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State v. Burton

Supreme Court of Maine

December 11, 2018

STATE OF MAINE
v.
ROBERT BURTON

          Argued: September 12, 2018

          Jeremy Pratt, Esq. (orally), and Ellen Simmons, Esq., Camden, for appellant Robert Burton

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Donald W. Macomber, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] In the early hours of June 5, 2015, Robert Burton entered the home of his former girlfriend and shot her three times in the back, killing her. He fled into the woods and evaded law enforcement officials for sixty-eight days before turning himself in. Burton was charged with, and found guilty of, intentional or knowing murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A) (2017), and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person (Class C), 15 M.R.S. § 393(1)(A-1) (2017). Burton appeals from the resulting judgment of conviction (Penobscot County, Mullen, J.), presenting two arguments. He first asserts that the court erred by rejecting six questions that he sought to have included in the written jury selection questionnaire and by not giving the prospective jurors the option of answering any of the questions with "not sure" as an alternative to "yes" or "no." Second, Burton contends that the court erred by admitting evidence of two prior burglary convictions to impeach his trial testimony. See M.R. Evid. 609. Finding no error, we affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] "Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the jury rationally could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Fortune, 2011 ME 125, ¶ 3, 34 A.3d 1115.

         [¶3] Burton and the victim began a romantic relationship in the spring of 2013. Shortly thereafter, Burton moved into the victim's home in Parkman, where they lived together with her two children. By May of 2015, Burton was acting increasingly suspicious of the victim's activities. After a confrontation on May 30, the victim ended their relationship and directed Burton to move out of her home.

         [¶4] Burton then began living in his truck in the woods. On June 5, 2015, shortly after midnight, Burton left his truck parked on a tote road and walked to the victim's house. Armed with a knife and wearing a shirt to which he had affixed strips of duct tape, Burton entered the victim's house through a bedroom window. A struggle between Burton and the victim ensued, and Burton fatally shot the victim three times in the back with the victim's own handgun. Burton, who sustained a minor gunshot wound during the altercation, fled into the woods. Despite an intensive search by law enforcement officers, it was two months before he was arrested, after emerging from the woods clean-shaven and with his gunshot wound nearly fully healed and turning himself in to the Piscataquis County Jail.

         [¶5] Three days after the homicide, while Burton was still at large, he was charged by complaint with one count of intentional or knowing murder. See 17'-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A). That October, the Piscataquis County grand jury indicted Burton for that charge and one count of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. See 15 M.R.S. § 393(1)(A-1). Burton pleaded not guilty to each charge. The court later granted Burton's motion to change venue, and the case was transferred to the Unified Criminal Docket in Penobscot County. As part of the pretrial proceedings, Burton moved in limine for the court to exclude evidence of his prior criminal convictions for impeachment purposes, see M.R. Evid. 609, and the parties agreed to defer the issue to the time of trial.

         [¶6] The trial was held in late September and early October of 2017. Burton elected to have the court adjudicate the firearms charge and proceeded with a jury trial on the murder charge.

         [¶7] Jury selection encompassed two days. Burton submitted a list of twenty-one voir dire questions that he requested the court include in a written questionnaire that was to be distributed to the members of the jury pool. Each of Burton's proposed questions was followed by three possible answer choices: "yes," "no," and "not sure." Over Burton's objection, the court declined to include "not sure" as an answer and also declined to include the following six questions proposed by Burton that are at issue on this appeal:

3. Do you believe that because a police officer has arrested someone for murder it means the person arrested is likely guilty?...
5. Do you feel or believe Mr. Burton looks like he may be guilty of the charge of murder? ...
10. Would you have any difficulty in finding Mr. Burton not guilty if you had a reasonable ...

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