Rush v. State

Decision Date15 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. CR,CR
Citation919 S.W.2d 933,324 Ark. 147
PartiesJames Scott RUSH, Appellant, v. STATE of Arkansas, Appellee. 95-1192.
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

Appeal from Circuit Court, Faulkner County; Hon. Andre McNeil. No. CR 94-863.

David H. McCormick, James D. Kennedy, Russellville, for appellant.

Brad Newman, Asst. Attorney General, Little Rock, for appellee.

BROWN, Justice.

This appeal concerns three alleged errors that occurred during the sentencing phase of appellant James Scott Rush's trial. Rush was charged with kidnapping Gena Hambuchen and with residential burglary. Both offenses allegedly took place on September 25, 1994. During the guilt phase of the jury trial, Rush was convicted of the lesser included offense of false imprisonment in the second degree, a Class A misdemeanor. Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum jail term of one year or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both. Ark.Code Ann. §§ 5-4-201(b)(1), 5-4-401(b)(1) (Repl.1993).

After hearing testimony at the sentencing phase, the jury returned a verdict of one year in jail and a fine of $1,000, and Rush was sentenced accordingly. His three asserted errors on appeal are: (1) it was error to admit testimony by a victim of a prior battery conviction; (2) it was error for the State to inquire into a prior altercation between Rush and a third party; and (3) it was error to allow the mother of the victim to testify about the victim's ensuing psychological problems in response to questions by the prosecutor, who used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to frame his questions. We hold that the first point has merit, and we reverse and remand.

The facts surrounding the first point are these. As the sentencing phase began, Rush moved in limine to exclude the victim of a prior battery conviction (Douglas Paul Sweeney) from testifying about the facts and circumstances surrounding that conviction. The conviction stemmed from a shooting incident in 1989 in Harrison for which Rush had pled guilty. The trial court denied the motion in limine and made the following ruling:

--I'm going to have to rule in this fashion, and this is the reason: The proof in this case was some proof of a threat to kill the victim. The defendant was found guilty of a crime which involved the holding of the victim for a period of time, even though it was not kidnapping. The defendant has not denied the fact that he made the calls involving the threats to kill. At a previous time in the defendant's history, he did use a firearm on another person, and I think this is one of the aggravating factors that may be used. So I'm going to deny the motion in limine and permit the State to put that evidence on.

The jury was then instructed that it was to hear additional evidence to be considered in determining the appropriate sentence.

The State's first witness was Douglas Paul Sweeney. On direct examination, he testified that in 1989, he encountered Rush in the Harrison High School parking lot. He testified that he, along with some friends, was driving around and that the high school parking lot was a hang-out. When they pulled up, they heard someone screaming, yelling, and cursing. They approached the man, whom Sweeney identified as Rush, and asked him what his problem was. Rush responded that he, Sweeney, was his problem. Words were exchanged, and Rush pulled out a gun, shot in the air, and turned the gun on Sweeney. He threatened to kill Sweeney and his entire group. Sweeney took a couple of steps toward Rush, and Rush shot him in the left leg. Rush subsequently pled guilty to third-degree battery, a Class A misdemeanor.

Rush's counsel then cross-examined Sweeney. He asked if Sweeney was drunk or high on drugs on the night of the shooting incident. He also asked about one of Sweeney's friends, Doug Hankins, who was armed with a machete at the time of the shooting. The direct examination and cross-examination comprised eight pages of the record. Rush contends that he was prejudiced by this examination concerning a crime that took place five years earlier and that the statute in question does not contemplate live testimony by a previous victim.

Resolution of whether it was appropriate to allow testimony from a victim of a prior crime turns on this court's interpretation of Ark.Code Ann. § 16-97-103(2) (Supp.1993), which reads in part:

Evidence relevant to sentencing by either the court or a jury may include, but is not limited to, the following,....


(2) Prior convictions of the defendant, both felony and misdemeanor. The jury may be advised as to the nature of the previous convictions, the date and place thereof, the sentence received, and the date of release from confinement or supervision from all prior offenses;

Specifically, we must determine what is meant by: the "jury may be advised as to the nature of the previous convictions." Rush vigorously contends that this language does not envision testimony from victims of prior crimes. The State, for its part, argues equally as forcefully that this court in previous cases has defined "nature of the offense" as including the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense. See Brown v. State, 316 Ark. 724, 875 S.W.2d 828 (1994); Combs v. State, 270 Ark. 496, 606 S.W.2d 61 (1980).

The first rule in considering the meaning of a statute is to construe it just as it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language. McCoy v. Walker, 317 Ark. 86, 876 S.W.2d 252 (1994); Mountain Home Sch. Dist. v. T.M.J. Builders, Inc., 313 Ark. 661, 858 S.W.2d 74 (1993). Here, the plain and ordinary meaning of "nature" is: "A kind, sort, type, order; general character." Black's Law Dictionary, p. 1027 (6th ed. 1990); see also Webster's New World Dictionary, p. 904 (3rd Ed.1989). Thus, it appears that the plain meaning of the term "nature of the previous convictions" refers to the general character of the pertinent crime.

By Act 535 of 1993, the General Assembly bifurcated criminal trials and authorized the State to present additional relevant evidence, including proof of the nature of previous convictions, during the penalty phase of a trial. See Ark.Code Ann. § 16-97-101, et seq. (Supp.1993). But we do not agree that authorizing the State to advise the jury of the nature, or general character, of previous convictions equates to authorizing a relitigation of those matters. In neither of the two cases relied on by the State was that permitted. For example, in Brown v. State, supra, the charge at issue was felon in possession of a firearm, and the question on appeal was whether part of the judgment showing the length of sentence for the previous felony should have been excised as prejudicial. We stated that the jury was entitled to know the nature and circumstances of the prior conviction, which was an element of the charged offense, and, thus, there was no abuse of discretion by the trial court in allowing the complete felony judgment to be offered into evidence.

Similarly, in Combs v. State, supra, the defendant sought to redact that portion of a certified copy of his judgment of conviction which stated that the felony involved for a felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm charge was second degree murder. Again, the prior felony was an element of the charge, and we held that the trial court did not err in refusing to delete the description of the felony. Both of these decisions were eminently correct. In both cases, the nature of the previous felony offense was proved by a copy of the judgment. In neither case did the State call the victim of the prior felony as a witness and seek to develop the facts of that crime by direct examination.

Act 535 of 1993 provides that proof of prior convictions shall follow the procedures outlined in the Habitual Offender Act. Ark.Code Ann. § 16-97-104 (Supp.1993). Under the Habitual Offender Act, after a determination of guilt by the jury, the trial court hears proof of a charged habitual offender's prior convictions outside of the presence of the jury. Proof of previous convictions is sufficient if in the form of a certified copy of the conviction or penal record. Ark.Code Ann. § 5-4-504 (Repl.1993). The court then instructs the jury on the number of such offenses and the statutory range. Ark.Code Ann. § 5-4-502 (Repl.1993). We have had occasion to discuss what proof may be presented by a habitual offender in the penalty phase:

We explained in Heard v. State, supra [272 Ark. 140, 612 S.W.2d 312 (1981) ], that the purpose of a bifurcated trial is to protect the defendant by keeping evidence of prior convictions from the jury to assure that an accused person will not be convicted on the basis of his or her past record. In the sentencing phase, the state may only introduce evidence of prior convictions, and the accused may only introduce evidence to rebut the existence of those convictions. Nothing in § 16-90-205 suggests the General Assembly intended anything else, and we know of no constitutional provision which requires the trial to be opened in the sentencing phase to evidence the accused could have but declined to present in the guilt-innocence phase.

Conley v. State, 305 Ark. 422, 424-425, 808 S.W.2d 745, 747, cert. denied, 502 U.S. 876, 112 S.Ct. 218, 116 L.Ed.2d 176 (1991). In reaching this conclusion, we quoted from an earlier decision, which did not involve a bifurcated trial, to the effect that a defendant's explanation concerning a prior offense should not be used to retry the earlier case. See Jones v. State, 277 Ark. 345, 641 S.W.2d 717 (1982). That, of course, is the danger associated with the strategy followed by the State in the case before us. The net effect of our caselaw has been to limit proof of prior convictions in the habitual offender context to the convictions themselves and to prevent a reopening of the matter by testimony relating to the convictions.

We are mindful that proof of aggravating circumstances in capital...

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