State v. Webb

Decision Date26 May 1989
Docket NumberNo. C2-88-1894,C2-88-1894
PartiesSTATE of Minnesota, Respondent, v. Robert Gene WEBB, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

The state failed to meet its burden to establish the guilt of the accused where the conviction for first degree murder rested on circumstantial evidence which was consistent with a rational hypothesis other than that of guilt.

C. Paul Jones, State Public Defender, Melissa Sheridan, Asst. State Public Defender, St. Paul, for appellant.

Hubert H. Humphrey, III, Atty. Gen., St. Paul, and Alan L. Mitchell, St. Louis County Atty., Vernon D. Swanum, Duluth, for respondent.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.

KEITH, Justice.

Appellant Robert Webb appeals his conviction of first degree premeditated murder. Minn.Stat. Sec. 609.185(1) (1988). He claims among other things that the evidence is insufficient to support the jury's verdict. We agree, and accordingly the conviction must be reversed.

Robert Webb, who is diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and borderline mental retardation, was convicted of the premeditated murder of Barbara Ward, also a mentally ill person. Barbara Ward resided before her death at a boarding home in Duluth, which catered to mentally ill individuals needing a supervised living environment. She shared a room there with her boyfriend. Appellant lived in an apartment on Mesaba Avenue in Duluth, about one block away from where Barbara Ward's body was discovered.

On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1987, Ward had lunch at the boarding house and then went to a local drop-in center, which she frequented often to socialize with other individuals and watch television. Seventy-seven other people registered at the drop-in center that day, including appellant. The state produced one witness who testified to seeing Ward speak to appellant at the drop-in center that day. There is no other evidence that the appellant ever knew Ward, and he has consistently denied having any contact with her at all. The drop-in center closed at 5 p.m. on Easter. Appellant was not seen leaving by anyone. Barbara Ward was seen walking away from the center with another man shortly after it closed. She did not return to the boarding house for the evening meal or to take her scheduled 8 p.m. medication.

Later that evening, at about 8:15 p.m., a neighbor saw a man dragging something heavy along the street near the appellant's apartment, and into the alley. It looked to him like a bag or box or large suitcase; he also thought it may have been a body. He could not identify the man, or see where the man might have come from before he first noticed him. From where the neighbor observed this, a half block away, he could see appellant's apartment building, but could not see the entrance to the building because it was blocked by trees. Another neighbor, closer to where Barbara Ward's body was discovered, saw a man in the same alley behind an abandoned church sometime before 10:30 p.m. He was walking back and forth across the alley, and eventually walked away towards Mesaba Ave. She could not identify the man.

Barbara Ward's body was discovered the next morning, Monday, April 20, 1987, near the alley behind the church. It was found in a small alcove by a passerby and was covered by a sheet of plywood, some branches, grass and other debris. Nearby, a plastic garbage bag was found containing a sheet and a bedspread. The bedspread had a knot tied in it and holes were worn through it. Also in the bag, a bristle from a broom was found, which was traced to a broom owned by a neighbor who used it to sweep his driveway. Many of the bristles from his broom were found in the alley.

Ward's clothing was somewhat in disarray. Her shoes were off and her socks were twisted around on her feet. Her brassiere was on normally, but the strap was twisted once in the back. She was not wearing underpants, and her slacks were on backwards, despite the words "front" and "back" written on the waistband.

The pathologist believed the cause of Barbara Ward's death was from suffocation, indicated by cuts in her mouth made by her own teeth. The liver was lacerated, caused by a blow to the abdomen with a blunt object, possibly a knee. The relatively small amount of internal bleeding indicated that the injury was inflicted shortly before death. A large bruise found under the scalp was caused by a sharp blow to the head also inflicted before death by a blunt object, possibly a fist. This blow could have rendered her unconscious. There was no semen present or other evidence of a sexual encounter. There was also no evidence indicating a struggle or any resistance to the assault. The time of death could not be ascertained with certainty, but the pathologist estimated it to be before 2 a.m. on Monday, April 20.

The police investigation of the crime soon began focusing on individuals known to frequent the same places visited by Barbara Ward. Appellant became a suspect when another suspect, Robert Jacobson, told the police that he had seen appellant speaking to Ward at the drop-in center on Easter. The police spoke to appellant several times and noticed that a few days after the murder, he had shaved off his beard. He also had brought some of his suits to a used clothing exchange, including the suit he wore on Easter, the day Barbara Ward was killed. He explained this by saying that he no longer needed any suits, since he was no longer trying to work as a salesman. The suit he wore on Easter was never found by the police.

On April 23, 1987, the appellant returned to his apartment and discovered the police executing a search warrant. He was advised by the police that he was free to leave, but was asked to accompany them to the police station to answer some questions. At the police station, appellant was questioned in an office by two officers for two hours. The police knew that appellant suffered some sort of mental deficiencies and was taking medications under the care of a psychiatrist. They never advised him of his Miranda rights, believing that he was not in custody. They also did not tape record or transcribe the interrogation.

According to the police, during the course of the interview, appellant was shown a photograph of the bedspread found near the victim's body and asked if the bedspread belonged to him. Appellant responded that he did not know. After asking the question several more times, and getting the same answer, one of the officers raised his voice against the appellant and feigned anger. The officer later claimed that this was an interrogation technique. The appellant then admitted that the bedspread belonged to him. However, immediately after that police officer left the room, appellant turned to the other officer and said that he admitted ownership of the bedspread only because that is what the other officer wanted him to say. Appellant's statement was admitted into evidence at trial. 1

Other evidence at trial showed that the bedspread was identical to approximately 70-100 other bedspreads used by the Lincoln Hotel in Duluth. Appellant lived at that hotel briefly in 1986, but there is no evidence that the appellant removed one of the bedspreads. Many of those bedspreads, however, have disappeared from the hotel over the years. James Chambers testified for the state that he saw a similar bedspread in the appellant's apartment on Mesaba Avenue. He was confused, however, about what period in time he remembered seeing the bedspread in appellant's possession. Other witnesses who had been in the apartment, including the landlord and a roommate, said that the appellant did not have a bedspread. Also, no hair, fiber or body fluids were found on the bedspread to indicate that it belonged to the appellant.

During the search of appellant's apartment, the police removed several hundred hair strands, as well as fiber samples from the carpeting and furniture, cigarette butts, and samples from various surfaces which could possibly have contained blood or body fluids. Paint chips from the porch floor of the building were taken, for comparison with any chips which might have been recovered from the bedspread which was believed to have been used to drag Ward's body out of the apartment. The appellant provided the police with samples of his hair, blood, saliva and semen. This evidence was painstakingly compared against hair, blood and body fluids taken from the victim, and from the sheet and bedspread found nearby. Nothing found in the apartment indicated the victim had been there. Similarly, no evidence was found on the victim, or on the sheet or bedspread which indicated any contact with the appellant or his apartment.

The investigation continued over five months until a grand jury indictment was returned on October 1, 1987. Appellant spoke to the police about the murder approximately seven times. His demeanor was characterized by the police as cooperative and courteous, not guarded or deceptive. He remained in Duluth during the entire investigation, and voluntarily consented to searches of his old and new apartments, voluntarily provided samples of his hair, body fluids and blood to be used...

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