Mason v. United States, 092817 DCCA, 15-CF-305

Docket Nº:15-CF-305
Opinion Judge:McLeese, Associate Judge
Party Name:Darnell Mason, Appellant, v. United States, Appellee.
Attorney:Matthew B. Kaplan for appellant. Karen P. Seifert, Trial Attorney, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice, with whom Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman and John P. Mannarino, Assistant United States Attorneys, were o...
Judge Panel:Before Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.
Case Date:September 28, 2017
Court:Court of Appeals of Columbia District
 
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Darnell Mason, Appellant,

v.

United States, Appellee.

No. 15-CF-305

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 28, 2017

Argued March 28, 2017

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia CF3-17659-13, Hon. William M. Jackson, Trial Judge

Matthew B. Kaplan for appellant.

Karen P. Seifert, Trial Attorney, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice, with whom Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman and John P. Mannarino, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

McLeese, Associate Judge

Appellant Darnell Mason challenges his convictions for tampering with evidence, destruction of property, obstruction of justice, and unlawful entry. We hold that the trial court committed reversible error by disqualifying a potential juror. We therefore reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings. We also hold that the evidence was sufficient to support Mr. Mason's tampering convictions, so that Mr. Mason may be retried on those charges. We do not address Mr. Mason's other challenges to his convictions, because the circumstances giving rise to those challenges may well not arise on remand.

I.

The evidence at trial indicated the following. At around 2:45 a.m. on October 3, 2013, Mikiyas Getachew was entering his home on Blaine Street NE when several men wearing black ski masks approached him. One of the men was armed with a pistol, and the men forced Mr. Getachew to open the door to his home. The man with the pistol kept it pointed at Mr. Getachew, his wife, Nava Wasihun, and his mother, Eleni Wodaje, while the other men searched for and removed valuable items including watches, cell phones, televisions, computers, an engagement ring, the keys to Ms. Wasihun's Nissan Altima, and the keys to Ms. Wodaje's Honda CRV.

About forty-five minutes after the robbery began, the men drove off in the Altima and the CRV, taking the other stolen property with them. After dividing some of the stolen property among themselves, they took the rest to a house at 308 Raleigh Street SE. That house was unoccupied and for sale, and none of the men had permission to enter it.

Two of the men, Greg Gantt and Shareem Hall, drove the stolen cars to Brothers Place SE to avoid "leav[ing] any traces." While walking away from the vehicles, they ran into Ricardo Blakeney, who joined them. Ultimately, Mr. Gantt, Mr. Hall, Andre Townsend, and Mr. Mason decided to destroy any physical evidence left in the cars by setting the cars on fire. At a gas station, Mr. Hall filled a bottle with gasoline, and the men drove the cars toward a field at MLK Jr. Elementary School, arriving at about 5:05 a.m. They parked the cars next to each other, and Mr. Hall doused both cars with gasoline. Mr. Gantt and Mr. Townsend each set one of the cars on fire, and both cars were severely damaged as a result.

After stopping to sell two stolen cell phones, the group returned to 308 Raleigh. The group then used some drugs and fell asleep. The police tracked the group through a court-ordered GPS ankle monitor that Mr. Gantt was wearing. Officers went to 308 Raleigh and knocked on the front and back doors of the house. The group woke up, scattered the larger stolen items around the house, and brought the smaller stolen items into the attic, where they hid. After several hours, all five men eventually left the house. Mr. Mason tried to flee by jumping over a fence to an alley behind the house, but he was tackled by an officer. After the men were arrested, the police recovered four black face masks and much of the stolen property from 308 Raleigh.

The police did not recover the gun. Mr. Hall last saw the gun in Mr. Townsend's possession as they left Blaine Street and Mr. Townsend got into the Nissan with Mr. Mason. Mr. Hall believed that the gun must have been left in the attic at 308 Raleigh. After his arrest, Mr. Mason made two phone calls from jail in which he apparently asked his friend to find and remove the gun from the attic.

II.

Mr. Mason argues that the trial court committed reversible error by disqualifying a potential juror. We agree.

A.

During jury selection, the trial court asked the potential jurors if they, their immediate family, or their close friends had been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime within the past ten years. Juror 7575-B was among the potential jurors who answered in the affirmative. During follow-up questioning, she explained that her half-brother had been jailed for assault in Texas, and her family suspected that racial profiling had been involved. She also said that her brother had been "treated unfairly" by the justice system as "a black man in Texas." When asked if her views about her brother would affect her ability to be impartial in this case, she responded: I mean I think I can be impartial. I mean I think it's shaped my view of the world. But I don't know the details of this case. I don't think I would see my brother in it. His situation is different. But I definitely, that's my experience with the system.

The prosecutor then asked Juror 7575-B if she thought that "black men in DC are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system, " and she responded that she thought they were treated unfairly and that "things are tilted in the wrong direction."

The United States moved to strike Juror 7575-B for cause "based upon her statements that she believes . . . black men in DC are treated unfairly . . . by the criminal justice system." Defense counsel responded that Juror 7575-B "said she could be fair and impartial." The trial court granted the motion, stating, "[t]he problem for me is that she said that she thought people were being treated unfairly here in DC, not just in Texas. So it has to be systemic . . . if she believes that black men are being treated unfairly."

B.

The trial court has "broad discretion over . . . decisions to strike a juror for cause." Barrows v. United States, 15 A.3d 673, 682 (D.C. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). That discretion is not unlimited, however, and "[t]he court is allowed to dismiss a juror on the ground of inferable bias only after having received responses from the juror that permit an inference that the juror in question would not be able to decide the matter objectively." Doret v. United States, 765 A.2d 47, 53 (D.C. 2000) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted), abrogated in part on other grounds by Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).

Under these principles, we hold that the exclusion for cause of Juror 7575-B was erroneous. The trial court disqualified Juror 7575-B because Juror 7575-B believed that the criminal-justice system reflects a systemic bias against black men. According to statistics cited by Mr. Mason, that belief is far from uncommon: research conducted in 2013 indicated that 35% of all adults and 68% of blacks believed that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the courts. Pew Research Center, King's Dream Remains an Elusive Goal; Many Americans See Racial Disparities, at 39-42 (Aug. 22, 2013), http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2013/08/final_full_report_racial_disparities. pdf.

Mr. Mason argues that it is appropriate...

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