Friday, November 20, 2015

Manslaughter, Text Messages and the Facebook Posts

After a jury convicted Mickey Wahl of manslaughter and the trial judge sentenced him “to a presumptive prison term of 10.5 years”, he appealed.  State v. Wahl, 2015 WL 6687551 (Court of Appeals of Arizona 2015).  You can, if you are interested, read more about the case in the news stories you can find here, here and here.
The Court of Appeals begins its opinion by explaining that
in the fall of 2011, victim S.C. was dating Wahl's former girlfriend, Susan.  After Wahl's breakup with Susan, he dated Jane, who had previously dated S.C. There was considerable animosity among and between these couples because of their prior relationships with each other. On December 11, 2011, S.C. and Susan were at a bar.

Wahl and Jane later arrived at the bar, but only Jane went inside. Susan and Jane got into a physical altercation and went out to the parking lot where the fight continued.

Wahl intervened, picking up Jane and placing her in the passenger side of her truck. S.C. followed, arguing with Wahl. Wahl got in the driver's side of the truck and at some point, S.C.'s arm became trapped when Wahl rolled up his window. Despite S.C.'s arm being caught in the truck, Wahl started driving away. Initially, S.C. ran alongside the truck, but eventually his arm loosened from the window and he fell. S.C.'s head was run over by the truck, and he died at the scene. Sheriff's deputies later found Wahl at his home. He was charged with manslaughter and negligent homicide, and convicted and sentenced as described above.
State v. Wahl, supra.
Wahl made a number of arguments in his appeal, but this post examines only a few of them, the first of which involved the prosecution’s introducing certain “electronic communications”.  State v. Wahl, supra.  More precisely, in Wahl’s appeal he initially argued that
text messages and Facebook posts should have been precluded. He repeats the arguments made in his motion in limine that the electronic evidence was irrelevant, confusing, unfairly prejudicial, and constituted evidence of prior bad acts or improper character. We review a trial court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretionState v. Jones, 197 Ariz. 290, 4 P.3d 345 (Arizona Supreme Court 2000).
State v. Wahl, supra. 
The Court of Appeals began its analysis of Wahl’s evidentiary argument by noting that 
[w]e first address Wahl's prior-acts argument. Pursuant to Rule 404(b), Arizona Rules of Evidence, evidence of `other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.’

Other-act evidence may be admitted for a proper purpose, such as to prove `motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.’ Rule 404(b), supra. Even if a proper purpose is found, however, the evidence must be relevant and the probative value not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudiceSee Arizona Rules of Evidence 401402, and 403State v. Gulbrandson, 184 Ariz. 46, 906 P.2d 579 (Arizona Supreme Court 1995).

Although Wahl cites extensively to Rule 404(b) and related `prior-acts’ cases, he focuses his analysis on relevance and unfair prejudice. To the extent Wahl argues the communications should not have been admitted because they contained evidence of other acts, such as an incident in which Jane had been banned from the bar where the incident took place, he overlooks testimony about those same acts. Therefore, even if we were to assume it was error to admit the communications, such error would be harmless given evidence to the same effect.

Additionally, although Wahl's text messages contained inflammatory language directed at S.C. and Susan, they were admitted for a proper purpose. As we discuss below in the context of individual messages and acts, they were relevant to establishing Wahl's motive and intent. See State v. Fulminante, 161 Ariz. 237, 778 P.2d 602 (Arizona Supreme Court (1988)) (evidence of prior ill will between victim and defendant tends to show malice or motive). They also rebutted Wahl's contention that he had not intended to injure S.C.
State v. Wahl, supra. 
The court then explained that Wahl
generally argues the communications were significantly more prejudicial than probative because they included communications months before and after the incident, and because the text messages were one-sided, missing Susan's half of every conversation. We discuss each contention in turn.
State v. Wahl, supra. 
The Court of Appeals also noted that the text messages at issue
included S.C.'s and Wahl's communications with Susan for two months before the incident, as well as and Wahl's communications with Susan in January and February 2012. The Facebook status posts and private messages also were posted in the preceding two months. We address the communications in chronological order.
State v. Wahl, supra. 
First, he argued that
several messages about a fight he had with S.C. were irrelevant. In October 2011, Wahl and S.C. had a disagreement at the bar, which resulted in Wahl physically throwing S.C. out of the bar. Wahl and two of the state's witnesses testified about this disagreement. On October 19, 2011, Wahl posted a message on his Facebook page that stated, `Thank you [S.C.], for helping me rid myself of [Susan], and I owe you a drink, for throwing you out the bar on your face.’ He later posted, `I really felt bad, about throwing him so far out the door . . .  lmao!’  Additionally, Wahl texted Susan that he `felt . . . bad about throwing [S.C.] out on his face.’

As with the Rule 404(b) argument, evidence of a prior disagreement between the victim and the defendant is relevant. See State v. Fulminante, supra (existence of prior ill will renders commission of crime more probable); see also State v. Hardy, 230 Ariz. 281, 283 P.3d 12 (Arizona Supreme Court 2012) (`Evidence of prior argument with or violence toward a victim is . . . admissible to show motive or intent’). Further, Wahl does not identify how the risk of unfair prejudice would outweigh this probative value. Rather, the messages, which appear to be adverse to Wahl and probative of the state's theory of the case, were prejudicial `in the sense that all good relevant evidence is,’ but not unfairly prejudicial. State v. Shurz, 176 Ariz. 46, 859 P.2d 156 (Arizona Supreme Court 1993).
State v. Wahl, supra. 
Next, the Court of Appeals took up Wahl’s argument that
any text messages about an incident in which Jenny was excluded from the bar were irrelevant because `there was no evidence that either [Wahl] or [Jane] knew, or should have known, that [S.C.] and [Susan] would be [there] the night of [S .C.'s death].’ One of the state's witnesses testified that in November 2011, Jane was banned from the bar after she backed into a car in the parking lot. Wahl texted Susan a vague message about the incident, implying that he knew Jane had hit the car.

Additionally, the state introduced earlier Facebook messages between Wahl and Jane that intimated Jane had been banned from the bar even before she hit the other car, but that Wahl and Jane thought it would be `funny’ to try to go to the bar anyway, apparently to make Susan angry.
State v. Wahl, supra. 
The Court of Appeals did not buy Wahl’s argument regarding the text messages:
These messages were relevant because they suggested Jane should not have been at the bar the night S.C. died. The state contended that Wahl and Jane planned to get together and go to the bar out of spite. Combined with the Facebook messages, the text messages had the tendency to show that Jane and Wahl may have gone to the bar to see if they could harass Susan and S.C., making them relevant to Wahl's intent. Further, the messages contradicted Jane's trial testimony that she was not banned from the bar.

Wahl's argument that he and Jane did not believe Susan would be there does not diminish the relevance of the messages. Further, Wahl does not identify anything prejudicial about the messages, other than the fact that they predate S.C.'s death. The probative value is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, and the trial court did not err by admitting them. Arizona Rules of Evidence - Rule 403.
State v. Wahl, supra. 
As noted above, Wahl also made other arguments, but since they did not directly address the admissibility and/or use of electronic evidence, this post skips those arguments and outlines Wahl’s final argument, which was that “there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict.” State v. Wahl, supra.  If you are interested, the chapter you can find here explains what a motion based on the argument that the evidence presented at trial is insufficient to support a conviction involves, and what it seeks to accomplish.
The Court of Appeals began its analysis of Wahl’s argument by noting that he claimed
there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. We examine such a claim to determine whether `substantial evidence’ supports the jury's verdict. State v. Lopez, 230 Ariz. 15, 279 P.3d 640 (Arizona Court of Appeals 2012). Substantial evidence is `”such proof that reasonable persons could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a conclusion of defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”’ State v. West, 226 Ariz. 559, 250 P.3d 1188 (Arizona Supreme Court 2011), quoting State v. Mathers, 165 Ariz. 64, 796 P.2d 866 (Arizona Supreme Court 1990).
State v. Wahl, supra.  Since this is a criminal case, the verdict had to be based on evidence that proved Wahl’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
It then went on to point out that,
[v]iewing the facts in the light most favorable to sustaining the jury's verdict, State v. Payne, 233 Ariz. 484, 314 P.3d at 1239 (Arizona Supreme Court 2013), there is sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict on the manslaughter charge. A person commits manslaughter by `[c]ommitting second degree murder as prescribed in §13–1104, subsection A upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion resulting from adequate provocation by the victim.’ Arizona Statutes § 13–1103(A)(2). A person commits second-degree murder when, without premeditation, the person either intentionally causes the death of another person or recklessly engages in conduct that creates a grave risk of death and thereby causes the death of another person, while manifesting extreme indifference to human life. Arizona Statutes § 13–1104(A)(1), (3).
State v. Wahl, supra. 
The court then proceeded to issue its ruling on Wahl’s evidentiary argument, holding that
[e]yewitness V.P. testified that S.C. had approached Wahl in the truck, and the two of them began fighting. S.C.'s arm was then pinned in Wahl's rolled-up window while Wahl drove off, speeding up to the point where S.C. could no long run next to the truck. S.C. eventually fell and was run over by the truck, and Wahl did not stop.

Testimony by several other witnesses and evidence of Wahl's Facebook and text message history established Wahl did not like S.C. because he had dated Susan, and that they had a disagreement months earlier. From that evidence, reasonable jurors could find Wahl intentionally or recklessly had caused S.C.'s death. Sufficient evidence supported the jury's verdict.
State v. Wahl, supra. 

For these and other reasons, the court affirmed “Payne’s convictions and sentences.”  State v. Wahl, supra. 

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