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State v. Melanson

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

January 8, 2018

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Russell Wayne Melanson, Appellant.

         Anoka County District Court File No. 02-CR-16-796

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Anthony C. Palumbo, Anoka County Attorney, Marcy S. Crain, Kelsey R. Kelley, Assistant County Attorneys, Anoka, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Adam Lozeau, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Schellhas, Judge; and Kirk, Judge.


         The district court's failure to give a limiting instruction sua sponte regarding the admission of relationship evidence was not plainly erroneous.


          KIRK, JUDGE

         In this reinstated appeal, appellant challenges his felony convictions for domestic assault and theft of a motor vehicle. Appellant asks this court to reverse and remand for a new trial, arguing that (1) the district court committed plain error that affected his substantial rights by allowing relationship evidence to be presented under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2014), without instructing the jury sua sponte on its proper use; (2) the state committed prosecutorial misconduct during its closing argument; and (3) the district court abused its discretion when it allowed the state to present impeachment evidence. Appellant argues that the cumulative effect was to deny him the right to a fair trial. We affirm.


         Appellant Russell Wayne Melanson was charged with felony (1) kidnapping, (2) domestic assault, (3) theft of a motor vehicle, and (4) false imprisonment, for events that took place on January 29, and 30, 2016. The matter proceeded to a jury trial in May 2016. At trial, M.B. testified that on the morning of January 29, 2016, she woke up in her bed at her home in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and saw appellant. M.B. and appellant had previously lived together and had a sexual relationship. M.B. said that appellant put a belt around her neck and choked her.

         The next thing M.B. remembered was waking up in the rear cargo space of her moving Ford Explorer. M.B. said that it was dark outside and that appellant was driving her vehicle, which she had not given him permission to do. M.B. was lying face down with her TV, clothing, and other personal items on top of her. Her arms and legs were bound with string, and she had duct tape wrapped around her mouth and head. M.B. said that she felt dried blood in her ear, her face was heavy, her arm was numb, and she could not see out of one eye. M.B. said that she passed in and out of consciousness, but she remembered making two stops-one inside a garage adjacent to the home of an acquaintance, and the other on a dirt road. During one of the stops, M.B. said that appellant untied her and allowed her to move up to the front seat, and she told him that she needed to go to the hospital. M.B. also noticed during one of the stops that her leg was hurt. M.B. further testified that another male was present in the vehicle at some point during the drive, and that he may have also driven.

         M.B. said that, on January 30, she woke up back in her bed with appellant sitting next to her. M.B. testified that appellant told her he was sorry and that he would never do that again. M.B. texted a friend, who called her phone. Appellant became angry when he heard the friend's call, and got on M.B.'s phone and argued with the friend before leaving. M.B.'s friend arrived to check on M.B., and then left and returned with another friend. The other friend called the police and took M.B. to the hospital.

         A Coon Rapids police officer responded to the hospital and spoke to M.B. The officer testified at trial that M.B. had extreme bruising on both eyes, blood coming out of her ear canal, and swelling on the left part of her face. The officer took photographs of M.B.'s injuries, which were admitted into evidence. The officer acknowledged that M.B. appeared to be "out of it," but testified that M.B. told her that she remembered waking up in her bed on January 29 with appellant holding a belt over her. M.B. also told the officer that she blacked out after that. At trial, M.B. described her injuries as a broken bone in her throat, bleeding in her brain, and cysts behind her kneecaps. M.B. said that the effects of her injuries are ongoing-she now stutters, cannot fully open her mouth, and has memory loss.

         M.B. left the hospital with her friend and went home prior to being discharged. M.B. resides in the basement area of a house that she shares with a male friend and his three children. Upon returning home, M.B. discovered that her vehicle was gone, the lock was cut off of the closet in her room, her TV was gone, and other personal belongings were missing. The next day, M.B. texted appellant using her roommate's son's phone to ask where her vehicle and belongings were. Copies of the text messages were admitted into evidence. Appellant texted M.B. to say that he did not have any of her "shit" and that he left her vehicle in Robbinsdale. Law enforcement later recovered appellant's vehicle in Robbinsdale.

         An Anoka County Sheriff's investigator spoke to M.B. at her home on January 31 and testified at trial. The investigator observed and photographed M.B.'s injuries, M.B.'s basement living area, as well as the broken lock. The photographs were admitted into evidence. The description that M.B. gave to the investigator about what happened on January 29 and 30 was generally consistent with what she testified to at trial and what she told the police officer at the hospital. The record shows that, throughout her statements, M.B. consistently identified appellant as the person who choked her with a belt and assaulted her, and as the person who took her vehicle without her permission. However, the record also shows that there were some inconsistences in M.B.'s statements, which appellant's counsel emphasized for the jury at trial. When appellant's counsel cross-examined M.B. about the inconsistencies at trial, M.B. became agitated and said that she could not think or remember.

         On February 5, detectives recovered and searched appellant's vehicle. In the trunk, they found a tool bag that belonged to M.B.'s husband, a bag containing duct tape, a black leather belt, and a navy canvas belt. A mixture of three or more individuals' DNA was found on parts of both belts, and a forensic scientist testified that M.B.'s DNA could not be excluded as a contributor to the mixtures. Appellant's counsel argued that the belts may have been included in items that M.B. acquired from Craigslist and gave to appellant, which would explain why her DNA was present on them.[1]

         Prior to trial, the district court issued preliminary evidentiary rulings allowing the state to introduce impeachment and relationship evidence at trial, over appellant's objection. At trial, the state presented the relationship evidence through M.B.'s testimony without objection. Appellant did not testify, but his girlfriend K.C. testified as an alibi witness. K.C. testified that appellant was with her from 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. on January 29 until 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. on January 30. When asked why she remembered January 29 specifically, K.C. said that it was the night she and appellant first kissed. However, she also testified that she met appellant in September 2015 and that they had been in a romantic relationship since then. The state impeached K.C.'s credibility with a 2013 misdemeanor theft conviction and a 2014 misdemeanor false name to a police officer conviction; appellant did not object.

         The jury found appellant guilty of domestic assault and theft of a motor vehicle and not guilty of the two remaining charges. The district court imposed a 45-month career-offender prison sentence for the domestic-assault conviction, and a concurrent 26-month prison sentence for the theft of a motor vehicle conviction. Appellant filed a direct appeal, but was granted a stay of appeal to petition for postconviction relief. In his postconviction petition, appellant argued that he was improperly sentenced as a career offender for the domestic assault. ...

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