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State v. James

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

June 3, 2013

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Donald Ray James, Appellant.


Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-11-26020

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and

Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Benjamin J. Butler, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

Considered and decided by Schellhas, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Worke, Judge.


Appellant challenges his second-degree-assault conviction, arguing that (1) the district court erred by admitting evidence of his two prior, unspecified convictions; (2) the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct; (3) the district court erred by striking some of appellant's testimony, violating his right to present a complete defense; and (4) the cumulative effect of the errors warrants reversal. We affirm.


Respondent State of Minnesota charged appellant Donald James with felonious second-degree assault under Minn. Stat. §§ 609.222, subd. 1, .101, subd. 2, .11 (2010). Before trial, James asserted that he acted in self-defense and the state moved to admit James's two prior felony assault convictions from February 1999 and December 2002 for impeachment purposes. Over appellant's objection, the district court granted the state's motion, ruling that the court would allow admission of James's two prior convictions as unspecified convictions. A jury trial followed.

Brooklyn Park Police Department Officer Matthew Rabe and witnesses N.N., C.N., and P.O. testified for the state, and the testimony revealed James initiated an altercation with N.N. on August 19, 2011. The altercation occurred during work hours at a barbershop where both men worked. James allegedly insulted N.N. and spat on him; cornered N.N. while lunging at him with a knife; and threatened to show N.N. "what crazy is" and kill him. N.N. denied threatening James but acknowledged that, after James placed his knife in his pocket, N.N. went to his car and obtained his gun. N.N. also testified that he calmed down and did not return to the barbershop.

James called the barbershop owner as a witness, who testified that N.N. is a peaceful person. James testified on his own behalf, acknowledged his unspecified felony convictions from 1999 and 2002, and claimed that N.N. initiated the August 19 altercation. James testified that he and N.N. exchanged profanities; N.N. touched James's nose; James slapped N.N.'s hand away; and, when N.N. raised his hand "like he was about to . . . punch" James, James pushed N.N. away. James claimed that N.N. threatened to "put some hot lead in [James's] –ss, " which meant to James that N.N. was going to shoot James. James then pulled out his pocket knife; held it out; and, believing that N.N.'s gun was in N.N.'s car, told N.N. that he was "not gonna allow him to get out." James eventually put his knife away, and N.N. went to his car to get his gun. James denied spitting or attempting to stab N.N.

The jury found James guilty of second-degree assault, and this appeal follows.


Prior-Conviction Impeachment Evidence

James argues that the district court abused its discretion by allowing the state to impeach him with evidence of his two unspecified prior felony convictions. "We will not reverse a district court's ruling on the impeachment of a witness by prior conviction absent a clear abuse of discretion." State v. Hill, 801 N.W.2d 646, 651 (Minn. 2011) (quotation omitted). Evidence of a defendant's prior conviction is admissible for purposes of impeachment if the crime is punishable by more than one year in prison and the probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect. Minn. R. Evid. 609(a). When exercising their discretion under rule 609(a), courts must consider and weigh the Jones factors: (1) the impeachment value of the prior crime; (2) the date of the conviction and the defendant's subsequent history; (3) the similarity of the past crime with the charged crime (the more similarity between the past crime and the charged offense, the more likely it is that the conviction is more prejudicial than probative); (4) the importance of the defendant's testimony; and (5) the centrality of the credibility issue. State v. Swanson, 707 N.W.2d 645, 654-55 (Minn. 2006) (citing State v. Jones, 271 N.W.2d 534, 538 (Minn. 1978)).

James contends that the district court abused its discretion by failing to consider each Jones factor with regard to each prior conviction. "[A] district court should demonstrate on the record that it has considered and weighed the Jones factors." Id. at 654. A district court errs when it fails to consider and weigh these factors on the record. Id. at 655. But an appellate court may review the Jones factors to determine whether the error was harmless because the conviction was admissible. Id.

1999 Conviction

James argues that the district court erred by not considering and weighing whether the probative value outweighed the prejudicial effect of admitting the 1999 conviction.

Rule 609(b) generally renders evidence of a conviction inadmissible for impeachment purposes if "more than ten years" have passed between "the date of the conviction or the release of the witness from the confinement imposed for that conviction, whichever is the later date, " Minn. R. Evid. 609(b), and "the date of the charged offense, " State v. Ihnot, 575 N.W.2d 581, 585 (Minn. 1998). A conviction is only admissible under rule 609(b) if the district court "determines, in the interests of justice, that the probative value of the conviction supported by specific facts and circumstances substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect."

Here, the prosecutor conceded that James's 1999 conviction was "slightly outside the 10 years contemplated by Rule 609, " but the district court made no finding, in the interests of justice or otherwise, that the probative value of the conviction, supported by specific facts and circumstances, substantially outweighed its prejudicial effect. We therefore conclude that the district court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of ...

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