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Court of Appeals: Murder trial errors did not affect outcome

Barbara L. Jones//November 23, 2022//

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Court of Appeals: Murder trial errors did not affect outcome

Barbara L. Jones//November 23, 2022//

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A fight on Thanksgiving night in 2019 over an ex-girlfriend moving her clothes out of defendant’s Minneapolis home led to her murder and her ex’s conviction for second-degree intentional murder and unlawful gun possession.

The victim was shot in the back in front of the parties’ 2-year-old daughter.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the case for errors by the defense counsel and the District Court, which it found occurred but did not affect the defendant’s substantial rights.

The defendant claimed ineffective assistance of counsel and an error in the self-defense jury instructions. The appeal followed a District Court postconviction proceeding where the same claims were rejected.

The case, State v. Watkins, was written by Judge Theodora Gaïtas, who was joined by Judges Renee Worke and Lucinda Jesson. They also turned back issues raised in a pro se supplemental brief.

Shot in the back

When the victim, R.G., went to Watkin’s home for her clothing, they got into a confrontation during which R.G. allegedly struck Watkin’s car with her own and then followed him. Watkins called 911.

R.G. returned to her parents’ house but left again with the toddler to go to Watkins’ house. Both parties eventually called 911. Watkins accused R.G. of punching him and kicking him, and then said that R.G. had a knife and had stabbed him. While he was on the call, he shot R.G. in the back with a hollow-point bullet, the jury determined.

When police arrived he did not appear to be injured, the court said.

Forensic testing revealed that the distance between R.G. and the gun was between five  and 30 inches. The DNA on the gun matched the defendant and not R.G. The knife found at the scene had Watkins’ DNA and did not exclude R.G., although there was inadequate evidence.

At trial, Watkins took the stand, where he denied  state evidence that he was abusive to R.G. and alleged that she was abusive to him. He said that R.G. followed him into the kitchen, that he heard a knife being removed from the dishrack and felt “wind from the knife go past the back of [his] neck as R.G. swung the knife at him.” He told the operator that R.G. stabbed him, but testified that he meant to say “she was stabbing at him.”

Gaïtas wrote that “Watkins stated that as R.G. raised the knife in her right hand, she used her left hand to reach and knock down his ‘protective arm.’ He explained that, when he pulled out the revolver with his right hand, he shot R.G. in the back, left shoulder area. Watkins told the jury that he shot R.G. because he ‘was in fear for [his] life’ and he did not want to ‘die in [his own] house.’ After shooting R.G., Watkins asked the 911 operator to send an ambulance and attempted to resuscitate R.G.

After the state called two rebuttal witnesses and before closing arguments, the defense attorney moved to recall Watkins, telling the court that he had inadvertently failed to ask Watkins about his intent. The court denied the motion, saying that counsel would have to argue the inference.

The jury found him guilty of intentional and unintentional second-degree murder, and unlawful gun possession. He was sentenced to 480 months in prison.

Watkins submitted affidavits in the postconviction proceedings but the District Court denied an evidentiary hearing, saying that his case was well-defended and the questions counsel could have asked were unnecessary.

“The district court reasoned that the evidence of intent presented at trial was strong and that the jury would have rejected Watkins’s denial of his intent to kill because they had already rejected his other testimony regarding self-defense,” Gaïtas wrote

The Court of Appeals said that counsel’s representation was deficient but it didn’t make any difference to the outcome of the trial because there was no reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different if counsel had directly inquired about intent.

The court also noted, “[c]ounsel’s failure to inquire about Watkins’s intent to kill R.G. was not a strategic decision but was instead a mistake. Mistakes alone do not rise to the level of ineffective assistance if counsel’s performance, taken as a whole, was objectively reasonable.”

Defense counsel’s performance was not shown to be prejudicial, the court said. The evidence of his intent to kill was strong, and firing a single shot can be evidence of intent to kill. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the jury would have believed Watkins’ testimony of intent, given the jury’s rejection of his other testimony and the other damaging evidence against him. And, Watkins’ proffered testimony would have added little to his trial testimony, the court said.

Jury instruction error

The Court of Appeals further held that “the district court plainly erred by instructing the jury on the type of self defense that justifies an intentional killing because Watkins claimed that R.G.’s death was unintentional.”  The court explained that the instruction imposed a greater fear-of-harm requirement on his self-defense claim.

But the error did not affect Watkins’s substantial rights, it concluded. “Since the jury found Watkins guilty of second-degree intentional murder, it necessarily rejected his trial theory that he unintentionally killed R.G. in self-defense.”

It also noted that the error was unobjected to and therefore the standard of review of the instruction is the “plain error” test. That requires a showing that the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, the court said.

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