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Consciousness of Guilt and Bad Acts Showing Motive

There is a lot going on in the case below which we could talk about related to a claim of self-defense.  The two I think are legally interesting are evidence of consciousness of guilt and admissibility of a defendant’s prior and subsequent bad acts to demonstrate motive, plan, or intent (among other things). Both had a fairly substantial impact not only for the jury in determining Defendant, Sean Atkins’, did not act in self-defense, but for the judge in issuing an aggravated sentence of 7 to 14 years’ incarceration.

The media reported the story (taken from the criminal complaint) as follows:

According to an affidavit of probable cause filed in Magisterial District Judge Glenn K. Manns’ office, Chambersburg police were called to 5 Garber St. for a report of a shooting, and found Tyson Hettenschuller, 19, lying unconscious on the ground in front of the residence, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. Police and emergency personnel attempted life-saving measures on Hettenschuller at the scene. He was taken to Chambersburg Hospital where he was later pronounced dead.

Witnesses told police there was a fight between a white male resident of the house and a black male. Three other black males reportedly joined in on the fight. At that time, Hettenschuller tried to assist the resident of 5 Garber St. One of the black males, [Defendant, Sean Atkins,] described as being tall with orange hair, then produced a handgun and fired multiple gunshots that hit Hettenschuller. The group of black males then fled east on Martin Avenue.

Two of the males involved in the fight were found and interviewed by police. They said there was a fight at the house and that during the fight, Atkins took out a gun and shot Hettenschuller. Atkins and the other three black males then fled the scene.

Atkins was later located and interviewed at the Chambersburg police station. He told police he was with four friends, and one of his friends said he had an issue with a white male that lived at the Garber Street residence, so the group approached the male at the house and a fight ensued. Atkins and his friends were fighting with the male, and then Hettenschuller. Atkins admitted to police that he produced a handgun and fired at Hettenschuller five times, according to the affidavit.

Police asked Atkins if at any point during the fight he felt afraid or fear for his life. He said no, and that he and his friends were bigger than Hettenschuller and the other male.

Consciousness of Guilt

It’s a well worn evidentiary path that “flight equals guilt.” A jury is entitled to an instruction on the concept because “a defendant’s knowledge may be inferred from the circumstances attendant [to] his flight.” Commonwealth v. Johnson, 838 A.2d 663, 681 (Pa. 2003).  In a quick bit of legal research, I found a Pennsylvania case going back as far as 1898 on the issue.  See Commonwealth v. Boschino, 34 A. 964 (Pa. 1896).

Frankly, flight looks bad.  It especially looks bad when your defense to a crime is your were justified in your actions. (Hint: the Pa. “self-defense” statute is titled “Justification”.) We intuitively know that guilty people run.  Guilty people change their clothes to confuse the police.  Guilty people toss the weapon they used in “self-defense,” so it’s never recovered.  Atkins did all of these things.  These are inferences you do not want the prosecution to introduce and the jury to make.  

The general rule for self-defense is you stay at the scene after the shooting.  Of course, there are exceptions to ever rule, and your immediate safety is paramount.  If your attacker’s angry cohorts are still on scene threatening you, it would certainly be better to retreat to a safe location if you can do so safely.  If an angry mob gathers after the shooting, then retreating to safety may also be necessary.  But in either instance, you have an explanation for temporary flight from the scene, especially if you immediately call the police once you are safe.  Does this stop the prosecution from introducing “flight equals guilt”? No. But it does permit your attorney to (1) argue the instruction is inappropriate given the circumstances, and (2) provide an explanation to the jury during closing arguments if the judge gives the instruction.

Exceptions to Admitting Other Crimes, Wrong or Acts

You probably understand the concept of not using a person’s other crimes, wrongs or acts as the only indicator of guilt in a “conventional wisdom” sense.

“Just because little Johnny stole cookies from the cookie jar last week doesn’t mean the empty cookie jar this week was because of him.”

Other crimes, wrongs, or acts are generally “not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.”  Pa.R.E. 404(b)(1).  An exception to this rule is such acts may be admissible for alleged “other purposes.”  The prosecution is not using the acts to show, in essence, “he did this bad thing in 2007 so he must have done this bad thing now.” Instead, the prosecution has a laundry lists of “other purposes” such as proving “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or lack of accident.”  Pa.R.E. 404(b)(2).  Such evidence is colloquially known as “404B evidence.”

Atkins admitted to stealing the gun he was carrying from his uncle.  While he claimed he had carried a gun for years for self-protection prior to the incident, he was doing so illegally (as a minor).  Further, he carried a gun into an altercation that involved an argument over a drug deal.  Such activity can demonstrate a motive or an intent other than self-defense at the time of the shooting.

Trial courts have fairly broad discretion regarding the admissibility of evidence.  And, appellate courts use a deferential standard as far as that decision.  Meaning, the appellate courts do not often reverse trial courts on evidentiary issues.  (And, even if the appellate court thinks the trial judge was wrong, I haven’t even touched on the Phyrric victory that is “harmless error”.)  

Atkins’ trial attorney seemed to have a good understanding about how to argue a self-defense claim.  He argued important concepts like the speed at which fights happen, the jury putting itself into Atkins’ shoes, and resonable, but mistaken, believe of furtive movements/reaching for a weapon.  Yet, there is only so much an attorney can do when a defendant has acted in a manner which does not outwardly (i.e., objectively) demonstrate a belief in his own innocence after a shooting. As an old, wise investigator once told me at a training, “you can argue whatever you want, but juries are very good at figuring out who the asshole was in a fight.” Don’t be the asshole by leaving the scene, trying to hide, and destroying evidence.

Conclusion

The news articles linked below are worth of a read through, not just for the issues discussed here, but also to see how this story played out. Atkins statements at the scene and his testimony at trial were really unhelpful (especially regarding his “subjective” belief he was in danger). The articles give a good feel for how the prosecution framed this as murder rather the self-defense. You also get a feel for how a jury does not always automatically believe furtive movements as your life is in danger (especially when no weapon is ever found on the victim or at the scene).

Sources for this post (last accessed 5/2/2019):

https://www.pennlive.com/news/2019/03/man-found-guilty-of-lesser-charge-in-central-pa-homicide.html

http://www.shipnc.com/free_announcements/article_ffdf7b2e-56be-11e7-8134-2ffb5808ef0a.html

https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/tri_state/pennsylvania/atkins-takes-stand-in-pa-first-degree-murder-trial/article_42402772-0393-5324-b578-2d6b407f5ee9.html

https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/tri_state/pennsylvania/da-argument-over-marijuana-deal-led-to-pa-shooting-death/article_fbcf6cc1-d853-5c85-8303-21064fc14189.html


Stay Where You Are Safe

A news story crossed my Twitter feed the other day about a homeowner confronting a “mail thief”. The whole encounter as well as what lead up to it is caught on a security camera the homeowner had installed at her front door (it looks to be a Ring brand of “doorbell camera”).

You can watch the video here. But briefly, the mail thief approaches the house, pauses to determine if anybody is home, then opens the mailbox (which is right at the front door). She then removes mail and begins to open it. Ceratinly unusual behavior! At that point, the homeowner opens the door and confronts the thief. Surprised and caught in the act, the thief doesn’t put up much resistance and the homeowner “escorts” (as in, forcefully persuades) the thief off of her property.

The homeowner looks to have used an appropriate level of non-lethal force, as generally required to protect property, and the thief fortunately doesn’t put up much resistance to being escorted off the property. In the end, the public gets a good laugh at the viral video as we watch the thief get her just desserts for violating the sanctity of this woman’s mail. All’s well that ends well, right?

The question is: why? Why confront this thief when you have a doorbell camera recording everything? Staying where you are already safe is one of the cardinal rules of self-defense, especially if you are in the safety of your home already, behind locked doors. Do the benefits of embarassing this “mail thief” outweigh the unknown risks of the confrontation. We can already reasonably infer that the thief has little respect for personal space, property rights, and the law in general. But think of all the unknowns which this homeowner opens her door to?

  • Does the homeowner know if the thief is mentally unstable and will escalate to violence?
  • Does she know if the thief is armed?
  • Does she know if the thief’s reaction will be to simply retreat or instead try to gain entry?
  • Does she know if the thief is really intent on a home invasion?
  • Is the thief some form of decoy? Does the thief have accomplices waiting outside of camera view for the homeowner to open the door to confront the diminutive woman stealing her mail? Innocent, harmless looking decoys are a typical tactic in home invasions.

The homeowner (and you watching your security camera in a similar situation) don’t know any of this. So why risk it over mail (or your kid’s bike you told them 10 times not to leave on front lawn, or even your very expensive car)?

The law generally, and with good reasons, discourages “self-help.” While self-defense is one form of self-help the law permits, it is only within very confined circumstances. Even if justified, even if this situation escalated to justified deadly force, what is the easiest way to avoid all of the legal, emotional, psychological, and financial problems? Stay where you are safe. Use your passive security (the video) as evidence to identify the thief. Call the cops and let them handle the rest.


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