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State v. Lee

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 19, 2019

State of Minnesota, Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
v.
Blair Bruce Lee, Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Kelly O'Neill Moller, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent/cross-appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Frederick J. Goetz, Special Assistant State Public Defender, Goetz & Eckland P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant/cross-respondent.

          Liz Richards, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

          Rana Alexander, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Standpoint.

          Lindsay Brice, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

          Daniel J. Koewler, Ramsay Law Firm, P.L.L.C., Roseville, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 9.01, subdivisions 1-1a, does not require the State to permit a defendant to inspect a crime scene that is in the control of a third party.

         2. Assuming without deciding that the appellant/cross-respondent's constitutional rights were violated by the district court's decision that denied permission to inspect the home of another person, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

          OPINION

          ANDERSON, JUSTICE.

         The issue presented here is whether a defendant has the right to inspect a crime scene that is in the control of a third party. Appellant/cross-respondent Blair Bruce Lee was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and domestic assault by strangulation. Lee argues that the denial of his motions to inspect the crime scene violated Minn. R. Crim. P. 9.01 and his constitutional rights to due process and effective assistance of counsel. The court of appeals held that Lee had a right under Minn. R. Crim. P. 9.01, subds. 1-1a, to inspect the crime scene, but that Lee was not entitled to a new trial because the denial of his motions to inspect was harmless. We hold that Minn. R. Crim. P. 9.01, subds. 1-1a, does not authorize an inspection of a crime scene in the control of a third party. We further hold that even if Lee had a constitutional right to inspect a crime scene in the control of a third party, any error in denying that right was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We therefore affirm.

         FACTS

         Lee lived with his wife, S.M.L., and their children in a single-family house. As a result of a violent confrontation between Lee and S.M.L., Lee was charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct, Minn. Stat. § 609.342, subd. 1(e)(i) (2018), and domestic assault by strangulation, Minn. Stat. § 609.2247, subd. 2 (2018).

         Before trial, Lee moved to amend the pretrial conditions of release and domestic abuse no-contact order (DANCO) to allow his counsel and investigator to enter his former residence to inspect and photograph the crime scene.[1] Lee and S.M.L. leased the house as co-tenants, but the DANCO prevented Lee from residing at or accessing his former home or granting access to a third party. Lee argued that, without access to the residence, defense counsel "would not have the ability to fully cross-examine" S.M.L. "about the events taking place within that residence." Defense counsel stated that "I may not know what I'm interested in. I may only know it when I see it." Defense counsel also stated that prohibiting him "from investigating and exploring and understanding the layout and the complexion of where this alleged event took place" was "a deprivation and denial of [Lee's] due process rights." The district court denied the motion.

         Lee sought a writ of prohibition from the court of appeals. In an order by a special term panel, the court of appeals held that the order denying Lee's motion was contrary to State v. Michael Gary Lee (Michael Gary Lee), 461 N.W.2d 245 (Minn.App. 1990), under which Lee had a right to inspect the home. State v. Blair Bruce Lee, No. A16-1597, Order at 3 (Minn.App. filed Nov. 1, 2016). The court of appeals, however, denied the petition for a writ of prohibition. Id. at 4. It noted that although the first and second prongs required for a writ of prohibition were satisfied, Lee had not satisfied the third prong-that the district court's decision "must result in injury for which there was no adequate remedy." Id. at 4 (quoting State v. Turner, 550 N.W.2d 622, 625 (Minn. 1996)). Because Lee could challenge the district court's discovery ruling "in an appeal from final judgment of conviction," the court of appeals held that he had not "demonstrated that the ordinary remedy of an appeal from judgment does not provide an adequate remedy." Id.

         Following the denial of the writ of prohibition, Lee renewed his motion in the district court for access to the crime scene. Lee argued that he needed to inspect the crime scene in order to "undercut the credibility" of S.M.L. by showing "where objects are and walls are" and showing "spaces" and "dimensions" inside the home. Lee further argued that the court of appeals determined that the district court's original denial of the motion was contrary to law. The district court denied Lee's renewed motion.

         At the jury trial, S.M.L. testified that Lee's assault began in the bedroom where he repeatedly poured water on her and then moved to the living room where he pinned her to the ground. He bit her breasts over her shirt and pulled her pants down. Lee forcibly pushed multiple fingers into S.M.L.'s anus as she struggled to free herself. He also sought to penetrate her vagina with his fingers but was unable to do so because she was struggling. S.M.L. began to scream, and Lee covered her mouth with his other hand. S.M.L. tried to call out for the landlord, whose house was next door, but Lee pushed a towel onto her face. She testified that he said "die, die" while he held the towel, and she began to have trouble breathing.

         Lee abruptly got off of S.M.L. and stood up. When S.M.L. stood up, Lee began hitting her in the chest and ribs and continued to punch her until her cell phone fell out of her pocket. Lee grabbed the cell phone and ran out of the house. S.M.L. eventually went back to bed after Lee left in his truck. She woke to Lee shining a light into her face and holding a cup of water in his hand. S.M.L. asked him where her phone was, and he said it was not on him, so she went outside to look for it. Lee followed her outside and told her he could kill her there, and no one would know. S.M.L. began to run and waited outside as Lee went back inside. She stayed outside until she heard her 2-year-old awake and Lee leave the house. Lee eventually returned and fell asleep on the couch.

         The prosecutor asked S.M.L. to draw a picture of the layout of the home and went through the diagram with S.M.L., asking her to explain the drawing in detail to the jury. The prosecutor then asked S.M.L. to explain where everyone was in relation to the diagram on the day of the assault. At several points, using the diagram, the prosecutor asked S.M.L. to demonstrate where she was and where Lee was. On cross-examination, defense counsel asked S.M.L. about the layout of her house and pieces of furniture and other items inside it. Much of defense counsel's cross-examination emphasized ...


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