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State v. Porter

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

March 22, 2018

State
v.
Leron Porter.

          Providence County Superior Court (P1/11-2541AG) Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice.

          For State: Jane M. McSoley Department of Attorney General.

          For Defendant: Robert B. Mann, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice.

         The defendant, Leron Porter, is before the Supreme Court on appeal from a judgment of conviction after being found guilty of: (1) second-degree murder (count one); (2) discharging a weapon while committing a crime of violence (count two); and (3) possession of a firearm, having been previously convicted of a felony (count four). The trial justice denied the defendant's motion for a new trial and, on March 6, 2014, sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment on count one, a consecutive term of life imprisonment on count two, and a consecutive term of ten years to serve on count four. The trial justice also declared the defendant to be a habitual offender and imposed an additional consecutive term of twenty-five years to serve, of which fifteen years must be served before he is eligible for parole.[1]

         On appeal, defendant argues that the trial justice erred when she denied his motion for a new trial and refused to pass the case after a spectator's outburst. The defendant also asserts several Batson[2] challenges in connection with the selection of the jury. We affirm the judgment of conviction.

         Facts and Travel

         A feud between two women over one man and an ensuing brawl led to the senseless murder of Tiphany Tallo (Tiphany or the decedent), a teenage girl. In May 2011, Debryonna Fortes (Debryonna) was residing in a multifamily building located at 17-19 Spruce Street in Providence, Rhode Island, along with Wendy Tallo (Wendy) and her two daughters, Ashley Tallo (Ashley) and Tiphany. Debryonna's boyfriend, Jermaine, and Ashley's boyfriend, Brandon Crumady (Brandon), also were living in the same apartment.

         On May 9, 2011, Ashley, Debryonna, Brandon, and Jermaine were heading to Oakland Beach in Warwick for the afternoon when they decided to make a brief stop at a store located on Atwells Avenue in Providence, during which Ashley ran into Danessa "Mooky" Porter (Mooky). Ashley and Mooky shared a strained and contentious relationship due to Mooky's involvement with Ashley's boyfriend Brandon. The two exchanged words; Mooky kicked Ashley, and Ashley responded by punching Mooky in the face and tearing her shirt. After this encounter, the parties retreated to their respective vehicles and left the area; the plan to visit Oakland Beach was abandoned, and Ashley and Debryonna returned to 19 Spruce Street, where a melee subsequently erupted, culminating in this homicide.

         Once home, Ashley and Debryonna discussed the incident with Wendy and Tiphany. The four women then decided to join their neighbors, Sherissa and Kaleena Monroe, Loretta Gonzalez, and Ashley Turner (the neighbors), at a spot they frequented in the front of the building. Two vehicles-one red and one black-appeared on Spruce Street, and headed towards the apartment building. There were five persons in the red vehicle and three persons in the black vehicle; all were female except for a lone male, later identified as defendant, who is Mooky's brother.

         The vehicles stopped in front of a church on Spruce Street. Mooky immediately exited the red vehicle and approached Ashley in a loud and aggressive manner. Mooky cursed at Ashley and insulted Ashley's son, while flaunting her sexual relationship with Brandon. Not to be outdone, Ashley charged toward Mooky and attempted to strike her, but was elbowed in the face by defendant. At this point a street fight between Ashley and Mooky ensued. Although there were no weapons, Ashley was outnumbered. According to the witnesses, as the fight progressed to the yard of the nearby church, Ashley had the best of Mooky, at which point Mooky's compatriots joined the fray. The women produced two knives and a baseball bat that was enhanced with nails. Ashley was stabbed, beaten with the bat, kicked, and punched. At some point, defendant pulled a firearm from his waistband, causing Debryonna and Tiphany to move toward Ashley. Witnesses testified that as Debryonna and Tiphany began to run toward the fight, defendant raised his gun and fired the weapon in their direction. Immediately after, Tiphany placed her hand on her chest, began to retreat to the apartment building, and collapsed. According to Debryonna, defendant passed the gun to another female-Asia Porter-then ran to the red vehicle and fled the scene. The remaining participants followed in the second car. Tiphany was transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The manner of death was homicide. She was seventeen years old.

         Providence Police Officer Ricardo Silva was the first officer to arrive on the scene; he responded within minutes of the shooting. Based on information he obtained from the witnesses, an alert including the vehicles, license plates, and the direction the vehicles traveled was broadcast throughout the city. Detective Kris Poplakski (Det. Poplakski) and Detective Patrick Potter (Det. Potter) heard the broadcast for a "[r]ed Impala with out of state plates."[3] Shortly thereafter, the detectives saw a vehicle that matched the description pass directly in front of them on Pleasant Valley Parkway. The detectives stopped the vehicle and confronted one male driver and five female passengers.[4] The male driver was identified as defendant; Mooky also was in the car.[5] Detective Poplakski testified that defendant was sweating profusely, and the female passengers "couldn't sit still, any of them. They were bouncing in the back seat nervously." Detective Poplakski testified that he also found a purse, a dark navy blue Yankees baseball cap, and a wooden bat embedded with several nails. Within an hour of the homicide, multiple witnesses-most of whom were neighbors and eyewitnesses-identified defendant as the shooter.

         The defendant was arrested and charged by indictment with the murder of Tiphany Tallo, in violation of G.L. 1956 §§ 11-23-1 and 11-23-2; discharging a firearm while committing a crime of violence, to wit, murder, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-47-3.2(b)(3); possession of a firearm, having been previously convicted of a crime of violence, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-47-5; and assault upon Ashley Tallo with a dangerous weapon, to wit, a firearm, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-5-2 (count six).[6] When the case was reached for trial, the pretrial motions and jury selection were conducted by a justice of the Superior Court, but a second justice presided over the trial itself. The trial spanned more than seventeen days and the jury heard from eight eyewitnesses. On December 6, 2013, the jury declared defendant guilty of murder in the second degree and the two firearm offenses. The defendant was acquitted on the count charging him with assault with a dangerous weapon upon Ashley Tallo. He timely appealed.

         Analysis

         Before this Court, defendant raises multiple issues. First, defendant challenges his conviction based on two alleged Batson violations by the first justice when he permitted the state to exercise two peremptory challenges during the jury selection. The defendant further contends that the trial justice improperly restricted the cross-examination of a witness about a gun the witness saw at some point before the murder. Next, defendant argues that the trial justice abused her discretion by denying defendant's motion to pass the case after an emotional outburst during the defense's opening statement. Finally, defendant asserts that the trial justice erred by denying his motion for a new trial.

         I Batson Violations

         During jury selection, the state exercised peremptory challenges to strike two prospective jurors: Juror 216, a juror of Hispanic descent, and Juror 103, an African American. The defendant objected to both peremptory challenges, citing to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The defendant now contends that the first trial justice erred by allowing the state to strike the two prospective minority jurors.

         Included in the rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a guarantee "that the [s]tate will not exclude members of his [or her] race from the jury venire on account of race[.]" State v. Pona, 66 A.3d 454, 472 (R.I. 2013) (Pona II) (quoting State v. Pona, 926 A.2d 592, 601 (R.I. 2007) (Pona I)). The United States Supreme Court, in Batson, established a tripartite test to determine whether a defendant has been deprived of this constitutional guarantee by a prosecutor's wrongful exercise of a peremptory challenge. Batson, 476 U.S. at 96-98; see also Pona II, 66 A.3d at 472.

         The first step in the three-prong Batson analysis requires that the defendant "establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination[.]" Pona II, 66 A.3d at 472 (quoting Pona I, 926 A.2d at 601); see also Batson, 476 U.S. at 96. A prima facie case of purposeful discrimination is based on the "totality of the relevant facts [which give] rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose." Batson, 476 U.S. at 94. However, "[t]his step of the analysis will become moot if the trial justice moves beyond it to consider the second and third steps." State v. Gallop, 89 A.3d 795, 805 (R.I. 2014); see also Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 359 (1991) ("Once a prosecutor has offered a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenges and the trial court has ruled on the ultimate question of intentional discrimination, the preliminary issue of whether the defendant had made a prima facie showing becomes moot."); State v. Austin, 642 A.2d 673, 678 (R.I. 1994) ("Because the trial justice below similarly ruled on the ultimate question of intentional discrimination, we need not determine whether the exclusion from the jury of the only black person in the jury panel establishes a prima facie showing that the prosecutor exercised the state's peremptory challenge on the basis of race. We instead need only determine whether the trial justice erred in accepting the prosecutor's race-neutral reason for excluding the prospective juror.").

         Under the second step of the Batson test, the burden shifts to the prosecution to "articulate its race-neutral reason(s) for challenging that particular juror." Pona II, 66 A.3d at 472 (quoting State v. Price, 706 A.2d 929, 935 (R.I. 1998)). The prosecutor cannot satisfy this burden by merely "denying that he [or she] had a discriminatory motive or [affirming] [his or her] good faith in making individual selections." Pona I, 926 A.2d at 602 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Batson, 476 U.S. at 98). During the second step of a Batson analysis, "the issue is the facial validity of the prosecutor's explanation. Unless a discriminatory intent is inherent in the prosecutor's explanation, the reason offered will be deemed race neutral." Id. (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 360); see also Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 767-68 (1995) ("The second step of this process does not demand an explanation that is persuasive, or even plausible."). Finally, the third step requires the trial justice "to determine whether the defendant has carried his or her burden of proving purposeful racial discrimination." Pona II, 66 A.3d at 472 (quoting Price, 706 A.2d at 935). "There will seldom be much evidence bearing on that issue, and the best evidence often will be the demeanor of the attorney who exercises the challenge." Pona I, 926 A.2d at 602 (quoting Hernandez, 500 U.S. at 365). This determination rests with the trial justice.

         Accordingly, "[t]he trial justice's evaluation of the prosecutor's state of mind is accorded great deference." State v. Nichols, 155 A.3d 1180, 1191 (R.I. 2017) (quoting Pona II, 66 A.3d at 472). Therefore, the "ruling on the issue of discriminatory intent must be sustained unless it is clearly erroneous." Pona ...


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