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Text Messages Support Murder Conviction

Text messages between defendant and his girlfriend about her plans to fatally shoot her mother were admissible at defendant’s trial as an accessory before the fact to first-degree murder; the Court of Appeals says the Verizon Wireless records of the messages qualified for admission as computer-generated records not requiring hearsay analysis, or as hearsay admissible under the business records exception, and defendant’s conviction is affirmed.

The admission of the Verizon Wireless records and text messages was thoroughly addressed at trial. Appellant objected to the admission of the records on hearsay grounds. The trial court ruled that the underlying records were admissible under the business records exception, finding that the Verizon representative was a custodian of records and that the records were kept regularly and had the earmarks of trustworthiness. Regarding the admissibility of the text message content, the trial court found that defendant, when confronted with the text messaging records, acknowledged the existence of the exchanges and said “it’s all true.” The court ruled defendant had made an adoptive admission of the contents of the records. The court ultimately ruled the text messages were admissible without limitation under the business records exception, not only for the timing and placement of the calls and the number of calls, but also for the content of the texts.

We hold as a matter of law that the Verizon Wireless records themselves qualified for admission as computer-generated records not requiring hearsay analysis or, alternatively, as hearsay admissible under the business records exception. Further, to the extent the text message content transcribed verbatim within the Verizon Wireless records contained hearsay, that content was admissible under the exceptions for party and adoptive admissions. Consequently, we hold the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting either the records or the text messaging content.

Turning to the content of the messages, in the same way that defendant admitted ownership of his texts in the packet of records, he also adopted his girlfriend’s texts, telling the detective, “It’s all true.” This evidence supports the trial court’s explicit finding that defendant adopted the girlfriend’s text messages as his own, making them admissible to prove the truth of the matters asserted in those texts.

We hold the court did not err in admitting the Verizon Wireless records. Also, to the extent some of the text message content within those records was hearsay, those hearsay statements were admissible under the exception for either admissions by a party opponent or adoptive admissions.

The trial court also did not abuse its discretion in concluding that allowing the prosecutor to read some of defendant’s texts and the detective to read some of the girlfriend’s texts was a useful tool in the pursuit of truth rather than an overemphasis creating additional prejudice to defendant beyond the permissible prejudice that flowed from the evidence itself. And allowing the prosecutor and detective some leeway to interpret various everyday abbreviations and misspellings in the texts they read aloud was not an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

The totality of the evidence, including the girlfriend’s testimony and defendant’s own admissions, including the contents of their texts detailing the plan for killing the mother and defendant’s involvement in the plan and encouragement of the girlfriend to follow through, was sufficient to support defendant’s conviction as an accessory before the fact to the first-degree murder and firearm offenses.

Convictions affirmed.

Chewning v. Commonwealth (Decker) No. 2204-12-4, March 11, 2014; Stafford County Cir.Ct. (Sharp) James J. Ilijevich for appellant; Susan M. Harris, AAG, for appellee. VLW 014-7-070, 28 pp.

VLW 014-7-070

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