July 29, 2015 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that it was harmless error for a trial court to give jury instructions that described a theory of culpability that was not presented to the jury, upholding a conviction for felony-murder in a fatal robbery.
In 2013, Maltese Williams and an accomplice entered Michael Parker’s home with firearms, hoping to steal Parker’s stash of marijuana. Parker and Arthur Robinson, a houseguest, were shot and killed in the process. Williams said he didn’t pull the trigger.
The state charged Williams with intentional homicide and other lesser included offenses, including two counts of felony murder. Under Wis. Stat. section 940.03, a person is guilty of felony murder if he or she causes the death of another human being “while committing or attempting to commit” certain felonies, including robbery.
Robbery, under section 943.32, requires the intent to steal the property of an “owner” or in the presence of an owner by use of force, threat of force, and with a dangerous weapon. “Owner” means someone with the right to possess the property. Here, the state argued, Williams was used a weapon attempting to steal Parker’s marijuana.
In one count, the state argued that Williams was guilty of felony murder because Robinson, the houseguest, was killed while Williams was attempting to rob Parker. That is, the attempted armed robbery of Parker’s marijuana caused Robinson’s death.
However, the jury was instructed to return a guilty verdict only if it found that Robinson was killed while the men were trying to rob Robinson (not Parker).
Based on this instruction, Williams argued, he could not be convicted of felony murder for Robinson’s death because the state did not prove an armed robbery against Robinson; the state’s theory of the case was armed robbery against Parker.
The court of appeals certified the case to the supreme court to clarify whether Williams could still be found guilty despite the erroneous jury instructions.
In State v. Williams, 2015 WI 75 (July 10, 2015), the supreme court unanimously upheld the conviction, a majority on harmless error grounds. “Convictions under erroneous jury instructions are subject to harmless error review,” wrote Justice David Prosser.
“When an erroneous instruction has been given but it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury still would have convicted the defendant had the proper instruction been given, the jury verdict can be affirmed,” Prosser wrote for a six-justice majority.
Based on the evidence, Justice Prosser noted, “it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury still would have convicted Williams of felony murder had the jury instruction accurately reflected the State’s theory of the crime.”
In other words, the evidence was sufficient enough for a jury to conclude that Williams caused Robinson’s death while attempting to rob Parker. The jury heard evidence that Williams attempted to rob Parker, and the attempted robbery caused the death of both Parker and Robinson. Williams didn’t argue the evidence was insufficient.
But the court noted that bad jury instructions won’t always be harmless: “[I]f an erroneous jury instruction omits an element or instructs on a different theory, it will often be difficult to surmise what the jury would have done if confronted with a proper instruction, even if the jury convicted under the erroneous instruction,” Prosser wrote.
The majority also rejected Williams’s claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial attorney failed to strike a juror who expressed reservations about the possibility of seeing crime scene photos during jury selection.
“The unfortunate reality of our justice system is that jurors are often called upon to examine evidence of heinous acts against other human beings,” Justice Prosser wrote.
“While most jurors would prefer never to see such evidence, that preference does not render them biased or incapable of impartiality as a matter of law.”
Finally, the majority ruled that Williams was not prejudiced by trial counsel’s failure to object when the state offered the admission of crime scene photos into evidence.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote a short concurrence. She agreed that the conviction should be affirmed, but did not otherwise join the majority opinion.
“The court took the instant case to clarify precedent related to erroneous jury instructions in criminal trials” Justice Abrahamson wrote. “I am not sure it successfully accomplishes this goal.” She said the majority is “unclear regarding the relationship between harmless error review and review of the sufficiency of the evidence.”