Tuesday, October 28, 2008

State v. Freeman[1]

Opinion handed down October 28, 2008
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court held that the jury that convicted Samuel A. Freeman of first degree murder had a sufficient basis to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; the trial court did not err in admitting demonstrative evidence of bottles of the type that the state asserted Freeman used in the murder; and the trial court did not err in refusing to admit a note Freeman’s mother purportedly wrote.

I. Facts and Holding[1]

A jury found Samuel A. Freeman guilty of first degree murder of a Poplar Bluff woman. On the night of the murder, both Freeman and the victim spent about four hours at the Poplar Bluff VFW post. Freeman and the victim argued as to whose turn it was to use the pool table, and Freeman attempted to buy the victim a drink, which she refused. At last call, Freeman left the bar to go home, taking an empty bottle of Galliano liqueur as a souvenir. The victim left for home shortly thereafter.

The victim’s neighbor saw her arrive at her apartment and saw a man enter the apartment with her. The following afternoon the victim’s mother found the victim asphyxiated, the result of a stocking tied around the victim’s neck. The victim’s autopsy revealed a hemorrhage behind her ear brought about by a blow to the head from an object with a smooth surface or a fist. The autopsy also showed evidence of other injuries consistent with sexual assault caused by the penetration of a foreign object. At the time of the crime, the police were unable to collect enough evidence to warrant arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator.

Thirteen years later, the Poplar Bluff police submitted samples to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for DNA analysis. The analysis revealed Freeman’s DNA on a piece of toilet paper found beneath the victim’s shoulder, on the stocking tied around the victim’s neck, and on another stocking that the victim wore. A jury convicted Freeman of first degree murder. Freeman appealed his conviction.

When examining the circumstances surrounding how Freeman’s DNA arrived at the crime scene, the court of appeals failed to follow the correct standard of review. The Missouri Supreme Court granted transfer to address this failure. Freeman argued three points on appeal: (1) that his conviction rested on insufficient evidence; (2) the court improperly admitted two Galliano liqueur bottles as demonstrative evidence; and (3) the court improperly refused to admit a note written by his mother. The Court held that the evidence adduced at trial was sufficient for a jury to find Freeman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the Court held that the trial court acted properly in admitting the two liqueur bottles as demonstrative evidence and in refusing to admit his mother’s note.

Judge Wolff concurred in the opinion, writing separately to emphasize that the court of appeals is the proper court to correct errors and should be given deference in its decisions. Judge Wolff, however, agreed that the instant case warranted review because of the erroneous standard that the court of appeals used.

II. Legal Background

A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

The standard of review regarding sufficiency of evidence is “whether sufficient evidence permits a reasonable juror to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”[2] This requires that a court view all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict and disregard evidence and inferences contrary to the verdict.[3] Because the fact-finder was in the best position to assess the credibility of the evidence, the appellate court does not reweigh the evidence.[4] An appellate court, therefore, cannot act as a “super-juror with veto powers,” but must instead give deference to the finder of fact.[5]

The Missouri Supreme Court in Freeman held that a jury had a sufficient basis to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.[6] For example, “the DNA analysis was reliable, scientific, and untainted.”[7] Among other things, the Court noted that evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that Freeman generally matched the neighbor’s description of the man who entered the victim’s apartment; Freeman could only speculate as to why his DNA was in the victim’s apartment; and Freeman had the opportunity and means to commit the crime.[8]

B. Demonstrative Use of Bottles

The standard of review for admission of evidence is abuse of discretion.[9] Freeman argued that the bottles were irrelevant because the state never conclusively proved that a Galliano bottle caused the victim’s injuries, and by admitting them into evidence, the court abused its discretion.[10] A court may only admit evidence offered for the purpose of demonstration if it is relevant, a fair representation of what it is demonstrating, and it is not inflammatory, deceptive, or misleading.[11] Relevance consists both of logical and legal relevance.[12] If evidence is logically relevant, it tends “to make the existence of a material fact more or less probable.”[13] Legal relevance, on the other hand, weighs the evidence’s probative value against its costs, including unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, waste of time, and cumulativeness.[14]

The Galliano bottles, the Missouri Supreme Court reasoned, had both legal and logical relevance.[15] Freeman left the VFW with a Galliano bottle, which related to the state’s theory of the case, and thus demonstrated logical relevance.[16] In addition, the state did not proffer the bottles in a manner that could have a tendency to inflame or mislead the jury.[17] The state introduced evidence that the victim sustained injuries “caused by a long, round, rigid object with some kind of ridge on it.”[18] Since the shape of a Galliano bottle is unique and not commonly known, the evidence helped clarify the jury’s understanding rather than mislead the jury.[19]

C. Denial of Admission Letter

Freeman wanted to admit a note his mother purportedly wrote that placed him at home after midnight on the night of the murder.[20] The note, offered for its truth, was hearsay.[21] A court should admit hearsay only if the evidence falls within a hearsay exception.[22] Here, the note did not fall into any traditional hearsay exception.[23] The Missouri Supreme Court further held that Missouri does not recognize a residual hearsay exception, which would admit statements not covered by any other exception when the statement has equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness.[24] Even if Missouri did recognize such an exception, the Court asserted that the note would not meet that exception because the note does not provide for a satisfactory alibi, and the circumstances surrounding the creation and discovery of the note lack indicia of reliability.[25]

III. Commentary

Freeman is an unremarkable opinion. The Missouri Supreme Court does not change or clarify the law regarding the standard of review for the sufficiency or admissibility of evidence. The Court simply affirmed past precedent and ensured that the standards were properly applied to the facts of the case. The important aspect of Freeman, then, is Judge Wolff’s concurrence. Judge Wolff’s concurrence emphasizes the need for the Court to use its judicial resources efficiently and effectively. The Missouri Supreme Court does no favor to the law if it plays “Big Brother,” transferring cases in which it merely disagrees with the outcome the court of appeals reached. Judge Wolff correctly notes that the Missouri Supreme Court should focus its resources in determining novel legal issues or re-examining precedent. Beyond those categories of cases constitutionally mandated, the Missouri Supreme Court has the ability to determine which cases they desire to accept transfer. Judge Wolff’s concurrence seems to be not directed generally to the legal community but rather to the other Judges on the Court. It therefore, is an interesting concurrence, not due to its legal analysis but due to the role it plays. Freeman emphasizes the struggle of Missouri’s highest court to determine its appropriate role to transfer cases when the court of appeals makes blatant mistakes, but such mistakes present no new questions of law.

- Joseph E. Bredehoft

[1] No. SC89119 (Mo. 2008) (en banc). The West reporter citation is State v. Freeman, 269 S.W.3d 422 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[2] State v. Belton, 153 S.W.3d 307, 309 (Mo. 2005) (en banc).
[3] Id.
[4] State v. Crawford, 68 S.W.3d 406, 408 (Mo. 2002) (en banc).
[5] State v. Chaney, 967 S.W.2d 47, 52 (Mo. 1998) (en banc).
[6] Freeman, 2008 WL 4711005, at *3.
[7] Id. at *2.
[8] Id. at *2-3.
[9] State v. Anderson, 76 S.W.3d 275, 276 (Mo. 2002) (en banc).
[10] Freeman, 2008 WL 4711005, at * 4.
[11] State v. Silvey, 894 S.W.2d 662, 667-68 (Mo. 1995) (en banc).
[12] Anderson, 76 S.W.3d at 276.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Freeman, 2008 WL 4711005, at *4.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Freeman, 2008 WL 4711005, at *4.
[21] See State v. Kemp, 212 S.W.3d 135, 146 (Mo. 2007) (en banc).
[22] See id.
[23] Freeman, 2008 WL 471105, at *5.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.