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Williams v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

April 2, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/12/2017






          MCDONALD, J.

         ¶1. Jalen Williams was convicted of capital murder on March 21, 2017. He appeals the jury's verdict and the trial court's denial of his post-trial motions. Finding no error, this Court affirms the trial court's orders.


         ¶2. In the early evening of July 22, 2014, Jalen Williams, age 19, and Rashad Johnson, age 20, were shooting dice in the parking lot of a church in Gulfport, Mississippi. As they left, they commented to others, including Justin Atkinson, that they were going to "hit a lick," meaning they were going to rob someone. That someone was Lamont Hayes who had attended the dice game a couple of weeks earlier flashing one-hundred dollar bills. According to Atkinson, Williams called him the next day to tell him about the robbery "gone wrong." Apparently, Williams and Johnson had entered the home with guns. Williams and Hayes began tussling, and Williams called for Johnson's help. Johnson came upon the two and fired two shots at Hayes. They both fled, and Hayes later died from his wounds.

         ¶3. Rashad Johnson pleaded guilty to murder and testified at Williams's trial. He said that the robbery was Williams's idea and that Williams gave him one of the two guns Williams had. They covered their faces with bandanas as they entered the home. Williams went to Hayes's bedroom while Johnson checked out the others. When Johnson entered Hayes's bedroom, Williams had his gun to Hayes's head. Hayes was asleep but woke up when Johnson came in. Hayes grabbed Williams's arm, and Johnson started hitting Hayes in the head to get him loose. But Hayes held on. Williams and Hayes got into the hallway and were still struggling with each other when Johnson got hold of the gun they were fighting over. Williams called to Johnson to get Hayes off him, which Johnson took as a directive to shoot Hayes, which he did-twice in the leg. They both ran outside; Johnson gave Williams his gun back, and they went their separate ways. Johnson was later arrested on drug and firearm charges and ultimately gave a statement concerning the Hayes robbery and shooting.

         ¶4. At trial, other witnesses testified including Hayes's wife, Jennifer; his son, Xavier; various law enforcement personnel; and the chief medical examiner. Williams did not testify, but the State introduced his 164-page interrogation transcript into evidence. In that statement, after initially denying any involvement in the incident, Williams confessed that he and Johnson had gone to the Hayes home, both armed, intending to scare Mr. Hayes into giving up his money. But things went awry. He said that Johnson went in the house first and down the hallway to Hayes's bedroom. Williams followed. Hayes woke up, and Johnson and Williams demanded his money. Hayes started to get out of bed, and Williams, who had an unloaded gun, threatened Hayes not to move. Hayes grabbed Williams's arm and started fighting him. The fight moved into the hallway and then to the living room. Hayes was trying to get the gun from Williams. Finally, it came loose, and Williams slid it away from them and yelled for Johnson to get Hayes off of him. Williams said he did not know where Johnson was, but he (Williams) finally got Hayes off, picked up the gun, and ran out the front door. As he was running down the street, he heard gunshots.

         ¶5. Other evidence included texts from Williams's cell phone. In response to a text from a friend called Ced who asked what Williams and "Little Snow" (Johnson) had done, Williams responded: "Home invasion gone wrong." Referring to another person who had gone with them named Cook, Williams went on to say "[I]dk if yu kno cook but he took off running on us and he supposed to be a gangsta." Ced replied "[I]dk him cuz. Y'all straight though." Williams replied, "[Y]eah da n---- dead though."

         ¶6. At the end of the trial, the jury found Williams guilty of capital murder. The trial court denied Williams's post-trial motions and sentenced Williams to life without parole.

         ¶7. On appeal, Williams raises only two issues that he claims merit reversal of his conviction: (1) whether the trial court erred in preventing Williams from cross-examining Justin Atkinson about what sentence Atkinson could have received on another charge had he not cooperated with the district attorney and testified in this case; and (2) whether the trial court erred in not allowing Williams to call character witnesses.


         ¶8. Limitations placed on cross-examination are reviewed using an abuse-of-discretion standard. Johnson v. State, 242 So.3d 145, 153 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). "The trial court's decision will stand unless the reviewing court concludes that the decision was arbitrary and clearly erroneous, amounting to an abuse of discretion." Id. Reversal is proper only when the discretion of the trial court as to relevancy and admissibility of evidence has been abused and a substantial right of a defendant has been affected. Timmons v. State, 44 So.3d 1021, 1024 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). The Court reviews de novo a Confrontation Clause objection. Smith v. State, 986 So.2d 290, 296 (¶18) (Miss. 2008).


         I. Did the trial court err in limiting Williams's cross-examination of Justin Atkinson?

         ¶9. The State called Justin Atkinson to testify as to actions of Williams and his alleged accomplice, Rashad "Snow" Johnson, prior to the actual robbery. This included statements they made about what they were planning to do ("hit a lick"), what they were wearing, and that weapons Williams had. Atkinson also testified about Williams's coming to his house the next day and telling him what had happened.

         ¶10. At trial, Atkinson testified that he was currently serving a twelve-year sentence for possession of marijuana with intent. He recently had pleaded guilty to other charges: possession of a firearm by a felon and transfer of a controlled substance. He had not been sentenced on those charges, but the State had recommended a three-year sentence, consecutive to his twelve years. He was asked:

Q. Do you know what your potential sentence is total between the two?
A. Fifteen years.

         The State had clearly brought out that it had recommended a lesser sentence for the charges Atkinson was still facing, with a reduction from fifteen to three years.

         ¶11. On cross-examination, Williams's attorney spent considerable time questioning Atkinson about his latest arrest and how Atkinson had spoken to the police about the facts of this case with the hope that such cooperation would positively affect the charges he was facing:

Q. Okay. All right. So it's true. You wanted to try and tell them what they wanted to hear that would help you get out of your trouble, right?
Q. You were trying to tell the officers things that you thought would help you get them to help you get out of your trouble, right?
A. Yes.

         At this point, Williams's attorney went further, trying to establish through Atkinson that because he was a repeat offender, under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, he was subject to twice the sentence for the pending possession with intent to transfer charge that he would normally get. Miss. Code Ann. § 41-29-147(Rev. 2013). Williams's attorney asked:

Q. Okay. Now, let's start with you haven't been sentenced on your felonies yet, have you?
A. No, sir.
Q. And you said today -- what did you say you pled guilty to?
A. Possession of a firearm and transfer.
Q. Possession of a firearm and transfer?
A. Transfer.
Q. And that transfer was selling ...

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