Rebelwood Apartments RP, LP v. English

Decision Date09 December 2010
Docket NumberNo. 2009-CA-00561-SCT.,2009-CA-00561-SCT.
Citation48 So.3d 483
PartiesREBELWOOD APARTMENTS RP, LP, Rebelwood Apartments TC, L.P., Interstate Realty Management Company, Aries Protection Agency and Stephan Milton Stafford v. Dwight ENGLISH, Guardian of Deonte Deon English, Dwight English on Behalf of Deonte Deon English, Individually and on Behalf of all Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Crystal Coleman, Deceased.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Donna Brown Jacobs, Joshua J. Wiener, Ridgeland, Andrew N. Alexander, III, Greenville, attorneys for appellants.

James Ashley Ogden, James W. Smith, Jr., Jackson, Precious Tyrone Martin, attorneys for appellees.

Before CARLSON, P.J., RANDOLPH and CHANDLER, JJ.

RANDOLPH, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. The premises-liability case before the Court today is an appeal from a substantial verdict in favor of the wrongful-death beneficiaries of Crystal Coleman. It was brought by Dwight English, the father of the youngest child of Crystal, charging that the managers and owners of Rebelwood Apartments ("Rebelwood"), an apartment complex in South Jackson, failed to provide adequate security. The suit was filed in January 2008 and tried in January 2009.

¶ 2. Crystal's body was found in the front passenger seat of her car, parked at Rebelwood, by her father, Larry Coleman, who resided with Crystal and her three minor children. When Larry discovered her body, he called the Jackson Police Department ("JPD"), which responded and began an investigation. The investigating officers found no signs of trauma or injury, but, in accordance with their protocol, transferred the body to the Mississippi State Crime Laboratory. During the autopsy, it was discovered the cause of her death was a gunshot wound. JPD reclassified their investigation as a homicide. Leads developed in the investigation led to an admission by Cleveland Ellis, III, an acquaintance of Crystal, that he had shot Crystal at Woodbine Terrace, where he resided, and that he had returned Crystal in her car to Rebelwood. JPD obtained evidence from Ellis's mother, uncle, and cousin, as well as physical evidence that corroborated his story. JPD obtained additional facts from Crystal's family, former boyfriend Dwight English, and her friends and neighbors.

¶ 3. In December 2008, after Ellis's criminal trial had been postponed, Rebelwood moved for a continuance until after completion of the criminal trial, so that Ellis would be able to testify without incriminating himself. English stated in his response to the motion for continuance that he would stipulate that Ellis would claim that the shooting had occurred elsewhere.

¶ 4. English moved pretrial to exclude the "policy [sic] report," as it contained hearsay. English argued the lack of any hearsay exception and that the potential for prejudice outweighed the probative value of the evidence, citing Mississippi Rules of Evidence 403, 803, and 804. Rebelwood argued that, as the police report was a report of a public office or agency, Mississippi Rule of Evidence 803(8) provided an exception to admit it, or at least portions thereof, at a civil trial. Rebelwood argued further that, since Ellis's statements were against his interest, the report "carrie[d] an extraordinarily high degree of trustworthiness," thus, "other exceptions" would allow it, citing Mississippi Rules of Evidence 803(24) and 804.

¶ 5. Rebelwood further argued that JPD detectives should be allowed to testify as to what they had learned in the investigation about where the shooting had occurred. The court ruled that, despite the earlier stipulation, English need not stipulate that Ellis would claim the shooting happened elsewhere, after English withdrew the stipulation offered in the pleadings, based on the decision of the trial judge to exclude the police report.

¶ 6. English presented numerous witnesses, including combined fact/expert witnesses. Testimony from some of these witnesses varied significantly from the witnesses' statements to JPD officers during the investigation and conflicted with their deposition testimony. In a nutshell, material issues of fact existed for jury resolution, including the time and place of the shooting, the presence vel non of adequate security, notice to the apartment owner and managers, and the relationship vel non of the assailant and victim, inter alia.

¶ 7. At the conclusion of a four-day trial, a jury returned a $3,000,000 verdict against Rebelwood. Rebelwood filed this appeal and asked the Court to consider numerous issues, not all of which require consideration for resolution, as we find that the defendant was denied a fundamentally fair trial. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 8. JPD was called to Rebelwood at approximately 5:31 a.m. on Thursday, January 11, 2007. Two detectives, Tyree Jones and James Roberts, were assigned to investigate. Upon arrival, the officers found Crystal's body in the front passenger seat of her parked car. The keys were in the ignition. Crystal's father, Larry, made the initial contact with JPD. He discovered Crystal after he woke up and saw that she was not in her room. He told JPD that he had last seen her alive on January 10, 2007, at approximately 9:30 p.m. The detectives initially were unable to determine with whom Crystal was last seen. No determination was made that morning of how Crystal had died or if she had sustained any obvious injuries. She was transported to the State Crime Laboratory for an autopsy. Evidence found in or near the car included an empty Bud Light bottle containing a silver gum wrapper with gum. The detectives then departed the scene. Later that day, Jones learned that, during the autopsy, the examiner had found that Crystal had been shot once in her left arm and upper torso. Jones proceeded to the autopsy and found that the jacket the victim had been wearing had hidden her injuries and blood. A spent projectile also was found in the jacket. Other than the gunshot wounds, Crystal displayed no wounds or injuries and did not appear to have been in a fight or struggle. Jones concluded that the deceased had been shot while a passenger in the seat of the vehicle, possibly by someone at or near the driver's seat. In processing the vehicle, the police found an empty shell casing. The crime-scene investigator also found a Bud Light top in the vehicle. Returning to Rebelwood, the detectives interviewed Crystal's family, advising her father that the investigation had been upgraded to a homicide investigation.

¶ 9. That same day, Detective Tonia Williams-Hayne received a call from her hairdresser, who requested that Williams-Hayne come to her beauty shop. Upon the detective's arrival, Veda Ellis, mother of Cleveland Ellis III, disclosed that her son had related to her and other family members at 2:00 that morning that he had shot his girlfriend. He had described it as an accident and had said that, in panic, he had left the scene. Veda had convinced her son to cooperate by turning himself in to JPD and telling the truth.

¶ 10. On January 12, 2007, at approximately 10:00 a.m., Williams-Hayne told Jones of this development. Shortly thereafter, Ellis presented himself to police headquarters, accompanied by his mother and uncle, Willie Brown. Ellis was afforded his Miranda rights, but elected to waive those rights and give a statement. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444-45, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1612, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). Officers in attendance were Jones, Roberts, and Detective Ford Hayman. Ellis confessed to the officers that he shot Crystal while they were in the parking lot of his apartment complex at "3100 Woodvine [sic] Terrace." He said he panicked and drove her back to her apartment complex, Rebelwood (located at 200 Rebelwood Drive), around 9:00 to 10:00 p.m. on January 10, 2007, and left her in the vehicle. Ellis stated that the victim was not his girlfriend; that they had had sex on several occasions, but that she was just a good friend. They were alone, and no one witnessedthe incident. JPD also learned that Ellis confessed that night to his uncle, Willie Brown, and sought his assistance, but that Brown refused. Ellis related that he and Crystal had not argued preceding the incident, nor had she assaulted him, or vice versa. He provided an accurate description of what the victim had been wearing, what had been in the vehicle, and what they had been doing prior to the incident, which was corroborated by physical evidence acquired during the investigation.

¶ 11. Roberts's narrative report and testimony reveal that on January 11, 2007, at 6:15 a.m., he received information from Larry that he had last seen his daughter around 10:30 to 11:00 p.m. the night before. According to Larry, Crystal had said she was going out for a while and would be back later. Roberts concluded there was no sign of a struggle inside the vehicle. When he prepared his initial narrative report, the cause of death had not been determined, awaiting autopsy.

¶ 12. On January 12, 2007, Hayman prepared a narrative report, memorializing that Ellis had been accorded his Miranda rights and had been interviewed concerning the shooting of Crystal. Hayman's narrative report confirmed that Ellis related to the officers that he was playing with the gun, that it went off, and that a bullet struck Crystal. Ellis then drove Crystal's car to Rebelwood and parked the car in the parking lot. Next, Ellis went to Brown's residence and told him what had happened. Hayman corroborated Ellis's statement by interviewing Brown. Brown related that Ellis had come to him between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on the evening of January 10, 2007, and had advised Brown that he had made a mistake and had shot Crystal.

¶ 13. Also on January 12, Jones prepared a sworn affidavit to present to a municipal court judge to obtain a bench warrant for Ellis's arrest. The sworn affidavit was titled "Underlying Facts and Circumstances, Murder, 97-3-19, 2...

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