APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST CIRCUIT (CASE NO. 12-1-0425)
NAKAMURA, C.J., FUJISE AND LEONARD, JJ.
Plaintiff-Appellee State of Hawai'i (State) charged Defendant-Appellant Joshua R.D. Williams (Williams) with attempted murder in the second degree of David Quindt Jr. (Quindt). At the time of the charged offense, Williams was renting a room from and residing with Quindt. The charge stemmed from Williams' stabbing Quindt in the neck, face, and arm with a knife, while Quindt was driving his sports utility vehicle (SUV) and Williams was in the back seat. Quindt sustained injuries, including a life-threatening 12-centimeter laceration to the neck, a laceration from his nose down through his lip, a deep laceration to his cheek, and a 15-centimeter laceration to his elbow. Williams claimed self-defense, asserting that he stabbed Quindt because Quindt had threatened to kill Williams once the SUV came to a stop.
A jury found Williams guilty as charged. The Circuit Court of the First Circuit (Circuit Court) sentenced Williams to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
On appeal, Williams contends that the Circuit Court erred in "limiting and excluding" certain evidence he sought to introduce. Prior to trial, Williams filed a notice of his intent, pursuant to Hawaii Rules of Evidence (HRE) Rule 404(b) (Supp. 2015), to introduce statements made by Quindt before the charged incident that: Quindt had done "hard time" in California for the crime of murder; as the result of spending time in jail, Quindt had experience with violence, knew how to fight, and learned how to fight to survive; Quindt knew about "gang-bangers and gang-members"; and Quindt committed the murder, but "got away" with the murder because someone else "took credit for it." Williams did not claim that he could prove the truth of Quindt's statements. In particular, Williams acknowledged that he did not clearly know whether, and would not attempt to prove that, Quindt had committed a murder. Williams, however, argued that Quindt's statements were relevant to show Williams' state of mind and that Williams acted reasonably in using deadly force to defend himself against Quindt.
The Circuit Court ruled before opening statements that Williams would be allowed to introduce evidence that he heard Quindt say that Quindt had been convicted of murder, that Quindt knew how to fight, and that Quindt learned how to fight in jail. The Circuit Court excluded the remainder of the evidence proffered by Williams. Notwithstanding the Circuit Court's ruling, Williams was permitted at trial to introduce additional evidence that Quindt said he had killed somebody in the past but had gotten away with it. Williams was also permitted to testify that Quindt bragged about killing people and about the murder charge.
Williams argues on appeal that the Circuit Court erred in limiting the evidence of the statements made by Quindt that Williams sought to introduce. We conclude that in light of the evidence the Circuit Court ruled would be permitted and the evidence that was actually presented at trial, any error in the limitations imposed by the Circuit Court on Williams' proffered evidence did not materially impair his claim of self-defense and was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we affirm Williams' conviction.
Williams and Quindt first met several weeks before the charged incident. At that time, Quindt worked at West Side Tattoo, was a body piercer, and was training to become a tattoo artist. Williams saw Quindt in front of West Side Tattoo wearing a t-shirt of a rap-rock music group of which Williams was a big fan. They struck up a conversation, learned that they shared an interest in tattoos and piercings, and exchanged phone numbers. A few days later, Williams learned that Quindt was looking to rent a room in Quindt's house, where Quindt resided with his wife and two children. Quindt agreed to rent a room to Williams, and Williams and his four-year-old son moved into Quindt's house.
About three weeks later, as part of Quindt's apprenticeship to become a tattoo artist, Quindt drew a tattoo on Williams' thigh. After the tattoo session, Williams, Quindt, and Quindt's wife left West Side Tattoo around 9:15 p.m., picked up Williams' son, and eventually went home. While Williams took his son into the house, Quindt waited in his car, a 1999 GMC Jimmy SUV, because Quindt and Williams planned to drive to Fred's house. Quindt had agreed to do a piercing for Fred, who was William's friend.
Quindt became irritated and felt disrespected because of the time Williams kept him waiting. When Williams returned to the SUV, Quindt and Williams began arguing and yelling at each other. Shortly after Quindt began driving, Williams jumped out of the SUV. Quindt stopped the SUV, Williams eventually ended up in the backseat of the SUV, and Quindt resumed driving.
While Quindt was driving, Williams used a knife to stab Quindt in the neck, in the face, and in the left forearm. Quindt drove into the Waianae Mall Shopping Center (Waianae Mall), Quindt stopped the SUV, and both Quindt and Williams got out. Quindt was bleeding profusely. Williams subsequently agreed to drive Quindt to the emergency room at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center (Waianae Health Center) in Quindt's SUV. When they arrived at the Waianae Health Center, Williams hid the knife he used to stab Quindt. Quindt was examined by an emergency room doctor at the Waianae Health Center, who stabilized Quindt's bleeding and had Quindt transported by ambulance to the trauma center at Queen's Medical Center.
When Williams was initially questioned by the police, he lied and said that he and Quindt had been attacked by three men at the beach, one of whom stabbed Quindt. Later, however, Williams admitted that he had stabbed Quindt, claimed that he had acted in self-defense, and described to the police where he had hidden the knife.
Prior to trial, Williams filed a notice of his intent to introduce evidence of statements that Quindt had made to Williams before the charged incident regarding Quindt's "prior bad acts" (Notice of Intent). The Notice of Intent was filed pursuant to HRE Rule 404(b). The proffered statements included references to a murder of which Quindt had been convicted but later exonerated. The record indicates that Quindt had been convicted of murder in California and had served several years in prison before being exonerated. It was determined that Quindt's conviction was a case of mistaken identity, and he was exonerated when someone else apparently admitted to committing the murder.
In his Notice of Intent, Williams alleged as follows:
1. During the 2-3 week time period prior to the date of the incident on March 10, 2012, while [Williams] and [Quindt] were living in the same residence, [Quindt] would bully, berate, insult, criticize and demean [Williams] about his life choices, past history, lack of street knowledge, his relationship with the mother of his child, his child rearing skills, and his family. They would argue and at times, [Quindt] would boast and brag about the following:
a. Doing time for the crime of murder in California;
b. That [Quindt] did hard time in California;
c. That [Quindt] knows how to fight because of the time he spent in jail and that he had to learn to fight to survive; d. That [Quindt] knows about gang-bangers and gang-members;
e. That [Quindt] has experience with violence from spending time in jail;
f. That [Quindt] "got away" with murder by beating the charge -- because someone else took credit for it;
g. That [Quindt] did the crime but got off on a technicality.
Prior to opening statements, the Circuit Court held a hearing on the State's motion in limine to exclude the alleged statements made by Quindt to Williams set forth in Williams' Notice of Intent. Williams asserted that he sought to introduce the proffered statements to prove his state of mind in support of his claim of self-defense. Williams' counsel argued:
[T]he things that I've included in my 404(b) notice have to do with my client's state of mind and the things that were in his head as a result of statements made by Mr. Quindt that caused [Williams] to then be concerned for his personal safety. So they go directly to his state of mind.
There was no dispute at the hearing that Quindt had been exonerated of the prior murder conviction. The State asserted that Quindt was not involved in the murder and had maintained his innocence; that Quindt's conviction was a case of mistaken identity; and that he was exonerated when someone else confessed to the murder. Williams, through his counsel, acknowledged that Quindt was exonerated of the murder charge in California after being convicted and serving three and a half years of incarceration, when "someone's wife went to the police to tell them that her husband was involved, and that led to a further investigation. And then later it was determined that Mr. Quindt was falsely identified."
While acknowledging that Quindt had been exonerated of the murder charge, Williams' counsel argued that Quindt's statements about the murder were relevant to showing Williams' state of mind at the time Williams stabbed Quindt. Defense counsel stated: "[I]t's my understanding that [Williams] will testify that Mr. Quindt claimed that he was convicted of murder, that he got off on the charge, but the implication being that he may have done it; he may not have done it." The State argued that since Quindt had been exonerated of the murder, permitting Williams to introduce the proffered statements about the murder would create confusion and be prejudicial to the State. The Circuit Court indicated that because Williams' state of mind --his belief "that Quindt [had] participated in the killing of someone" -- was relevant to Williams' claim of self-defense, it would allow Williams to introduce certain statements by Quindt relating to the murder.
The parties and the Circuit Court then discussed the scope of what Williams would be permitted to say about what Quindt had told him about the murder. The State argued that Williams should be limited to testifying that Quindt bragged that he "maybe" killed someone. The State contended that this would avoid the need to explain that there had been a conviction that was later overturned, which the State believed would be "too much for the jury to consider." Defense counsel stated that she had no problem with the State introducing evidence that Quindt had been exonerated of the murder. However, defense counsel argued that what was "swirling in [Williams'] mind when he's deciding whether or not he needs to act in self-defense" was that Quindt had said: "he was convicted of murder" but "got away with it" because someone else "took the fall"; he did three years of "hard time"; and "to survive in prison, you have to be able to take care of yourself and fight."
The State argued that references to Quindt having been convicted of murder and then exonerated should not be brought up because this would complicate matters and confuse the jury. In response, the Circuit Court asked defense counsel if the defense would agree to refrain from using the word "conviction" and instead elicit evidence that Quindt said he was involved in a murder. Defense counsel responded that Williams would not agree to that limitation because Quindt used the term "conviction" when he spoke to Williams, which is the word that was in Williams' head and one of the reasons Williams feared Quindt. The Circuit Court then ruled that the references to Quindt's murder conviction would be admitted "for state of mind only . . . as to what Williams was thinking at the time." The Circuit Court informed the State that it could "bring in the fact that [Quindt] was exonerated." The Circuit Court asked defense counsel, "[s]o basically [Williams is] going to say Quindt said he was convicted of murder?" Defense counsel responded, "Or use the term "murder conviction." The Circuit Court stated, "All right . . . that's . . . the extent to which he's going to testify as to that at this point."
With respect to the proffered evidence that Quindt said: (1) he knows how to fight, learned how to fight to survive, and experienced violence because of the time he spent in jail, and (2) he "knows about gang-bangers and gang-members, " defense counsel argued that this evidence was also relevant to Williams' state of mind pertaining to his claim of self-defense. Defense counsel asserted that during verbal arguments that did not result in physical fights, Quindt would make these statements to Williams to cause Williams to back down. Defense counsel argued that the implication of these statements was that Quindt knew how to fight due to his experiences on the street, namely, gang-banging, and because of the time he served in prison. Defense counsel stated that the defense did not intend to "wallow" in this evidence, but noted that "these snippets" popped in Williams' head and caused "his alarm to go to something higher such that he feels he needs to act in self-defense."
When asked by the Circuit Court what the term "gang-banger" means, defense counsel responded: "It means that you were involved in gang activity, could be involved in fights or involved in just criminal activity having to do with gang membership. I'm not going to go beyond the term 'gangbanger[.]'" The Circuit Court observed that the term does not necessarily connote violent conduct. Defense counsel then stated: "[Williams is] going to use the term 'gangbanger.' I can, I guess, on direct ask him what did that mean to you. But at that -- I wasn't planning to do that. I was just going to be referencing the term." Defense counsel also asserted that the defense wanted to use the term "prison" rather than "jail."
The State argued that because the Circuit Court was permitting evidence that Quindt had been convicted of murder, it was not necessary, would be prejudicial, and would "open[ ] up a lot of doors for confusion" to permit evidence that Quindt said he was incarcerated or in jail. Regarding the use of the term "jail" versus "prison, " the State argued that Williams' Notice of Intent used the term "jail, " rather than "prison."
The Circuit Court ruled that it was excluding the proffered evidence relating to "gangbangers" because it thought the term was "too general." The Circuit Court permitted evidence that Quindt said he learned to fight in "jail, " apparently denying Williams' request to use the term "prison."
With respect to the evidence of Quindt's statements proffered by Williams in his Notice of Intent, the Circuit Court ruled as follows:
1. With respect to items l.a. ("Doing time for the crime of murder in California") and l.b. ("[Quindt] did hard time in California"), the Circuit Court found that these two items were basically the same thing. It ruled that Williams would be permitted to elicit evidence that Quindt said he was convicted for murder.
2. With respect to item I.e. ("[Quindt] knows how to fight because of the time he spent in jail and that he had to learn to fight to survive"), the Circuit Court permitted evidence that Quindt said he knows how to fight and he learned how to fight in jail.
3. With respect to item l.d. ("[Quindt] knows about gang-bangers and gang-members") and I.e. ("[Quindt] has experience with violence from spending time in jail"), the Circuit Court excluded this evidence as too general.
4. With respect to items l.f. ("[Quindt] 'got away' with murder by beating the charge -- because someone else took credit for it") and I.e. ("[Quindt] did the crime but got off on a technicality"), the Circuit Court excluded this evidence. The Circuit Court had earlier indicated that if Quindt admitted to Williams that Quindt was involved in the ...