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State v. Scott

Supreme Court of Maine

July 9, 2019

STATE OF MAINE
v.
VICTORIA SCOTT

          Argued: April 9, 2019

          Naomi C. Cohen, Esq. (orally), West Rockport, for appellant Victoria Scott

          Aaron M. Frey, 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, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          ALEXANDER, J.

         [¶1] Victoria Scott appeals from a judgment of conviction for manslaughter (Class A), 17-A M.R.S. § 203(1)(A) (2018), entered in the trial court (Waldo County, R. Murray, J.) after a jury trial. Scott challenges (1) testimony from two witnesses, (2) statements made by the State during its closing argument, (3) the sufficiency of the evidence, (4) the court's denial of her motion for voir dire and a new trial based on allegations of juror misconduct, and (5) her sentence.[1] We affirm the judgment.

         I. CASE HISTORY

         [¶2] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the jury could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Nobles, 2018 ME 26, ¶ 2, 179 A.3d 910.

         [¶3] On February 8, 2017, Victoria Scott and a friend were at a house in Waldo, where they were staying to help care for the homeowner as she recovered from a serious illness. Scott had been drinking vodka and smoking marijuana and had recently taken prescription pain killers and anti-anxiety medication.

         [¶4] Sometime around 5:00 p.m., the victim arrived at the house. The victim was a close friend of the homeowner and stayed at her house regularly enough that he had a key to it; he was well-acquainted with both Scott and the friend. The victim entered the house through the basement door and came upstairs into the living room where the homeowner was sitting. He and the homeowner had a discussion about Scott and the friend, during which he made derogatory statements about them and expressed concern that they were taking advantage of the homeowner. In the course of the conversation, the victim became upset and told the homeowner that he had to leave because he did not want to see Scott and the friend.

         [¶5] Scott and the friend had been in a bedroom listening to the victim's conversation with the homeowner and came out when they heard him leave by the basement stairs. Appearing upset and angry, Scott asked the homeowner whether she had heard what the victim said about her correctly. Scott-who was wearing pajama pants and a long-sleeved shirt-then ran back to the bedroom, put on a coat, and quickly went outside to confront the victim.

         [¶6] Once outside, Scott saw the victim walking away from the house and down the long driveway with his back to her. Scott called after the victim, "what the f- is your problem?" The victim turned around abruptly, grabbed Scott by the arms, and shook her while swearing at her. When he released her, she fell backward on the ground. The victim turned to continue walking down the driveway. At that point, Scott acknowledged that she could have safely returned to the house while the victim was walking away, but instead she got up and followed him further down the driveway. Catching up to the victim, Scott touched his elbow and asked him again, "what the f- is your problem?" and, "[w]hy would you do that to me?" Later, she told a detective that she was like a "pit bull... with a bone" and that she could not let the victim go without an explanation.

         [¶7] At some point during this confrontation, Scott pulled out a knife and stabbed the victim. The two had a physical altercation on the snow-covered ground by a log at the edge of the driveway, during which Scott stabbed the victim repeatedly in the back of his left thigh and calf.[2] Scott eventually got up from the ground and ran back into the house.

         [¶8] Once inside, Scott-who was covered with blood-told the friend and the homeowner that the victim had attacked her and that she had stabbed him in self-defense. The homeowner called her niece-who lived down the road and was friendly with the victim-and asked her to come to the house to help break up a fight. While Scott cleaned herself up, she asked the friend to retrieve the eyeglasses she lost during her altercation with the victim.

         [¶9] The friend went downstairs to go out into the driveway but encountered the victim in the basement. Because the basement was dark, the friend failed to notice the extent of the victim's injuries or how much blood there was on the basement floor. Acting on the information Scott had given him, the friend threw the victim to the floor and told him "you can't attack girls, you know, it's not cool."[3] The victim did not get up from the floor right away, and the friend thought he was dazed from the fall; feeling bad, the friend helped the victim up and walked him out of the basement to the homeowner's truck, which was parked in the driveway. The victim sat in the passenger seat of the truck and the friend said to him, "[you] can't be here right now." The friend then found Scott's glasses further down the driveway and returned to the house. When he walked by the truck, he saw the victim conscious and seated in the passenger seat.

         [¶10] The homeowner's niece arrived at the house shortly thereafter. Upon her arrival, she noticed blood in the driveway and saw a leg sticking out from an open door of the homeowner's truck. When she got closer to the truck, she recognized the victim and saw that he was not breathing, his eyes were rolled up in his head, and he was covered in blood. The niece-who had some medical training-tapped the victim on the shoulder and checked his pulse; finding no signs of life, she called 9-1-1 and pulled the victim from the truck to perform CPR. She did not stop her resuscitation efforts until police officers and paramedics arrived and took over. At approximately 6:39 p.m., a paramedic pronounced the victim dead.

         [¶11] Scott came out of the house when the police arrived; she had changed out of her pajama pants and was wearing a pair of ripped jeans. She told a police officer that she had acted in self-defense and turned over her knife. Because she was bleeding from a wound on her thigh and appeared to suffer a stress-induced seizure, a second ambulance was called to treat Scott. When the second ambulance arrived, a paramedic attended to Scott at the scene. She told the paramedic that the victim had punched her in the face and choked her, but the paramedic saw no visible signs of injury other than the thigh wound. Scott was subsequently transported to Waldo County General Hospital via ambulance.

         [¶12] When Scott arrived at the hospital, she told the emergency room doctor that she had been strangled and hit her head on the bumper of the truck in the driveway. The doctor examined her and found no visible signs of trauma other than a laceration on her right thigh. CT scans of Scott's neck, head, abdomen, and pelvis revealed no bleeding or other abnormalities. A toxicology screen showed tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), oxycodone, and benzodiazepine in Scott's system.[4] Scott's blood alcohol level was .126 when it was tested at approximately 8:30 p.m.[5] The emergency room doctor sutured the laceration on Scott's thigh and discharged her from the hospital at approximately 12:30 a.m. on February 9, 2017.

         [¶13] After leaving the hospital, Scott returned to the house in Waldo with a detective to participate in a video-recorded walkthrough. She then spoke with the same detective in several follow-up interviews over the next few days. Although Scott maintained that she had acted in self-defense, she made several inconsistent statements and did not have any bruising or visible signs of injury other than the cut on her leg.

         [¶14] In May 2017, Scott was indicted by a Waldo County grand jury and charged with one count of manslaughter (Class A), 17-A M.R.S. §§ 203(1)(A), 1252(4) (2018). After a five-day jury trial in April 2018, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Shortly thereafter, Scott filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that a juror had engaged in misconduct that compromised the integrity of the trial and asking the court to question the juror and order a new trial. See M.R.U. Crim. P. 33. The State opposed the motion and, following a hearing on the matter, the court denied it.

         [¶15] Scott also filed a motion for a presentence psychological evaluation, which was granted. After Scott was evaluated, a presentence psychological evaluation report and a later addendum were filed with the court. The sentencing hearing was ultimately held in August 2018, at which time the court entered a judgment of conviction and sentenced Scott to sixteen years of imprisonment, with all but eleven years suspended, and four years of probation. It also ordered Scott to pay $5, 531.60 in restitution to the Victims' Compensation Fund.

         [¶16] Scott timely appealed from the judgment of conviction. See 15 M.R.S. § 2115 (2018); M.R. App. P. 2B(b)(1).[6]

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. Challenged Testimony

         [¶17] Scott first asserts that testimony from two of the State's witnesses unfairly prejudiced the jury and deprived her of a fair trial. We address the challenged testimony of each witness in turn.

         1. The Homeowner

         [¶18] Scott filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking to bar the State from introducing evidence regarding two other alleged stabbings. The court granted the motion. During Scott's cross-examination of the homeowner at trial, the homeowner obliquely referenced one of the incidents in a nonresponsive statement:

[Defense Counsel:] OkayLet's switch gears a little bit here. You gave several statements to the police, do you remember that? Two that night and one probably a little later in the morning; do you recall?
[The homeowner:] No, I recall somebody come up to my brother's a couple of times, and I had to give my shoes up, and / told them that my son was stabbed by her.

(Emphasis added.) Scott did not object to the testimony, expressly declined a curative instruction in a strategic attempt to avoid highlighting the statement, and did not move for a mistrial. She now contends on appeal that the homeowner's testimony "irretrievably tainted the jury's view of [her] and every piece of evidence, and thus requires ... a new trial."

         [¶19] Although Scott argues that the admission of the homeowner's statement was an obvious error that affected her substantial rights, we have previously cautioned that" [w] e do not review alleged errors that resulted from a party's trial strategy," State v. Rega, 2005 ME 5, ¶ 17, 863 A.2d 917, because "[o]bvious error review provides no invitation to change trial and instruction request strategy when the results of the original strategy turn out less favorably than hoped for," State v. Cleaves, 2005 ME 67, ¶ 13, 874 A.2d 872.

         [¶20] By expressly declining a curative instruction for strategic reasons and not otherwise moving for a mistrial, Scott failed to preserve for appellate review the admissibility of the homeowner's statement or any potential prejudice flowing therefrom. See Rega, 2005 ME 5, ¶ 17, 863 A.2d 917; Maine Appellate Practice § 403(a) at 314 (5th ed. 2018) ("IT]he Court will not undertake an obvious error review when a litigant affirmatively approves or consents to a court action.").

         2. The Detective

         [¶21] During Scott's cross-examination of the Maine State Police detective who had interviewed her after the incident, Scott asked the detective, "But you can't talk to [the victim] anyway, right?" The detective responded, "No, she killed him." Although the detective's answer was responsive to the question, Scott immediately requested a sidebar at which she objected, saying, "I object, Your Honor. That's what this trial is here for to decide if she's responsible for his death or not. And it is wholly objectionable that he has made that pronouncement. I'd like that stricken from the record." The court agreed to strike, and instructed the jury, "Men and women of the jury, the last portion of the last response by the witness to the effect where the witness said she killed him was not responsive to the question and I'd ask you to disregard that portion of the response." Scott did not move for a mistrial.

         [¶22] Scott contends on appeal that the court's curative instruction was inadequate because the statement could not "be erased from the jurors' minds." We note first-and Scott conceded the same at oral argument-that there was no dispute at trial that Scott stabbed the victim repeatedly and that he died from the resulting wounds. Thus, we are not persuaded that the detective's statement that Scott killed the victim was unfairly prejudicial.

         [¶23] Even accepting Scott's argument that she was unfairly prejudiced, we have consistently held that a "trial court's determination of whether exposure to potentially prejudicial extraneous evidence would incurably taint the jury verdict or whether a curative instruction would adequately protect against consideration of the matter stands unless clearly erroneous." State v. Nelson, 2010 ME 40, ¶ 6, 994 A.2d 808; see also State v. Ardolino, 1997 ME 141, ¶ 18, 697 A.2d 73 ("We ... must presume that the jury heeds the [trial] court's instruction[s]."). Pursuant to that standard of review, we discern no error in the court's decision to issue a curative instruction-as Scott requested- directing the jury to disregard the statement.[7] See State v. Conner, 434 A.2d 509, 511 (Me. 1981) (holding that a defendant acquiesces in the curative approach used by the trial court when she neither asks for a mistrial nor argues "that it would expect too much of human nature to believe the jurors could forget or disregard" the stricken statement). B. Allegations of Prosecutorial Misconduct

         [¶24] Scott next asserts that the prosecutor made several statements during his closing argument that constituted prosecutorial misconduct and compromised the integrity of the trial. She contends,

He argued two theories that had not been supported by evidence during trial, and misrepresented two pieces of testimony to support these arguments. The first unsupported argument was that [Scott] had stabbed [the victim] while they were both standing. The second unsupported argument was that [Scott] did not have her jeans on while she was outside, only her pajama pants. ...

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