Roberts v. Commonwealth

Decision Date26 March 2020
Docket Number2018-SC-000249-MR
Citation599 S.W.3d 841
Parties Tammy ROBERTS, Appellant v. COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky, Appellee
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Shannon Renee Dupree, Assistant Public Advocate.

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Daniel Jay Cameron, Attorney General of Kentucky, Joseph A. Newberg II, Assistant Attorney General.


A Graves Circuit Court jury convicted Appellant, Tammy Marie Roberts, of murder and recommended a twenty-year sentence. Roberts was sentenced in accordance with the jury's recommendation, and now appeals to this Court as a matter of right. Ky. Const. § 110 (2)(b).

Roberts raises four claims of error in her appeal, alleging: (1) the trial court erred in failing to grant a mistrial, (2) the trial court erred in refusing to instruct on self-defense and imperfect self-defense, (3) the trial court erred in ruling she did not qualify for the domestic violence exemption, and, (4) that she should be granted a new trial because of cumulative errors. For the following reasons, we reverse Roberts's conviction, vacate her sentence, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


James Pinion died on February 10, 2017, from a single stab wound to the chest. Roberts, Pinion's girlfriend, was charged with his murder. Pinion and Roberts lived together and shared a two-bedroom trailer with David and Amy Hogg, a married couple. All four roommates frequently used drugs.

The night Pinion died, the Hoggs overheard an argument between Pinion and Roberts. The argument resulted from a trip to the Dollar General Store by Roberts and Amy. The toxic and turbulent relationship between Pinion and Roberts was such that Pinion required Roberts to acquire his permission before leaving the trailer—and to show him her underwear both before leaving the trailer and after returning home. The day in question, Roberts failed to obtain his permission, leading to an argument when she got home.

At some point, Amy heard blows being exchanged. Then, Roberts exited the bedroom and talked to Amy in the kitchen for a few moments. Roberts told Amy that Pinion had her medication and would not give it back to her. Then, shortly before the stabbing, David heard Roberts and Pinion arguing and went into their bedroom. Roberts told David that Pinion had her money and would not give it back. David told Pinion to return the money and Pinion threw three twenty-dollar bills on the bed. Police would later find three blood-soaked twenty-dollar bills in the shoes Roberts wore. Shortly after David left the room with the two still arguing, he heard Roberts scream "help" and saw Pinion slumping in the hallway bleeding. Pinion was declared dead at the hospital.

In multiple statements to police, Roberts claimed Pinion accidentally fell on the knife when he got his foot tangled in a sheet. Roberts maintained there was no domestic violence the night Pinion was stabbed even after multiple attempts by police to get Roberts to admit to stabbing Pinion in self-defense. This denial was made despite both Amy and David hearing an argument prior to the stabbing, Amy reporting the sound of someone being hit, and fresh bruises and apparent red slap marks on Roberts observed by police that night.

Prior to trial, the Commonwealth gave Kentucky Rules of Evidence (KRE) 404(c) notice that it intended to introduce one of Roberts's prior bad acts: a 2003 first-degree assault conviction from Fulton County. Roberts filed a motion in limine seeking to prevent introduction of this prior assault. The trial court issued a written order stating the Commonwealth could use information regarding the prior crime in its case-in-chief if it first laid the proper foundation.

The morning of trial, Roberts sought clarification of the court's earlier ruling. In response, the Commonwealth indicated it would redact those portions of Roberts's various recorded statements to police in which officers confronted her with the prior assault. However, when the recordings were played in the presence of the jury during trial, numerous statements were played concerning the prior assault.

Roberts did not testify. She tendered and argued for self-defense language in the murder instruction as well as for imperfect self-defense instructions for second-degree manslaughter and reckless homicide. The trial court overruled the tendered instructions, finding no evidence in the record to support them. The jury convicted Roberts of wanton murder and recommended a twenty-year sentence.

After the jury convicted Roberts, she moved the trial court to apply the domestic violence victims’ exemption to change her parole eligibility from 85% to 20%. The trial court overruled the motion finding there was no evidence connecting the crime with an act of domestic violence.

A. Mistrial

During trial, the Commonwealth played recordings of police interviews with Roberts. Multiple times in playing these recordings, the Commonwealth failed to follow the trial court's order to remove references to a prior assault Roberts committed fourteen years prior to Pinion's death. Roberts made three mistrial motions during trial after the Commonwealth played the inadequately redacted recordings.

1. KRE 404(b)

As a preliminary matter to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion in failing to grant a mistrial, we examine whether the trial court erred in ruling to allow the admission of KRE 404(b) evidence regarding the fourteen-year-old Fulton County assault.

While KRE 404(a) states the general rule that "[e]vidence of a person's character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion," the rule goes on to enumerate exceptions when evidence of one's character may be used. Specifically, KRE 404(b) reads, in pertinent part:

[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible:
(1) If offered for some other purpose, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident....

In examining whether the prior assault fit within the KRE 404(b) exception, the trial court examined the similarities in the two crimes. The trial court reviewed tendered documents from the 2003 assault in conducting its review. In 2003, Roberts and her then-boyfriend, Louis Estrada, got into a physical altercation. Roberts alleged Estrada had held her by her head and punched her. According to Roberts, she stabbed him after he kept "getting in her face." Estrada countered that Roberts grabbed the knife while the two were arguing. He said she lunged at him and stabbed him in the back as he was walking away. Roberts ultimately pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in that case after initially claiming it had been an accident.

The trial court emphasized the similarities in the cases, noting that in both situations: Roberts's victim was her then-boyfriend, Roberts and her victim had been involved in an argument, Roberts said she had been hit, Roberts stabbed the victim, and Roberts claimed an implausible story. After explaining its reasoning, the trial court found that admission of the prior assault showed absence of accident, motive, and intent pursuant to the exceptions contained in 404(b)(1) allowing the admission of certain evidence of other crimes. Therefore, the trial court found that the Commonwealth could use evidence of the prior assault in its case-in-chief so long as it laid a proper foundation. Notably, the trial court instructed the Commonwealth it could not rely on hearsay to establish the prior conviction and it was disinclined to allow a certified copy of the prior conviction to come into evidence. The Commonwealth responded that it would have an officer from Fulton County present to testify regarding Roberts's prior assault.

On appeal, "[w]e will not disturb a trial court's decision to admit evidence absent an abuse of discretion." Matthews v. Commonwealth , 163 S.W.3d 11, 19 (Ky. 2005) citing Partin v. Commonwealth, 918 S.W.2d 219, 222 (Ky. 1996). "The test for abuse of discretion is whether the trial judge's decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair, or unsupported by sound legal principles." Commonwealth v. English , 993 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Ky. 1999). We hold that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Roberts's motion in limine and ruling to allow the Commonwealth to introduce evidence concerning the 2003 assault.

While the trial court was correct that the facts surrounding Roberts's former stabbing of a boyfriend were somewhat similar to those in her stabbing of Pinion, it erred in determining those similarities made the evidence admissible. We addressed this issue in Driver v. Commonwealth , 361 S.W.3d 877 (Ky. 2012). In Driver's trial for charges arising from the assault of his current-wife, the Commonwealth sought to introduce evidence that he had assaulted his former wife twelve years earlier. Id. at 885. In that case, we noted that "[b]ecause prior acts of violence or threats of violence against persons other than the victim in the case on trial have significantly less probative value than similar prior acts and threats against the same victim, as a general rule ‘specific threats directed against third parties are inadmissible.’ " Id. at 885-86 (quoting Sherroan v. Commonwealth , 142 S.W.3d 7, 18 (Ky. 2004) ). We recognized in Driver that "[a]n exception has been recognized when the threat against the third person is so close in time to the charged offense as to be considered a part of the same transaction." Id. at 886. There is no assertion here that Roberts's stabbing of Estrada fourteen years earlier was part of the same transaction as her stabbing of Pinion.

In Driver , this Court ultimately relied on Barnes v. Commonwealth , 794 S.W.2d 165 (Ky. 1990), in holding that the...

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