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Jones-Nelson v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

July 19, 2019

MARQUINN JONES-NELSON, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Trial Court No. 3AN-11-05289 CR Anchorage, Gregory A. Miller, Judge.

          Cynthia L. Strout, Attorney at Law, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Timothy W. Terrell, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.

          OPINION

          WOLLENBERG, JUDGE.

         Following a jury trial, Marquinn Jones-Nelson was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the shooting death of Devante Jordan.[1] Jones-Nelson now appeals his murder conviction.

         On appeal, Jones-Nelson raises two claims. First, Jones-Nelson argues that the superior court improperly limited his cross-examination of three of the State's witnesses. Specifically, Jones-Nelson contends that the court erred when it refused to allow his attorney to elicit testimony from these witnesses about Jordan's reputation for violence or about Jordan's prior violent acts until the defense attorney had first presented "some evidence" of self-defense - i.e., other evidence (apart from the anticipated testimony of these three witnesses) to support each of the elements of a claim of self-defense. Jones-Nelson acknowledges that the "some evidence" test is the standard that governs whether a self-defense instruction is warranted, but he argues that this same test does not govern a judge's decision whether to admit evidence.

         The State concedes that the trial court was wrong to require this foundational showing as a prerequisite to the admission of evidence of Jordan's reputation for violence or Jordan's prior violent acts. We agree. However, for the reasons explained in this decision, we conclude that the error was harmless.

         Second, Jones-Nelson argues that the superior court gave an incorrect instruction to the jury on the law of self-defense. We agree with Jones-Nelson that this instruction was incomplete and potentially misleading: it failed to explicitly tell the jurors that, when they evaluated whether Jones-Nelson's use of deadly force was reasonable, they were required to judge his decision under the circumstances as they reasonably appeared to Jones-Nelson at the time (rather than under the circumstances as they turned out to be in retrospect).

         But after carefully reviewing the record (in particular, the other jury instructions on self-defense and the final arguments of the parties), we conclude that this error did not appreciably affect the jury's verdict.

         Background facts and proceedings

         On the evening of March 23, 2011, Jones-Nelson and two of his friends attended a party at an Anchorage apartment. Jordan and some of his friends attended the same party.

         At some point, Jordan confronted Jones-Nelson in a bedroom, accusing him of spreading the rumor that Jordan was a police snitch. During this confrontation, Jordan came within three feet of Jones-Nelson, and he was acting aggressively. However, Jordan ultimately left the room and returned to sit with his friends in the kitchen.

         One of Jordan's friends who lived in the apartment, Nikita Sanders, could see that Jordan was angry. She asked him if he was "good," and Jordan replied that he was. But Jordan then asked another friend, Parrish Harris, whether he should "drop" Jones-Nelson. Sanders heard this comment, and she told Jordan, "Not in my apartment."

         (Because Jones-Nelson was still in the bedroom, he did not hear Jordan's comment.)

         A little later, Jones-Nelson called Harris into the bedroom and told him to fetch Jordan. Harris did so; moments later, Jordan came into the bedroom.

         According to the testimony later given by Jones-Nelson and two of his friends (Dorian Topps and Dionte Wren), Jordan approached Jones-Nelson in an aggressive manner. He came within a foot and a half of Jones-Nelson, stood over him, and asked, "What's up?" (Jordan, who was about 6 foot 3 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds, was significantly bigger than Jones-Nelson, who was 5 foot 7 inches tall and weighed about 135 pounds.)

         According to the defense witnesses, Jordan looked like he was going to hit Jones-Nelson. In addition, Topps (one of Jones-Nelson's friends) testified that he saw Jordan reaching for a handgun in his waistband as he approached Jones-Nelson. However, Wren (Jones-Nelson's other friend) testified that he did not see Jordan with a firearm, nor did he see Jordan actually try to hit Jones-Nelson.

         Regardless of this discrepancy in the testimony, it is undisputed that Jones-Nelson pulled out a handgun and started shooting at Jordan. Jones-Nelson fired two shots in quick succession, at which point Jordan turned and ran toward the kitchen. As Jordan ran away, Jones-Nelson fired four more shots. Jordan died as a result of his wounds.

         Following the shooting, Jones-Nelson fled the apartment, accompanied by Wren and Topps. Jones-Nelson's girlfriend was waiting outside in a car, and the four drove away from the apartment. When Jones-Nelson's girlfriend asked him what happened, Jones-Nelson replied that he had just "smoked" Jordan. Jones-Nelson later disposed of the handgun by tossing it over a bridge.

         The next day, Jones-Nelson contacted a person to obtain a fake birth certificate and other false documents so that he could leave Alaska under a false identity. The person that Jones-Nelson contacted was secretly a federal informant, and she alerted the authorities to Jones-Nelson's plan. The police arrested Jones-Nelson when he went to retrieve the false documents. When Jones-Nelson was interviewed following his arrest, he denied being at the scene of the shooting.

         At trial, there was no dispute that Jones-Nelson shot and killed Jordan. The only question was whether this shooting was justified by self-defense.

         In his opening statement, Jones-Nelson's counsel asserted that Jones-Nelson shot Jordan in self-defense, after Jordan approached Jones-Nelson in an aggressive and threatening manner. The defense attorney told the jury that it would hear evidence of Jordan's reputation for violence, as well as specific incidents of Jordan's violent behavior. The defense attorney asserted that this evidence would show the reasonableness of Jones-Nelson's perception that Jordan was going to hurt him, and the reasonableness of Jones-Nelson's decision to use deadly force in response to this perceived threat.

         Both Jones-Nelson and his friend Topps testified that Jordan approached Jones-Nelson in an aggressive manner, and that Jordan reached into his waistband for a gun. (As we noted earlier, Jones-Nelson's other friend, Wren, testified that he did not see Jordan reach for a gun.) Jones-Nelson testified that when he saw Jordan reaching for a gun, he was afraid that he would be pistol-whipped or shot, so he grabbed a revolver from the window ledge and started shooting at Jordan. Jones-Nelson conceded that, after the first few shots, Jordan dropped his gun and ran, but Jones-Nelson testified that he kept firing because he was afraid that Jordan's friends might have guns and might come to Jordan's aid.

         The prosecutor argued that neither Jones-Nelson nor his friend Topps were credible witnesses, and that their testimony about Jordan reaching for a gun was false. The prosecutor asserted that Jones-Nelson never subjectively believed that he needed to use deadly force to repel an imminent attack.

         The jury ultimately rejected Jones-Nelson's claim of self-defense and convicted ...


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