State v. Richards

Decision Date18 July 1996
Docket NumberNo. C1-94-2088,C1-94-2088
Citation552 N.W.2d 197
PartiesSTATE of Minnesota, Respondent, v. Leonard Joseph RICHARDS, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Defendant does not have standing to contest search of storefront where he did not work, but simply stored items.

2. The trial court did not err when it denied defendant's request to relinquish his right to self-representation when to do so would cause unnecessary delay, and defendant had prevented standby counsel from preparing to take over if necessary.

3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it struck from defendant's witness list irrelevant defense witnesses, admitted hearsay statements under certain recognized hearsay exceptions, allowed a juror to continue to serve over defendant's allegation of bias, and ordered defendant to reimburse county for funds misused by defendant in the course of his defense.

4. Defendant's allegation, made without support in the record, that the trial court answered questions from the jury outside of defendant's presence are insufficient to raise an issue for this court to decide.

5. Defendant was not prejudiced by unavailability of trial transcript for preparation of his supplemental brief.

Steven P. Russett, Asst. State Public Defender, St. Paul, for Appellant.

Mark V. Griffin, Asst. Hennepin County Attorney, Minneapolis, for Respondent.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.



In this appeal we again consider the case of Leonard Richards. Richards was convicted for the 1987 murder of one of his attorneys, Robert Stratton. 1 The subject of this appeal is Richards recent conviction for the 1982 murder of his half-sister, May Wilson. Richards represented himself throughout this most recent trial and, while he is represented in this appeal by the state public defender, he has filed a supplemental pro se brief. The two briefs raise the following eight issues:

1) whether the trial court properly admitted evidence seized during a warrantless search of the murder scene;

2) whether the trial court properly denied Richards' mid-trial motion to relinquish his right to self-representation and to have his standby attorneys take over the case;

3) whether the trial court properly granted the state's motion to strike several prospective defense witnesses;

4) whether the trial court properly admitted several hearsay statements of Wilson, Richards' half-sister;

5) whether the trial court properly denied defense motion to strike a juror who came forward to report a contact between Richards and a friend of the juror's husband;

6) whether the trial court had the legal authority to order Richards to reimburse Hennepin County for funds expended in his defense;

7) whether Richards suffered any prejudice from the unavailability of a trial transcript during his preparation of a supplemental pro se brief; and

8) whether the trial court erred when it allegedly answered questions submitted by the jury without bringing Richards to the courtroom.

We affirm the conviction.

Richards and Wilson had a financially close, but emotionally strained relationship. Wilson was frequently hospitalized for physical and mental illnesses and Richards managed her financial affairs. Richards obtained several hospitalization and income protection insurance policies for Wilson's benefit, proceeds from which amounted to over $600,000 during one three-year period. Their personal relationship, however, was difficult. She reported to friends on different occasions that Richards was mean and abusive to her and that she feared him, but that she was reluctant to estrange herself from him because of his involvement in her financial affairs. In March 1982, firefighters, responding to a smoke alarm at Richards' home, discovered Wilson in the backseat of a car in the garage suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. As the emergency personnel assisted her, she asked "You don't think he's trying to kill me, do you?"

Also in March 1982, Richards leased a storefront located at 1028 West Broadway in Minneapolis in the name of a corporation he controlled, The Administrative Center, Inc. Richards told others he intended to operate two businesses from the space: a taxi service and a mail order company. He had the storefront cleaned, the windows covered, and several boxes moved there. A security lock on the door leading to the storefront basement was installed and two keys were issued to him.

In May, employees and tenants of neighboring businesses noticed and complained of an odor emanating from the 1028 West Broadway storefront. On May 20, the leasing agent requested that Richards investigate and remedy the odor. Richards dispatched James Reichert, one of his attorneys, to check on the building. Reichert entered the building with a key given to him by Richards and detected what he described as "a wet basement" smell, but nothing unusual. Reichert, however, was unable to examine the basement because, despite Richards' assurances that a key would be in the basement deadbolt lock, no key was waiting for him. The next day the leasing agent sent one of its employees, accompanied by a locksmith, to the storefront. They entered the building, broke into the basement, and discovered Wilson's decomposing body under some cardboard.

The leasing agent notified the police, who arrived and examined the scene. They located both keys to the security lock in the basement. On the storefront's main floor, police found some boxes containing clothing. They found a dent in the wall containing hair and blood traces, later confirmed to be consistent with those of Wilson; blood was also on both the main and basement floors as well as on the stairs. Based on this physical evidence, police hypothesized that Wilson was killed on the main floor and dragged downstairs.

At two separate hearings on the admissibility of evidence found at the 1028 West Broadway scene, officers testified that the building appeared abandoned. However, the leasing agent representative told the officers who first arrived on the scene that Richards had leased the storefront, that the rent was current, and that he had been in contact with Richards regarding the odor just prior to the discovery of the body. Testimony also revealed that Richards was the sole owner and incorporator of The Administrative Center, Inc. and that some personal property (Richards' mother's clothing and some furniture) was stored at the 1028 West Broadway location. At the conclusion of both hearings, the trial courts ruled the evidence admissible. Both trial courts cited two theories to support their decisions that the search was constitutional: 1) that Richards did not have an expectation of privacy in the area searched, and 2) that the storefront appeared abandoned and, thus, the officers reasonably relied on the apparent authority of the leasing agent to consent to the search.

Several years later, when Richards was tried for Wilson's murder, he represented himself. The trial court appointed attorneys from the Hennepin County Public Defender's (HCPD) office as standby counsel. However, the HCPD informed Richards and the trial court that it would provide no services or assistance beyond the presence of these attorneys in the courtroom as advisors. Accordingly, like any attorney appointed to represent an indigent client, Richards would have to petition the trial court for funds for law clerks, investigators, and office supplies. Richards did so successfully and Hennepin County ultimately provided more than $500,000 for his defense.

The question of what to do should Richards be unable to continue to represent himself was also addressed. Attorneys from the HCPD argued that Richards' decision to represent himself was irrevocable. While the trial court determined that Richards could proceed pro se and that the HCPD attorneys would be available as standby counsel, it also observed that circumstances might eventually dictate that they take over the case. The court expressed concern that a significant delay might result as the standby counsel had no access to the over 20,000 pages of documentation relating to the defense.

After extensive pretrial hearings and over six weeks of jury selection, Richards, claiming "high blood sugar levels," decided he was too ill to continue representing himself and therefore moved the court to relinquish his right to self-representation. Richards asked the court to appoint his standby counsel to represent him. Richards' standby counsel opposed the request, citing their lack of familiarity with the evidence and their belief Richards had made the request only in pursuit of a mistrial. The trial court heard argument from Richards, his standby counsel, and the prosecution and denied Richards motion to relinquish his right of self-representation. Richards continued to represent himself.

Later during the trial a juror sought a meeting with the court to disclose a contact between a family friend of the juror and Richards. Apparently, Richards called a funeral parlor operated by the friend regarding arrangements for his burial and stated that he expected to be dead soon. The friend mentioned the contact to the juror's husband, who, in turn, mentioned it to the juror. The trial court allowed Richards to examine the juror, but ultimately ruled the contact would have no impact on the juror's ability to be impartial.

Prior to and during the trial, the court held hearings to consider offers of proof from Richards regarding each of the witnesses on his extensive witness list. Proceeding witness by witness, the court heard Richards' offers of proof, as well as the prosecution's objections, and struck from the list those witnesses it deemed irrelevant.

The jury found Richards guilty of first degree murder. Minn.Stat. § 609.185(1). The trial court sentenced him to life in prison and ordered Richards to reimburse Hennepin County $50,000 in partial restitution...

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