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Roberts v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

May 30, 2018

CURTIS ROBERTS APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE CRAWFORD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 17CR-15-658] HONORABLE GARY COTTRELL, JUDGE

          Lisa-Marie Norris, for appellant.

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

          ROBERT J. GLADWIN, Judge

         Appellant Curtis Roberts appeals his conviction by a Crawford County jury on a charge of murder in the first degree, with an enhancement for committing a felony with a firearm, for which he was sentenced to a total of twenty-five years' imprisonment in the Arkansas Department of Correction. Roberts argues that the trial court erred in allowing into evidence pictures of the victim found on the victim's cell phone and in restricting evidence of the victim's past violent behavior against Roberts that was relevant to his justification defense. We affirm.

         On November 30, 2015, Roberts was charged in connection with the shooting death of Roberts's brother, Michael Roberts. Roberts filed a motion in limine seeking to prevent the admission into evidence pictures of the victim found on the victim's cell phone, among other items. At the jury trial, the motion in limine was denied, and Detective Donald Eversole testified regarding the pictures on the victim's cell phone. Roberts's defense to the first-degree murder charge was justification, as set forth in a model jury instruction, AMI Crim. 2d 705; however, his counsel was limited to presenting only the past five years' interactions between Roberts and the victim, rather than introducing evidence to attempt to show what Roberts claimed was a lifetime of abuse inflicted on him by the victim.

         The jury found Roberts guilty of murder in the first degree, and he was sentenced to twenty years on the murder charge plus five years on the firearm enhancement, to run consecutive to the twenty-year sentence, pursuant to the sentencing order filed on February 14, 2017. Roberts filed a motion for new trial on March 3, 2017, which was denied by order on April 3, 2017. Roberts then filed a timely notice of appeal on April 4, 2017.

         I. Did the Trial Court Err in Ruling No "Fact of Consequence" Was Necessary in Order to Deem the State's Proffered Evidence as "Relevant"?

         Evidentiary matters regarding admissibility of evidence are within the sound discretion of the trial court. E.g., Williams v. State, 374 Ark. 282, 287 S.W.3d 559 (2008); see also Williams v. State, 2017 Ark. 287, 528 S.W.3d 839. The appellate court will not reverse a trial court's decision regarding the admissibility of a photograph absent an abuse of discretion. E.g., Garcia v. State, 363 Ark. 319, 214 S.W.3d 260 (2005). The threshold is high and does not simply require error in the decision, but rather that the trial court acted improvidently, thoughtlessly, or without due consideration. E.g., Williams, 374 Ark. at 290, 287 S.W.3d at 565.

         Arkansas Rule of Evidence 401 defines relevant evidence as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Pafford v. State, 2017 Ark.App. 700, at 12, 537 S.W.3d 302, 310.

         Regarding the admission of allegedly inflammatory photographs, our supreme court has held that the trial court is required to first consider whether such evidence creates a danger of unfair prejudice and then must determine whether the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs its probative value. Williams, 2017 Ark. 287, at 8, 528 S.W.3d at 844. Even the most gruesome photographs are admissible when they are helpful to explain testimony, assist the trier of fact by shedding light on an issue, prove a necessary element of the State's case, corroborate testimony, or enable the jurors to better understand testimony. Garcia, 363 Ark. at 321, 214 S.W.3d at 261-62.

         Our supreme court has made it clear that the defendant cannot prevent the admission of a photograph by stipulating to or conceding facts that the State must prove. Garcia, supra; see also Williams, 374 Ark. at 291, 287 S.W.3d at 566 (holding that the State is entitled to prove its case as conclusively as it can); Holloway v. State, 363 Ark. 254, 213 S.W.3d 633 (2005) (holding that stipulating to a fact surrounding the crime is insufficient to prevent the State from offering photographs that prove the elements). The State is also entitled to prove the elements of the charge with its best evidence. Williams, 374 Ark. at 291, 287 S.W.3d at 566.

         In his motion in limine, Roberts sought to exclude pictures that he took on the victim's cell phone after the victim was dead on the basis the pictures were not relevant to any issue in the case. Despite Roberts's stipulating to or admitting that he had shot the victim, the trial court ruled that the pictures were admissible and relevant. Roberts's counsel noted that the trial court failed to articulate what proposition in the case the State was providing the pictures to prove and requested that the State identify the proposition for which the pictures were relevant. The trial court denied that request:

I don't think they are obligated, if there is something the Court has determined is admissible, I don't believe they are obligated to propagate or to boost or to make or to satisfy you relative to it. All that's necessary is the ...

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