State v. Lassiter

Decision Date12 January 2005
Docket NumberNo. 22854.,22854.
Citation2005 SD 8,692 N.W.2d 171
CourtSouth Dakota Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of South Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. John Thomas LASSITER, Defendant and Appellant.

Lawrence E. Long, Attorney General, Grant Gormley, Assistant Attorney General, Pierre, South Dakota, Attorneys for plaintiff and appellee.

Robert T. O'Keefe of Tinan, Smith & Bucher, Mitchell, South Dakota, Attorneys for defendant and appellant.


[¶ 1.] In this appeal, we confront the problem of when prior act evidence may be used to show modus operandi or motive in order to prove identity. A man entered the home of Scott Davis and assaulted him. At the time, Davis had a relationship with Brenda Tobin. Defendant, John Lassiter, Tobin's former boyfriend, was charged with the assault. At trial, defendant denied involvement in the incident and offered an alibi. To prove that defendant was the assailant, the State sought to offer evidence surrounding defendant's prior conviction for aggravated assault of another former girlfriend. Defendant moved to suppress this evidence, but the trial court ruled that the circumstances of the prior offense were admissible because they tended to prove the assailant's identity. Defendant was convicted of aggravated assault and first degree burglary. He appeals, and we reverse because the circumstances of the prior assault were inadmissible to prove identity.


[¶ 2.] On October 2, 2002, Scott Davis was staying at the apartment of his girlfriend, Brenda Tobin, in Ethan, South Dakota. After driving Tobin to work in Mitchell, Davis returned to his rural home near Mt. Vernon, South Dakota. He arrived at 6:30 a.m. Twenty minutes later, he began to leave his home to head for work at a nearby farm.

[¶ 3.] As he was leaving his house, Davis noted something peculiar. He turned to investigate and saw a man standing near the door. Davis asked the man why he was on his property. The man struck him on the head with a rock. Then the assailant pushed him back into the house, saying, "I can't let you leave here today." Davis responded, "What do you mean, I can't leave here today? Are you going to kill me?" The assailant smiled. Davis interpreted the response to mean that the assailant intended to kill him.

[¶ 4.] Rock in hand, the assailant told Davis that Tobin would eventually cheat on Davis. Not willing to risk fleeing, Davis remained in his home with the assailant for the next hour. Eventually, Davis told the assailant that if he did not arrive at work soon, his employer would come looking for him. This revelation appeared to alarm the assailant who responded that he would leave. Davis and the assailant exited the home. As Davis was driving away, he noticed a light blue vehicle parked along the road near his residence. He wrote down the vehicle's license plate number. He then drove to work where he contacted the sheriff's department and sought medical attention.

[¶ 5.] Defendant was Tobin's former boyfriend. The two had lived together for a short time. After they separated, problems arose between them over a vehicle that Tobin had purchased and defendant had made payments on. In the midst of this dispute, in October 2002, Tobin had the vehicle towed from the parking lot where defendant worked. Because he no longer had a car, defendant borrowed a light blue vehicle from one of his friends.

[¶ 6.] In making his report to a deputy sheriff, Davis named defendant as his assailant. He also described the car and gave the officer the license plate number. Later, the deputy saw defendant driving the car. Upon stopping it, the deputy placed defendant under arrest.

[¶ 7.] Defendant told the deputy that he was returning from Tyndall, South Dakota. He said that he had taken the day off from work to buy a new car. He denied that he had been present at Davis's home, and he gave the deputy a timeline of his activities during the day leading up to his arrest.

[¶ 8.] Defendant was charged with the offenses of aggravated assault, kidnapping, and first degree burglary. In a December 2002 trial, defendant was acquitted of kidnapping, but the jury was unable to reach a decision on the remaining counts.

[¶ 9.] In the second trial, the State called as its last witness Lori Beckmann, defendant's former girlfriend. The sole purpose for her testimony was to introduce the facts of defendant's prior aggravated assault conviction. Defendant had earlier moved to suppress this testimony. However, the trial court overruled the motion, concluding that

the offered evidence shows conduct that is substantially similar to that charged, and is highly probative on the issue of intent, and particularly the specific intent to commit the alleged crimes that the State must show, the issue of motive, as both the prior act and the current charge involve similar actions involving a relationship with a girlfriend, and identity.

[¶ 10.] Before Beckmann's testimony, the trial court read the following jury instruction:

Ladies and gentlemen, the State is going to call Lori Beckmann and the subject of her testimony is going to concern prior — what we call prior acts evidence. She is expected to be providing testimony concerning certain incidences that happened between her and the Defendant at another time and another county. And the attorneys let the court know when this type of evidence is proposed to be introduced so that I can determine whether I would allow it or not. And the purpose of allowing this evidence is for your consideration as to whether it tends to show that the Defendant, Mr. Lassiter, intended to commit the offense for which he is now charged. This evidence is allowed to show motive, intent, or identity of the person charged, but you must not consider this evidence as tending to show in any other respect Mr. Lassiter's guilt with respect to the offense with which he is charged.

* * *

[¶ 11.] Beckmann testified that she lived with defendant "on and off for about three or four years." Eventually, she attempted to end the relationship. On August 28, 2000, shortly after her attempt, defendant held her in her vehicle against her will, assaulted her, and threatened to kill her, stating, "he could kill [her] at any time." Defendant eventually let her go home after she promised to meet him the following day. She headed to work the next morning armed with a small caliber pistol. As she drove into town, she noticed that defendant was following her. She testified that on numerous occasions she had seen defendant with a pistol. Fearing that he would harm her if she stopped, she raced to the police station. Once there, she locked herself in a bathroom until police officers convinced her to come out. When she did, she told the officers of what had happened that day and the previous day. Defendant was later convicted of aggravated assault on Beckmann.

[¶ 12.] At the conclusion of the trial here, the jury convicted defendant of aggravated assault and first degree burglary. For the aggravated assault, he was sentenced to twenty-five years in the penitentiary, and for first degree burglary, seventy years, with thirty years suspended. On appeal, defendant asserts the following issues: (1) "Was the evidence insufficient to support the jury verdict and therefore did the trial court err in denying defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal?" (2) "Did the trial court err in denying defendant's motion to exclude prior bad acts evidence against defendant and allowing the introduction of said evidence by the State?" (3) "Did the trial court err in sentencing the defendant in a manner disproportionate to defendant under the totality of the circumstances in this case?"1

Analysis and Decision

[¶ 13.] On evidentiary questions, our review is limited to whether the trial court abused its discretion. State v. Red Star, 2001 SD 54, ¶ 10, 625 N.W.2d 573, 576 (citations omitted). Evidence of other acts offered for the sole purpose of establishing a propensity to commit a crime is irrelevant, and therefore, inadmissible. State v. Wright, 1999 SD 50, ¶ 14, 593 N.W.2d 792, 799. To obtain a new trial, a defendant must prove not only that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence, but also that the admission resulted in prejudice. Red Star, 2001 SD 54, ¶ 10, 625 N.W.2d at 577 (citing SDCL 15-6-61). Erroneous admission of evidence requires reversal except where we conclude that the error was harmless. State v. Owens, 2002 SD 42, ¶ 85, 643 N.W.2d 735, 756 (citation omitted).

[¶ 14.] The State argued to the trial court and now to this Court that the facts surrounding defendant's prior conviction of aggravated assault were relevant to prove defendant's identity and motive.2 Because defendant denied that he assaulted Davis, the State contends that the facts supporting defendant's previous aggravated assault conviction were admissible.

[¶ 15.] In accord with SDCL 19-12-5 (Rule 404(b)), the admissibility of other acts evidence depends on a two-step analysis: (1) whether the evidence is relevant to an issue other than character, and (2) whether "the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect...." State v. Ondricek, 535 N.W.2d 872, 873 (S.D.1995); see SDCL 19-12-3 (Rule 403). We focus here on the first prong of this test. Under SDCL 19-12-5 (Rule 404(b)), "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith." If, however, the evidence is offered for any purpose other than to prove a person's character or propensity to commit an act, it is admissible. Wright, 1999 SD 50, ¶ 13, 593 N.W.2d at 798 (citations omitted). In determining whether to admit the evidence of other acts, a trial court must decide whether the proffered evidence is relevant to some material fact. State v. Dace, 333 N.W.2d 812, 816 (S.D.1983). It is the proponent...

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  • State v. Mattson
    • United States
    • South Dakota Supreme Court
    • June 8, 2005 demonstrated where evidence is necessary to prove an element of the crime, not simply to demonstrate defendants character." State v. Lassiter, 2005 SD 8, ¶ 14, n.2, 692 N.W.2d 171, 176 (citing State v. Red Star, 2001 SD 54, ¶ 11, 625 N.W.2d 573, 577). "Where it is made clear at the outse......
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