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Smith v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 13, 2018

LAURENCE MARIA SMITH, s/k/a LAURENCE MARIE SMITH
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

         FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

          OPINION

          DONALD W. LEMONS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         In this appeal, we consider whether the Court of Appeals of Virginia ("Court of Appeals") erred when it found the evidence was sufficient to uphold a conviction of voluntary manslaughter in the Spotsylvania County Circuit Court ("trial court").

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         A. The Evidence at Trial

         Laurence Maria Smith ("Smith") was tried by a jury upon indictments for the first-degree murder of her husband, Sean McVae Smith ("Sean"), and use of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Smith pled not guilty, and a four-day jury trial was held.

         At the beginning of trial, the parties stipulated that Sean's death was not a suicide, that he was killed when a single bullet entered his mouth and struck his right carotid artery, and that at the time the gun was fired, the muzzle was at least four feet from Sean's body. Deputy Amanda Trippett ("Deputy Trippett"), testified that she answered a 911 call from Smith on the evening of March 16, 2015. A recording of the call was then played for the jury. During the call, Smith reported that she accidentally shot her husband. Smith told Deputy Trippett "I was just cleaning" the gun, and "I fired" it. Deputy Trippett asked if Sean was breathing, and Smith responded she did not know. Later during the call, Smith told Deputy Trippett that Sean was not breathing. When Deputy Trippett asked where the gun was, Smith replied she did not know. Smith was crying and screaming hysterically during the call.

         Deputy Hernando Tavarez ("Deputy Tavarez") responded to the house within three minutes of the 911 call and was the first to arrive at the scene. Deputy Tavarez testified that a small girl answered the door. Once he entered the home, Deputy Tavarez heard Smith say, "it's my fault, I should not have been playing with it." Deputy Tavarez then saw Smith coming downstairs from the second floor. Smith was hysterical, and her hands were covered in blood. Deputy Tavarez directed Smith to stay downstairs while he went to look for Sean. Deputy Tavarez found Sean lying face down at the top of the stairs. Sean was still alive, but he was unconscious and bleeding profusely. Rescue personnel then arrived, so Deputy Tavarez stayed downstairs with Smith and her two young daughters. Deputy Tavarez asked Smith where the gun was, and Smith replied that the gun might be under her husband's body. The police later found the gun in the downstairs master bedroom. Deputy Tavarez testified that rescue personnel were unable to save Sean, and he died at the scene.

         Deputy Brandon Handy ("Deputy Handy") testified that he arrived at the scene several minutes after Deputy Tavarez. Smith's two young daughters were at the entrance to the home screaming and crying. As Deputy Handy was getting the girls out of the house, Smith also came to the doorway. Smith's hands were covered in blood and she was screaming to Deputy Handy "I shot him" and "arrest me." Deputy Handy got Smith to sit down outside, and a neighbor came and took the children next door. Smith then told Deputy Handy that she had accidentally shot her husband. She thought her gun was empty when she squeezed the trigger.

         Detective Earl Swift performed a gunshot residue test on Smith while she was waiting outside of the house. Smith was upset and crying while he performed the test. According to Det. Swift, Smith kept saying things such as, "arrest me, I shot and killed my husband, I deserve to die because I killed by husband." The police determined that Sean was shot in an upstairs bedroom while standing by the window but that he walked into the hallway before collapsing. The gunshot residue test came back positive.

         Smith was then taken to the police department and interviewed by Detective Frank Corona ("Detective Corona"). A video of Detective Corona's interview with Smith was offered into evidence by the Commonwealth. During the interview, Smith told Detective Corona that she and Sean had planned to have the flooring replaced in the upstairs spare bedroom. In preparation for installation of the new flooring, Smith had moved several things from the room. She had also moved the gun safe out of the closet into the room. Smith said that Sean came home from work and told her they needed to remove the guns from the safe before moving it any further. Sean and Smith emptied the gun safe, and then Sean sent Smith downstairs to their bedroom to get her "peashooter." Smith explained the "peashooter" was a tiny gun she kept in her purse. According to Smith, Sean told her "don't forget to uncock it," and "don't fuck around." Smith told Detective Corona that she had "popped out the magazine," racked the slide back, and saw a bullet eject from the gun when she was in the bedroom. Smith stated that she believed the gun then was empty. When Smith brought the gun upstairs, her husband asked if she did "like I told you."

         Smith told Sean "see, it's empty" and pulled the trigger to show him it was unloaded. Smith explained to Detective Corona that she thought the gun was empty when she pulled the trigger. She wanted to show Sean she had the skills to disarm a weapon. Smith told Detective Corona that she "didn't have any aim." Later in the interview, however, she admitted that she aimed towards the window near where her husband was standing. Smith "dropped the gun" after shooting her husband, rushed to help him, and got his blood on her hands. Smith told Det. Corona she then retrieved the gun and put it on her bed before she called 911 because her daughters were in the house. She then went back upstairs to try to help Sean.

         When Detective Corona asked Smith whether she and her husband had argued prior to the shooting, Smith stated they had not. She then clarified they had been "fussing" at each other but not arguing. Later, Smith admitted that she and her husband had been "arguing about twenty minutes before all this went down" because she scratched one of his guns when she moved the gun safe. Smith also admitted that the argument upset her. However, Smith said she was no longer angry when she shot her husband. Detective Corona testified that blood was not visible on the gun when it was recovered. He also testified that a swab of Smith's gun tested negative for blood.

         Smith told Detective Corona that she had taken a gun safety course and obtained a concealed weapon permit in 2011. She admitted that in that class she learned never to point her gun at a person unless she intended to kill. Smith told Detective Corona that she had been "stupid" and "retarded" because she did not follow the basic gun safety rules. She explained that Sean always took care of the weapons. Although Sean would let her load the weapons, she said when unloading he would "check[] and double check[] and triple check[] to make sure everything is empty." Smith stated she wanted to show Sean that he could trust her with the gun.

         Smith's two young daughters were questioned by police on the evening of the shooting. A video of the daughters' statements was introduced by the Commonwealth without objection. Both daughters described their parents as "fighting" prior to the shooting. The youngest daughter stated she heard her parents "yelling" about her father's gun safe. The older daughter indicated her father may have been upset because one of the weapons was scratched. The older daughter recalled her mother saying she accidentally pulled the trigger when she was cleaning her gun. She later stated, "I don't know if it's actually true." The older daughter also said that, after the shooting, she and her sister waited downstairs in the master bedroom before the police came.

         Smith moved to strike the evidence when the Commonwealth rested. The trial court denied the motion. Smith's first witness was Kelly Johnson, a forensic biologist with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, who testified that Smith's gun, the magazine, and the unspent cartridge were visually inspected and tested for blood, and no blood was found. Lauren Claytor, a forensic scientist in the firearm section of the Department of Forensics, testified that she tested the gun used in this case. She explained that this particular gun was capable of being fired with the magazine removed. She explained that the magazine would hold six bullets and the firearm would also hold one in the firing chamber. Claytor also testified that there would not be a discernible difference in the weight of the firearm if it was unloaded versus having one bullet in the chamber. However, she also testified that there is a "peephole" in the gun so a person can look to see if there is a cartridge in the chamber.

         Patrick Lamb, a bloodstain pattern analyst with the Fredericksburg Police Department, also testified on Smith's behalf. Lamb explained that based on the blood patterns where Sean was shot, there did not appear to be any signs of a struggle between Smith and Sean. Smith also called Dr. Mary Beth Williams, an expert in trauma, to testify on her behalf. Dr. Williams testified that she watched the video of Smith's interview with Detective Corona, and Smith's behavior during that interview was consistent with someone who had just experienced a traumatic event. Dr. Williams also met with Smith on two occasions prior to trial, and she saw behavior in those meetings that was also consistent with someone who had experienced a traumatic event.

         Smith then renewed her motion to strike at the close of all the evidence. She argued that the evidence proved she did not know the firearm was loaded and that the shooting was an accident. The circuit court again denied Smith's motion, finding that, while the jury could agree with Smith that the shooting was an accident, based upon the evidence presented the jury could also find that Smith acted with malice.

         B. The Jury Instructions

         The Commonwealth and Smith submitted agreed upon jury instructions to the circuit court. Jury instruction 6, a "waterfall" instruction, included instructions for first-degree murder as well as the lesser included offenses of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Jury Instruction 6 provided, in relevant part:

Mrs. Smith is charged with the crime of first degree murder. The Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt each of the ...

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