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Jones v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

November 5, 2019

STANLEE SEBASTIAN JONES
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF PORTSMOUTH Joel P. Crowe, Judge

          W. McMillan Powers, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

          Lauren C. Campbell, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General; David M. Uberman, Assistant Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Judges Humphreys, Malveaux and Senior Judge Frank Argued at Hampton, Virginia

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. HUMPHREYS, JUDGE.

         On December 7, 2017, a grand jury for the Circuit Court of the City of Portsmouth ("circuit court") indicted appellant Stanlee Sebastian Jones ("Jones") for (1) first-degree murder, in violation of Code § 18.2-32; (2) use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, in violation of Code § 18.2-53.1; and (3) possession of a firearm after a violent felony conviction, in violation of Code § 18.2-308.2. Following a jury trial, on February 6, 2018, Jones was found guilty of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

         On appeal, Jones assigns the following five errors and sub-errors:

II. The trial court erred when, after reviewing a video of the incident of August 18, 2018, it ruled that the victim, Richardson, did not commit an "overt act" sufficient to justify Defendant's claim of self-defense.
a. The trial court erred in usurping the jury's fact-finding function by determining that there was no overt act by the victim, despite Defendant's proffered testimony that the victim reached to his waistband.
b. The trial court erred in precluding Defendant from testifying as to the actions of the victim on the day of the shooting.
III. The trial court erred in limiting Defendant's constitutional right to present a comprehensive defense on his own behalf.
a. The trial court erred in refusing to allow the jury to hear Defendant's properly proffered evidence of Defendant's state of mind on August 18, 2017.
b. The trial court erred in refusing to allow the jury to hear additional evidence supporting Defendant's theory of self-defense and his state of mind on August 18, 2017.
IV. The trial court erred in ruling that Richardson's statements were hearsay and were inadmissible because there was no exception to the rule against hearsay that would permit their admission.
V. The trial court erred in precluding defense counsel from arguing evidence of record during closing argument because during cross examination the Commonwealth elicited a response regarding the defendant's claim of self-defense that the Court did not strike from the evidence or provide a limiting instruction to the jury, but admonished defense counsel from arguing the evidence in closing argument.
VI. The trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury properly.
a. The trial court erred in failing to give the jury an instruction regarding self-defense.
b. The trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury as to the lesser included offense of manslaughter.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 18, 2017, Jones accompanied his girlfriend, Tayshana Jones ("Tayshana") to her home after she picked him up from work. Later, Jones drove Tayshana's Volkswagen to the Essex Food Store in Portsmouth, accompanied by Tayshana and her two children. He parked directly in front of the store, got out of the car, "stepped out some," and returned to the car. Jones retrieved a gun from underneath the seat of the car. Then, he pointed the gun at a man sitting on the railing in front of the store and shot the gun repeatedly. As the victim retreated, Jones chased him down the street a short distance where the victim collapsed. The victim, later identified as Aljoro Curtis Richardson ("Richardson"), died of a gunshot wound to the torso. The entire homicide was quite clearly captured by two of the store's surveillance cameras, from two different angles. Upon examination of the scene, a forensic technician did not find any weapons in Richardson's clothing or on his person. After police barricades started to be removed, a pocketknife was found approximately four feet from Richardson's left foot.

         Before trial, the Commonwealth filed a motion in limine to preclude a plea of self-defense and the admission of any character evidence of Richardson. Specifically, the Commonwealth sought to prohibit defense counsel from referring to "any prior aggressive conduct" by the victim or the victim's "character for violence" during opening statement. The Commonwealth also moved to prohibit introduction of such evidence at any time during trial or closing argument unless a proper foundation for self-defense was laid. At the same time, the Commonwealth filed a motion to "preclude presentation of self-serving hearsay by the defendant during the Commonwealth's case-in-chief."

         On January 30, 2018, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the Commonwealth's motions. Jones related his intention not to make arguments about his perceived fear during opening statement. In response to the Commonwealth's motion to preclude mention of self-defense throughout the entire case, the circuit court stated that it would "likely not" preclude any mention of self-defense. In response, the Commonwealth asked that the circuit court preclude any mention of "the victim's prior history, prior criminal history, any prior bad acts or . . . prior aggressive ...


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