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State v. Withers

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

November 21, 2017

Tonya Withers.

         Providence County P3/14-809A Superior Court Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice.

          For State: Aaron L. Weisman Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Kara J. Maguire Office of the Public Defender

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice.

         Following a jury trial in Providence County Superior Court, the defendant, Tonya Withers (Withers or defendant), was found guilty of one count of simple assault in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-5-3. On appeal, the defendant argues that the trial justice erred in denying her motion for a new trial and her request to proceed pro se. This case came before the Supreme Court on September 26, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the parties' memoranda, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. Accordingly, we shall decide the appeal at this time without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         In February 2014, Maria DiPaola owned a rental property located at 167 Admiral Street in Providence. On February 11, 2014, DiPaola was at the property-a "split ranch duplex"- with her employee, Paul Barros, cleaning the property and preparing it for a rental showing to a prospective tenant. The previous renter, Withers, had been a tenant for only two months when she left a note indicating that she had moved and would pick her mattress up at a later date.

         At trial, DiPaola testified that, as she was cleaning, Barros yelled to her that Withers and a man-later identified in the police report as Antonio Bryant-were approaching the property. The property had exterior stairs in the front of the building, and it also had interior stairs leading up to the apartment door. DiPaola instructed Barros to stop Withers from coming into the apartment. In response to "yelling and shouting, " DiPaola recalled that she opened the apartment door to see Withers and Bryant walking up the stairs. DiPaola testified that Withers was walking backwards up the outside stairwell, using a walker, and Bryant was assisting by pushing the walker.

         DiPaola walked down the interior stairs and began yelling at Withers, "[y]ou can't come in." At this point, DiPaola observed Withers "barrelling [sic] up the stairs, " before Withers "grabbed [her] on [her] arm" and "threw [her] down the stairs." DiPaola tumbled down about four or five stairs and landed at the very bottom of the stairwell. In response, DiPaola called out to Barros, "Help me. She threw me downstairs." DiPaola testified that Barros was located on the exterior stairs at this time.

         At trial, Barros recalled walking out of the building to the exterior stairs as Withers and Bryant were walking up those stairs. He called the police to report Withers' arrival on the property without DiPaola's consent, and at the same time he noticed DiPaola "on the floor, yelling, Call [sic] the police. She just pushed me down the stairs." On cross-examination, defense counsel asked Barros whether he had seen Withers walking up the inside stairs, to which Barros responded, "She went passed [sic] me with the other guy * * * and she started going up the stairs." Barros then clarified that he did not actually see Withers going up the stairs because he was looking at his phone, but he stated that he knew she had been walking up the stairs.

         Officer Brian Auclair responded to DiPaola's apartment building for a reported assault, and he spoke with DiPaola who "appeared upset. I believe she was crying." Officer Auclair testified that DiPaola told him she was pushed down the stairs by the second-floor tenant. Officer Auclair took a written statement from DiPaola, who was "shaking" while she wrote. In his police report, Officer Auclair memorialized the events as follows:

"DiPaola and Barros stated that Tonya Withers * * * and Antonio Bryant * * * came rushing up the stairs and began to force the door open. When DiPaola ran down the stairs telling her to stop, Withers pushed her causing DiPaola to fall down the stairs. Police observed DiPaola holding her left shoulder but she refused Rescue."

         In her written statement, DiPaola wrote that Withers "came up to [the] door, and was pushing it in[.] I ran down the stairs to open [the] door. And she grab[ed] me and push[ed] me down outside stairs." On redirect, the prosecutor asked DiPaola what she considered "outside" stairs, and DiPaola responded that she meant the stairs outside the apartment, meaning the interior stairs.

         On cross-examination, defense counsel confronted DiPaola with her prior testimony from a housing court hearing a few weeks after the purported assault. In those proceedings, DiPaola described the incident: "I came to the front door, and [Withers] started screaming at me, and I was in front of the door, and she was trying to move me out of the door, and she literally picked me up and threw me down the stairs." When defense counsel asked DiPaola at trial to what stairs she had been referring, DiPaola clarified that she considered the apartment door the front door, indicating that the stairs she was thrown down were the interior stairs.

         After the close of the trial, the jury found defendant guilty of simple assault. The defendant moved for a new trial, which was denied. The defendant was sentenced to one year of probation, including mental health counseling. The trial justice also ordered no contact between defendant and the victim. The defendant timely appealed to this Court. In her appeal, defendant raises two issues-(1) the trial justice erred in denying a motion for a new trial; and (2) the trial justice erred in not letting defendant proceed p ...

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