may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Vincent Edward Britton,
File No. 96060529
Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General, 1400 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and
Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda M. Freyer, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Lyonel Norris, Assistant State Public Defender, 2829 University Avenue S.E., Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Short, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.
Appellant contends the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to sustain his conviction of second-degree felony murder. In his pro se brief, appellant also raises claims of inadmissible Spreigl evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, improper submission of the felony murder charge to the jury, and improper use of a firearm for illustrative purposes. We affirm.
When the sufficiency of the evidence is challenged,
our review on appeal is limited to a painstaking analysis of the record to determine whether the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the conviction, was sufficient to permit the jurors to reach the verdict which they did.
State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989). A reviewing court must assume "the jury believed the state's witnesses and disbelieved any evidence to the contrary." State v. Moore, 438 N.W.2d 101, 108 (Minn. 1989).
We will not disturb the verdict if the jury, acting with due regard for the presumption of innocence and for the necessity of overcoming it by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, could reasonably conclude that a defendant was proven guilty of the offense charged.
State v. Alton, 432 N.W.2d 754, 756 (Minn. 1988).
Because "[c]onvictions based on circumstantial evidence warrant particular scrutiny," State v. Scharmer, 501 N.W.2d 620, 621 (Minn. 1993),
the conviction may stand only where the facts and circumstances disclosed by the circumstantial evidence form a complete chain which, in the light of the evidence as a whole, leads so directly to the guilt of the accused as to exclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, any reasonable inference other than that of guilt.
State v. Wahlberg, 296 N.W.2d 408, 411 (Minn. 1980).
Even under the stricter standard, "a jury normally is in the best position to evaluate circumstantial evidence, and * * * their verdict is entitled to due deference." Webb, 440 N.W.2d at 430. The jury determines the weight and credibility of the witnesses' testimony. Moore, 438 N.W.2d at 108. And therefore, "the jury is free to question a defendant's credibility, and has no obligation to believe a defendant's story." State v. Ostrem, 535 N.W.2d 916, 923 (Minn. 1995).
Because we must assume the jury believed the state's witnesses, the circumstances proved are that: (1) appellant went into the alley; (2) shots were fired that killed the victim while appellant was in the alley; (3) appellant, and not a bystander, fired the shots; (4) appellant then ran from the alley; (5) appellant stopped briefly at a friend's house and likely disposed of the gun; and (6) appellant went home and changed his clothes. The jury's only reasonable inference was that appellant is guilty of second-degree felony murder. Further, the circumstantial evidence forms a complete chain that leads directly to appellant's guilt. The jury had the opportunity to evaluate the witnesses' credibility and the evidence presented and found appellant's theory implausible and appellant guilty. We give the jury's finding due deference and affirm its verdict.
We review a district court's admission of evidence of other crimes or bad acts for a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Doughman, 384 N.W.2d 450, 454 (Minn. 1986). This evidence (known as Spreigl evidence) is generally not admissible to show a criminal disposition or to prove the crime charged. State v. Buhl, 520 N.W.2d 177, 180 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Oct. 27, 1994). One of the well-settled exceptions to this rule is the use of evidence of other crimes to prove the identity of the defendant. State v. Titworth, 255 N.W.2d 241, 244 (Minn. 1977). To conclude that Spreigl evidence is admissible, the district court must find:
(1) that the evidence is clear and convincing that defendant participated in the Spreigl offense, (2) that the Spreigl evidence is relevant and material to the state's case, and (3) that the probative value of the Spreigl evidence is not outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice.
State v. DeWald, 464 N.W.2d 500, 503 (Minn. 1991).
The Spreigl offense offered in this case was appellant's guilty plea in 1990 to first-degree assault. Appellant used his small-caliber revolver to shoot a man several times at close range. The victim had taken something from appellant, and when he tried to leave the scene, appellant shot him several times. Because appellant admitted to pleading guilty to the prior offense, there is no issue regarding whether the evidence of this crime is clear and convincing.
Although the prior crimes do not need to be identical "signature" crimes, or absolutely similar, they must be similar in some way, either in time, place, or modus operandi, to be relevant. Buhl, 520 N.W.2d at 181.
Here, although the previous crime was committed six years before the current offense, appellant was incarcerated for a majority of that time. The crimes are sufficiently similar because in each appellant used a weapon to stop a fleeing person and violently express his anger at what had preceded the chase. Consistent with the cases cited above, the district court properly exercised its discretion without abuse in finding the Spreigl offense relevant.
"Where evidence of identity is inconclusive and crucial, the state may fortify its case with Spreigl evidence to show identity." State v. Jackson, 469 N.W.2d 457, 461 (Minn. App. 1991), aff'd, 472 N.W.2d 861 (Minn. 1991). Although there was not a specific finding that the state's case on identity was weak, the case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. There were two possible shooters involved, and this Spreigl evidence is material to determining the shooter's identity. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the necessary evidence.
"Whether the probative value of the convictions outweighs their prejudicial effect is a matter left to the discretion of the trial court." State v. Graham, 371 N.W.2d 204, 208 (Minn. 1985). Because the crimes are sufficiently similar, and material and relevant to the state's case, the evidence is likely more probative than prejudicial. Buhl, 520 N.W.2d at 182. Further, the prior crime was not introduced in a prejudicial manner. See Titworth, 255 N.W.2d at 246 (stating its prejudicial effect when admitting evidence of four other robberies increased as more time and attention are diverted from the facts of the crime charged). The district court also gave cautionary instructions both at the time of its admission and at the conclusion of the case. See State v. Berry, 484 N.W.2d 14, 18 (Minn. 1992) (noting that "the likelihood of prejudice was lessened by the two curative instructions given by the judge"). The prosecutor also explained the limited uses of this evidence in her closing argument. Because all three factors for the proper admission of Spreigl evidence have been met, the district court's evidentiary ruling is affirmed.
We have considered appellant's additional pro se issues concerning alleged prosecutorial misconduct, improper submission of the felony murder charge to the jury, and the improper use of a different firearm in the expert's testimony, and we find appellant's arguments to be without merit.