Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

People v. Denson

Supreme Court of Michigan

July 17, 2017

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
TMANDO ALLEN DENSON, Defendant-Appellant.

         SYLLABUS

          Argued on application for leave to appeal April 12, 2017.

          Chief Justice: Stephen J. Markman Justices: Brian K. Zahra Bridget M. McCormack David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Joan L. Larsen Kurtis T. Wilder

         Defendant, Tmando A. Denson, was convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, MCL 750.84, after a jury trial in the Genesee Circuit Court. Defendant's conviction arose from a physical altercation that he had with 17-year-old Shamark Woodward II, who was dating defendant's 15-year-old daughter. At trial, the witnesses presented starkly different versions of the events, but testimony was consistent that defendant had discovered Woodward and defendant's daughter in her bedroom, partially undressed. Defendant claimed that, after hearing his daughter yell in protest, he entered the room to find Woodward forcing his hand down his daughter's pants. According to defendant, he pulled Woodward away from his daughter, and he and Woodward fought. In contrast, Woodward claimed that his actions with defendant's daughter were consensual and that defendant brutally assaulted him. The prosecution introduced photographs of Woodward's injuries, which included lacerations to his body. The prosecution also sought to admit evidence under MRE 404(b) of the facts underlying defendant's 2002 conviction of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, arguing that this other-acts evidence was admissible to rebut defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others. Defendant's 2002 conviction arose from an incident in which, after a dispute over an alleged drug debt, defendant bashed in an individual's car window and then shot the individual, who was retreating into his house. Defense counsel objected to admission of this other-acts evidence, arguing that it was an impermissible attempt to use propensity evidence in violation of MRE 404(b). The trial court, Geoffrey L. Neithercut, J., ruled that the prosecution could discuss the facts underlying the prior conviction, but barred the prosecution from introducing evidence of the actual conviction unless defendant denied that the underlying facts occurred. Defendant appealed his conviction in the Court of Appeals, and the Court, Murray, P.J., and Meter and Owens, JJ., affirmed in an unpublished per curiam opinion issued October 1, 2015. Defendant sought leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, which ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other action. 500 Mich. 892 (2016).

         In an opinion by Justice Bernstein, joined by Chief Justice Markman and Justices Zahra, McCormack, Viviano, and Larsen, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, held:

         When the prosecution seeks to admit evidence of other acts under MRE 404(b), the prosecution must assert a proper noncharacter purpose for admitting the evidence and must demonstrate the logical relevance of the evidence to that purpose by showing its materiality and probative value. In this case, the prosecution claimed to offer the other-acts evidence to rebut defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others, but the lower courts failed to closely scrutinize the logical relevance of the other-acts evidence. Evaluation of the logical relevance of the evidence revealed that the trial court erred by admitting the evidence because the other act was not strikingly similar to the charged offense and instead served solely to demonstrate defendant's propensity for violence, thereby violating MRE 404(b). Given the facts of the case, the error was not harmless because it undermined the reliability of the verdict, and the case was remanded for a new trial.

         1. Under MRE 404(b) evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is inadmissible to prove a propensity to commit such acts, but such evidence may be admissible for other nonpropensity purposes. The proponent of other-acts evidence must first articulate a proper noncharacter purpose for admission of the other-acts evidence. In this case, the prosecution claimed that the other-acts evidence was offered for the purpose of rebutting defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others. These theories of admission are best understood as an attempt to rebut a defendant's state of mind, that is, to show that a defendant did not honestly and reasonably believe that the use of force was necessary to defend himself or herself or another person. However, merely reciting a proper purpose does not automatically render the evidence admissible; the prosecution must demonstrate the actual existence of a proper purpose by showing the logical relevance of the other-acts evidence at issue.

         2. Other-acts evidence is logically relevant if two components are present: materiality and probative value. With respect to materiality, in this case, while the prosecution's burden to disprove defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others placed these defenses generally at issue, the specific other-acts evidence offered was not material because it was not probative of these defenses. To be probative under MRE 404(b), the prosecution must not only articulate a proper purpose for the evidence, but must also explain how the evidence is relevant to that purpose without relying on a propensity inference. Ultimately, the court must determine whether the prosecution has established an intermediate inference, other than the improper inference of character, which in turn is probative of the ultimate issues in the case. If the prosecution's theory of relevance is based on the alleged similarity between a defendant's other act and the charged offense, there must be a striking similarity between the other act and the charged offense to find the other-acts evidence probative and admissible. In this case, the prosecution sought to admit the other-acts evidence particularly based on the alleged similarity between the 2002 incident and the charged offense. However, the prosecution failed to show striking similarity between the acts. The fact that defendant had previously assaulted a completely different individual in a completely different scenario years earlier had no probative force other than to demonstrate defendant's propensity for violence and that defendant acted consistently with that tendency in attacking Woodward. Therefore, the other-acts evidence was not probative of anything other than defendant's allegedly bad character and propensity to commit the charged offense, the very inference forbidden by MRE 404(b). Although the prosecution nominally recited what could be a proper purpose for admission of the other-acts evidence, evaluation of the probative value of the evidence revealed that no such purpose actually existed; the articulated purpose was merely a front for the admission of improper other-acts evidence. The trial court and the Court of Appeals erred by failing to closely scrutinize the probative value of the other-acts evidence and by concluding that the other-acts evidence was admissible.

         3. Under harmless-error review, a preserved nonconstitutional error is presumed not to be a ground for reversal unless it affirmatively appears more probable than not that the error was outcome determinative. An error is outcome determinative if it undermines the reliability of a verdict. The reviewing court must focus on the nature of the error and assess its effect in light of the weight and strength of the untainted evidence. The admission of improper other-acts evidence creates a severe risk that the jury will use the evidence precisely for the purpose that it may not be considered, that is, as suggesting that the defendant is a bad person and that if he did it before he probably did it again. In this case, defendant and Woodward gave very different accounts of the events in question. In addition to proving the elements of the crime charged, the prosecution was required to disprove defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others. To do so, the prosecution needed the jury to believe that defendant had unjustifiably attacked Woodward. In pursuit of that objective, the prosecution questioned several defense witnesses about the 2002 incident in a manner that suggested that defendant was an aggressive and violent man and that Woodward was simply another victim of defendant's violent tendencies. Such use of the impermissible propensity inference prohibited by MRE 404(b), which the prosecution repeatedly made to the jury, created prejudice that entitled defendant to relief. The prosecution further compounded the problem in closing argument by remarking on defendant's allegedly violent nature. Although the prosecution also introduced photographs and medical testimony regarding Woodward's injuries, the mere presence of some corroborating evidence does not automatically render an error harmless. Defendant's version of the events was not wholly inconsistent with the injuries Woodward sustained. Given the nature of the error and assessing its effect in light of the weight and strength of the untainted evidence, the error was not harmless.

         Reversed and remanded for a new trial.

         Justice Wilder, dissenting, would have denied defendant's application for leave to appeal. Even if the other-acts evidence was improperly admitted under MRE 404(b), the error did not require reversal because defendant did not establish that it was more probable than not that he would have been acquitted were it not for the introduction of that evidence. By claiming self-defense and defense of others, defendant necessarily admitted the commission of the crime, but sought to excuse its commission. While defendant claimed the assault was justified in order to prevent his daughter from being sexually assaulted, the prosecution sought to prove that defendant's claim of attempted sexual assault was false, devised by defendant afterward in order to escape criminal responsibility for Woodward's assault. The evidence of Woodward's injuries did not support defendant's claims of self-defense. Woodward's most serious injuries, requiring 21 sutures and 8 staples to close, were located on the back and side of his body. Moreover, the post-altercation conduct of defendant and his family members was not remotely consistent with defendant's claim that his daughter had been the victim of an imminent sexual assault. Because there was more than ample evidence for the jury to conclude that the claim of an imminent sexual assault had been fabricated, defendant failed to establish entitlement to reversal of his conviction.

         BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          Bernstein, J.

         In this case, we consider whether evidence of defendant's prior act was admissible under MRE 404(b) to rebut defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others, that is, defendant's claim that he honestly and reasonably believed his use of force was necessary to defend himself or another. We hold that the trial court erred when it admitted defendant's prior act because the prosecution failed to establish that it was logically relevant to a proper noncharacter purpose. We also conclude that this error was not harmless. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the trial court for a new trial.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case stems from a physical altercation between defendant Tmando Allen Denson and 17-year-old Shamark Woodward II on the evening of October 22, 2012. As a result of this incident, defendant was charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, MCL 750.84.

         At trial, Woodward and defendant presented very different accounts of what occurred on the night in question. Testifying for the prosecution, Woodward explained that he had previously met defendant's 15-year-old daughter, DD, at school and the two started dating. On the evening of October 22, DD invited Woodward to her house at a time when defendant and Rosemary Denson-defendant's wife and DD's mother-were not home. Woodward and DD began talking and kissing on the couch in the living room. When they heard a car outside, DD suggested that they go upstairs to her room, where the two continued to kiss. Eventually, Woodward and DD removed their pants. Woodward testified that he suddenly heard footsteps on the stairs and that defendant burst into the room, finding the two teenagers in this compromising position. Defendant immediately attacked Woodward, punching and kicking him and then hitting him with a lamp. Defendant then forced both teenagers to undress and took photographs of them. Defendant left the room and returned with two knives. Defendant instructed Woodward to sit in the corner and proceeded to slash Woodward repeatedly across his back, shoulders, and legs. Woodward denied possessing a weapon during the attack, denied fighting back against defendant, and denied sexually assaulting or threatening DD in any way.

         Woodward further testified that when he arrived home, he told his brothers what had happened and was taken to the hospital, where he received numerous staples and stitches. Photographs of Woodward's injuries were admitted into evidence at defendant's jury trial. The photos showed two lacerations on Woodward's back and lacerations on his arm, shoulder, and leg. The attending doctor, Dr. Faisal Mawri, testified that Woodward reported being assaulted and that his multiple injuries were consistent with wounds inflicted by a sharp object. Woodward's mother and a police officer who spoke to Woodward at the hospital also confirmed the nature of Woodward's injuries.

         Defendant testified in his own defense, presenting a starkly different version of the events. Defendant explained that, after arriving home from work, he went downstairs to the basement to watch a football game with his two sons. DD, he believed, was upstairs alone. All of a sudden, he heard a loud noise and immediately ran upstairs to investigate. He heard DD yell, "[N]o, stop, " and "[W]hat are you doing, my daddy is downstairs." Defendant ran into DD's room, where he saw DD on the floor and Woodward leaning over her, trying to force his hand down her pants. Defendant admitted to physically striking Woodward. Woodward then broke loose and ran downstairs. Defendant followed Woodward downstairs, testifying that he was scared for his two sons, who were still in the basement. Defendant and Woodward met once more in the kitchen, where both individuals grabbed knives, and Woodward threw a glass at defendant, striking defendant's hand. Woodward then ran back upstairs where he and defendant threw their knives at each other. At some point, shortly thereafter, the fighting ceased and Woodward left. Defendant denied taking pictures of the teenagers and denied using a knife in the manner Woodward alleged. Defendant claimed that he honestly believed that DD was being sexually assaulted and that he was protecting her and himself from Woodward.

         Defendant further testified that he immediately called his parole officer to report the incident, but no one answered. He also went to the local police precinct but found that it was closed. Defendant told the jury that he suffered a broken finger, puncture wounds to his hand, and cuts on his arms. Although defendant sought to introduce jail medical records to further substantiate these injuries, the trial court barred their admission because defense counsel's effort to obtain the records was dilatory.

         Several witnesses testified on defendant's behalf. Tmando Denson, Jr., one of defendant's sons, confirmed that he had been watching a game with defendant and that defendant left the basement after hearing a loud noise upstairs. DD also took the stand, largely corroborating defendant's account of the incident and asserting that Woodward had tried to sexually assault her. However, DD testified that she never saw defendant or Woodward with a knife. She also denied seeing any cuts on Woodward's body. Rosemary Denson testified that DD had called her that evening to tell her what had happened and that DD had received sexual assault counseling shortly afterward.

         At trial, pursuant to MRE 404(b), the prosecution sought to admit the facts underlying defendant's prior 2002 conviction for assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, MCL 750.84.[1] This prior conviction arose from an unrelated incident involving an unrelated individual named Tyrone Bush. Apparently, after becoming upset with Bush over a supposed drug debt, defendant had driven to Bush's home in Detroit, bashed in his car window, and shot Bush when he appeared on his porch and turned to retreat back inside his home. Defense counsel objected to the admission of any evidence related to the 2002 incident, arguing that it was an impermissible attempt to use propensity evidence in violation of MRE 404(b). Citing this Court's decision in People v VanderVliet, 444 Mich. 52; 508 N.W.2d 114 (1993), defense counsel argued that the 2002 incident was irrelevant, unfairly prejudicial, and offered for the improper purpose of showing that defendant had acted in conformity with his allegedly violent character. The prosecution responded that admission of the facts underlying the 2002 conviction did not violate MRE 404(b) because the evidence was not being offered to show propensity, but rather to rebut defendant's claims of self-defense and defense of others. The trial court ruled that the prosecution could discuss the facts underlying the conviction, but it barred the prosecution from introducing evidence concerning the actual conviction unless defendant denied that the underlying facts occurred.

         The prosecution subsequently elicited evidence of the 2002 incident from several defense witnesses. The prosecutor asked defendant whether the specific facts of the 2002 incident were true. The prosecutor then suggested to defendant, "You have a bad temper, don't you?" Later, the prosecutor asked defendant to admit that beating Woodward got the "rage out of your system, because you are a bully . . ., aren't you? Yes or no?"

         The prosecutor also brought up defendant's alleged temper when questioning members of defendant's family. In cross-examining DD, the prosecutor informed her that he was going to inquire "a little bit about your family history." The prosecutor then asked if DD was aware that defendant had previously gotten into trouble for losing his temper and shooting someone. Driving the point home, the prosecutor continued, "[Y]ou wouldn't want your dad to lose control with you like he lost control with [Woodward]." In contrast, the prosecutor sought to confirm with DD that Woodward was "a nice boy." Turning to Rosemary Denson, the prosecutor asked Rosemary whether she was aware of the "family history" involving the 2002 incident and whether defendant's bad temper and loss of control caused her to fear defendant. The prosecutor also brought up the 2002 incident when questioning DD's sexual assault crisis counselor, Christina Delikta. The prosecutor asked whether defendant had told her about the 2002 incident in which he had "gotten into trouble in the past for assaulting somebody in Detroit." Defense counsel repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, objected to the questions posed to all four defense witnesses, at one point moving for a mistrial, which the trial court denied.[2]

         The prosecution returned to the 2002 incident in closing argument. Addressing defendant directly, the prosecutor stated:

And you know, we have no reasonable doubt; no doubt that's fair that there was any kind of defense of anybody. This was just a savage beating, Mr. Denson. You lost control, just like you did in Detroit when you shot that guy. You're a bully, Mr. Denson and you're a coward. . . .
A* * *
. . . Cause you have Mr. Denson intending to cause great bodily harm to just a boy.

         In comparison, the prosecutor assured the jury that Woodward was "a good guy." And in rebuttal, the prosecutor again argued:

The [2002] incident in Detroit. Hey, not a coincidence, okay. Not a coincident [sic] that the bully over a $75 . . . drug debt takes his gun, bashes the car window and shoots the guy while he's retreating into the house. No self defense in that circumstance.
* * *
. . . And um, this guy pounded on [Woodward] with his hands, pounded on [Woodward] with his feet, kicking [Woodward] in the face, trying to wack [sic] him with the chair, bashing a lamp over his head and breaking it. . . . Then taking photos so he would have some evidence. . . . They're not coincidences. No self defense.

         The trial court gave self-defense and defense-of-others instructions to the jury. Ultimately, the jury convicted defendant of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, and defendant was sentenced as a fourth-offense habitual offender to a prison term of 5 to 20 years.

         On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court had erred by admitting under MRE 404(b) the evidence related to the 2002 incident. The Court of Appeals rejected this claim and affirmed defendant's conviction. People v Denson, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued October 1, 2015 (Docket No. 321200). Specifically, the Court of Appeals believed that "[t]he contradiction of [defendant's] self-defense theory constituted a proper, noncharacter purpose for admission under MRE 404(b)." Id. at 5. Further, while the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the evidence was somewhat prejudicial to defendant, the panel concluded that there was no danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury. Id.

         In this Court, defendant has again raised a challenge under MRE 404(b). We scheduled oral ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.