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State v. Wilson

Supreme Court of Minnesota

August 16, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Maurice Nathaniel Wilson, Appellant.

         Hennepin County Office of Appellate Courts

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

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Melissa Sheridan, Assistant Public Defender, Eagan, Minnesota, for appellant.


         1. The district court did not clearly err by finding that appellant failed to make a prima facie showing that respondent had exercised a peremptory challenge to a potential juror on the basis of race.

         2. The district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding irrelevant evidence and speculative argument.




         Appellant Maurice Nathaniel Wilson was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.05, .185(a)(1) (2016), on an accomplice-liability theory for his involvement in the murder of Anthony Fairbanks. On appeal, Wilson asserts that the district court made two errors. First, he argues that the district court clearly erred by denying his Batson objection to the State's peremptory challenge of prospective juror 29. Second, he argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to allow him to develop an alternative theory to explain why the murder weapon was found in a storage unit rented to an alleged accomplice. We affirm.


         The facts of this case are fully discussed in our decision in State v. Onyelobi, 879 N.W.2d 334 (Minn. 2016).[1] The State's theory in both Onyelobi and here was that Anthony Fairbanks was a heroin addict, as were his sister and mother, and that Wilson, Wilson's girlfriend (Maureen Onyelobi), and David Johnson supplied heroin to the Fairbanks family. Typically, Fairbanks or his sister would call a designated telephone number (the 208 number) to arrange a heroin purchase, and Wilson, Onyelobi, or Johnson would answer and make the sale arrangements.

         On February 19, 2014, Wilson and Fairbanks were indicted in federal court for conspiracy to sell narcotics. On February 28, 2014, Wilson was arrested on the indictment and detained at the Cass County Jail in Fargo, North Dakota. As of March 8, 2014, the date of Fairbanks's death, authorities had not yet arrested Fairbanks.

         That same day, Onyelobi rented a storage unit in Plymouth and was issued a personalized entrance code to the facility. Surveillance video from that day showed Onyelobi arriving in a two-tone van and entering her unit for the first time around 4:15 p.m. She stored a cardboard box and duffel bag in her unit.

         At 7:34 p.m., Wilson called Onyelobi at the 208 number from the Cass County Jail. When Wilson asked Onyelobi whether Johnson was with her, she responded affirmatively and told Wilson that Johnson was talking to Fairbanks. Wilson expressed to Onyelobi, and later to Johnson, the urgency in "tak[ing] care of" Fairbanks. Onyelobi and Johnson told Wilson that Fairbanks was never alone. Wilson responded that "the countdown is on, " and taking care of Fairbanks should have been the "first thing" they did. The State, in its opening statement, characterized this phone call as Wilson placing a "hit" on Fairbanks.

         At 9:02 p.m., Onyelobi returned to her storage unit as a passenger in the two-tone van. After spending approximately 6 minutes in her unit, she returned to the van and left.

         Around 9:30 p.m., Fairbanks arrived at his mother's apartment and shortly thereafter told his sister that he was leaving to purchase heroin from Onyelobi. Immediately before Fairbanks left, his mother overheard him tell someone on the phone: "Yeah, Bro, I'm comin' right now, and I'm alone. I'm not coming with anybody. I'm by myself." Later forensic investigation revealed that the person with whom Fairbanks had been talking had called him from the 208 number while located near the area where Fairbanks's body was later found.

         Shortly before 10:00 p.m., a witness who lived two blocks from Fairbanks's mother heard three gunshots. From his second-floor window, the witness saw a body lying on the side of the street. A van stopped near the body for 5 to 10 seconds and then drove north. At 10:04 p.m., the witness called 911; the witness later identified the two-tone van owned by Onyelobi as the vehicle he saw that night. Law enforcement personnel recovered four discharged shell casings from the scene. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was two gunshot wounds to Fairbanks's head and the manner of death was homicide.

         At 10:24 p.m., surveillance video showed Onyelobi's two-tone van return to the storage facility. A male wearing a white jacket with decals left the passenger side of the van and attempted to access the facility using Onyelobi's personalized code. Access was denied because the facility was closed for the night. The next morning, Onyelobi returned to the storage facility, entered her unit, and returned to her van a few minutes later.

         On March 11, 2014, police discovered that Fairbanks's sister frequently called the 208 number. Police also were notified of the federal indictment and through this information learned that Wilson was in custody, that Onyelobi was his girlfriend, and that Onyelobi owned a two-tone van matching the one identified by the witness.

         Using cell-phone data, police located the phone associated with the 208 number at the Red Roof Inn in Plymouth. Police found the two-tone van in the Red Roof Inn parking lot, and hotel records confirmed that Onyelobi rented a room on March 6, 2014 and was not scheduled to check out until March 15. When officers arrived at Onyelobi's room, Johnson answered the door. From the door, officers could see a racquetball-sized clear plastic bag containing a white substance. Police entered the room, froze the scene, and waited for a search warrant. Onyelobi arrived approximately 30 minutes later. After obtaining the search warrant, police found the phone connected to the 208 number and the white jacket with decals worn by the man who attempted to enter Onyelobi's storage unit on the night of March 8.

         Police arrested Onyelobi for possession of a controlled substance and brought her to the police station for questioning. At one point, police left the interrogation room but continued to monitor Onyelobi. They saw her try to insert a small key into an exposed electrical outlet. Officers seized the key and determined that it opened Onyelobi's storage unit. After obtaining a warrant, police searched the storage unit and found a gun, which was later determined to be the weapon that fired the four discharged shell casings found near Fairbanks's body.

         Wilson was charged with first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.05, .185(a)(1) (2016) (Count I), and second-degree intentional murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.05, .19, subd. 1(1) (2016) (Count II). Both counts were charged on an accomplice-liability theory. Following a jury trial, Wilson was convicted of both counts, and the district court sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of release on Count I.



         Wilson's first claim on appeal is that the district court clearly erred by denying his Batson objection to the State's use of a peremptory challenge to exclude a black prospective juror at trial. We reject Wilson's claim because the district court's conclusion that Wilson failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination was not clearly erroneous.

         "Peremptory challenges allow a party to strike a prospective juror that the party believes will be less fair than some others and, by this process, to select as final jurors the persons they believe will be most fair." State v. Reiners, 664 N.W.2d 826, 833 (Minn. 2003). The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, prohibits purposeful racial discrimination in jury selection. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1; Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 84 (1986). To decide whether the exercise of a peremptory challenge violates the Fourteenth Amendment, we follow the Supreme Court of the United States' three-step Batson framework for determining whether a peremptory challenge is motivated by racial ...

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