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Coleman v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

October 25, 2018

TOBIAS COLEMAN a/k/a TOBIAS R. COLEMAN a/k/a TOBIAS RAYSHUN COLEMAN a/k/a TABIAS COLEMAN a/k/a TABIAS RAYSHUN COLEMAN
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/01/2017

          OKTIBBEHA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JAMES T. KITCHENS, JR. TRIAL JUDGE.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: STANLEY ALEXANDER GERALD ALEXANDER MUMFORD MARK TYLER JACKSON KATIE NICOLE MOULDS SCOTT E. ROGILLIO

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF THE STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER BY: GEORGE T. HOLMES

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: SCOTT STUART

          DISTRICT ATTORNEY: SCOTT WINSTON COLOM

          WALLER, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         ¶1. A jury found Tobias Coleman guilty of aggravated assault for shooting a man in the head. The judge sentenced him to twenty years' imprisonment, with five years suspended. Coleman now appeals.

         ¶2. We find that the trial court committed reversible error by admitting into evidence an undated, grainy[1] Facebook image taken of the defendant Tobias Coleman holding what appears to be a handgun, years before the alleged crime, through the testimony of a witness who denied ever having seen Coleman's Facebook page or the photograph in question. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. On March 30, 2014, Zacharias Blanchard was shot in the head on the grounds of Club Rock, located in Oktibbeha County just outside of Starkville, Mississippi. Blanchard was taken to the Oktibbeha County Hospital by Joanna Burchfield, who had found him lying next to her car and bleeding. Blanchard was transferred by helicopter to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson for treatment by a neurosurgeon.

         ¶4. Upon returning to Starkville, Blanchard identified Tobias Coleman as the man who shot him.[2] A grand jury charged Coleman with aggravated assault. Coleman was tried over two days in January 2017.

         ¶5. Blanchard testified that on the night of March 30, 2014, he arrived at Club Rock under the influence of "Molly," a drug described by Blanchard as a "sexual enhancer," and alcohol. Blanchard was accompanied by his friend Stephen Thomas Jr. Once inside Club Rock, Blanchard's cousin told him that Coleman and a group of friends had trapped him in the bathroom. To take up for his cousin, Blanchard walked outside to confront Coleman. Blanchard yelled at Coleman "from a distance," but he could not recall what he said. Blanchard also could not recall whether the area outside the club was well-lit or dark, although he remembered that Coleman was wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans. Upon seeing Coleman walking towards him, Blanchard testified that he did not protest or run because "if it was [his] time, it was [his] time." Blanchard stated that Coleman had "walked upon [him]" from behind and shot him "from the back." When asked why he would walk to a dark area and turn his back on a person that Blanchard alleged had previously tried to kill him, Blanchard responded that he "respect[ed] all and fear[ed] not."

         ¶6. Dr. Allen Butts was the State's second witness. He examined Blanchard at the Oktibbeha County Hospital. He determined that Blanchard had been injured by a gunshot wound that had entered through his forehead, and he stabilized Blanchard prior to his transfer to Jackson.

         ¶7. The State's last witness was Lieutenant Brett Watson, an investigator with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office. He testified that between eight hundred to one thousand people were at Club Rock on March 30, 2014. Five people, including Blanchard, had been shot that night. Investigators found shell casings from three different calibers of guns-.380, .40, and .45 caliber. Lieutenant Watson testified that the different calibers of ammunition meant there likely had been multiple shooters that night. Shell casings were found in several different locations, but no DNA samples were recovered from the casings. The area where Blanchard was shot contained both .40 and .45 caliber shell casings, which, according to Lieutenant Watson, indicated that there had been more than one shooter. Lieutenant Watson and other investigators conducted interviews with the shooting victims, but most patrons had left the scene before law enforcement arrived. Investigators received names, nicknames, and tips about potential shooters. None were ever confirmed.

         ¶8. Lieutenant Watson interviewed Blanchard after he returned to Starkville from Jackson. Blanchard positively identified Coleman as the shooter, having picked him out of a photograph lineup.

         ¶9. After the State rested, the defense called Marcus Johnson. Johnson testified that he had been at Club Rock that night and had witnessed the shooting. According to Johnson, Blanchard and Thomas were involved in an altercation with another man. Johnson testified that both Blanchard and Thomas brandished their weapons and fired at a "dude with dreads[.]" But Johnson claimed that the man was not Coleman.

         ¶10. During cross-examination, the State asked Johnson how long he had known Coleman and if he had ever seen Coleman with a gun. Johnson testified he had known Coleman several years and had never seen him with a gun. The State then asked if Johnson had ever seen Coleman's Facebook page. Johnson answered that he had never seen Coleman's Facebook page because he had many "Facebook friends." In response, the State sought to introduce photographs from Coleman's Facebook page. Coleman objected, and the jury was excluded. The trial court reviewed the photographs-one showed Coleman holding a handgun; the other showed him holding a rifle. While the trial court excluded the photograph showing Coleman holding a rifle, the trial court found the other photograph to be relevant because it showed Coleman holding a black, semiautomatic pistol "in his life."

         ¶11. Coleman testified on his own behalf. He stated that the Facebook picture proffered by the State had been taken four years before the crime when he was still in high school. Coleman also stated that he was not in possession of a pistol the night of the shooting. Coleman denied Blanchard's allegations that he was the shooter and claimed to have fled Club Rock upon hearing the gunshots.

         ¶12. The jury found Coleman guilty of aggravated assault. The judge sentenced Coleman to twenty years in prison, with five years suspended. The trial court denied Coleman's motion for a new trial. Coleman now appeals.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶13. On appeal, Coleman argues that the photograph, introduced through a witness who had no knowledge of the pistol and used as impeachment evidence, was irrelevant, inflammatory, and prejudicial.[3]

         ¶14. The photograph was proffered by the State to impeach the defense witness, Marcus Johnson, who testified that he had never seen Coleman with a gun before. The photograph was an undated, grainy image purportedly taken from Coleman's Facebook page. The following exchange took place between the State, the trial court, and defense counsel regarding whether photograph should be admitted:

[The State]: My question to the witness was, had he ever been on Tobias Coleman's [F]acebook page. Those pictures were taken from his [F]acebook page. And I was going to ask him did he recognize Tobias from those photographs.[4]
BY THE COURT: Okay
[The State]: And also I was going to ask him has he ever seen him with a gun? That was going to be the first question. Ask [sic] the Court can see in both of those photographs, the defendant is holding a gun, both a handgun and a rifle.

         ¶15. In response, defense counsel objected to the admission of the photograph on the basis of relevance. The following exchange occurred between defense counsel and the trial court:

[Defense Counsel]: Judge, if you will look at his hair on that picture, you can tell that picture is ...

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