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State v. Dobbins

Supreme Court of Maine

July 23, 2019


          Argued: November 7, 2018

          Tina Heather Nadeau, Esq. (orally), The Law Office of Tina Heather Nadeau, PLLC, Portland, and Rory A. McNamara, Esq., Drake Law, LLC, Berwick, for appellant Reginald J. Dobbins Jr.

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


          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] On an evening in March of 2015, a sixty-one-year-old man was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in his Houlton residence. Reginald J. Dobbins Jr. was charged with murder, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced by the court (Aroostook County, Stewart, J.) to sixty-five years in prison. Dobbins appeals the resulting judgment of conviction. He asserts that the court erred by excluding certain evidence purporting to show that his friend, Samuel Geary, was responsible for the murder, including evidence that Geary had pleaded guilty to murdering the same man. Dobbins also contends that the sentence is unconstitutional because it "condemns Dobbins to die in prison for a crime that happened when he was just 18 years old." We conclude that the court erred by excluding evidence of Geary's guilty plea to the murder charge but that the error was harmless due to the magnitude and strength of the evidence that was admitted to demonstrate both Geary's and Dobbins's guilt. We are unpersuaded by the remainder of Dobbins's arguments and affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] We describe the background of this case based on the evidence seen in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, see State v. Davis, 2018 ME 116, ¶ 2, 191 A.3d 1147, and the procedural record.

         [¶3] On March 1, 2015, the victim was killed in his mobile home, which was ransacked. An autopsy revealed that the victim had sustained twenty-one blunt-trauma injuries to his arms, torso, and head, and ten sharp-instrument injuries to his head and back. Most of the victim's head trauma was caused by the face and claw of a hammer that was used to brutally fracture his skull and lacerate his brain. The stab wounds, caused by a knife, penetrated the victim's lungs.

         [¶4] Dobbins, who was eighteen years old at the time of the murder, was arrested about a week later and charged with intentional or knowing murder, see 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A) (2018). He was indicted for that charge in May of 2015 and pleaded not guilty. Samuel Geary was sixteen years old at the time of the murder and was charged with murder in Juvenile Court[1] but was later bound over to be tried as an adult, see 15 M.R.S. § 3101(4) (2018). In May of 2016, the State filed a notice of joinder of the charges pending against Dobbins and Geary. See M.R.U. Crim. P. 8(b). Dobbins opposed joinder in part on the ground that, because Dobbins and Geary each contended that the other was responsible for the murder, their theories of the case were too antagonistic to allow for a fair trial if their cases were joined. The court ordered that the cases be joined for trial, but in May of 2017 Geary pleaded guilty to the murder charge. His sentencing hearing was continued until after Dobbins's trial was to be held.

         [¶5] The court held an eight-day jury trial in Dobbins's case in June of 2017. The State's theory of the case was not specific as to whether Dobbins was the principal or an accomplice to Geary. Dobbins's defense was that Geary murdered the victim "while Dobbins stood by in shock." During the trial, the State wanted to call Geary as a witness, but Geary's attorney informed the court that Geary would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. Dobbins argued that for Geary to be able to assert the privilege, the State was required to call him as a witness. The court denied Dobbins's request but held a hearing outside the presence of the jury where, after Geary was placed under oath, he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege. The court dismissed Geary as a witness, and he did not testify before the jury.

         [¶6] Dobbins offered in evidence words that Geary had carved into the surface of a wooden shelf in his room where he was being held pretrial at the Mountain View Youth Development Center.[2] The statement said: "Every one has a story, whats urs?" Below that was, "1) Murder." Dobbins offered this as a statement made by Geary against interest pursuant to Maine Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3). Additionally, Dobbins sought to admit a certified copy of a court docket entry documenting Geary's guilty plea to the murder charge. The State objected to the admission of both forms of evidence. Outside the presence of the jury, the parties conducted voir dire of the Mountain View staff member who had discovered a number of Geary's carved statements, including the one quoted above. After the parties were heard on the admissibility of the evidence offered by Dobbins, the court excluded evidence of both the carving and the guilty plea, concluding that none of that evidence constituted an admissible statement against interest. Regarding the evidence of Geary's guilty plea, the court also concluded that the risk of unfair prejudice to the State would not be sufficiently ameliorated by a limiting instruction, which Dobbins proposed, advising the jury that evidence of the plea did not have the effect of exonerating Dobbins.

         [¶7] After the close of the evidence, the court instructed the jury that it could consider Dobbins's guilt as either a principal or an accomplice to murder. After deliberations, the jury found Dobbins guilty. At a hearing held in October of 2017, the court sentenced Dobbins to a prison term of sixty-five years. Dobbins applied for leave to appeal his sentence, which was denied by the Sentence Review Panel. See 15 M.R.S. §§ 2151, 2152 (2018); M.R. App. P. 20. Dobbins also filed a timely appeal from the judgment. 15 M.R.S. § 2115 (2018); M.R. App. P. 2B(b)(1).


         [¶8] On appeal, Dobbins raises two categories of challenges. He first argues that the trial court erred by concluding that neither the evidence of Geary's carving nor the court record of Geary's guilty plea was admissible pursuant to Rule 804(b)(3) and that the exclusion of that evidence deprived him of a constitutionally sufficient opportunity to present a defense.[3] He also asserts that the sixty-five-year prison sentence violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, section 9 of the Maine Constitution. We address these issues in turn.

         A. Evidentiary Challenges

         [¶9] Dobbins contends that the court "mechanistically applied" the Maine Rules of Evidence so as to deny him the opportunity to present a complete defense in violation of his constitutional rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.[4]

         [¶10] The core of Dobbins's arguments relates to evidentiary principles governing the admissibility of hearsay evidence. We review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude hearsay evidence for an abuse of discretion, State v. Watson, 2016 ME 176, ¶ 10, 152 A.3d 152, and we review an alleged constitutional violation de novo, State v. Hassan, 2018 ME 22, ¶ 11, l79A.3d898.

         1. Evidence of Geary's Carving

         [¶11] Geary's words were found carved into a wooden shelf in his room at Mountain View and stated, "Every one has a story, whats urs? 1) Murder." That statement was near others, also made by Geary, which said things such as "do or die," "no salvation," and "talk shit, get hit." Dobbins contends that the court erroneously concluded that the statement that included the reference to murder is not admissible hearsay pursuant to Maine Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) and that this error contributed to a violation of his constitutional right to present a defense.

         [¶12] Dobbins offered the statement as Geary's admission that he was involved in committing the murder. See M.R. Evid. 801. Because the statement was offered to prove its truth, it was admissible at trial only if, among other things, it fell within an exception to the general rule that bars the admission of hearsay evidence. See M.R. Evid. 802. The exception at issue here is Rule 804(b)(3).

         [¶13] Subject to a limitation not applicable here, Rule 804(b)(3) creates an exception to the general prohibition against the admission of hearsay for a statement that is against the declarant's interest. In the context of this case, the foundation for the admissibility of hearsay pursuant to Rule 804(b)(3) comprises three elements: (1) the declarant is "unavailable" to testify within the meaning of Rule 804(a); (2) the statement is contrary to the declarant's interests to a degree that a reasonable person would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true; and (3) there exist clear indications demonstrating the statement's trustworthiness.[5] M.R. Evid. 804(b)(3). We have stated that the last of these factors implicates

         the following four additional factors:

1. the time of the declaration and the party to whom it was made;
2. the existence of corroborating evidence in the case;
3. whether the declaration is inherently inconsistent with the accused's guilt; and
4. whether at the time of the incriminating statement the declarant had any probable motive to falsify.

State v. Small, 2003 ME 107, ¶ 25, 830 A.2d 423 (citing State v. Cochran, 2000 ME 78, ¶ 12, 749 A.2d 1274).

         [¶14] Here, there is no dispute that Geary was unavailable as a witness because he legitimately invoked his privilege against self-incrimination. See M.R. Evid. 804(a)(1). The question is whether the evidence of Geary's carving meets the other two elements of a statement against interest. In excluding the evidence, the court concluded that the meaning and purpose of the statement were unexplained and unknown. In other words, the content of Geary's statement is enigmatic to the point that it does not carry meaningful indicia that he intended the statement to be against his interest. The court legitimately hypothesized that, if the statement had anything to do with this murder in the first place, the statement could well have been an accusation by Geary that someone else-Dobbins, for example-committed it. The court further concluded that the additional carved statements, such as "do or die," "no salvation," and "talk shit, get hit," contributed to the uncertainty about what Geary meant by the "murder" reference.

         [¶15] Additionally, the court found that there remained a material question of whether Geary had an incentive to be truthful when he made the statement because the reasons why he created the statement were undeveloped in the record. As the court noted, because it is not clear what Geary was trying to express, it cannot be determined whether the statement was truthful.

         [¶16] The court did not abuse its discretion as gatekeeper by concluding that, given the ambiguities and unanswered questions surrounding the statement, Geary's carved words did not have the "persuasive assurances of trustworthiness" necessary to bring it "well within the basic rationale" of the hearsay exception. See Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973). Further, the exclusion of the evidence did not deprive Dobbins of his constitutional right to present a meaningful defense. See id.; see also State v. Burbank, 2019 ME 37, ¶ 22, 204 A.3d 851 ("State rulemakers have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials so long as those rules are not 'arbitrary' or 'disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.'" (alterations and quotation marks omitted)).

         2. Evidence of Geary's Guilty Plea

         [¶17] Dobbins next contends that the court erred by excluding from evidence the docket entry in Geary's case showing that Geary had entered a guilty plea to the murder charge. Dobbins argues both that the court erred by not analyzing the admissibility of the guilty plea under the public record exception to the hearsay rule, M.R. Evid. 803(8), [6] and that its exclusion contributed to the deprivation of Dobbins's constitutional rights. Dobbins is correct that the court abused its discretion by excluding the docket entry showing Geary's guilty plea, but, given the substantial body of evidence of both Dobbins's and Geary's criminal involvement in the murder that was presented to the jury, the court's error was harmless.

         [¶18] The docket entry of Geary's guilty plea to the murder charge contains two layers of hearsay: first, it represents an out-of-court statement by Geary-his guilty plea itself; and, second, it is an out-of-court written statement by a court employee that Geary had entered that plea. See M.R. Evid. 801(c). When a statement contains multiple layers of hearsay, each layer must be analyzed individually and determined to be admissible for the underlying hearsay statement ultimately to be admissible. See M.R. Evid. 805 ("Hearsay within hearsay is not excluded by the rule against hearsay if each part of the combined statements conforms with an exception to the rule."). Consequently, Dobbins was required ...

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