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Schnarr v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

January 26, 2017




          Jeff Rosenzweig, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Adam Jackson, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, Associate Justice

         A jury in the Pulaski County Circuit Court found appellant Chris Aaron Schnarr guilty of manslaughter for which he received a sentence of ten years' imprisonment. For reversal, Schnarr asserts that the circuit court erred by (1) excluding testimony about the victim's character and previous acts of violence; (2) refusing to declare a mistrial when it was discovered that the court's bailiff had barred members of his family from the courtroom during voir dire; and (3) rejecting instructions on negligent homicide and imperfect self-defense. We granted Schnarr's motion to transfer the appeal to us from the court of appeals in light of his request to overrule precedent established by this court. Therefore, our jurisdiction is pursuant to Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 1-2(b)(5). After considering his arguments, we affirm in part and reverse and remand in part for a new trial.

         Factual Background

         The record reflects that on Saturday, May 11, 2013, Schnarr was driving from North Little Rock when he exited Interstate 30 at Sixth Street and almost collided with a tan SUV that did not yield the right of way. The victim, Arista Aldridge, was the driver of the tan SUV, which was also occupied by Aldridge's girlfriend, Alice Bryant, and their son. As the vehicles drove parallel to one another down the street, Schnarr and Aldridge exchanged profanities and hand gestures through their opened windows. Schnarr turned right onto Sixth Street and into the outside lane. The tan SUV followed in the inside lane of Sixth Street and then pulled in front of Schnarr's vehicle and abruptly stopped. Aldridge, who was not armed, emerged from the SUV and approached Schnarr's vehicle. According to Schnarr, Aldridge was yelling and waving his arms around, and Aldridge also poked Schnarr in the face with his finger. Witnesses to the altercation testified that Aldridge backed away from Schnarr's vehicle. In his testimony, Schnarr stated that Aldridge started to move back toward Schnarr's vehicle and that he pointed his handgun at Aldridge and told Aldridge to leave. Schnarr testified that, when Aldridge did not stop, he fired two shots at Aldridge, who was approximately six feet away from him. He said that Aldridge staggered but regained his balance and advanced toward him again, at which point Schnarr shot at Aldridge a third time. Aldridge fell to the ground and later died. Schnarr had shot Aldridge once in the abdomen and again on the side of Aldridge's right arm. The wound to the abdomen proved to be fatal.

         In his testimony, Schnarr, who possessed a concealed-carry permit, also explained that he has a condition called Total Situs Inversus and that he suffers from a faulty heart valve that has required surgical repair. He testified that his heart condition restricted his activities and prohibited him from playing contact sports. Schnarr stated that he did not see Aldridge with a weapon. In his statement to the police, Schnarr informed the officers that Aldridge had not said that he had a gun, nor had Aldridge threatened to do bodily harm.

         The prosecuting attorney charged Schnarr with the offense of first-degree murder. The circuit court gave instructions on the lesser-included offenses of second-degree murder and manslaughter, as well as an instruction on justification, commonly known as self-defense. The jury found Schnarr guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him as previously stated in this opinion.[1] This appeal followed.

         Character Evidence

         Schnarr first argues on appeal that the circuit court erred by excluding evidence of specific instances of Aldridge's past violent conduct that were unknown by him. Schnarr sought to introduce evidence concerning incidents of violence that Aldridge had directed toward Bryant, which had prompted her to obtain orders of protection against Aldridge. He asserts that such evidence is admissible as an essential element of his defense of justification, and he urges this court to overrule our previous decisions limiting the admission of specific instances of a victim's prior violent conduct to those incidents that are within the knowledge of the accused. Schnarr maintains that our decisions on this topic represent a minority view among courts in other jurisdictions. Further, he contends that our caselaw is contrary to Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-2-607 (Supp. 2015), which sets forth the defense of justification, and he asserts that if the General Assembly had wished to exclude this evidence, it would have done so rather than leave it to the courts to impose such a restriction.

         Initially, we reject out of hand Schnarr's assertion that the exclusion of the proposed evidence is not contemplated by section 5-2-607. This statute delineates the substantive components of the defense of justification. It is not a rule of evidence. Pursuant to section 3 of amendment 80 to our constitution, rules regarding pleading, practice, and procedure are solely the responsibility of this court. C.B. v. State, 2012 Ark. 220, 406 S.W.3d 796. The rules of evidence are rules of pleading, practice, and procedure that fall within the exclusive domain of this court. See Nelson v. State, 2011 Ark. 429, 384 S.W.3d 534. Consequently, Schnarr's claim that the statute poses no bar to the admission of the evidence is misplaced.

         The evidentiary rules governing this issue are Rules 404(a)(2) and 405 of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence. Rule 404(a)(2) provides,

(a) Character Evidence Generally. Evidence of a person's character or a trait of his character is not admissible for the purpose of proving that he acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion, except;
. . . .
(2) Character of victim. Evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the victim of the crime offered by the accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same, or evidence of a character trait of peacefulness of the victim offered by the prosecution in a homicide case to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.

         Once the admissibility of character evidence has been established under Rule 404, Rule 405 sets forth the methods of proof that may be utilized. See Frye v. State, 2009 Ark. 110, 313 S.W.3d 10. This rule states,

(a)Reputation or Opinion. In all cases in which evidence of character or a trait of character of a person is admissible, proof may be made by testimony as to reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. On cross-examination, inquiry is allowable into relevant specific instances of conduct.
(b) Specific Instances of Conduct. In cases in which character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, proof may also be made of specific instances of his conduct.

         In Montague v. State, 213 Ark. 575, 211 S.W.2d 879 (1948), we succinctly stated our position on the admissibility of character evidence concerning the victim when self-defense is asserted:

Where character evidence is offered in support of the contention that the deceased was the aggressor or to characterize and explain his acts, the defense is restricted to proof of general reputation in the community where the deceased lived, and may not show particular acts or conduct at specified times. . . . But, on the issue whether or not the accused had reasonable ground to believe himself in imminent danger, he may show his knowledge of specific instances of violence on the part of the deceased.

         (1926)). Thus, when evidence of a victim's propensity for violence is offered to demonstrate that the victim was the aggressor, we have limited the form of the testimony to reputation and opinion. Halfacre v. State, 277 Ark. 168, 639 S.W.2d 734 (1982); McClellan v. State, 264 Ark. 223, 570 S.W.2d 278 (1978); Sanders v. State, 245 Ark. 321, 432 S.W.2d 467 (1968). On the other hand, where the evidence is offered to shed light on the accused's state of mind, we have permitted evidence of specific instances of conduct that were directed at the accused or were within his knowledge. Smith v. State, 273 Ark. 47, 616 S.W.2d 14 (1981); Pope v. State, 262 Ark. 476, 557 S.W.2d 887 (1977). When character evidence is offered for this purpose, the requirement that the defendant have knowledge of the victim's prior acts of violence is a matter of relevancy. As we observed in Pope,

Clearly, evidence of specific acts of violence by the deceased is inadmissible where the defendant had no knowledge or had not been informed of such acts prior to the homicide, since, naturally, his mind could not have been materially affected in the absence of such knowledge. . . However, according to most courts, and the trend of modern authority, if, prior to the homicide, the defendant, either through his own observation or through information communicated to him by others, including the deceased himself, knew of other acts of violence of the deceased, he may, in support of his contention that he had reasonable grounds to believe himself in imminent danger from an assault by the deceased, introduce evidence of such prior unlawful acts of violence by the deceased. Such evidence bears on the question whether the defendant reasonably apprehended danger to his life or of great bodily injury.

Pope, 262 Ark. at 481-482, 557 S.W.2d at 890 (quoting 40 Am. Jur. 2d Homicide, § 306 (1968)).

         Schnarr refers to cases from other jurisdictions which hold that specific instances of the victim's violent conduct are admissible as proof of who was the aggressor, even if the defendant possesses no knowledge about the incidents. See, e.g., State v. Hill, 885 S.W.2d 357 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1994). However, when the evidence is offered to show the accused's state of mind, courts adhere to our view that the accused must have knowledge of the victim's past acts of violence as a prerequisite for admissibility. As recognized by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, almost every American jurisdiction requires prior knowledge as a predicate to admission when the basis for introducing the testimony is to show that the defendant was reasonably apprehensive for his safety. Commonwealth v. Adjutant, 824 N.E.2d 1, 6 (Mass. 2005). See also 2 Jack B. Weinstein & ...

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