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People v. Steanhouse

Court of Appeals of Michigan

October 22, 2015

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ALEXANDER JEREMY STEANHOUSE, Defendant-Appellant

         Wayne Circuit Court. LC No. 11-011939-FC.

         For PEOPLE OF MI, Plaintiff-Appellee: DAVID A. MCCREEDY, DETROIT, MI.

         For ALEXANDER JEREMY STEANHOUSE, Defendant-Appellant: CHARI K. GROVE, DETROIT, MI.

         Before: WILDER, P.J., and OWENS and M. J. KELLY, JJ.

          OPINION

          [313 Mich.App. 5] Per Curiam.

         Defendant appeals as of right his jury trial convictions of assault with intent to commit murder, MCL 750.83, and receiving and concealing stolen property less than $20,000, MCL 750.535(3)(a). He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years' imprisonment for his assault with intent to commit murder conviction and one to five years' imprisonment for his receiving and concealing stolen property conviction. We affirm defendant's convictions, but remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I

         A

         Defendant and Antonin (Anton) Valoppi were good friends and often smoked marijuana in the basement of the home that Anton shared with his parents, Rory and Suzanne Valoppi.[1] In September 2011, the Valoppi residence was robbed. Two weeks later, defendant told Anton that he knew the individuals who had broken into the Valoppi home and offered to retrieve the stolen items if Anton paid him. According to defendant, he discovered that Derrin Evans had committed the robbery, and defendant retrieved the items from Evans. Defendant partially returned the stolen property to Anton, who gave him " reward" money in return. Defendant testified that he subsequently gave a portion of the " reward" money to Evans.

          [313 Mich.App. 6] On October 16, 2011, defendant went to the Valoppi residence to smoke marijuana with Anton. Anton and Rory did not recall anyone except defendant entering their home. However, defendant testified at trial that he and Evans both went to Anton's home to smoke marijuana.[2] When defendant arrived, Anton and defendant went into the basement. Anton then went upstairs to retrieve his box of marijuana and returned to the basement. The next thing Anton remembered was waking up with his throat " hanging open" and seeing defendant standing in front of him, staring at him, and " wait[ing] for [him] to die." Defendant made no attempt to help Anton.

         Anton ran upstairs to get help and told Rory " [t]hat his friend tried to kill him." While Rory and Suzanne were helping Anton, Rory saw defendant run up the stairs and out the side door of their home even though Rory shouted at defendant for help. Suzanne asked Anton what happened, and Anton replied, " A.J. stabbed me." [3] In response to questions by the 911 operator, Anton indicated that A.J. Steanhouse committed the assault and provided defendant's address. Anton did not actually see who assaulted him, but he believed that defendant was the only other person in the basement when the assault occurred. Additionally, Anton believed that he was struck in the head with a wrench before his throat was slit, drawing this inference because he sustained a skull fracture, and he later found a wrench with " hair sticking out of [it]."

         According to defendant, Evans was the perpetrator of the assault. When Anton, who was " past over [sic] the level of being high," went upstairs, Evans told defendant that he was going to rob and kill Anton. [313 Mich.App. 7] After Anton returned to the basement, Evans attacked him, cut his throat, grabbed some marijuana and pills, and left the residence. Defendant then rolled Anton over, at which time the knife came out of his neck, and called Anton's name, waking Anton up. Defendant testified that Anton accused defendant of stabbing him, and defendant excitedly repeated that he was not the one who assaulted Anton. Defendant then ran upstairs and left the residence because he was " under the influence and high," and he was shocked and hurt that Anton would believe that defendant " would do something like this to him."

         After leaving Anton's home, defendant went to his own house and changed his clothes because there was blood on them. He woke up his girlfriend, Katherine McIntyre, and told her that he had been at Anton's home and that Anton had been stabbed, but he did not specify the perpetrator of the assault. Defendant then left the house and stayed the night at a friend's residence. Defendant later told McIntyre that Chips[4] had stabbed Anton.

         The day after the incident, defendant turned himself in and was arrested. He maintained his innocence and implicated Chips as the perpetrator of the assault. When the police searched defendant's vehicle, they discovered some of the items that were reported as stolen from the Valoppi residence. Police officers also recovered defendant's clothing from his home. Forensic testing of the blood on defendant's clothing and the possible blood stain on the knife blade recovered from the scene matched Anton's DNA. Additionally, forensic testing of the knife handle revealed two DNA types, but only that of the major donor, Anton, could be [313 Mich.App. 8] identified; the testing could not confirm whether the minor donor's DNA was defendant's or Evans's.

         B

         After the incident, Evans provided two statements during separate interviews with a police detective. In his first statement, provided after the detective indicated that defendant had implicated Evans as the perpetrator of the assault, Evans stated that he was not present at the scene of the assault. Evans provided his second statement four months later while he was in custody for a separate offense. After the detective informed him again that defendant had implicated him in Anton's assault, and the detective stated that he knew that Evans was present when the crime was committed, Evans admitted that he was present in the basement of Anton's home at the time of the assault. However, Evans claimed that defendant slit Anton's throat, after which Evans ran up the stairs and left the residence.

         At a pretrial hearing, the prosecutor informed the trial court of the possibility that Evans could incriminate himself in light of his contradictory police statements and defendant's theory that Evans committed the assault. The prosecutor asked the trial court to appoint counsel for Evans and to conduct a hearing before trial regarding whether Evans would exercise his privilege against self-incrimination. The trial court granted the prosecutor's request.

         On the first day of the trial, before jury selection and outside the presence of the prospective jurors, Evans's appointed counsel informed the trial court that he had discussed the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination with Evans. Evans's attorney believed that Evans could incriminate himself if he testified, [313 Mich.App. 9] given the inconsistencies between his two statements and his potential testimony that he was present at the scene of the crime. Evans's attorney stated that he had advised Evans to not testify, and that Evans had decided to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege. Because Evans would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege, the trial court ruled that Evans was an unavailable witness and did not compel him to testify. Subsequently, defendant moved to admit the statements that Evans made to the police pursuant to MRE 804(b)(3) and MRE 804(b)(7). The trial court ruled that Evans's statements were not admissible under either hearsay exception, finding that neither of Evans's statements was against his penal interest and that the statements lacked sufficient indicia of trustworthiness.

         During trial--after McIntyre testified that when defendant came home on the night of the incident, defendant stated that he was at Anton's home and that Anton was stabbed without specifying who stabbed him--the prosecutor introduced a brief excerpt of McIntyre's police interview. During the interview, McIntyre initially told the detective that defendant did not admit that he stabbed Anton on the night of the assault, but she later told the detective that defendant admitted that he had stabbed Anton. After she left the police station, McIntyre immediately called the detective and stated that she lied when she said that defendant admitted that he stabbed Anton. At trial, McIntyre testified that she lied to the police and asserted that defendant never told her that he stabbed Anton. She explained that she made the statement during the interview because she was tired and felt threatened, pressured, not safe, and uncomfortable when the detective mentioned her children and indicated [313 Mich.App. 10] that she could get into trouble even though she was not present during the offense.

         During his closing argument, the prosecutor argued, without objection, that defendant's admission to McIntyre that he stabbed Anton was substantive evidence of defendant's guilt. The trial court, also without objection, instructed the jurors that they could consider prior inconsistent statements both for impeachment purposes and as substantive evidence. Afterward, defense counsel expressly approved the instructions provided by the trial court.

         Also during his closing argument, the prosecutor argued that defendant was the only person to go inside the home and the only person in the basement except for Anton. The prosecutor referred to defendant's account of the criminal episode as a " lie" and a " story" :

What we have here is the defendant basically, following the old axiom about if you're going to lie, tell a big lie.
Tell one that's so shocking and enormous that people don't just immediately dismiss [it] as a lie, because it's so big but they have to just stand back and look at him; wait a minute, is he really telling me what I think he's telling me.
And what you heard from the defendant about his explanation for what happened, is precisely that. It's the big lie.
And we know that from a lot of different perspectives and for a lot of different reasons.
One of them is the fact that he got caught up in the details of what he was saying, and it turned out there were some pretty major inconsistencies in what he was saying.
Because when you tell the big lie, you can't always keep your little details straight.
* * *
[313 Mich.App. 11] He has not kept his details straight in the big lie he's told you. And beyond just the details that he's gotten wrong[,] it just doesn't make any sense.

         During his rebuttal argument, the prosecutor stated:

[W]hat they're left with is the defendant's big lie; that [sic] so obviously a big lie that you can't believe it.
* * *
Now, I think you have to ask yourself how is it, and why is it, and when is it that the defendant came up with this story about Chips having done this. . . .[5]
* * *
[H]e's faced with a situation where he's got to tell you the big lie and he's got to have you believe that big lie.

         Defense counsel asserted during his closing argument that the prosecutor failed to present Anton's medical records, and therefore, prevented the jury from being able to perform a " fair and meaningful" evaluation of the extent of Anton's injuries. During his rebuttal, the prosecutor stated the following:

Now, you may have noticed I was taking a few notes while [defense counsel] was talking. So I'm going to address a few of the issues that he did.
And first on that list of issues is, I think what he mentioned, one of the first things, and he kept going back to it, was there's not enough blood here[,] he says. There's no[] medical records to show you what actually happened to Anton Valoppi.
Well it's true; I mean one thing you have to keep in mind throughout this entire process is that, as I've just said, I have the burden of proof.
[313 Mich.App. 12] The defense has no burden of proof whatsoever. They don't have to call any witnesses.
They didn't have to call his own client to the witness stand, didn't have to call any witnesses whatsoever.
As the Judge told you from the beginning of the trial[,] they could have just sat here and played tic-tac-toe.
And then just got up an argument [sic] in the end, doesn't even have to argue again.
But if they got up and argued again and just said prosecutor didn't prove his case and sat down, you would have to consider all the same instructions whether we've proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt; the defense doesn't have to do anything.
So I mean when you think about that argument about the medical records though, it's true we've had the medical records for three months but so has [defense counsel].
* * *
[Defense counsel] doesn't have to show you the medical records he received[; ] he has no burden of proof.
But when he argues to you that I should have shown them to you, at least you ought to think well, if there's something important in there[, defense ...

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