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Mason v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

November 1, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Michael Romano Mazzoli Cox & Mazzoli, PLLC Frank Mascagni III

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Emily Lucas Jeffrey Allan Cross Assistant Attorney General



         A circuit court jury convicted William E. Mason of two counts of murder, possession of a handgun by a convicted felon, tampering with physical evidence, and being a first-degree persistent felony offender. The jury recommended, and the trial court accepted, a total effective sentence of life imprisonment. Mason now appeals the resulting judgment as a matter of right, [1] raising several challenges to the admission of certain evidence at trial. Finding no reversible error on the part of the trial court, we affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND.

         Investigators found the lifeless bodies of three men, Larry Thomas, John Bailey, and Michael Bass, at the residence of Everett Todd. The bodies of Thomas and Bailey were found in Todd's living room, and Bass's body was found in the bedroom. All three men had been shot in the head, and their bodies had been rolled in pieces of carpet cut from the floor. Todd first informed law enforcement thirteen hours after the men had died. Todd told the police that he knew nothing about the killings because he had spent the night at a friend's house, discovering the bodies upon returning home in the morning. Authorities questioned three individuals, Todd, Christopher Giddens, and Mason, as part of the investigation of these apparent crimes.

         During questioning, Todd retracted his earlier denial and revealed that, in fact, he knew about the murders occurring in his home. Todd stated that Mason murdered the three men and Giddens helped, reluctantly, by cutting the carpet to wrap the bodies. Specifically, Todd stated that he arrived home at about 3 a.m. the day of the murders to pick up some clothes for an overnight stay with his girlfriend when he encountered Mason relaxing in the kitchen and living room with Bailey and Thomas. A moment later, Giddens came through the back door, and, at almost that very instant, Todd heard "a shot discharge" and saw Mason shooting Bailey in the head. Mason then killed Thomas and asked where Bass was. Mason then went into the bedroom, after which Todd heard a gunshot and the sound of Bass falling to the floor. Todd spent a few moments inside the house, mopping up some blood and cutting a strip of carpet. Todd, Giddens, and Mason then went to Giddens's mother's house to discuss what to do next. Todd eventually left for his girlfriend's house, where he spent a few hours sitting in his car. He then returned to his own home, looked briefly inside, and left again to go to his cousin's house. He slept there for a few hours before calling police.

         Giddens also stated that Mason killed the three men and admitted to assisting in the manipulation of the crime scene after the shootings. Specifically, Giddens stated that he arrived at Todd's house to find Mason, Bailey, and Thomas conversing. Moments after arriving at the house, Mason shot Bailey and Thomas. Giddens, Todd, and Mason then left the house and went to Giddens's mother's home, where they sat for a few minutes on the front porch before deciding to return to Todd's house to "fix" the scene. Giddens stated that it was during this return trip that he first saw Bass's body, finding it on the floor of a nearby bedroom. Giddens took a box cutter and cut some carpet from the floor, giving up after a few minutes and leaving the house.

         After two weeks of trial and more than eleven hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Mason of the murder of Thomas and Bailey but not Bass. On appeal, Mason challenges the introduction of certain evidence during his trial.

         II. ANALYSIS.

         Mason challenges the admission of allowing four different pieces of evidence during trial. Generally, we review a trial court's evidentiary determinations for abuse of discretion-"whether the trial judge's decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair, or unsupported by sound legal principles."[2]But our standard of review may change depending on the specific type of error alleged.

         Additionally, "[n]o error in . . . the admission . . . of evidence ... is ground for granting a new trial or for setting aside a verdict or for vacating, modifying or otherwise disturbing a judgment or order unless it appears to the court that the denial of such relief would be inconsistent with substantial justice."[3] "The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding that does not affect the substantial rights of the parties."[4] "[A] nonconstitutional evidentiary error may be deemed harmless if the reviewing court can say with fair assurance that the judgment was not substantially swayed by the error."[5] "[T]he inquiry is not simply 'Whether there was enough [evidence] to support the result, apart from the phase affected by the error. It is rather, even so, whether the error itself had substantial influence. If so, or if one is left in grave doubt, the conviction cannot stand."[6]

         Finally, we note that the preservation of these issues for our review is undisputed.

         A. Admission of Detective Holland's interviews of Everett Todd and Christopher Giddens

         Todd and Giddens both testified live for the Commonwealth at Mason's trial. Following cross-examination, the Commonwealth sought to introduce Todd's and Giddens's separately recorded police interviews. The Commonwealth contended that during the cross-examination of both Todd and Giddens, Mason inaccurately characterized the actions of the interviewing officer as aggressive and improperly influential. The Commonwealth's entire rationale for seeking admission of this evidence was to do so under Kentucky Rules of Evidence ("KRE") 801A(a)(2), which admits prior-consistent-statement hearsay evidence if certain conditions are met. Over Mason's objection, the trial court allowed this evidence to be presented.

         Mason argues, and the Commonwealth concedes, that the admission of Todd's and Giddens's video interrogations under KRE 801A(a)(2) for substantive purposes was erroneous. Regardless of whether the trial court may have erred, we are convinced that any purported error is harmless.

         The result from the admission of Todd's and Giddens's video interrogations was that the jury heard twice essentially the same statements implicating Mason for the murders, once with Todd and Giddens on the stand and again in their video interrogations. Todd and Giddens essentially incriminated Mason on the stand in the same way they did during their police interrogations. This hardly rises to the level of needlessly cumulative evidence.[7] In sum, the introduction of Todd's and Giddens's video interrogations cannot be said to have "substantially swayed" the jury.

         Although the trial court erred when it admitted Todd's and Giddens's video interrogations for substantive purposes under the prior-consistent-statements hearsay exception, we are convinced that the error was harmless.[8]

         B. Admission of Mason's interrogation

         At trial, the Commonwealth sought to introduce video showing authorities' interrogation of Mason. The trial court admitted the video into evidence under KRE 801A(b)(1), which states: "A statement is not excluded by the hearsay rule, even though the declarant is available as a witness, if the statement is offered against a party and is[] [t]he [p]arty's own statement[] in . . . an individual . . . capacity."

         At the outset, we must clarify an apparent discrepancy as to our standard of appellate review of the trial court's decision about whether certain proposed evidence constitutes hearsay; and, if it is hearsay, whether any exceptions apply that would allow admission of that hearsay evidence. The parties have identified two different standards of review for this Court to use in its review of the trial court's determination. Mason suggests that we apply the clearly erroneous standard of review, while the Commonwealth argues for an abuse-of-discretion standard of review.

         Our precedent appears to provide the source of the confusion. In three different cases, we applied the clearly erroneous standard of review to evaluate the trial court's application of KRE 803(1), [9] (2), [10] or (3)[11], [12] KRE 803(2) and KRE 801A(a)(2)[13], [14] and KRE 803(2) and KRE 801A(a)(3)[15], [16] But we have also applied the abuse-of-discretion standard to evaluate the trial court's application of KRE 801A(b)(2)[17], [18] KRE 801A(b)(1)[19], [20] and KRE 801A(a)(2) and (b)(2).[21]

         The source of the clearly erroneous standard of review appears to stem from Young v. Commonwealth. There, we stated:

Whether a particular statement qualifies as an excited utterance depends on the circumstances of each case and is often an arguable point; and "when this is so the trial court's decision to admit or exclude the evidence is entitled to deference." That is but another way of saying that when the determination depends upon the resolution of a preliminary question of fact, the resolution is determined by the trial judge under KRE 104(a) on the basis of a . preponderance of the evidence, and the resolution will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous, i.e., unless unsupported by substantial evidence.[22]

         Attempting to discern whether the clearly erroneous or abuse-of-discretion standard of review should apply proves to be an exercise in futility. We can ascertain no principle from our precedent that mandates when one is to be used over the other. We can find no way of determining whether to use one standard over the other.

         What we can definitively say is that the abuse-of-discretion standard has been used by this Court to evaluate this type of error more often and more recently than the clearly erroneous standard. In any event, both standards accomplish the same essential ...

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