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Bryant v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

April 25, 2017

TINA MARIE BRYANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ROCKINGHAM COUNTY Bruce D. Albertson, Judge

          Andrew C. Graves for appellant.

          Aaron J. Campbell, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Chief Judge Huff, Judges Chafin and Decker Argued at Salem, Virginia.

          OPINION

          MARLA GRAFF DECKER JUDGE.

         Tina Marie Bryant appeals her conviction for unlawfully discharging a firearm within an occupied building in violation of Code § 18.2-279. She argues that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction because it did not prove that she intended to fire the gun. The appellant also contends that the trial court erred by denying her proposed jury instruction regarding accident. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the evidence supports a factual finding that the appellant discharged the firearm in violation of Code § 18.2-279. In addition, the trial court did not err in rejecting the appellant's proposed jury instruction that the jury could find her guilty only if the Commonwealth proved that the discharge of the gun was not accidental. Consequently, we affirm the conviction.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On August 8, 2015, the appellant took a .45 caliber handgun from a friend and drove to a hotel intending to commit suicide. Officers of the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department were dispatched to check on the appellant's welfare. They arrived at the hotel and attempted to make contact with her in her first floor room. When the appellant did not respond to the officers, Corporal Thomas James, Deputy Terry Hoopes, and Sergeant Mike Deeds attempted to open the hotel room door. The appellant told them that she had a gun and would shoot herself if they came into the room.

         The officers described her as "upset, " "angry, " and "loud." They tried to calm her. They believed that they were making progress and that she began to "de-escalat[e]." After about ten minutes, the officers were surprised by a gunshot from within the appellant's hotel room. Sergeant Deeds asked the appellant several times through the door if she "was okay." She responded that she was not hurt.

         The officers instructed the appellant to put down the gun, open the window curtains at the rear of the room, and put her hands on the window. Investigators Douglas Miller, Jr., and Wesley Burgoyne stood with Deputy Hoopes to the sides of the window. Miller and Burgoyne saw the appellant point a gun at them through the window. Hoopes saw her "wave" the gun. Shortly thereafter, the appellant put the gun down, and the officers forced entry into the room.

         The appellant was arrested and taken into custody. She had an injury on her hand. The injury was "indicative" that she "had [her] hand too close to the slide [of the firearm] as the slide ejected [a ]round when the slide came back." There was a bullet hole in the floor of the hotel room.

         The appellant testified in her defense. She said that she was depressed over the loss of her job and her mother's death. The appellant acknowledged that she had put her finger on the trigger with the gun pointed at her head and started to press the trigger. She intended to kill herself but then changed her mind. The appellant explained that as she started to put the gun down, she had her finger on the trigger and then heard the gun fire. She said that she did not mean to fire the gun. According to the appellant, she did not recall whether she had the gun in her hand when she was at the window after it fired.

         Corporal James estimated that the "trigger pull weight" on the seized firearm was seven pounds. He explained that even if the trigger had been pulled partially back, it would still take seven pounds of pressure on the trigger to fire the weapon. However, James noted that he did not know if the gun "was in single or double action" when the appellant discharged it, which would affect the "amount of trigger pull." The law enforcement witnesses also testified that they were trained not to put their fingers on the triggers of their firearms unless they intended to fire their weapons. James explained that otherwise the trigger may be pulled through a "sympathetic response" because if a person squeezes one hand, the other hand "is more than likely going to squeeze, " resulting in an accidental trigger pull.[2]

         Deputy Hoopes testified that after the incident, the appellant told the deputy that she was familiar with firearms and routinely fired them at the shooting range. At trial, however, the appellant testified that she did not recall making these statements, was not familiar with firearms, and had not previously fired a gun.

         After completion of the evidence, the appellant proffered a jury instruction that the Commonwealth was required to prove that the shooting was not accidental. The court refused the instruction as not supported by the law and unnecessarily confusing. The appellant nevertheless argued to the jury in closing that the firearm discharged accidentally. In contrast, the prosecutor argued that the appellant intentionally fired the gun.

         The jury found the appellant guilty of unlawfully discharging a firearm within an occupied building in violation of Code § 18.2-279. It did not impose a term of incarceration and instead fixed the appellant's sentence at a fine of zero dollars. The trial ...


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