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Saunders v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

January 19, 2018

JUSTIN EARL SAUNDERS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District No. 3PA-13-1322 CR, Palmer, Kari Kristiansen, Judge.

          John N. Page III (opening brief), and Douglas Moody (reply brief), Assistant Public Defenders, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Eric A. Ringsmuth, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER, JUDGE.

         Justin Earl Saunders was charged with third-degree assault under AS 11.41.220(a)(2) for making repeated threats that he would inflict death or serious bodily injury on his mother, Valerie Saunders, and his uncle, Ron Combs (Valerie's brother). Saunders made some of these threats to his mother in person, while he was pounding on the walls and windows of her house. Saunders made the other threats in voice messages that he left on his mother's telephone answering machine.

         On appeal, Saunders challenges the instruction that the trial judge gave to the jury on the question of whether Saunders's threatening statements against his uncle, Ron Combs, should be considered "repeated" threats or, instead, one continuing threat. This issue arose because Saunders's threatening statements against his uncle were all contained in a single message that Saunders left on his mother's answering machine. In this message, Saunders stated several times in quick succession, over the course of approximately 45 seconds, that he would take Combs's life.

         For the reasons explained in this opinion, we agree with Saunders that the court's instruction to the jury incorrectly stated the law pertaining to this issue, but we conclude that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

         Saunders also argues that there was a fatal variance between the theory of third-degree assault that the State presented to the grand jury and the evidence that the State presented at Saunders's trial. Saunders interprets the indictment as charging only threats against his mother, Valerie, and he argues that the evidence at trial varied from the indictment because, at trial, the State also presented evidence of Saunders's threats to his uncle, Ron Combs.

         Saunders's argument is based on a misreading of the indictment and a misunderstanding of the elements of third-degree assault under AS 11.41.220(a)(2).

         We accordingly uphold Saunders's conviction.

         Background facts

         Saunders's mother Valerie allowed Saunders, her adult son, to live in her home on condition that he not consume alcohol or drugs. When Saunders broke this rule and behaved abusively toward Valerie, she told him that he could no longer live in her house, and she bought him a tent and a sleeping bag so that he could reside for the summer in her backyard. One night in May, Saunders, aggrieved by his recent eviction, pounded on the walls and windows of the house - and, according to Valerie, he threatened her with serious harm.

         The following day, Valerie obtained a domestic violence restraining order precluding Saunders from contacting her. That evening, Saunders left five messages on Valerie's telephone answering machine. Two of these messages contained threatening statements.

         In the first of the threatening messages - a message that lasted about 1 minute and 20 seconds in its entirety - Saunders threatened the life of his uncle, Ron Combs. Here is the pertinent portion of this message - a portion that lasted only 45 seconds:

If I get served with fucking paperwork that says that I can't be allowed on my mom's property, I will take Ron's life. I swear that before my children and my holy God. I will take your life. If I get served with fucking paperwork because I'm not even allowed in the greenhouse, I will take his life, so - [if] I get served some paperwork like that, I'm going to take Ron's life and your little boyfriend's going to be gone, so I'll kill him. I swear that to God.

         About two hours later, Saunders left a second threatening message on Valerie's answering machine. In this message, Saunders said, "You be lucky I don't show up at your house and show you who the boss is, bitch."

         Based on the threats that Saunders uttered to Valerie as he pounded on the walls and windows of Valerie's home, plus the two threatening messages that Saunders left on Valerie's answering machine, the State charged Saunders with third-degree assault under AS 11.41.220(a)(2) - for "mak[ing] repeated threats to cause death or serious physical injury to another person" while acting with the intent of placing ...


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