Benedict v. State, A-13428

CourtCourt of Appeals of Alaska
Writing for the CourtWOLLENBERG, JUDGE
PartiesRONTE LEE BENEDICT, Appellant, v. STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.
Docket NumberA-13428
Decision Date27 July 2022

RONTE LEE BENEDICT, Appellant,
v.

STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

No. A-13428

Court of Appeals of Alaska

July 27, 2022


UNPUBLISHED See Alaska Appellate Rule 214(d)

Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Trial Court No. 3AN-17-04611 CR Michael D. Corey, Judge.

Owen Shortell, Law Office of Owen Shortell, Anchorage, under contract with the Office of Public Advocacy, for the Appellant.

Michal Stryszak, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Treg R. Taylor, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

Before: Wollenberg, Harbison, and Terrell, Judges.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

WOLLENBERG, JUDGE

Following a jury trial, Ronte Lee Benedict was convicted of first-degree robbery, second- and fourth-degree weapons misconduct, tampering with physical evidence, and fourth-degree theft in connection with a series of incidents that took place

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one evening in June 2017.[1] At a bench trial following the jury verdict, Benedict was additionally convicted of third-degree weapons misconduct (felon in possession of a concealable firearm).[2]

Benedict now appeals his convictions, raising two claims. First, Benedict argues that the superior court erred in failing to instruct the jury regarding the potential pitfalls of first-time, in-court identifications. Second, Benedict contends that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction for evidence tampering.

Having reviewed the record, we find no reversible error as to either claim. We therefore affirm Benedict's convictions.

Factual background

During the evening of June 11, 2017, the Anchorage Police Department received at least nineteen 911 calls from multiple callers in the vicinity of 14th Avenue and Ingra Street. The callers variously reported hearing multiple gunshots, seeing a man take bicycle tires from a neighbor's house, and observing a man attempting to break into an apartment building. The callers generally identified the man in question as Black or dark-skinned and wearing a black hat and dark clothing.

At Benedict's trial, multiple witnesses testified about their observations that evening. One witness, Rodney Brown, testified that he first encountered Benedict in the alley next to his house. Brown recognized Benedict from past interactions with him at the bus stop, and he offered Benedict a drink. The two hung out for a while at Brown's

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house, and at one point, Benedict asked Brown to film him rapping. After Benedict pulled out a handgun (apparently to use as a prop), Brown put the camera away. The two went outside and fired shots into the air.

Brown was then approached by his neighbor, Nathaniel Tonn, who heard the gunshots while working on his house and wanted to know what had happened. According to Tonn, as he and Brown were speaking, Benedict threw down a bicycle tire and approached them, confronting Tonn and taking out his gun. Benedict seemed upset and worried that Tonn would call the police. Brown was able to calm Benedict down, and Tonn went back into his house to continue working.

Later in the evening, as Tonn was loading tools into a truck parked in the alley, Brown, and then Benedict, joined him. Both Brown and Tonn testified that at some point, Benedict pulled out his gun, put it against Tonn's forehead, and asked for the truck. Tonn told him to take the truck and fled. However, Benedict was not able to start the truck.

Several residents of a nearby apartment building testified that, at another point in the evening, a man fired shots outside and attempted to break into the building. (It is unclear whether this incident occurred before or after Benedict tried to take Tonn's truck.) One resident of the apartment building, Patsy Bell, testified that she heard a commotion outside and when she looked out her window, she saw a man shoot a firearm twice. She then observed her neighbor, Thomas Booker, confront the man, and the two pointed guns at each other. Bell said that, after Booker returned to his apartment, the man fired his gun three more times and started kicking the door of the building, threatening to kill everyone inside.

After Thomas Booker returned to his apartment, he told his son, Nyree Booker, what had happened. Nyree testified that the two began watching footage from their exterior cameras and saw the man Thomas had confronted riding through the area

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on a bicycle. They then heard a commotion, looked out the window, and saw the man pointing a gun at a woman. At some point, the man started banging on the front door with a gun and fired a shot into the apartment upstairs.

Ultimately, several Anchorage police officers responded. Three officers testified that they observed a man, who matched the description provided by dispatch and was later identified as Benedict, running in an alley. (As we noted earlier, the various 911 callers generally provided a similar description of the suspect.) Two officers gave chase and passed by Rodney Brown, who pointed after Benedict and said that he had just tried to rob someone. The officers lost sight of Benedict after he passed behind a house. The third officer backtracked to cut Benedict off. This officer momentarily lost sight of Benedict as Benedict ran into a yard but then saw him trying to jump over a wooden fence. The officer caught up to Benedict and was able to apprehend him.

Because Benedict did not have a weapon on him when he was arrested, officers began to search for a gun along the path Benedict had run. Using the assistance of a K9 unit, the officers found a handgun at the bottom of an old garbage can in a wheelbarrow in the northeast corner of the yard where Benedict was apprehended. The police also recovered four shell casings from the area near Rodney Brown's home. And they identified a bullet hole in the apartment building and recovered an expended bullet inside the building.

Benedict was charged with multiple offenses, including armed robbery (for attempting to take Tonn's truck at gunpoint), several counts of weapons misconduct (for firing a gun at a dwelling, for possessing a gun while intoxicated, and for possessing a gun as a convicted felon), theft (for stealing the bicycle tire), and evidence tampering (for concealing the gun in the garbage can). At trial, several civilian witnesses - including Rodney Brown, Nathaniel Tonn, Patsy Bell, and Nyree Booker - identified Benedict in court as the man they had observed on the night in question. An expert in latent

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fingerprint analysis testified that Benedict's fingerprint was discovered on the magazine of the handgun that was found in the garbage can. And a crime laboratory technician testified that the bullet and empty shell casings came from this same handgun.

Benedict testified in his own defense, admitting to interacting with Booker and Brown during the night but denying all of the criminal allegations. Benedict claimed that he never had or used a gun, but he did tell the jury that he had found a handgun magazine while using Brown's bathroom and he had moved it aside - insinuating that Brown may have been the perpetrator.

After the close of evidence, Benedict moved for a judgment of acquittal on the evidence tampering charge - arguing that the evidence showed, at most, that he had abandoned the gun during the police pursuit, not that he "concealed" the weapon, as required for the offense. The court denied Benedict's motion.[3]

Ultimately, Benedict was convicted of the charges listed above.[4] This appeal followed.

Benedict's claim that the court was required to give an instruction regarding the fallibility of first-time, in-court identifications

At trial, Benedict asked the superior court to preclude witnesses from making an in-court identification of him as the man they observed on June 11, or at least to adopt an alternative procedure for asking them to make the identification (as opposed to identifying him while he was seated at the defense table). The superior court denied Benedict's requests, and multiple witnesses identified Benedict for the first time at trial

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as the man they saw that night in June. Later, Benedict asked the court to provide the jury with an instruction regarding cross-racial identifications. The court denied this request as well, noting that many of the witnesses were the same race as Benedict.

On appeal, Benedict does not challenge the superior court's denial of his requests to modify the procedures for identification or provide a specific instruction related to cross-racial identifications. Rather, he contends that the in-court identifications violated his due process rights under the Alaska Constitution in the absence of a specific instruction on the pitfalls of eyewitness identification. He argues that such an instruction was required under the Alaska Supreme Court's decision in Young v. State, and that the trial court was on notice from his requests at trial that the in-court identifications took place in a suggestive setting.[5]

In Young, the supreme court adopted a new test for evaluating the admissibility of out-of-court eyewitness identifications under the due process clause of the Alaska Constitution.[6] In addition, the court held that if an out-of-court identification is admitted and "if eyewitness identification is a significant issue in a case," a trial court should provide a jury instruction setting out the factors affecting eyewitness reliability.[7] But the court distinguished out-of-court pretrial identifications from first-time, in-court identifications, such as the ones that occurred in this case - explaining that in-court identifications do not trigger application of the same due process protections as...

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