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State v. Easley

Court of Appeals of Oregon

February 28, 2018

STATE OF OREGON, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
DONALD LEE EASLEY, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued and submitted October 11, 2016.

         Josephine County Circuit Court 13CR0530 Pat Wolke, Judge.

          Morgen E. Daniels, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant. With her on the brief was Ernest G. Lannet, Chief Defender, Criminal Appellate Section, Offce of Public Defense Services.

          Jonathan N. Schildt, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Ellen F. Rosenblum, Attorney General, and Benjamin Gutman, Solicitor General.

          Before Ortega, Presiding Judge, and Egan, Chief Judge, and Lagesen, Judge.

         Case Summary: Defendant appeals a judgment of conviction for one count of murder with a firearm and one count of unlawful use of a firearm after defendant fatally shot his neighbor. At trial, defendant claimed self-defense. Defendant assigns error to the trial court's admission of evidence, over his OEC 401 and OEC 403 objections, that defendant shot his prior neighbor. He also assigns error to the court's exclusion of evidence pertaining to the victim's character and specific instances of the victim's prior conduct. Held: The trial court did not err in admitting the evidence that defendant had shot his prior neighbor. That evidence was relevant under OEC 401, and the court did not abuse its discretion under OEC 403 by admitting the evidence. As to the character evidence, defendant did not preserve his arguments regarding the trial court's exclusion of reputation and opinion evidence. However, the trial court erred in excluding some specific instances of the victim's prior conduct that were probative of defendant's self-defense theory. Nonetheless, any error in that exclusion was harmless.

         Affirmed.

         [290 Or.App, 507] LAGESEN, J.

         Defendant fatally shot his neighbor Estes after an extended period of mutual hostility. For that conduct, defendant was charged with one count of murder with a firearm, ORS 163.115; ORS 161.610, and one count of unlawful use of a firearm, ORS 166.220. In response, defendant claimed self-defense. At trial, over defendant's OEC 401 and OEC 403 objections, the trial court admitted evidence that defendant had fatally shot his prior neighbor, Vaughn, for the purpose of explaining what defendant meant when, before the shooting, defendant had told a number of different people that, if he did not resolve his dispute with Estes, then defendant would do to Estes what he did to Vaughn. Additionally, the trial court admitted some but not all of the evidence demonstrating Estes's violent and aggressive character as relevant to defendant's claim of self-defense. The court did so after finding that defendant had not established a sufficient foundation for the admission of the reputation and opinion evidence, and that the evidence of specific instances of conduct illustrating Estes's character were not admissible for other reasons. A jury convicted defendant on both charges.

         On appeal, defendant assigns error both to the admission of the evidence that he had shot Vaughn and to the exclusion of the evidence pertaining to Estes's character. For the reasons that follow, we affirm, concluding that (1) the trial court did not err under OEC 401 or abuse its discretion under OEC 403 by admitting the evidence pertaining to defendant's shooting of Vaughn; (2) defendant did not preserve the argument that he makes on appeal regarding the trial court's exclusion of reputation and opinion evidence pertaining to Estes's character; and (3) although the trial court erred in excluding some evidence of specific instances of Estes's conduct that were probative of self-defense, any such error was harmless.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Although the facts surrounding the shooting underlying defendant's convictions were sharply disputed at trial, the facts pertinent to the evidentiary issues raised on appeal are not.

          [290 Or.App, 508] Defendant intentionally shot and killed his neighbor Estes after a period of escalating hostility between the two, which led to the charges against defendant. Estes's partner, Hicks, corroborated that defendant intentionally killed Estes. She testified that defendant started shooting at Estes through the fence dividing the neighboring properties after Estes slipped and fell against the fence. According to Hicks, Estes tried to get away but was shot in the back. Defendant's self-defense theory, which was supported at trial primarily by evidence of statements that he had made to the police after the shooting as well as evidence of Estes's prior conduct, was that he had defended himself by shooting Estes after Estes reached through a hole in the fence and grabbed defendant while he was working to repair damage to the fence. Defendant also presented evidence that, about a month before that incident, Estes had grabbed defendant by his hair, punched defendant in the face, and kicked him in the head and the sides, causing substantial injuries to defendant and also making defendant fear for his life.

         Before trial, defendant moved in limine for an order to instruct the state to "refrain absolutely from making any reference whatsoever" about defendant's involvement in a "prior altercation" with his previous neighbor Vaughn, which resulted in Vaughn's death. Defendant argued that any evidence referencing that incident would be inadmissible because (1) that evidence is too unreliable to meet the threshold for admissibility, in violation of either OEC 402 or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) that evidence is not relevant and therefore not admissible under OEC 401 and 402 or OEC 403; (3) that evidence is improper character evidence and admissible under OEC 404 only if defendant puts his character at issue; and (4) the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighed its probative value, requiring exclusion under OEC 403.

         The state responded that, although the evidence that defendant shot Vaughn was not independently relevant, it was made relevant by the evidence that defendant had stated on a number of different occasions to a number of diferent people that Estes was at risk of meeting the same fate [290 Or.App, 509] as Vaughn. The state explained that, without knowing what happened to Vaughn, the jury would not recognize defendant's statements as threats to kill Estes. The state argued that the evidence of the threats spoke to defendant's state of mind and was therefore admissible under OEC 803(3). The state also ...


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