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State v. Pitts

Supreme Court of Hawaii

December 17, 2019

STATE OF HAWAI'I, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JOSEPH PITTS, Defendant-Appellant.


          Walter R. Schoettlefor appellant

          Sonja P. McCullenfor appellee



          POLLACK, J.

         The defendant in this case was convicted of attempted murder in the second degree in connection with the stabbing of his longtime friend. After trial, the defendant made several motions, including a motion for new trial contending that the jury during its deliberations conducted an improper examination of his clothing to search for evidence of blood, and as a result several jurors discovered "stains" that had not been introduced as evidence during trial. The circuit court denied the motions, and the defendant was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The defendant appealed to the Intermediate Court of Appeals and the case was transferred to this court upon request.

         On review, we conclude that the jury's discovery of the stains constituted an outside influence that may have tainted the jury's impartiality. Because we find that the jury's discovery was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the judgment of conviction is vacated and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Arrest & Pretrial Motions

         On December 22, 2008, longtime friends Jason Brown and Joseph Pitts were driving to the airport to pick up a mutual friend. On the way to the airport, Brown and Pitts made a stop, during which time Brown was stabbed in the neck and arm. Pitts was taken into custody by officers of the Honolulu Police Department later that night and released pending investigation. Pitts was subsequently charged in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit (circuit court) with attempted murder in the second degree, in violation of Hawai'i Revised Statutes §§ 705-500 (1993), 707-701.5 (1993), and 706-656 (Supp. 2008).

         Prior to trial, Pitts filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, contending that the State failed to present to the grand jury a prior statement made by Brown describing the assailant as "an older black man" whom he did not know "but could identify him if he saw a picture." Pitts argued that because he had known Brown for almost twenty years the statement was clearly exculpatory. The circuit court denied the motion, concluding that because another witness, James Igawa, identified Pitts during the grand jury proceeding, Brown's statement was not clearly exculpatory.[1] At the same hearing, the court granted Pitts' separate motion to preclude Igawa from testifying at trial to an identification of Pitts, ruling that Igawa's pretrial identification was the result of an impermissibly suggestive drive-by identification made while Pitts was handcuffed next to a police car. Igawa, however, was allowed to describe what he saw during the incident and testify to the statements he gave to police.

         B. Trial

         During jury selection, a prospective juror, responding to a question from defense counsel, shared her thoughts about the composition of the jury pool:

[PROSECTIVE JUROR:] [F]or a long time I've been very concerned about if a black man in America can have a fair trial because, you know, it's supposed to be a jury of your peers .... I guess it's just been interesting ... it doesn't look to me like there's any black people in the entire pool, so that just kinda concerns me.
But, on the other hand, you guys obviously are not going to be able to get an entire pool of black people, of black men who are in his age range who have the same experience. . . .

         Defense counsel asked the prospective juror whether she had any biases, leading to the following:

[PROSECTIVE JUROR:] I might say that I have a bias against the status quo, and that is just that, you know, people who are minorities have to fight harder to be in an equal position, so that would be a bias, yes.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL:] Do you feel that you could be a strong juror in this case?
[PROSECTIVE JUROR:] Yes, I think so. But also as a scientist, I'm open to debate and providing sides, multiple sides of the story and, you know, coming to a conclusion based on that, so I would be open to hearing what other people have to say. But I also have very strong convictions myself and I can hold onto those.

         After this exchange, the State used a peremptory challenge to excuse the prospective juror. The defense did not make an obj ection.

         Before the evidentiary portion of the trial commenced, Pitts made an oral motion to preclude admission of evidence that, during his release from custody, he allegedly accused Brown of raping or sleeping with his then girlfriend and demanded an apology. The State admitted in the hearing on the motion that there was no evidence that prior to the stabbing Pitts thought Brown had been sleeping with his girlfriend. Without such evidence, the circuit court concluded, introduction of Pitts' alleged accusation and demand for an apology were not relevant to the crime and the "probative value was so thin" that it was "outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice." The court accordingly granted Pitts' motion.

         The State called security officer Bernard Prescott who testified that during his shift at "Kaiser Moanalua Hospital" (Kaiser Hospital) on December 22, 2008, at approximately 11:00 p.m., he was approached by an African-American male wearing a black shirt and carrying a black jacket. This individual, whom Prescott identified as Pitts, was later arrested by police. Prescott described Pitts' movements in and around the hospital lobby area and stated that he did not see any blood on his face and visible hand or that he had a weapon of any kind.

         Keola Guadiz testified that he encountered Pitts outside of Kaiser Hospital on that evening at around 11:00 p.m. Guadiz stated that Pitts asked him for a ride, and he described Pitts' demeanor as nervous. He testified that he saw no other "black men" in the area that night and that he did not see any blood on Pitts' face or hands.

         James Igawa testified that on the night of the incident he was sitting in his car when a red car parked in front of him about two and a half car-lengths away. About five minutes later, stated Igawa, he heard screaming and commotion coming from the car and saw the passenger get out of the car on the passenger side and get back in. The passenger then appeared to be "throwing punches" at the driver, he recounted. Igawa testified that he observed two heads going back and forth, with the passenger lunging at the driver. According to Igawa, the passenger got out of the car, the driver started making noise, and the driver jumped out of the car backwards and ran down the street when the passenger reentered the car. Igawa testified that the passenger then got out of the car, looked back in the car and grabbed some items, and began walking slowly up the sidewalk in the opposite direction from the driver. Igawa stated that he then called 911.

         Igawa described the passenger as a black male who was "tall . . . wearing black--dark black clothes; long, long black pants; looked like a long black sweater of some sort; kinky hair," and had a "kind of [a] swaggering" walk. Igawa testified that he did not see another "black man dressed in all black clothing" in the area. The State played an audio of Igawa's 911 call in which he described the possible suspect as wearing dark clothes "[l]ike long-sleeve black pants, long-sleeve black shirt."

         Officer Antwan Stuart testified that on that date he arrived at Kaiser Hospital about 11:30 p.m. The officer testified that he found and detained an African-American male that fit the description of the subject "to a T," whom he identified as Pitts. Officer Stuart stated that the only blood he saw was on the sleeve of the jacket Pitts was carrying. Officer Stuart further testified that he did not see any blood on Pitts' face or hands and that Pitts did not appear injured. The officer identified the jacket Pitts was carrying and the clothes that he was wearing when he was arrested, and these items were admitted into evidence.

         Evidence Specialist Autumn Sunaoka testified to taking pictures of the crime scene and the clothing recovered from Pitts, swabbing Pitts' hands for evidence, and photographing his hands. The State also introduced several photographs of the interior of Brown's car, including photographs of the passenger side of the vehicle, which Sunaoka testified showed, "small blood-like spots on the seat." Sunaoka testified that she did not see any "visible stains or blood-like spots" on Pitts' pants, black shirts, shoes, socks, or shoelaces when she photographed them.[2]

         Jason Brown testified that his relationship with Pitts was very close, calling Pitts his "family" and "brother." According to Brown, he and Pitts met when Brown was 16 or 17 years old, sometime around 1991. Brown testified that on December 22, 2008, he picked up Pitts in his car to drive to the airport to pick up their mutual friend. On the way, Brown testified, Pitts asked him to make a stop to speak to a person called "Niki," and he pulled over near where Niki lived and parked under a tree.

         According to Brown, Pitts got out of the car when they pulled over, and Brown lit a cigarette. Brown testified that he was looking forward and exhaling when he was first hit, which Brown said was within about two minutes of parking. Brown said that he turned and saw Pitts, at which time he put his arms up and began kicking, trying to get away, and he pulled himself out of the driver side window. Brown testified that he was initially stabbed in the neck and then stabbed in the arm when he put his hands up to protect himself. After pulling himself out of the car window, Brown testified, he ran down the hill toward a guard shack holding his bleeding neck and screaming for help. Brown stated that he told the security guards at the guard shack that" [t]here's a black guy up there that just stabbed me." Brown said that he was positive that Pitts was the person who attacked him and that he did not see anyone else on the street.

         Brown was transported to Queen's Hospital. When he awoke in the hospital, Brown recalled, Detective Kon was asking him for a statement, and he asked the detective to return later. At the time Detective Kon returned, Brown continued, he was requesting either a statement or Brown's signature on a paper. Brown stated that he signed the paper although he could not even see or read it because he needed to rest. Brown also testified that he did not remember speaking with an officer named Jonathan Locey at the hospital, did not remember making statements identifying his assailant as "an older black guy," or remember responding to Officer Locey's questions about whether he knew his assailant and could identify him.

         Brown was asked by the prosecutor about a conversation that he purportedly had with Pitts following his release from the hospital:

[PREOSECUTOR:] Okay. Let me just-let me just, urn, direct your questioning here.
So you talked to him. Did you ever ask him why he stabbed you?
[BROWN:] Yes.
[PROSECUTOR:] You asked him, "Why did you stab me?"
[BROWN:] Right.
[PROSECUTOR:] And did he respond?
[BROWN:] His response was, "All I wanted was an apology."
[PROSECUTOR:] I'm sorry? Can you-
[BROWN:] "All I want is an apology. Why don't you just apologize."
[PROSECUTOR:] So that's what he told you when he-when you asked him, "Why did you stab me?"
[BROWN:] Right.
[PROSECUTOR:] Okay. And at that point, when you were talking to him, did you already know what he wanted an apology for?

         Brown explained that he found out after the stabbing "[w]hat [Pitts] wanted an apology for," from "Jamie." The prosecutor then again elicited Brown's account of Pitts' statements regarding the alleged apology:

[PROSECUTOR:] So when you asked him, "Why did you stab me," he said, "All I want is an apology."
[BROWN:] Right.
[PROSECUTOR:] Just apologize.
[BROWN:] He said, "You know what you did. Just apologize."
[PROSECUTOR:] So before you picked the defendant up on December 22, 2008, did you know why he was mad at you?
[BROWN:] I didn't know he was mad at me.

         The following morning Pitts orally moved to strike all references of an "apology" that the State elicited from Brown. The circuit court agreed with Pitts that leaving the reference to an apology for speculation in the jury's mind was prejudicial to him and asked the prosecutor for any argument or explanation:

THE COURT: .... I will tell you right now, if there had been an objection, I would have cut you off at the pass because I agree with Mr. Pitts that you're leaving that for ...

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