells, he came to the courthouse on the day of the incident to meet with Deputy Trey Curtis about the safe house and that he did not come to the courthouse looking for Brown. However, when he drove through the parking lot and "happened to see Kendrick Brown . . . all the pinned up fear and emotions of the past [eight] to [ten] months just rose to the front and in that instant [Wells] thought the only way [to] protect my mom is to get ride of this guy because he's trying to kill her." Lastly, Wells said that "his movement between the vehicle and time he shot Brown was kind of a blur." After proffering Brown's court file, Wells rested.

         ¶6. The jury received instructions regarding first degree murder and second degree murder. Wells offered an instruction on self defense/defense of others, but the circuit court denied the instruction based on the lack of evidence to support the instruction. Wells did not request a manslaughter instruction. Ultimately, the jury found Wells guilty of first degree murder. Wells filed a motion for a new trial, which the circuit court denied.

         ¶7. On appeal, Wells raises the following issues:[3]

I. Whether the circuit court violated Wells's due process rights when its in limine orders denied Wells the fair opportunity to defend himself against the State's accusations.
II. Whether the circuit court deprived Wells of his fundamental right to assert his ...

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