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Taylor v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

December 21, 2018



          BRIEFS FOR APPELLANT: Emily Holt Rhorer Assistant Public Advocate Frankfort, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky James Havey Assistant Attorney General Frankfort, Kentucky



          COMBS, JUDGE

         Clarence William Taylor appeals from a judgment of the Fayette Circuit Court convicting him of reckless homicide following a jury trial and sentencing him to five-years' imprisonment. After our review, we affirm.

         After a fist-fight outside a gentlemen's club in Lexington, Taylor shot and killed his friend, Laroz Mitchell, in the early morning hours of February 19, 2016. Taylor ran from the scene, disposing of the handgun as he fled. Romaine Lewis, who had driven Taylor and Mitchell to the club, put Mitchell into his vehicle and drove him to the hospital. Mitchell died shortly later. Meanwhile, Taylor hid out in Louisville.

         A warrant was issued for Taylor's arrest on February 23, 2016. Taylor turned himself in to a deputy from the sheriff's department the following day. Police detectives, Reid Bowles and William Brislin, interviewed Taylor and recorded his statement. Initially, Taylor denied shooting Mitchell. He explained that Mitchell had confronted him about a woman inside the club and that they had scuffled outside. Taylor said that he laughed at Mitchell because he had fallen to the ground while swinging at Taylor. Eventually, however, Taylor confessed to the detectives that Mitchell had landed three hard punches to his face.

         Taylor explained that when he grabbed Mitchell's shirt, a gun fell from Mitchell's waistband. Taylor said that he picked up the gun and shot at the ground when Mitchell came at him. He explained: "I didn't mean to pull the trigger f***** again, man. I didn't. I didn't mean to pull that f****** trigger again. I, I was just drunk and I was mad and he just, he, like, he was comin back at me, fam, and like, what the f*** am I supposed to do, fam?" Taylor also indicated that the manner in which he raised the handgun had caused the trigger to just go off. On April 19, 2016, Taylor was indicted and charged with murder for the shooting death of Mitchell. At arraignment, he entered a plea of "not guilty."

         On August 24, 2016, Taylor filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, claiming that he was immune from prosecution under the provisions of KRS[2]503.085(1), which provide immunity to persons who use force in self-defense or in defense of others -- unless there is probable cause to believe that the use of force was unlawful. Taylor argued that the facts and circumstances of the case did not establish probable cause to believe that he acted unlawfully in defending himself. Following a hearing, the trial court disagreed and denied the motion.

         A jury trial began on March 6, 2017, and lasted three days. At trial, Taylor declined to testify. His defense was based upon principles of self-protection and was presented through cross-examination of the Commonwealth's witnesses, his recorded statement to police detectives, and counsel's arguments to the jury. After the presentation of evidence, the jury was instructed on all degrees of homicide as well as on self-protection. After closing arguments, the jury found Taylor guilty of reckless homicide. A judgment of conviction was entered on April 26, 2017. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, Taylor presents three arguments. First, he argues that he was entitled to a mistrial (or at least an admonition) based upon an improper argument made by the Commonwealth during its summation. Next, Taylor argues that he was entitled to a directed verdict because the Commonwealth failed to prove that he was not acting in self-defense. Finally, Taylor argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion for immunity pursuant to the provisions of KRS 503.085. We address the arguments in reverse order.

         Where a claim of immunity is raised under the provisions of KRS 503.085, the prosecution may proceed only if the trial court believes that "there is probable cause to conclude that the force used was not legally justified" under the controlling provisions of KRS Chapter 503. Rodgers v. Commonwealth, 285 S.W.3d 740, 754 (Ky. 2009). The standard of review of such a determination is whether the trial court had a "substantial basis" for finding probable cause that the defendant's use of force was unlawful. Commonwealth v. Lemons, 437 S.W.3d 708, 715 (Ky. 2014). Probable cause is "reasonable grounds for belief, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion." Commonwealth v. Jones, 217 S.W.3d 190, 200 (Ky. 2006) (Scott, J., dissenting) (quoting United States v. Bennett, 905 F.2d 931, 934 (6th Cir. 1990)). The court must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether probable cause exists to conclude that a defendant's use of force was unlawful. Rodgers, 285 S.W.3d at 754-55.

         Based upon the testimony of Detective Bowles, the trial court had a substantial basis for finding probable cause existed to believe that Taylor's use of deadly force was not legally justified. In summarizing his investigation to the court, Bowles indicated that while Mitchell was (by all accounts) the initial aggressor when the men were inside the club, the fist-fighting outside the club had terminated by the time that Taylor retrieved the gun and shot the victim multiple times. Detective Bowles explained that his investigation ...

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