State v. Williams

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Citation528 N.E.2d 910,38 Ohio St.3d 346
Docket NumberNo. 86-607,86-607
PartiesThe STATE of Ohio, Appellee, v. WILLIAMS, Appellant.
Decision Date14 September 1988

Page 346

38 Ohio St.3d 346
528 N.E.2d 910
The STATE of Ohio, Appellee,
WILLIAMS, Appellant.
No. 86-607.
Supreme Court of Ohio.
Submitted Dec. 1, 1987.
Decided Sept. 14, 1988.

John T. Corrigan, Pros. Atty., and Timothy J. McGinty, Cleveland, for appellee.

Hyman Friedman, County Public Defender, Patricia Walsh and David L. Doughten, Cleveland, for appellant.

LOCHER, Justice.

In accordance with R.C. 2929.05(A), we review the legal issues raised by appellant to independently determine whether the aggravating circumstance outweighs any mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, and to determine whether the sentence of death is proportional in this case. For the reasons that follow, we uphold appellant's conviction and sentence.


Our analysis begins by addressing the propositions of law advanced by appellant. Because of the gravity of the sentence that has been imposed on appellant, we have reviewed the record with care for any errors that may not have been brought to our attention. In addition, we have considered any pertinent legal arguments which were not briefed or argued by the parties.


Appellant's first proposition of law asserts that the trial court erred when it admitted the unsworn, out-of-court statement of a witness. At trial, Dwight Brown was called as a witness by the prosecutor, but he refused to be sworn in or to testify. The trial court apparently cited him for contempt, but to no avail. Later, the trial court overruled the objections of defense counsel and admitted a statement made by Brown to police which implicated appellant in the crime. Defense counsel argued the statement was hearsay, but

Page 348

the trial court ruled it was admissible for the limited purpose of proving that Brown had made the statement. During closing arguments, the state read the entire statement to the jury without objection by defense counsel. The trial court then deviated from its original ruling on the statement's admissibility, and instructed the jury that it could use the statement for the sole purpose of judging the credibility of other witnesses.

We must first consider whether the statement was properly admitted into evidence. "Hearsay" is defined in Evid.R. 801(C) as an out-of-court statement that is "offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." At trial, the state argued the statement was admissible because it was offered solely to prove that Brown had given a statement to police. A statement is not hearsay if it is admitted to prove that the declarant made it, rather than to prove the truth of its contents. 4 However, the state did not use Brown's statement for this purpose. Instead, the state read it to the jury during closing arguments in an attempt to bolster the credibility of the testimony of other witnesses, and the court instructed the jury that it could use the statement for that purpose. As a result, the statement was hearsay because its contents were used to prove the truth of the matter asserted, namely the testimony of the other witnesses. We therefore reject the state's argument that the statement was not hearsay.

In the alternative, the state urges that the statement meets the requirements of the hearsay exception in Evid.R. 804. While we agree that Brown qualifies as an [528 N.E.2d 915] unavailable witness under Evid.R. 804(A)(2), 5 we find that his statement does not fall within any of the hearsay exceptions listed in Evid.R. 804(B). 6 Accordingly, appellant's constitutional right to confront those who testify against him was violated when the trial court erroneously permitted the state to read the hearsay statement to the jury, and, when it permitted the jury to use the

Page 349

statement to judge the credibility of other witnesses.

We now turn to the issue of whether this violation of appellant's right to confrontation is grounds for reversal of his conviction. With respect to violations of the Confrontation Clause, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled as follows:

"As we have stressed on more than one occasion, the Constitution entitles a criminal defendant to a fair trial, not a perfect one. E.g., United States v. Hasting, 461 U.S. 499, 508-509 [103 S.Ct. 1974, 1980-81, 76 L.Ed.2d 96] (1983); Burton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 135 [88 S.Ct. 1620, 1627, 20 L.Ed.2d 476] (1968). In Chapman [v. California, 386 U.S. 18 [87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705] (1967) ], this court rejected the argument that all federal constitutional errors, regardless of their nature or the circumstances of the case, require reversal of a judgment of conviction. The Court reasoned that in the context of a particular case, certain constitutional errors, no less than other errors, may have been 'harmless' in terms of their effect on the fact-finding process at trial. Since Chapman, we have repeatedly reaffirmed the principle that an otherwise valid conviction should not be set aside if the reviewing court may confidently say, on the whole record, that the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. E.g., United States v. Hasting, supra (improper comment on defendant's silence at trial); Moore v. Illinois, 434 U.S. 220, 232 [98 S.Ct. 458, 466, 54 L.Ed.2d 424] (1977) (admission of identification obtained in violation of right to counsel); Harrington v. California, [395 U.S. 250, 89 S.Ct. 1726, 23 L.Ed.2d 284 (1969) ] (admission of nontestifying codefendant's statement). The harmless-error doctrine recognizes the principle that the central purpose of a criminal trial is to decide the factual question of the defendant's guilt or innocence, * * * and promotes public respect for the criminal process by focusing on the underlying fairness of the trial rather than on the virtually inevitable presence of immaterial error. Cf. R. Traynor, The Riddle of Harmless Error 50 (1970) ('Reversal for error, regardless of its effect on the judgment, encourages litigators to abuse the judicial process and bestirs the public to ridicule it')." Delaware v. Van Arsdall (1986), 475 U.S. 673, 681, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 1436, 89 L.Ed.2d 674.

The United States Supreme Court went on to conclude that violations of the Confrontation Clause "[do] not fit within the limited category of constitutional errors that are deemed prejudicial in every case." Id. at 682, 106 S.Ct. at 1437. Consistent with the foregoing, this court stated the following in paragraphs three and six of the syllabus in State v. Williams (1983), 6 Ohio St.3d 281, 6 OBR 345, 452 N.E.2d 1323:

[528 N.E.2d 916] "To be deemed nonprejudicial, error of constitutional dimension must be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Where constitutional error in the admission of evidence is extant, such error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt if the remaining evidence, standing alone, constitutes overwhelming proof of defendant's guilt." 7

Page 350

We are firmly convinced that the error in the admission of Brown's statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The contents of the statement were largely cumulative of the testimony of other witnesses at appellant's trial. The statement was primarily concerned with the events that took place on Christmas Eve at Berry's apartment. Four other witnesses testified about the same events, and the contents of Brown's statement merely corroborated their testimony. Additionally, it is clear that had Brown's statement been properly excluded, the remaining evidence constituted overwhelming proof of appellant's guilt. As a result, we reject appellant's argument that he was prejudiced by the error.


In his second proposition of law, appellant complains that the trial court erred when it allowed the state to cross-examine him about his prior convictions, the details of the crimes for which he was convicted, and other criminal acts. With respect to the prior convictions of appellant, we find that the state's inquiries were permissible because appellant testified about them during direct examination, thereby opening the door for the state to question him about them on cross-examination. However, we find that the state's inquiries concerning the circumstances surrounding the crimes for which appellant was convicted and other instances of criminal conduct by appellant were impermissible. Both the record and the state's brief indicate that the prosecutor's reason for making the inquiries was not to impeach appellant by attacking his credibility, but was to show appellant's bad moral character and propensity to commit violent crimes. 8

Generally, evidence of the bad character of a witness is inadmissible. Evid.R. 404(B) provides:

"Evidence 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. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident." See, also, R.C. 2945.59. 9

[528 N.E.2d 917] In State v. Mann (1985), 19 Ohio St.3d 34, 19 OBR 28, 482 N.E.2d 592,

Page 351

paragraph one of the syllabus, this court held:

"Prosecution evidence that a defendant has committed other crimes, wrongs or acts independent of the offense for which he is on trial is not generally admissible to demonstrate that the defendant has a propensity for crime or that his character is in conformity with the other acts." (Emphasis added.) See, also, State v. Adams (1978), 53 Ohio St.2d 223, 7 O.O.3d 393, 374 N.E.2d 137, vacated in part on other grounds (1978), 439 U.S. 811, 99 S.Ct. 69, 58 L.Ed.2d 103; State v. Lytle (1976), 48 Ohio St.2d 391, 2 O.O.3d 495, 358 N.E.2d 623, vacated in part on other grounds (1978), 438 U.S. 910, 98 S.Ct. 3135, 57 L.Ed.2d 1154; and State v. Curry (1975), 43 Ohio St.2d 66, 72 O.O.2d 37, 330 N.E.2d 720.

In the case at bar, the details of the crimes for which appellant was convicted and the other criminal acts about which the state questioned appellant were inadmissible evidence...

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