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State v. Griffin

Supreme Court of Minnesota

November 16, 2016

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Diamond Lee Jamal Griffin, Appellant.

         Hennepin County Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Elizabeth R. Johnston, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent,

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Roy G. Spurbeck, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Hudson, J. Concurring, Stras, J. Took no part, Chutich, McKeig, JJ.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Even if the district court erred in admitting Spreigl evidence, there is no reasonable possibility that the evidence significantly affected the verdict.

         2. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied appellant's motion for a mistrial.

          3. The State presented evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant intentionally shot and killed the victim.

         4. None of the claims in appellant's pro se brief have merit. Affirmed.

          OPINION

          HUDSON, Justice.

         Following a jury trial, appellant Diamond Lee Jamal Griffin was convicted of first-degree felony murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(3) (2014), in connection with the shooting death of Francisco Benitez-Hernandez.[1] On appeal, Griffin contends the district court committed reversible error when it admitted Spreigl evidence and when it denied his motion for a mistrial. He also claims that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to prove he intentionally killed Benitez-Hernandez. In a supplemental pro se brief, Griffin raises a number of other claims. Because (1) there is no reasonable possibility that the Spreigl evidence significantly affected the verdict; (2) the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Griffin's motion for a mistrial; (3) the State's evidence was sufficient to prove Griffin intentionally killed Benitez-Hernandez; and (4) Griffin's pro se claims lack merit, we affirm his conviction.

         On the night of July 8, 2013, Griffin, his girlfriend K.F., and his childhood friend Ryan Grant drove to an apartment complex in south Minneapolis. About two weeks earlier, Griffin and Grant had jointly purchased a .22 semiautomatic pistol. Griffin and Grant left K.F.'s car with the pistol and tried to rob a man who was walking down the street. As part of the robbery attempt, Grant hit the man in the head with the pistol. The man ran away.

         After the unsuccessful robbery, Griffin and Grant walked down a nearby alley until they reached the backyard of 3629 Columbus Avenue South, which was the home of Francisco Benitez-Hernandez and L.B-H. Benitez-Hernandez, L.B-H., and their brother-in-law P.Y-E. were in the backyard sitting at a table drinking beer. As Griffin and Grant entered the backyard, Griffin aimed the pistol at Benitez-Hernandez. When Griffin demanded money, Benitez-Hernandez said they had no money. Griffin then hit Benitez-Hernandez with the gun in the head above his eyebrow, causing Benitez-Hernandez to bend over and hold his bleeding head. L.B-H. stood up and threw a beer bottle at Griffin in an effort to distract him. Griffin ducked out of the way, fell backward, caught himself, and then "turned around and . . . fired at [L.B-H.]." The bullet struck L.B-H. just above the elbow of his left arm. As L.B-H. ran to get help, Benitez-Hernandez grabbed Griffin's leg. Griffin redirected the pistol at Benitez-Hernandez's chest and fired a shot. The bullet penetrated Benitez-Hernandez's chest, fatally wounding him. Griffin and Grant fled the scene before the police arrived.

         Although the police did not find a firearm at the scene, they found two spent cartridge casings in the backyard near Benitez-Hernandez's body. Police also located two cell phones in the yard, one belonging to L.B-H., and the other belonging to P.Y-E. L.B-H. described the robbers as two black men in white t-shirts. Based on the statements of witness J.M., a resident of a nearby apartment building, police searched that apartment building's parking lot and found an identification card belonging to Griffin's girlfriend, K.F. Police also located a take-out food container and a fork near the identification card that were later determined to have K.F.'s DNA on them.

         Police located K.F. on July 9, 2013 and spoke to her twice that day, once at her place of employment and again at the police department. She was hesitant to speak with the police but eventually told them that she had been with Griffin on the day of the killing. Also on July 9, police stopped K.F.'s car with Griffin and Grant inside. Griffin was driving and Grant was in the passenger seat. The police arrested the men and seized Griffin's clothing, including a white tank top, a belt, jean shorts, and black Nike shoes. The police seized Grant's shoes and a cell phone. The police also executed a search warrant at Grant's home where they seized a white t-shirt, a white tank top, and black shorts with a white stripe.

         The items the police collected at the scene and the clothes and shoes seized from Griffin and Grant were sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for forensic testing. The serologist found a blood spot on Griffin's left shoe and a blood spot on his right shoe. The serologist also found blood on four areas of the jean shorts belonging to Griffin. No blood was found on Griffin's shirt or belt, or on the t-shirt, tank top, shorts, or shoes taken from Grant. The blood found on Griffin's clothing and shoes matched Benitez-Hernandez's DNA. The spent casings found in the backyard of 3629 Columbus Avenue South were all fired from the same gun, a .22 semiautomatic pistol. With Grant's help, the police recovered the .22 semiautomatic pistol used in the shooting in August 2014 from a person identified as D.D. Testimony by the investigating officer established that a semiautomatic pistol requires a person "to pull the trigger for each round that you fire."

         Grant pleaded guilty as an accomplice to three crimes: the felony murder of Benitez-Hernandez, the attempted second-degree murder of L.B-H., and the aggravated robbery of P.Y-E. In exchange for assisting the police in locating the gun and for testifying against Griffin at trial, Grant received a reduced sentence of 234 months in prison.

         A Hennepin County grand jury returned an indictment charging Griffin with six offenses. The first count alleged the offense of first-degree felony murder (Benitez-Hernandez), Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(3). The second count alleged the offense of second-degree intentional murder (Benitez-Hernandez), Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2014). The third count alleged the offense of attempt, Minn. Stat. § 609.17 (2014), in which the uncompleted offense was first-degree felony murder (L.B-H.), Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(3). The fourth count alleged the offense of attempt, Minn. Stat. § 609.17, in which the uncompleted offense was second-degree intentional murder (L.B-H.), Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1). The fifth count alleged the offense of second-degree assault (P.Y-E.), Minn. Stat. § 609.222, subd. 1 (2014). The sixth count alleged the offense of aggravated robbery (P.Y-E.), Minn. Stat. § 609.245, subd. 1 (2014). Griffin pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.

         At the jury trial, the State presented evidence consistent with the facts outlined above. Over Griffin's objection, the district court allowed the State to present Spreigl evidence of a 2008 incident. In addition, when the prosecutor asked Griffin's girlfriend "Do you remember telling your boss that you thought your boyfriend killed somebody?" Griffin objected and moved for a mistrial. The district court sustained the objection, provided the jury a curative instruction, and denied the mistrial motion. The jury returned a not guilty verdict on Count 6 and guilty verdicts on Counts 1, 3, and 5. The district court sentenced Griffin to life in prison on Count 1; to 153 months in prison on Count 3, to be served consecutively to Count 1; and to 36 months in prison on Count 5, to be served consecutively to Counts 1 and 3. Griffin now appeals.

         I.

         Griffin argues the district court committed reversible error when it admitted the 2008 Spreigl evidence.[2] Specifically, he contends the State failed to articulate a valid purpose for admitting the Spreigl evidence, and that any probative value of the Spreigl evidence was outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice.

         A district court's decision to admit Spreigl evidence is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Rossberg, 851 N.W.2d 609, 615 (Minn. 2014). A defendant who claims the trial court erred in admitting evidence bears the burden of showing an error occurred and any resulting prejudice. State v. Campbell, 861 N.W.2d 95, 102 (Minn. 2015). If an appellate court determines that the district court erroneously admitted Spreigl evidence, the court must then determine whether there is a reasonable possibility that the wrongfully admitted evidence significantly affected the verdict. State v. Bolte, 530 N.W.2d 191, 198 (Minn. 1995).

         At trial, the State called O.R-H., who testified that on January 3, 2008, he was walking to work and was at First Avenue and 27th Street in Minneapolis when he noticed two men walking behind him. Approximately one block later, one of the men ran up behind him. When O.R.-H. turned around, the man punched him in the nose and rummaged through his jacket and pants pockets for money. O.R-H. was unable to make an in-court identification. The State then called Officer Keia Pettis, who testified that on January 3, 2008, during a show-up identification procedure, O.R-H identified Griffin as the person who attempted to rob him.

         We need not decide whether the district court erred in admitting the Spreigl evidence because, even if we assume that the evidence was erroneously admitted, there is no reasonable possibility that the Spreigl evidence significantly affected the verdict. The district court gave the jury a cautionary instruction regarding the permissible use of Spreigl evidence and we presume that the jurors followed the district court's instruction. State v. Clark, 755 N.W.2d 241, 261 (Minn. 2008) (explaining that any concerns regarding the prejudicial impact of the Spreigl evidence were minimized by the cautionary instruction on the permissible use of Spreigl evidence because we presume that jurors followed the court's instructions). Moreover, the evidence of Griffin's guilt was considerable.[3] The DNA evidence strongly suggested that Griffin was the shooter because Benitez-Hernandez's blood was on Griffin's shoes and shorts, and none of Benitez-Hernandez's blood was on Grant's shoes or clothing. Thus, even if the district court erred in admitting the Spreigl evidence, there is no reasonable possibility that the evidence significantly affected the verdict.

         II.

         Griffin also argues that the district court committed reversible error when it denied his motion for a mistrial. The denial of a motion for a mistrial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Jorgensen, 660 N.W.2d 127, 133 (Minn. 2003). A mistrial should be granted only if there is a reasonable probability, in light of the entirety of the trial including the mitigating effects of a curative instruction, that the outcome of the trial would have been different had the incident resulting in the motion not occurred. State v. Manthey, 711 N.W.2d 498, 506-07 (Minn. 2006). The trial judge is in the best position to determine whether an error is sufficiently prejudicial to require a mistrial or whether another remedy is appropriate. Id. When a court instructs a jury to disregard an improper question, we presume the jurors followed the instruction. State v. Pendleton, 706 N.W.2d 500, 509 (Minn. 2005).

         On direct examination, the following exchange occurred between the ...


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