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State v. Robinson

Court of Appeals of Utah

June 7, 2018

State of Utah, Appellee,
Ryan Randy Robinson, Appellant.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Roger S. Dutson No. 121903822

          Debra M. Nelson and Charity Shreve, Attorneys for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and William M. Hains, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Jill M. Pohlman authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Ryan M. Harris concurred.


          POHLMAN, Judge:

         ¶1 Defendant Ryan Randy Robinson appeals his convictions of one count of murder, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of use of a firearm by a restricted person. Specifically, he appeals the trial court's refusal to allow him to cross-examine a witness (Witness) about a plea in abeyance and the trial court's refusal to allow the jury to be transported to the scene of the crime. We affirm.


         The Shooting

         ¶2 The State charged Robinson with the murder of the victim (Victim) as well as aggravated assault and use of a firearm by a restricted person, based on events that occurred on April 9, 2012.[2] At that time, Robinson and Victim were in a relationship and living together. On the day of the murder they were temporarily staying at Robinson's parents' home over the weekend while his parents were out of town. Witness, a friend of Robinson's-who was an instructor at the college Robinson attended-drove Robinson to his parents' home after their classes had ended for the day.

         ¶3 When they reached the Robinson home, Robinson invited Witness inside. Robinson and Witness went down to the basement and, while there, Robinson went into his father's bedroom and retrieved from a shelf a black and silver Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic handgun to show Witness. Robinson claimed he had received it for his birthday. He and Witness "checked out" the gun, and Robinson "took the bullets out of it, " after which he put the gun away.

         ¶4 Robinson and Witness then left to run an errand. When they returned, Robinson and Victim started to argue. The argument, though only verbal at that time, "escalated pretty quickly, " and Witness, feeling "uncomfortable, " started to leave. Robinson tried to "hold" Witness to keep him from leaving, telling Witness to "not . . . let it get to [him]." Around this time, Victim "ran out the front door, " and Robinson chased after her. Witness "went straight to [his] car and left."

         ¶5 A neighbor (Neighbor) was in her backyard with her sixteen-year-old son (Neighbor's Son) when she observed Victim "running fast" past Neighbor's house, followed by Robinson. Both Neighbor and Neighbor's Son went to the front of their house "to see what was going on, " and they saw Victim lying with her back on the ground and Robinson on top "punching, " "kick[ing], " and "beating" her. Both neighbors described Robinson as being in a type of "rage." When Neighbor told Robinson to stop, Robinson got up and lunged at Neighbor, but he turned around when Victim alerted him that Neighbor's Son was on his phone, apparently dialing 911. Robinson then walked back to his parents' home, with Victim following behind. Neighbor and Neighbor's Son called the police and reported the incident.

         ¶6 Police officers arrived shortly after 3:00 p.m. and, after speaking with Neighbor and Neighbor's Son, knocked on the Robinson's door and rang the doorbell. Receiving no response, the officers checked windows and went around the back of the house. Eventually, more than thirty minutes later, Robinson emerged from the backyard to talk to the officers. The officers universally described Robinson as being in a state of emotional upset-that he was "[t]eary" and "shaking" and that he appeared to be "nervous, " "agitated, " "pretty aggressive, " "[v]ery angry, " and "annoyed." Though Robinson initially refused to allow the officers into the home, the officers told him that they would not leave without checking on Victim. Robinson then called into the house, telling Victim to come up to "show the police [he] didn't hurt [her]."

         ¶7 The officers spoke separately with both Robinson and Victim about the incident; both denied that their argument became physical. Two of the officers carefully looked at Victim's face, head, and scalp but could see no injuries. They also did not see any injuries on Robinson's hands. Finding no evidence of assault, the officers left the home at approximately 4:16 p.m.

         ¶8 Meanwhile, after leaving the Robinson's home, Witness went to a mutual friend's (Friend) house where Robinson and Victim had been living. While there Friend received several phone calls from Robinson, some of which Witness overheard. In one of the early calls, Robinson told Friend that he and Victim were arguing. In the last phone call, Robinson informed Friend that he had shot Victim in the head and that she was dead, and he told Friend that he needed to "get some money [Friend] owed him." Witness, overhearing Friend question Robinson about whether he shot Victim, immediately called 911 and reported that Victim had been shot. He reported the incident at approximately 4:40 p.m.

         ¶9 The first responding officer arrived at the Robinson's home at approximately 4:50 p.m. The officer noticed a man- Robinson-walking down the street, and another of the neighbors flagged the officer down to let him know she had observed a gun tucked into the back of Robinson's pants as he walked by her house. The officer then attempted to approach Robinson, and a foot chase ensued, ending in Robinson's apprehension.

         ¶10 Other responding officers entered the Robinson's home and discovered Victim lying at the bottom of the basement stairs. The paramedics discovered a gunshot wound to Victim's head and, shortly after responding, they pronounced her dead. The responding officers also discovered several holes through which a single bullet appeared to have passed-a hole in the molding of the basement's "low hanging ceiling . . . at the bottom of the [basement] stairs, " a hole in the basement door, and a "divot" in the kitchen ceiling. The officers also discovered a bullet in the cat's dish on the kitchen floor. At trial, witnesses-both fact and expert-testified about Victim's location at the time the gun was fired as well as the bullet's trajectory. Though various witnesses disagreed on the exact stair on which Victim had been standing at the time she was killed, witnesses postulated that Victim had been standing on one of the basement stairs. Witnesses also postulated that the bullet had traveled in an upward direction from the basement, going first through the molding of the "low-hanging" basement ceiling, then entering the right side of Victim's head and exiting on the left, passing through the basement door to the kitchen ceiling, creating a "divot" in that ceiling, and finally coming to rest in the cat's dish in the kitchen upstairs. In addition, two handwritten notes were discovered in the kitchen, which read, "Accident, I love you, " and, "I'm sorry. This was an accident, so will be the next."

         ¶11 Based on these events, the State charged Robinson with murder, a first degree felony. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-203 (Lexis Nexis 2017). The case proceeded to trial.

         The Trial

         ¶12 At trial, both parties agreed that, despite the low basement ceiling, at the time Robinson shot Victim from the basement he would have seen at least part of her body on the stairs. The central issue at trial was whether Victim's death was merely reckless and accidental on Robinson's part, or whether it was knowing and intentional. Robinson asserted that he was guilty only of manslaughter-that Victim's death was the result of a "tragic accident" involving his unfamiliarity with, and reckless operation of, the gun. In contrast, the State asserted that, according to the elements of the variants of murder, Robinson intended his actions.[3] To that end, the State introduced several fact witnesses to testify regarding their observations and involvement, including Witness, Neighbor, Neighbor's Son, the various responding police officers, and the lead detective on the case. The State also introduced several expert witnesses, including a ballistics expert, a bloodstain pattern analyst, and the forensic pathologist who performed Victim's autopsy.

         ¶13 Robinson made two motions during trial that are the subject of this appeal. First, Robinson apparently discovered on the second day of trial that Witness had previously pleaded guilty to theft by deception but that the plea had been held in abeyance. Robinson therefore moved under rule 608(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence to cross-examine Witness about that plea.[4] Robinson asserted that the plea was probative of Witness's character for untruthfulness, as required under rule 608(b). The court denied Robinson's request, finding that "it would certainly be more prejudicial than probative also because it's not actually a plea of guilty entered." While Robinson was therefore unable to cross-examine Witness about the plea itself, he otherwise extensively cross-examined Witness about what he characterized as Witness's apparent tendency to omit facts "when . . . talking to law enforcement."

         ¶14 Second, Robinson moved under rule 17(i)[5] of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure to have the jury transported to view the basement at the Robinson's home where the shooting occurred. Both parties agreed that the scene had changed since the crime because the homeowner had remodeled the basement following the shooting. Nevertheless, Robinson claimed that the jury view was "critical" and "crucial" to his case and that the jury needed to "personally observe the angles and obstructions, " arguing that "[t]he angle of the stairs, the obstruction of the basement ceiling, and the location of both parties on the stairs casts considerable doubt on whether [he] could have been acting knowingly and intentionally where his vision was obstructed." He also asserted that, although the basement had been remodeled and the "paint and flooring ha[d] changed, " the important aspects, such as the approximate ceiling height, "remain[ed] primarily the same."

         ¶15 To support this assertion, Robinson offered testimony from his father, who testified that he had the "whole [basement] redone." For the ceiling, he testified that where it had been tiled with molding at the bottom, the tile was removed and the ceiling sheet rocked, which he opined changed the ceiling height about "an inch." He also testified that he had completely replaced the stairs with thinner treads and carpeted them. As for the rest of the basement, where it had been open before, separate rooms had been walled off and finished.

         ¶16 The State opposed Robinson's motion, arguing that the significant changes to the basement meant that the jury would view "a completely different scene" than the one in which Victim was shot, which it asserted would only be "confusing, " particularly in light of the photographs and other visual evidence of the scene that would be presented during trial. The State also argued that the outcome of Robinson's motion was controlled by State v. Cabututan, 861 P.2d 408 (Utah 1993), in which our supreme court affirmed the trial court's denial of a motion to view a crime scene in part because it was "unlikely that the site would have ...

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