Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Gentleman’s Primer . . .

State v. Russell, 2011 VT 36 (mem.)

An aspiring gentleman should cultivate certain traits.  One should know how to dress well, how to choose beverages, how to shine one’s shoes, something about women’s clothing, and something about sports.  One should also be aware of certain social conventions.  For example, on a date, the aspiring gentleman should hold doors for his date, pull out his date’s chair, offer his date his coat if it is cold, not linger too long with the goodnight kiss, listen well, and otherwise be cognizant of his date’s needs.  In a word, the aspiring gentleman should strive to be chivalrous.  

Chivalry, of course, is a most-admirable trait but aspiring gentlemen take note—chivalry does not include stabbing a man who’s made a boorish comment directed at your chap’s lady-friend.  That kind of “chivalry” will get you charged with several serious offenses, and you may even be convicted of one—like aggravated assault.  Such was the case with our protagonist here.

Defendant and some friends were imbibing at a public house.  The victim and the victim’s friend were also partaking in the same establishment.  The victim apparently made an uncouth comment, directed toward one of the Defendant’s companion’s paramour.  The lady was shaken.  Defendant and the lady’s beau confronted the victim and the victim’s friend outside of the public house. 

During a physical engagement, Defendant employed a sharp instrument to his advantage.  The victim’s friend and Defendant’s friend were involved in the scuffle but not stabbed.  Defendant left first, and then Defendant’s companion left.  The victim’s friend drove him to the hospital and called emergency services en route.  The victim was treated for several knife wounds. 

Defendant was charged with two counts of attempted second-degree murder, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of attempted aggravated assault.  He was convicted of aggravated assault and appealed, arguing (1) that the court erred in admitting irrelevant and prejudicial evidence, (2) that the evidence was insufficient, and (3) that the trial court should have included a lesser-included-offense jury instruction.  The SCOV affirmed.    

Aggravated assault, under Vermont law, requires specific intent to harm.  The State sought to introduce certain letters that Defendant had written during an unrelated stint in State custody in which he threatened the victim.  The threats were in response to his correspondent’s complaints about her ex-boyfriend, the victim here.  Defendant objected to the letters on the grounds that they were irrelevant and prejudicial, as both the victim and the Defendant claimed not to have recognized each other during the fight.  The trial court allowed parts of the letters to be read at trial, and Defendant was convicted of aggravated assault.

The SCOV noted that the relevance standard is whether the evidence has any tendency to establish or refute the proposition.  In other words, the relevance standard is broad.  The letters were relevant.  The SCOV notes that there was also circumstantial evidence presented at trial that showed the Defendant and the victim knew each other.  On to prejudice.

Relevant evidence can be excluded when its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.  Here, the SCOV runs the evidence through that familiar balancing test, reasoning that the evidence was highly probative (showed intent), and not unfairly prejudicial (only allowed jury to infer motive).  Accordingly, the SCOV rejected Defendant’s evidentiary argument. 

Defendant also argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him.  The SCOV did not waste much time with this one.  The standard for a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim is whether “the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorably to the State and excluding any modifying evidence, fairly and reasonably tends to convince a reasonable trier of fact that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”  I like to call this the “uh, yeah, good luck” standard.  The SCOV noted that the trial testimony and Defendant’s own admissions tended to establish the elements of the crime.  Accordingly, the SCOV rejected Defendant’s sufficiency-of-the-evidence argument.

Finally, the SCOV addressed Defendant’s argument that the trial court erred when it failed to give a simple-assault-as-a-lesser-included-offense instruction on the aggravated assault count.  The SCOV noted that the only difference in the two offenses is the level of intent.  The SCOV also noted that normally a Defendant is entitled to a lesser-included-offense instruction in this situation, but that right is not absolute.  Because the Defendant drew a knife on an unarmed man at close range and stabbed him multiple times, the SCOV reasoned that the Defendant did not have a right to the instruction. 

So for you aspiring gentlemen out there: just remember that chivalry has limits and those limits should be observed.  Though a well-placed Ralph Lauren scarf may cover that jailhouse “Mom” tattoo on your neck, it is prudent to avoid those entanglements that may lead to the necessity for such sartorial choices.    

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