This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Ramsey County District Court
File No.: K7-05-757
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2134; and
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Patrick J. Swift,
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Theodora Gaïtas,
Assistant Public Defender,
Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Dietzen, Judge; and Crippen, Judge.*
This case arises from a domestic assault that left the victim sightless in her right eye. On appeal from a conviction of first-degree assault, Ronald Collins argues that the district court erred by allowing the state to exercise a peremptory challenge to excuse the only African-American veniremember and by allowing the state to use a prior controlled-substance conviction against Collins for impeachment purposes. Collins also argues pro se that the evidence is insufficient to support the jury verdict. Because the record supports the district court’s determination that the state had a race-neutral reason for exercising the peremptory challenge, because the court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the prior conviction, and because the evidence is sufficient to support Collins’s conviction, we affirm.
In March 2005,
During the voir-dire phase of the trial, the state sought to exercise a peremptory challenge to remove African-American veniremember S.M. from the jury. Collins, who also is an African-American man, contested the challenge as racially motivated, but the district court found that the state articulated a race-neutral reason for using the challenge and dismissed S.M. from the jury.
At trial, Kreutz testified that she did not remember what happened during the alleged assault because she had been too much under the influence of alcohol and crack cocaine. She testified that Collins was not violent with her and that she did not believe that he caused her injuries. After the district court ruled that the state could use a prior controlled-substance conviction for impeachment purposes if Collins testified, Collins chose not to testify. The jury found Collins guilty of first-degree assault.
Collins appeals his conviction, arguing that the district court erred by dismissing S.M. and by admitting the prior conviction for impeachment purposes. In a pro se supplemental brief Collins also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury verdict.
D E C I S I O N
Collins challenges the dismissal of veniremember
S.M. as racially motivated and argues that the allegedly discriminatory
decision renders his conviction unconstitutional. A prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge
to exclude a person from a jury based on race violates a defendant’s right to equal
protection under the United States Constitution. Batson
If the party
raising the Batson challenge
establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the
state to provide a race-neutral reason for exercising the peremptory
challenge. Batson, 476
Although the state did not ask many questions of S.M., the record supports the district court’s determination that the state did not base its peremptory challenge on S.M.’s race. The district court initiated voir dire by directing several background questions to the potential jurors as a group, asking whether they knew the parties or witnesses involved in the case and whether other conflicts would prevent them from serving on the jury. S.M. did not respond to any of these questions. The prosecutor and counsel for Collins then questioned the potential jurors individually. Collins’s attorney did not ask S.M. any questions. The prosecutor asked each potential juror to describe how he or she resolves conflicting versions of events and decides who to believe. S.M. answered that he could not make a decision based on “he said, she said” and that, instead, he would need “evidence.” When asked to elaborate on the type of evidence he would need, S.M. responded that he would look “for anything that, either makes the defendant seem bad or make[s] the other person, you know, if they don’t have the right evidence it will be hard for me to make a decision.” He then stated that he would not base his decision on his gut instinct and reiterated, “I’ll rely on the evidence.” The state sought to remove S.M. from the jury through a peremptory challenge, prompting Collins to contest the challenge under Batson.
The district court found that Collins established a prima facie case of racial discrimination because the state sought to remove the sole African-American veniremember from a case involving an African-American defendant who allegedly assaulted a white woman. The state explained that it exercised the peremptory challenge because S.M. stated that he needed evidence other than “he said, she said,” but S.M. failed to explain what type of other evidence he would consider.
The record supports the district court’s determination that the state articulated a satisfactory race-neutral explanation and its denial of Collins’s Batson challenge. S.M.’s only elaboration on the type of evidence he would look to was that he would rely on evidence that makes a person “seem bad.” Only Collins and Kreutz directly observed the charged offense, and the state could not expect either would testify that Collins assaulted Kreutz. The state could anticipate that Kreutz would be an uncooperative witness; the prosecutor had difficulty contacting her and she had a history of protecting Collins after he would allegedly abuse her. The state obtained a subpoena to secure Kreutz’s presence at trial. The state could also expect testimony that would likely make Kreutz “seem bad” based on her previous alcohol and drug addictions. In this case in which the jury would face conflicting versions of the events, the state expected testimony from a central witness—the alleged victim—who denied that Collins committed the offense and who also might “seem bad” to S.M. These plausible concerns do not regard race.
Collins points to other veniremembers who used the term
“evidence” broadly in their voir-dire responses, but these jurors used the term
more precisely by speaking of evidence that corroborates one witness’s version
of events. Batson requires the party exercising a peremptory challenge to
articulate a race-neutral reason, but theexplanation need not rise to the level of justifying removal for
cause. Batson, 476
Collins also asserts that the district court improperly
considered the race of other participants in the trial when the district court
judge noted that he was a “minority judge” and that the state was represented
by an African-American prosecutor. But
the district court’s comments do not suggest that these facts provided the
basis for its decision. Rather, the court appears to have
attempted to allay Collins’s concern by assuring him that the principals were
all sensitive to racial issues and consider Batson
challenges seriously. The court
noted that it anticipated a potential Batson
challenge during S.M.’s voir-dire responses and found that the responses
raised legitimate concerns. But the
district court concluded that Collins had not proven purposeful discrimination
“given what [the court has] seen in this case and . . . in other
cases by [this prosecutor.]” This comment
was not improper because a prosecutor’s history of discriminatory action may be
considered when assessing the sincerity of the stated reason for exercising a
peremptory challenge. See Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537
Although we agree that the district court’s consideration of the race of other trial participants cannot form a basis to reject a Batson challenge, and we believe that commenting about it in this context, despite laudable intentions, might inadvertently generate more heat than light, Collins’s concern does not warrant reversal. We therefore reject his unsupported, tepid assertion that the comment was “probably unconstitutional.” The record as a whole reflects that the district court evaluated the circumstances of the state’s peremptory challenge and the genuineness of the state’s race-neutral reason for exercising the challenge, and it concluded that the challenge was not racially motivated. The record does not demonstrate that the district court clearly erred by reaching this decision.
Collins next contests the district court’s decision to allow the
state to use conviction evidence to impeach Collins if he chose to
testify. A party may use a witness’s
prior conviction for impeachment purposes if the conviction was for a crime
punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year and the district
court determines that the probative value of admitting the conviction evidence
outweighs its prejudicial effect.
Over Collins’s objection, the district court held that the state could introduce a 1999 conviction of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance for impeachment purposes if Collins testified. Specifically, the court found that the prior conviction had impeachment value, its date did not preclude use, it was for an offense dissimilar to the present charge, and, although Collins’s testimony would be important, his credibility would also be important. The district court held that the state could not introduce a 1991 robbery conviction for impeachment because it was stale and because the type of offense increased the risk of prejudice. Following the ruling, Collins did not testify. We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion because the court addressed the Jones factors on the record and these considerations weigh in favor of admitting the prior conviction.
Despite general prohibitions against admitting evidence of a
defendant’s prior convictions, the supreme court has held that a prior conviction
has impeachment value because it permits the jury to “see the whole person and
thus judge better the truth of [the witness’s] testimony.” See
State v. Gassler, 505 N.W.2d 62, 67 (
The district court noted in its ruling that it admitted the impeachment evidence because it wanted the jurors to have “an opportunity to get a full impression of the type of person” Collins is, and the court did not want the jury to base its credibility assessment on the mistaken perception that he has a “pristine record.” Although the state offered evidence of prior domestic incidents with Kreutz, Kreutz denied them. Collins presumably would have denied them also. Allowing use of the drug conviction therefore would allow the jury to know that Collins has a criminal record, and the jury could use this information to the extent it aids in evaluating his credibility. Collins asserts that the district court’s findings demonstrate that the evidence would be used as general character evidence rather than for impeachment purposes, but both the court and the state framed their statements according to precedent governing admission of evidence under rule 609(a). We recognize that the line between admissible impeachment evidence and inadmissible character evidence is not always clear as it regards the introduction of prior criminal convictions, but in balancing these often competing concerns, the supreme court has reasoned that “[n]o sufficient reason appears why the jury should not be informed what sort of person is asking [it] to take his word.” Brouillette, 286 N.W.2d at 707 (quotation omitted); see also Swanson, 707 N.W.2d at 655 (discussing impeachment value of prior convictions).
The second factor, the date of conviction, also weighs in favor of admitting the conviction evidence. Collins was convicted of drug possession in 1999, and his sentence was executed in 2001, four years before the charged offense. The drug conviction is less than ten years old and its age does not weigh against admission. See Gassler, 505 N.W.2d at 67 (noting that defendant was not entitled to favorable inference on second Jones factor when conviction was not stale under language of rule 609(a)).
When considering the similarity between the offense to be used for impeachment and the charged offense, a greater similarity between the offenses weighs against admitting the prior conviction. Swanson, 707 N.W.2d at 655. It is undisputed that Collins’s drug-possession conviction is dissimilar from the assault charge and that this factor weighs in favor of admitting the earlier conviction.
The fourth and fifth Jones factors address the importance of the witness’s testimony and centrality of his credibility. When a witness’s testimony is particularly important, admitting impeachment evidence is disfavored. Gassler, 505 N.W.2d at 67. But admitting impeachment evidence is favored when the witness’s credibility is central. Swanson, 707 N.W.2d at 655. Although Collins’s testimony was important because Kreutz was the only direct witness to the offense who testified, the importance of his testimony was diminished by Kreutz’s testimony. Kreutz testified that Collins did not strike her and that she had been looking for drugs earlier in the evening, which likely led to her injuries. Collins’s defense was that he did not commit the offense, and his theory of the case was presented to the jury through Kreutz and through a resident of her building who testified that he had seen other people in the building that day. Collins did not make an offer of proof suggesting what testimony he would have presented beyond his presumed denial of the offense. His testimony therefore was not of heightened importance. See Gassler, 505 N.W.2d at 67 (allowing impeachment evidence when defendant’s theory was presented to jury through other witnesses and defendant did not make offer of proof to suggest additional testimony defendant would have provided).
Had Collins testified, his credibility would have been central. Kreutz denied that Collins struck her and portrayed herself as a drug- and alcohol-addicted woman with a violent temper. Collins would have joined the denial, and whether the jury believed him would determine the outcome. The fifth factor therefore weighs in favor of admitting the conviction. The district court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the state to use the conviction for impeachment purposes.
Collins suggests that the district court made insufficient findings on the Jones factors. The record does not support this assertion. The district court discussed all of the Jones factors on the record and stated its reasons for admitting the drug-possession conviction and excluding the robbery conviction. And although the district court might have been in a position to produce a more developed record, we note that any resulting error was harmless because the Jones factors weigh in favor of admitting the drug-possession conviction. See Swanson, 707 N.W.2d at 655 (finding district court’s failure to make adequate record for appellate review harmless when Jones factors weighed in favor of admitting prior conviction).
Collins argues finally that the evidence is insufficient to
support the jury’s determination that he committed the assault. On a
claim of insufficient evidence we carefully review the record to determine
whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the conviction,
is sufficient to support the verdict. State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (
Ample evidence supports the jury verdict convicting Collins of first-degree assault, which requires proof of an assault that inflicts great bodily harm on another. See Minn. Stat. § 609.221, subd. 1 (2004) (defining first-degree assault). The jury heard testimony from three people who lived in Kreutz’s building at the time of the offense. Each dialed 911 separately to report a domestic disturbance in Kreutz’s apartment. The jury heard a recording of each 911 call. Collins was in the building earlier in the evening, and the building manager escorted him out after hearing Kreutz and Collins arguing. The manager testified that, when she went to Kreutz’s apartment to tell Collins to leave, Kreutz’s face was red. After the 911 calls, the manager found Collins in the hallway. Collins told the manager that Kreutz had let him back into the secured-entrance building. Despite her later denials, jurors learned that immediately after the alleged assault, Kreutz told police officers and medical personnel that Collins struck her repeatedly in the head with his fist, causing her to lose consciousness.
The state also presented evidence of the history of Kreutz and Collins’s relationship. Jurors heard that in 1998, police officers responded to a 911 hang-up call from Kreutz’s home. When they arrived, she told the officers that she had dialed 911 during an argument with Collins, but he tore the phone from her hand, disconnecting the receiver from the base of the phone. The officers arrested Collins over Kreutz’s protests. In 2002, police officers were dispatched to Kreutz’s residence three times in one day in response to 911 calls. On the first, Kreutz told the officers that Collins had been beating her for years. Collins agreed to leave, but he returned. Officers responded the second time to a report of a female screaming at Kreutz’s address. Collins left, but when officers arrived a third time they heard a female screaming. When Collins finally opened the door, officers saw that the phone was off its hook and the furniture knocked over. They found Kreutz crying in her bedroom and saw that her face was red. She told the officers that Collins was beating her again and that he had pushed her down, jumped on her, and then bit her. Kreutz had a bite mark on her back. The officers arrested Collins for domestic assault.
Collins bases his insufficient-evidence challenge on Kreutz’s trial
testimony denying that Collins had beaten her. Kreutz acknowledged that
Collins was physically violent in the past, but testified that it had been several
years since he had last struck her.
Kreutz testified that she had been drinking and using drugs in the
several days leading to the assault, and that she was “in and out of a
blackout” in March 2005 and could not remember Collins hitting her then. She testified that she did not believe
Collins caused her eye injury and instead attributed her injuries to a possible
“dope deal gone bad.” Kreutz also testified that she could not
recall any of the past incidents in which police were summoned to her
residence, and she denied ever having a no-contact order against Collins,
despite records of the orders. The jury therefore
had plenty of evidence upon which it could have found Collins guilty. That Collins was in Kreutz’s apartment the
night of the assault, that Kreutz and Collins had a violent and turbulent relationship,
that screaming and an apparent assault triggered three independent 911 calls,
and that someone assaulted Kreutz
that evening are facts sufficient to support the conviction. The jury also heard Kreutz’s testimony and
apparently did not believe her implausible “blackout” story, conceived some
time after she lucidly told police and emergency services personnel that
Collins had repeatedly punched her. Even
had Kreutz presented a believable courtroom denial, determining witness credibility and the weight to be given to a witness’s
testimony is exclusively within the province of the jury. State
v. Colbert, 716 N.W.2d 647, 653 (
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.