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State v. Moon

July 18, 2006

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
JAMES WARREN MOON, JR., APPELLANT.



Crow Wing County District Court File No. K4-02-771

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Because it is the district court's obligation to give the accomplice-testimony instruction whenever a witness against the defendant might reasonably be considered an accomplice, the erroneous omission of the instruction is properly reviewed under a harmless-error analysis, rather than a plain-error analysis, even when the defendant did not request the instruction or object to its omission.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wright, Judge

Affirmed

Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge; Wright, Judge; and Dietzen, Judge.

OPINION

Appellant challenges his conviction of intentional second-degree murder and sentence of 306 months' imprisonment, arguing that (1) the district court erred by failing to instruct the jury regarding accomplice testimony, and (2) the interests of justice require a reduction in his sentence. In his pro se supplemental brief, appellant argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct, the search warrants for his car and residence were defective, and there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction. We affirm.

FACTS

On March 7, 2002, human remains were found in Kanabec County and identified through fingerprints as Billie Joe Moon. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Investigators learned that the deceased had been reported missing and was last seen on February 16, 2002, after being dropped off at a bar in Brainerd where he met his brother, appellant James Warren Moon, Jr. (Moon).

On March 8, investigators interviewed Moon regarding his brother's death. Moon stated that he and his brother had been together at the bar and that Moon later dropped off his brother in a parking lot. Upon request, Moon signed a written consent allowing the investigators to search his vehicle. When the investigators observed what appeared to be blood in the trunk, they decided to seal the vehicle and obtain a search warrant. The investigators executed a search warrant for Moon's vehicle on March 9. The DNA profile of blood-stain samples obtained from Moon's vehicle matched the DNA profile of the deceased.

Moon spoke with investigators again on March 10. At the outset, an investigator read Moon the Miranda warning. After a mid-morning break, Moon was placed under arrest and reminded of his Miranda rights. Moon eventually admitted that he shot his brother, stating, "I pulled the trigger." Moon showed the investigators the secluded area where the shooting occurred and told the investigators where he had obtained the gun and the gun's location. Based on the information Moon provided, the investigators obtained a search warrant for Moon's residence, where they recovered the gun. Ballistics tests confirmed that a bullet found near the deceased's remains was fired from the gun seized from Moon's residence.

A grand jury indicted Moon for premeditated first-degree murder, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.185(1) (2000). Michael Long also was charged in connection with the murder. Long and Moon's sister were living with Moon at the time of the shooting. Under a plea agreement, Long agreed to plead guilty to aiding a felon and to cooperate in the prosecution of Moon. During an investigative interview, Long stated that he gave Moon the gun on February 16 and subsequently met Moon in the secluded area after Moon called to request a car battery. Long admitted being present when the shooting occurred and helping Moon transport the body to Kanabec County.

On May 9, 2003, Moon moved to dismiss the charge for lack of probable cause and to suppress evidence and statements obtained in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution. An omnibus hearing was held on June 25. Moon later moved to reopen the omnibus hearing because he was not satisfied that his attorney had addressed every issue. The district court granted the motion to reopen the omnibus hearing but limited the issues Moon could address at the hearing and permitted briefing on the remaining issues. The second omnibus hearing was held on January 14, 2004. The district court denied Moon's motions to dismiss and to suppress and a subsequently filed motion to reopen the omnibus hearing.

At trial, Long testified that, after he handed Moon the gun, Moon held his brother down and placed the gun to his brother's head. The gun then "went off." Moon testified that he did not intend to kill his brother. Moon admitted holding his brother down and putting the gun to his brother's head. But according to Moon, Long grabbed the gun. When Long handed the gun back to Moon, it "went off." Moon testified that the gun was not in his "possession" or "direct control" when the shooting occurred.

The jury found Moon not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of second-degree murder, a lesser-included offense. See Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2000) (causing the death of another with the intent to effect death). The district court imposed the presumptive guidelines sentence of 306 months' imprisonment. This appeal followed.

ISSUES

I. Did the district court commit reversible error by failing to instruct the jury regarding accomplice testimony?

II. Do the interests of justice require a reduction in the sentence imposed?

III. Is appellant entitled to relief based on any of the issues raised in his pro se supplemental brief?

ANALYSIS

I.

The district court must give a jury instruction regarding accomplice testimony in a criminal trial during which a witness testifying against the defendant might reasonably be considered an accomplice to the crime. State v. Shoop, 441 N.W.2d 475, 479 (Minn. 1989). Under these circumstances, the district court's duty to give the accomplice-testimony instruction exists regardless of whether the defense requests the instruction. State v. Strommen, 648 N.W.2d 681, 689 (Minn. 2002); Shoop, 441 N.W.2d at 479. This instruction cautions the jury that it cannot convict the defendant based on accomplice testimony unless the testimony is corroborated by other evidence that tends to establish that the defendant committed the charged offense. Minn. Stat. § 634.04 (2004); 10 Minnesota Practice, CRIMJIG 3.18 (1999).

This corroboration requirement addresses the questionable credibility of testimony by an individual who may be inclined to shift the responsibility for criminal conduct to another in order to benefit personally. State v. Azzone, 271 Minn. 166, 170, 135 N.W.2d 488, 493 (1965). Corroborative evidence that "merely shows the commission of the offense or the circumstances thereof" provides an insufficient basis to credit accomplice testimony. Minn. Stat. § 634.04. Rather, corroborative evidence is sufficient to support a conviction based on accomplice testimony when it confirms the veracity of the accomplice's testimony and indicates the defendant's guilt in a substantial way. State v. Hooper, 620 N.W.2d 31, 39 (Minn. 2000). Independent proof of each element of the crime, however, is not required. State v. Lemire, 315 N.W.2d 606, 610 (Minn. 1982).

Moon argues that the district court committed reversible error when it failed to give the accomplice-testimony instruction, even though Moon did not request the instruction. Ordinarily, to obtain reversal for an unobjected-to error, a defendant must establish that the error was plain and affected substantial rights. State v. Griller, 583 N.W.2d 736, 740 (Minn. 1998); see Minn. R. Crim. P. 31.02 (providing that plain error affecting substantial rights may be considered although not argued to district court). The plain-error rule places a higher burden on a defendant seeking reversal after having failed to object or argue the matter before the district court. But this higher burden is not appropriate for a defendant who fails to request an instruction that the district court is obligated to give. Because it is the district court's obligation to give the accomplice-testimony instruction whenever a witness against the defendant might reasonably be considered an accomplice, the erroneous omission of the instruction is properly reviewed under a harmless-error analysis, even when the defendant did not request the instruction or object to its omission. See State v. Lee, 683 N.W.2d 309, 316 (Minn. 2004) (applying harmless-error analysis to erroneous omission of accomplice-testimony instruction without specifying whether defendant requested instruction).

An accomplice is one who could be indicted and convicted of the same crime as the defendant. Id. at 314. Here, the state does not dispute, and the record establishes, that Long was an accomplice. Thus, applying the harmless-error standard, we consider whether the district court's "erroneous omission of the [accomplice-testimony] instruction might have prompted the jury, which is presumed to be reasonable, to reach a harsher verdict than it might have otherwise reached . . . ." Shoop, 441 N.W.2d at 481. If so, Moon is entitled to a new trial. Id. ...


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