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State v. Alexis

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 13, 2018

State
v.
Ashner Alexis.

          Superior Court Providence County (P1/14-891AG) Robert D. Krause, Associate Justice

          For State: Jane M. McSoley Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Jodi M. Gladstone, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell, Chief Justice

         A senseless compulsion for revenge resulted in the tragic and unintended death of George Holland, Jr. and the conviction of four conspirators. In the case under review, Ashner Alexis (Alexis or defendant) appeals from a judgment of conviction for murder (count 1); conspiracy to commit murder (count 2); and discharging a weapon while committing a crime of violence (count 3). He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms of imprisonment on counts 1 and 3, and ten years to serve on count 2, also to be served consecutively. He seeks to have his convictions reversed and the case remanded for a new trial, on the grounds that the trial justice abused his discretion in denying Alexis's motions to pass and in overruling Alexis's objections to photographic evidence, and because the trial justice erred in denying Alexis's motion for a new trial. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.[1]

         I

         Facts and Procedural History

         In January 2014, Seydina Limamou Ndoye contacted Alain Bedame about purchasing a weapon for self-protection. Bedame arranged a meeting with Johnathan and James Gomez so that Ndoye could purchase a gun from them. At the meeting, Ndoye gave Johnathan and James $240 for the purchase of a Glock handgun, which the Gomez brothers represented they would procure from their uncle. Bedame also allowed Johnathan to borrow his cell phone so Johnathan could contact his uncle. The Gomez brothers then left, cell phone and $240 in hand, never to return. After fifteen-to-twenty minutes passed, Ndoye and Bedame picked up some friends and drove to the Gomez residence on Colfax Street in Providence. Ebony Gomez, Johnathan and James's sister, told the group that her brothers were not at home. Ndoye told Ebony that he "wanted his stuff back." Ndoye and Bedame eventually located and confronted Johnathan, whom Bedame described as "shaking" and appearing as though he "was about to cry." Johnathan told Ndoye and Bedame that his uncle had robbed him of the cash and cell phone at gunpoint, but Johnathan promised that he would reimburse Ndoye and replace Bedame's cell phone.

         Later, Ndoye showed Bedame a photograph posted on James Gomez's Facebook page, which, Ndoye believed, depicted James holding Bedame's cell phone. This initiated an exchange of hostile Facebook messages between Bedame and James Gomez. Thereafter, Alexis, having heard that Ndoye had been robbed by the Gomez brothers, contacted Ndoye on Facebook and told Ndoye that the Gomez brothers had also stolen scrap metal from Alexis's yard. Ndoye asked Alexis for a firearm; and, on February 4, 2014, Bedame, Alexis, and Ndoye drove to Woonsocket to "get the gun" from Alexis's friend.

         When they arrived at the home of Alexis's friend, Anthony Moore, [2] they encountered twenty to twenty-five people having a party. Ndoye observed as Alexis informed Moore that he wanted the gun because he had been robbed. Alexis told Moore that he would return the gun. Moore then directed Robert Winston to fetch a weapon. Winston and Bedame left the house to obtain the gun. Shortly thereafter, they returned and Winston placed a shotgun wrapped in a Cape Verdean flag and bullets with small pellets inside on the kitchen table. According to Ndoye, Moore picked up the weapon and handed it to Alexis, who tucked it into his waistband, causing him to walk with a pronounced limp. According to Ndoye, Alexis said that he would shoot "whoever comes to the door" at the Gomezes' home.

         Winston, Ndoye, Bedame, and Alexis left Moore's house and headed to Providence. According to Ndoye, they first stopped at the house of Alexis's girlfriend so that Alexis could change into dark clothes. Bedame then drove to the Gomezes' home and parked a short distance away. Alexis took a pair of work gloves and wore one glove himself, giving the other to Winston. Alexis then put on a mask, removed the gun from the trunk of Bedame's car, "stuff[ed] the gun inside his waistband, " and approached the Gomez house with Winston. Alexis instructed Winston to knock on the Gomezes' window. When Winston complied, a shadow appeared behind the closed blinds, and Alexis fired the shotgun, shattering the window. Bedame and Ndoye heard the gunshot blast and then Alexis and Winston ran back to the car. According to Ndoye, once Alexis and Winston were inside the vehicle, Alexis was laughing "hysterically" and exclaimed excitedly, "I got him" and "I pulled the trigger." Bedame recalled Alexis stating that he "fe[lt] like shooting somebody else."

         At this point, they left Bedame's vehicle in Providence, picked up Ndoye's car, and proceeded to Woonsocket to return the gun to Moore. En route, Bedame received a Facebook message from James Gomez that stated, "They're coming for you, bro." Hours later, Winston received a phone call from Moore, informing him that the wrong person had been shot.

         In fact, the shadowy figure behind the blinds at the Gomezes's home was Ebony's boyfriend, seventeen-year-old George Holland, Jr. Miguel Gomez, the father of Johnathan, James, and Ebony, was watching television in a bedroom with his girlfriend on the evening of February 4, 2014, when he heard a loud bang, followed by a flash of light and the sound of his children screaming that Holland had been shot. Mr. Gomez ran into the living room and saw Holland, lying on the floor amid shell casings and glass, as Ebony held a sweater to his abdomen. Holland was transported to Rhode Island Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after ten o'clock that evening as a result of nine individual shotgun pellet strikes to his right abdominal area.

         During the police investigation, James Gomez showed Providence Police Detective Kenneth Court the Facebook postings made by Bedame. Detective Court then spoke with Bedame, which conversation led him to contact Ndoye. Both Bedame and Ndoye made statements implicating themselves, as well as Moore, Winston, and Alexis.

         On March 28, 2014, Alexis was indicted along with Moore, Bedame, and Ndoye.[3] Alexis was charged with the murder of Holland (count 1); conspiracy to commit murder (count 2); and discharging a weapon while committing a crime of violence (count 3). A jury trial commenced on November 6, 2014. On November 17, 2014, Alexis was found guilty on all three counts. On January 8, 2015, the trial justice denied Alexis's motion for a new trial, and on February 12, 2015, he sentenced Alexis to two life sentences and ten years to serve, with each term to be served consecutively.

         II

         Issues on Appeal

         Alexis argues that the trial justice abused his discretion in denying his motions to pass the case because an emotional outburst by a witness and Ndoye's reference during his testimony to a "mug shot" photograph of Alexis were extraordinarily prejudicial and because the instructions given were not sufficient to cure the prejudice. Alexis further contends that the trial justice abused his discretion in overruling his objection to the admission of a "gang" photograph. Alexis also argues that the cumulative effect doctrine should apply in this case. Lastly, Alexis argues that the trial justice erred in denying his motion for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Alexis requests that his conviction be reversed, and that the case be remanded for a new trial.

         A

         Motions to Pass and Motions for Mistrial[4]

         1

         Standard of Review

         "It is well settled that 'a trial justice's decision on a motion to pass the case is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial justice, and this Court will not disturb the ruling on such a motion absent an abuse of discretion.'" State v. Rosado, 139 A.3d 419, 423 (R.I. 2016) (quoting State v. Tully, 110 A.3d 1181, 1190-91 (R.I. 2015)). "We give great deference to the trial justice in this regard because he or she has a front-row seat at the trial and is in the best position to determine whether a defendant has been unfairly prejudiced." Id. (quoting Tully, 110 A.3d at 1191). "When ruling on a motion to pass, the trial justice must assess the prejudicial impact of the statement in question on the jury and determine whether the evidence was of such a nature as to cause the jurors to become so inflamed that their attention was distracted from the issues submitted to them." Id. at 424 (quoting State v. Cipriano, 21 A.3d 408, 428 (R.I. 2011)). "[W]e previously have held that even prejudicial remarks do not necessarily require the granting of a motion to pass." Id. (quoting Roma v. Moreira, 126 A.3d 447, 449 (R.I. 2015)).

         a

         Miguel Gomez's Emotional Outburst

         Alexis first argues that the trial justice abused his discretion in denying his motion for a mistrial because Mr. Gomez's emotional outburst on the witness stand prejudiced the jury against him. Moreover, he contends that the cautionary instruction ...


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