State v. Wallace-Lee

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
Citation2020 Ohio 3681
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2019-CA-19
PartiesSTATE OF OHIO Plaintiff-Appellee v. TOVA I. WALLACE-LEE Defendant-Appellant
Decision Date10 July 2020

2020 Ohio 3681

STATE OF OHIO Plaintiff-Appellee
TOVA I. WALLACE-LEE Defendant-Appellant

Appellate Case No. 2019-CA-19


July 10, 2020

Trial Court Case No. 2018-CR-882

(Criminal Appeal from Common Pleas Court)


MARCY A. VONDERWELL, Atty. Reg. No. 0078311, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Greene County Prosecutor's Office, 61 Greene Street, Suite 200, Xenia, Ohio 45385 Attorney for Plaintiff-Appellee

DAVID R. MILES, Atty. Reg. No. 0013841, 1160 East Dayton-Yellow Springs Road, Fairborn, Ohio 45324 Attorney for Defendant-Appellant


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{¶ 1} Defendant-appellant Tova I. Wallace-Lee appeals from her conviction of murder. Wallace-Lee contends the trial court erred by giving a defective instruction on self-defense and by improperly imposing post-release control. She also claims the State failed to present evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction and that the conviction was against the weight of the evidence. Finally, Wallace-Lee contends her trial counsel was ineffective.

{¶ 2} We conclude Wallace-Lee has failed to demonstrate that counsel's conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. She has also failed to demonstrate error in the jury instructions. We further conclude that the record contains evidence sufficient to support the conviction for murder and that the conviction was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. Finally, we agree with Wallace-Lee that the trial court erred by imposing post-release control for an unclassified offense.

{¶ 3} Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court is reversed regarding the imposition of post-release control. In all other respects, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed. This matter is remanded for the trial court to issue an amended judgment entry in accordance with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural History

{¶ 4} On November 3, 2018, Wallace-Lee and Tre-Ana Tarver used Facebook to engage in a series of communications during which the two argued over a man with whom they were both involved. The communications were extended to include Mahogany Bruce and Adra Tarrent, two of Tarver's friends. Over the course of approximately seven hours, the online argument escalated; at its culmination, Wallace-Lee and Tarver agreed

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to meet in order to fight one another. The two initially agreed to meet at the home of Wallace-Lee's cousin, but Wallace-Lee later instructed Tarver to come to her residence on East Church Street in Xenia.1

{¶ 5} Around 11:00 p.m., Bruce, Tarver and Tarrent arrived at Wallace-Lee's home in Bruce's car. They parked in a lot located between a church and the backyard of Wallace-Lee's home. Tarver exited the car and walked toward Wallace-Lee, who was on the back porch of her home. Wallace-Lee also walked toward Tarver, and the two met in the yard. During a short encounter, Tarver threw a punch at Wallace-Lee, who then stabbed Tarver. One stab wound entered Tarver's chest and traveled at least two inches before penetrating her heart. Tarver also was stabbed in her left jaw/cheek area and twice in her back. Tarver died as a result of her injuries.

{¶ 6} Wallace-Lee was indicted on one count of murder in violation of R.C. 2903.02(B) and one count of felonious assault in violation of R.C. 2903.11(A)(2). A jury trial was conducted in April 2019.

{¶ 7} At trial, Bruce testified that when the trio arrived at the church parking lot, she and Tarrent stayed with the vehicle while Tarver walked to the edge of the parking lot and into Wallace-Lee's backyard. Bruce testified Wallace-Lee, who had been on her back porch when they arrived, walked over to meet Tarver. Bruce testified she observed Tarver swing her fist at Wallace-Lee, but she did not see whether the blow connected. She testified the two women began to engage in a fistfight, and then she observed Tarver fall to the ground while screaming that she had been stabbed. Bruce testified she then ran over and pushed Wallace-Lee away. She further testified that a tall man came and

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took Wallace-Lee into the house.

{¶ 8} Xenia Police Officer Andy Bishop was one of several officers who responded to the scene upon a dispatch regarding a fight.2 He testified that he pulled up to the front of the East Church Street residence and proceeded into the backyard where he observed two officers attempting to render aid to Tarver. He testified that, as he neared the officers, a woman approached him and stated, "You can go ahead and take me to jail now." Tr. p. 242. Bishop told the woman to calm down and then asked for her name. The woman identified herself as Wallace-Lee, pointed at Tarver and stated, "They tried to come and fight me. I had my knife with me and I stabbed her." Tr. p. 244.

{¶ 9} Bishop testified that Wallace-Lee's grandmother then suggested they go inside the house, as it was cold outside. He accompanied Wallace-Lee inside the house, where Wallace-Lee's grandparents and her aunt and uncle were also present. Once they were inside, Bishop asked Wallace-Lee to explain what had occurred. He testified that, according to Wallace-Lee, she and Tarver had been arguing on Facebook about a boy, and they planned to meet to fight. Wallace-Lee told Bishop that she instructed the three women to come to her home for the fight. She also stated that she knew when they arrived at her home, because they posted a message stating, "We're outside." Tr. p. 248. Bishop testified Wallace-Lee further stated "she walked to the backdoor, grabbed a knife off the kitchen table, because she was scared, and walked outside." Id. Wallace-Lee stated that the victim "swung on her with a closed fist and then [Wallace-Lee] stabbed her." Tr. p. 249. During the conversation, Wallace-Lee's aunt took

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Wallace-Lee's phone and walked away with it.

{¶ 10} According to Bishop, Wallace-Lee did not indicate that anyone else punched her or that any of the three women had a weapon. He also testified that Wallace-Lee did not claim anyone had approached her door or tried to get inside the home. He further testified that Wallace-Lee did not claim to have told the women to leave the property or that she planned to call the police.

{¶ 11} Xenia Police Detective Matt Miller also testified for the State. According to Miller, he interviewed Wallace-Lee at the police department.3 Miller testified Wallace-Lee told him she received a message from Tarver indicating she had arrived at Wallace-Lee's residence. She stated that she then looked out the window, saw the three women, grabbed a knife, and went outside. She stated that she took the knife because she felt threatened. Wallace-Lee initially indicated she then blacked out and could not remember anything else.

{¶ 12} According to Miller, Wallace-Lee later stated that she met Tarver in the middle of the backyard, where the two got into a one-on-one fight. Wallace-Lee told Miller that Tarver hit her in the face, and Wallace-Lee then swung back at Tarver. Wallace-Lee went on to state that the two fell to the ground and then the two other women came and began to engage in the fight. Wallace-Lee told Miller that she then stabbed Tarver.

{¶ 13} Miller also testified that Wallace-Lee later changed her version of the details again and indicated that she and Tarver were in a one-on-one fight and Tarver hit her

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first. She told Miller that she then swung back. Wallace-Lee told Miller that she and Tarver were standing when she stabbed Tarver, and the two then fell to the ground. Wallace-Lee indicated that Tarver yelled out that Wallace-Lee had a knife, and then the other two women came over and joined in the fight.

{¶ 14} The State presented evidence that some of the messages regarding the fight had been deleted from Wallace-Lee's phone. The State also presented evidence that Tarver's blood was on the knife and that Wallace-Lee's DNA was found on the knife blade and handle. The evidence showed the knife had been found on the back porch of the home.

{¶ 15} In her defense, Wallace-Lee presented the testimony of her uncle, Bryan Wallace.4 Wallace testified he had a felony drug conviction and had been released from federal prison approximately three weeks prior to the incident. At the time of the offense, he was living in his parents' home along with Wallace-Lee, and he was home on the night of the fight. He testified that he wanted to smoke, so he followed Wallace-Lee out of the house onto the back porch. He testified that Wallace-Lee did not say anything to him as they walked out. Wallace testified that he observed Tarver, Bruce and Tarrent in the parking lot behind the "backyard of the house." Tr. p. 458. He also observed Tarver step into the yard as Wallace-Lee walked to meet her. According to Wallace, the two women "met in the middle of the yard" where they began to fight. Tr. p. 459. When asked if he observed anybody throw a punch, Wallace responded negatively. However, when asked to describe the fight, he described it as a "fist fight[ ]," "just throwing punches

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at each other." Id. According to Wallace, Tarver and Wallace-Lee fell to the ground. At this point, he observed the other two women "fast walking" toward Tarver and Wallace-Lee. Tr. p. 460. He testified that it took approximately 15 to 20 seconds for the two women to get from the parking lot to where Wallace-Lee and Tarver were fighting. Wallace testified that the two women began "jumping" his niece, and he then ran out "to break it up." Tr. 460-462. He testified that, when he "started breaking it up, "one of the ladies said that she ha[d] a knife. And then I seen the knife and I grabbed it." Tr. p. 462. Wallace testified the knife was in Wallace-Lee's hand when he grabbed it. He then took his niece into the house. He estimated the entire event lasted "a couple of minutes - maybe." Tr. p. 463.

{¶ 16} The jury convicted Wallace-Lee on both counts. During the sentencing hearing, the trial court merged the offenses, and the State...

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