Oral Argument Preview: More Confrontation Clause Issues. State v. Thomas J. Ricks.

Update: On September 5, 2013 the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On January 23, 2013, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State v. Ricks, 2011-1912. This murder trial appeal involves the admissibility of a non-testifying co-defendant’s out-of-court statements through the testimony of an investigating police officer.

Background

Thomas Ricks and co-defendant Aaron Gipson allegedly visited Chanel Harper and Crystal Pool at the Harper residence in Sandusky, Ohio. Gipson and Ricks were from Michigan. Although neither of the two women had seen Ricks before that night, Harper’s brother, Calvin, was allegedly involved with Gipson in dealing drugs.

The day after the two men visited Chanel and Chrystal, Calvin Harper was found murdered in his home.

Gipson was eventually found by police and questioned, at which point detectives became aware that a second suspect, identified only as “Peanut,” was involved. Detectives drove with Gipson to identify his co-conspirator’s residence and observed a person standing in front of the house. Gipson pointed to the individual, identifying the man as “Peanut.” Once back at the station, detectives were ultimately able to identify “Peanut” as Thomas Ricks.

Ricks’ picture was included in a photo array. Chanel later picked Ricks’ picture from the array, testifying that she was sure that this was the man she had seen in her home with Gipson. Calvin’s neighbor also identified Ricks through a photo array as the man who came to her door the day of the murder.

Gipson and Ricks were tried separately for aggravated robbery and aggravated murder. Gipson did not testify during Ricks’ trial. But at trial, Gipson’s statements inculpating Ricks were allowed into evidence through the testimony of the investigating police
officer.

A jury convicted Ricks of two counts of aggravated murder, one count of aggravated robbery, trafficking marijuana, and trafficking cocaine. He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

 Appellate Decision

In the parts of its decision pertinent to this appeal, the Sixth District Court of Appeals affirmed Ricks’ convictions on the murder and robbery charges in a split decision.  The majority  found that incriminating statements made by a co-defendant may be offered through the testimony of an investigating officer to explain the officer’s conduct in the course of an investigation, so long as a limiting instruction is given to the jury, which was done in this case. The majority found no abuse of discretion in the admission of the statements through the officer. The dissenting judge would find that the admission of the co-defendant’s statement through the officer was a non-constitutional hearsay violation that prejudiced Ricks, was an error of law rather than an abuse of discretion, was not cured by a limiting instruction, and was exacerbated by the prosecutor using the statements as substantive evidence in closing argument.

Ricks’ Argument

Ricks presents the issue as implicating both Confrontation Clause and hearsay problems. He argues that the out-of-court statements allowed in through the officer were offered for the truth of the matter asserted therein, used to establish his involvement in the murder and robbery, and provide substantive evidence of his guilt. Ricks argues that the statements are highly prejudicial, regardless of a limiting instruction.

A co-defendant’s statements implicating the other defendant are not admissible and violate a defendant’s right to confrontation when the co-defendant does not testify. Because Gipson did not testify, the statements constitute hearsay, not subject to any hearsay exception, and cannot be presented against Ricks unless he has a chance to confront the declarant.

Ricks argues that these statements were testimonial, under the line of cases beginning with Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), as they came in response to questioning by the police regarding the involvement of Gipson and his unknown accomplice in the offenses. (Read more about Crawford and progeny here.) In this situation, Rick’s non-testifying co-defendant, Gibson, had great incentive to blame someone else, and was not subject to cross-examination at trial; therefore, the statements, which were offered for their truth, were admitted in violation of Ricks’ right to confront the witness against him.

Ricks also argues that this was an identity case. The statements asserted a matter that was essential to the State’s case against him: that Ricks was the person along with Gibson who robbed and killed Calvin.  As such, the jury would consider these statements for the truth of the matter asserted, regardless of a limiting instruction. The statements were impermissibly admitted against Ricks, whether or not they were necessary to the State’s case; the Confrontation Clause is an absolute bar. Such error on the part of the lower court was not harmless, Ricks argues, as it is likely that the improperly admitted hearsay contributed to the convictions.

Ultimately, Ricks argues that the officer’s-conduct-during-an-investigation doctrine, allowing certain testimony to be admitted to explain actions taken by law enforcement officials, must not be used to violate a defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause.

State’s Argument

The State argues that the statements at issue were not offered at trial for the truth of the matters asserted — and are therefore not hearsay — as they merely explained police conduct during the investigation. Furthermore, the probative value of the statements clearly outweighed the potential for prejudice, weighing in favor of admitting the evidence.

Contrary to Ricks’ arguments, the State suggests that Gipson’s statements themselves were not incriminating until they were linked with evidence of Ricks’ identification, determined by further police investigation.

The State maintains that Gipson’s statements were properly admitted and that the trial court’s limiting instruction cured any prejudicial effect that the statements may have had.

Ricks’ Proposed  Proposition of Law

A non-testifying co-defendant’s inculpatory, testimonial, out-of-court statements may not be admitted at a defendant’s trial through the testimony of an investigating officer as non-hearsay for the purpose of explaining the officer’s conduct during the course of an investigation. The admission of a co-defendant’s statements in that regard violates the defendant’s right to confront the State’s evidence against the defendant, in violation of the defendant’s rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Sections Ten and Sixteen of Article I of the Ohio Constitution.

State’s Proposed Counter-Proposition of Law

Incriminating statements made by a co-defendant may be offered through the testimony of an investigating officer to explain his conduct in the course of an investigation, so long as a limiting instruction is given to the jury.

Student Contributor: Elizabeth Chesnut

 

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