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State of Minnesota v. Stephen Louis Cobenais

April 15, 2013


St. Louis County District Court File No. 69DU-CR-09-4022

This opinion will be unpublished and may not be cited except as provided by Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2012).


Larkin, Judge Dissenting, Rodenberg, Judge

Considered and decided by Larkin, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.



Appellant challenges his convictions of second-degree intentional murder and unlawful possession of a firearm, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by allowing the state to introduce impermissible Spreigl evidence. Because we conclude that there was no reasonable possibility that the wrongfully admitted Spreigl evidence significantly affected the verdict, we affirm.


Respondent State of Minnesota charged appellant Stephen Louis Cobenais with second-degree intentional murder and unlawful possession of a firearm based on an August 26, 2009, early morning incident during which Cobenais shot an acquaintance, M.H., in the head. The complaint alleged that the day before the shooting, Cobenais learned that his son had been removed from his care, leaving Cobenais "very angry and upset." A witness told police that she was in Cobenais's apartment that evening with Cobenais and M.H., and that they were "partying and listening to music." The witness heard M.H. say: "Get that gun out of my face." Cobenais said: "You better not say anything about my son again." The witness heard a shot a few minutes later, after which Cobenais said, "Everybody get the f-ck out." The witness had seen Cobenais with a gun earlier that evening. A second witness also had seen Cobenais with a gun earlier in the evening. The second witness told the police that she was sitting two feet away from Cobenais and M.H. when she heard a loud shot and saw M.H. fall to the ground. She and the other individuals in the apartment immediately fled.

Prior to trial, the state notified the district court and Cobenais that it would "offer evidence of [Cobenais's] acts on March 7, 2010, while at the Douglas County, Wisconsin, jail toward D.L." to "show intent, absence of mistake or accident." The state supplemented the notice with police reports alleging that Cobenais repeatedly punched D.L., a fellow inmate, in the face after D.L. told a correctional officer that Cobenais had stolen Pop-Tarts from him. D.L. suffered significant injuries, including several fractures around his left eye. Officers had to use pepper spray and a Taser to restrain Cobenais during the incident. The jail's surveillance system recorded the incident on video.

The district court held a hearing on the state's motion to admit evidence regarding the jail incident. Cobenais argued that the incident was not relevant or material to the state's case, that the danger of unfair prejudice and confusion of the issues substantially outweighed the probative value of the evidence, and that the "[s]tate's purpose in admitting this incident into evidence is as an 'end run' around the prohibition against character evidence." The state argued that the incident was relevant because "such behavior tends to show an intent to retaliate against those who [Cobenais] perceived as having wronged him; a pattern, if you will, of resorting to immediate self-help to maintain control over a situation. . . . [Cobenais] has displayed a modus operandi of intractable vengeance."

The district court ruled that the state could introduce testimony regarding the jail incident. Regarding the relevance of the incident, the district court stated that Cobenais's "response to [D.L.'s] accusation of stealing poptarts is relevant to whether [Cobenais's] response to [M.H.'s] statements about [Cobenais's] son was accidental. Therefore, the jail assault is relevant and material to the [s]tate's case." The district court further stated that "it is fairly clear that the weakest point in the [s]tate's case is whether [Cobenais] intended to shoot [M.H.]," and "[b]ecause the jail assault is probative on the issue of whether [Cobenais] intended to harm another when he felt wronged in some way, its value outweighs the prejudicial effect."

At trial, the state called three witnesses to testify about the jail incident: a corrections officer from the jail, a detective with the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, and D.L. Additionally, the state played a portion of the jail's surveillance video depicting the assault for the jury. The district court provided a cautionary instruction regarding the evidence twice during the presentation of evidence and once during final instructions. The final instruction, which was identical in substance to the other two, warned the jury that the evidence regarding the "occurrence on March 7, 2010, at the Douglas County Jail . . . was admitted for the limited purpose of assisting you in determining whether [Cobenais] committed those acts with which [he] is charged in this

[c]omplaint. . . . You are not to convict [Cobenais] on the basis of any occurrence on March 7, 2010, ...

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