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Ellis v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

May 28, 2019

CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL ELLIS
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF STAFFORD COUNTY MICHAEL E. LEVY, JUDGE.

          Joshua M. Parrett (Sharon A. Fitzgerald; Williams Stone Carpenter Buczek, PC; Sharon A. Fitzgerald, LLC, on brief), for appellant.

          Kelsey M. Bulger, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Judges Huff, O'Brien and Senior Judge Haley Argued at Fredericksburg, Virginia

          OPINION

          JAMES W. HALEY, JR. JUDGE.

         In a jury trial, Christopher Michael Ellis (appellant) pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, and assault and battery of a police officer. The jury convicted appellant for all three charges. The jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment and a $100, 000 fine for both first-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding, and five years of imprisonment for assault and battery upon a police officer. The trial court imposed the sentences recommended by the jury. On appeal, appellant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his conviction for aggravated malicious wounding. Appellant argues that the evidence did not prove the injuries inflicted upon Elizabeth Ellis, appellant's mother, were "permanent and significant," as required by Code § 18.2-51.2(A). Finding no error, we affirm appellant's conviction for aggravated malicious wounding.

         BACKGROUND

         "In general, when reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction, an appellate court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party below, and reverses the judgment of the trial court only when its decision is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." Marshall v. Commonwealth, 69 Va.App. 648, 652-53 (2019). "If there is evidentiary support for the conviction, 'the reviewing court is not permitted to substitute its own judgment, even if its opinion might differ from the conclusions reached by the finder of fact at the trial.'" Chavez v. Commonwealth, 69 Va.App. 149, 161 (2018) (quoting Banks v. Commonwealth, 67 Va.App. 273, 288 (2017)). "In accordance with familiar principles of appellate review, the facts will be stated in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party at trial." Gerald v. Commonwealth, 295 Va. 469, 472 (2018) (quoting Scott v. Commonwealth, 292 Va. 380, 381 (2016)).

         On December 11, 2015, appellant resided in the basement of Ellis' home at 532 Fagan Drive in Stafford County. Appellant had lived there since July of 2011. Appellant was unemployed and received disability benefits.

         At about 5:10 a.m. on December 11, 2015, Sergeant Christian Mireles and Deputy Gregory Gabrielli responded to a report of a person screaming outside in the area of Fagan Drive and Butler Road. When he arrived at the location, Mireles did not find anyone screaming or in distress. However, Mireles looked behind the house at 532 Fagan Drive and saw appellant. Appellant was crouched down, and he was rocking back and forth. He was covered in blood. Mireles asked if appellant was all right. Appellant murmured a response, stood up, and punched Mireles in the face. During the fistfight that followed, appellant struck the officer in the face several times. Gabrielli joined the fray, and eventually the officers subdued appellant. After the police had detained and handcuffed him, appellant made rambling statements that he had hit and kicked his mother and that she was dead upstairs. Appellant also appeared to be praying in a foreign language.

         Looking for anyone who might need assistance, Gabrielli entered the house, and Mireles stayed outside with appellant. Gabrielli proceeded through the open sliding glass door to the basement and upstairs to the main level of the house. When Gabrielli reached the master bedroom at the end of the hallway, he saw a large amount of blood on the floor, walls, and closet door. Gabrielli found Ellis' dead body on the floor of the bedroom. The lower portion of Ellis' face was missing, and a hammer was sticking out of her throat. Ellis' nightgown had been pushed up over her waistline.

         The police transported appellant to the sheriff's department and interviewed him over the course of about two and one-half hours. During the interview, appellant repeatedly admitted that he had killed Ellis. Appellant said that at about 5:00 a.m. he had gone to Ellis' bedroom, "hovered" over her bed for about twenty seconds, and yelled at her about taking his disability money. He climbed on the bed and, using both hands, punched Ellis in the face multiple times. Appellant turned on the light so that he could "see the look on her face." Appellant suffocated Ellis with his hand and licked her nostrils. Ellis was still alive, and she was begging for him to stop, although, appellant said, she was "basically dead." Ellis was still screaming for her dog.[1]

         Appellant dragged Ellis off the bed to the floor. Appellant jumped onto Ellis' chest with his knees twice and "busted her chest." After he "broke her chest," Ellis was no longer communicating. Appellant decided that he "wasn't done," so he kicked her in the head "a bunch of times." Appellant said he used his right foot, and confirmed that that was "where all that blood [came] from."

         Despite the injuries he had already inflicted upon Ellis, appellant "didn't think she was dead yet." He "wanted to make sure she was dead, so [he] went and got the hammer" to "break her brain open." Appellant left the bedroom, went down the hallway to ...


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