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MEDICI v. COMMONWEALTH



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MEDICI v. COMMONWEALTH


June 9, 2000

Record No. 991389

LAWRENCE P. MEDICI

v.

COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

 

FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

PRESENT: Carrico, C.J., Lacy, Hassell, Keenan, Koontz, and
Kinser, JJ., and Stephenson, Senior Justice


OPINION BY SENIOR JUSTICE ROSCOE B. STEPHENSON, JR.

In this appeal, we determine whether the Court of Appeals
erred in ruling that the trial court correctly (1) refused to
strike for cause a prospective juror, (2) admitted into evidence
the defendant’s prior rape convictions in the guilt/innocence
phase of his trial, and (3) refused to accept the defendant’s
stipulation that he had prior rape convictions.

I

A grand jury of the Circuit Court of Fairfax County indicted
Lawrence P. Medici on four offenses. Count I of the indictment
charged that Medici "did rape [the victim], a second or
subsequent offense." Count II charged that Medici "did
engage in cunninlingus with [the victim], against her will, by
force, threat or intimidation, a second or subsequent
offense." Count III charged that Medici "did engage in
fellatio with [the victim], against her will, by force, threat or
intimidation, a second or subsequent offense." Count IV
charged that Medici "did attempt to engage in anal sodomy
with [the victim], against her will, by force, threat or
intimidation."

A jury found Medici guilty of each offense charged. The jury
recommended a sentence of life imprisonment for each charge set
forth in Counts I, II, and III of the indictment and 10 years’
imprisonment for the charge contained in Count IV of the
indictment. By order entered February 17, 1998, the trial court
sentenced Medici in accordance with the jury’s verdict.

In an unpublished opinion dated May 25, 1999, the Court of
Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Lawrence P.
Medici
v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Record No.
0527-98-4. We awarded Medici an appeal limited to the issues
stated above.[1]

II

A brief summary of the facts will suffice. The
eighteen-year-old victim, a drug addict, was acquainted with
Medici as her supplier of illicit drugs. On May 21, 1997, Medici
left a message on the victim’s answering machine advising her
that he had "an amazing amount of cocaine" and that she
should come over to his house. The victim went to Medici’s house
the following morning on her way to school. Medici escorted the
victim to the basement where she saw a mirror covered with white
powder. As the victim observed the powder, Medici ordered her to
remove her clothing. The victim initially refused, but did remove
her clothing when she noticed that Medici was armed with a knife.
Thereafter, Medici forced the victim to engage in fellatio,
cunninlingus, and sexual intercourse, and he attempted to engage
the victim in anal sodomy. The victim immediately reported the
incident to her high school guidance counselor.

III

We first consider whether the trial court erred in refusing to
strike for cause a potential juror. During voir dire,
Medici sought to have Inga Bennett stricken for cause because
Bennett’s husband had been murdered and the accused murderer was
then represented by Medici’s counsel’s employer, the Office of
the Public Defender. When questioned by counsel and the trial
court, Bennett unequivocally stated that those circumstances
would not affect her ability to judge the evidence fairly and
impartially. The trial court refused to strike Bennett for cause,
stating that "she was very adamant that she could be
objective in this case."

We considered a similar issue in Cantrell v. Crews,
259 Va. 47, 523 S.E.2d 502 (2000), decided after the decisions of
the trial court and the Court of Appeals in the present case. In Cantrell,
the issue was "whether the trial court erred in refusing to
strike for cause a prospective juror who, at the time of trial,
was a client of the law firm representing the plaintiff." Id.
at 49, 523 S.E.2d at 503. The prospective juror was, at the time,
a plaintiff in a pending personal injury action. In response to
questioning, the prospective juror assured the trial court that
she could "ignore" her representation by the
plaintiff’s law firm and "be totally fair to both
sides." Id. at 50, 523 S.E.2d at 503. The trial court
denied the defendants’ motion to strike the prospective juror for
cause, concluding that she could ignore her personal relationship
and be fair. Id.

We held that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing
to strike the juror for cause and that the ruling constituted
reversible error. In so holding, we stated the following:

Public confidence in the integrity of the process is at stake.
It cannot be promoted when a sitting juror is, at the time of
trial, a client of the law firm representing one of the parties
to the litigation as a result of a similar occurrence.

This is true even though, as the record shows, the juror
states that the circumstances of her representation would have no
"bearing" on her judgment as a juror and that she could
"be totally fair to both sides."

Id. at 51, 523 S.E.2d at 504.

It is true, as the Attorney General argues, that an appellate
court must give deference to a trial court’s ruling whether to
exclude or retain a prospective juror and that the ruling will
not be disturbed on appeal unless it is plainly wrong and amounts
to an abuse of discretion. Vinson v. Commonwealth,
258 Va. 459, 467, 522 S.E.2d 170, 176 (1999). We think, however,
that the present case is controlled by our decision in Cantrell.
Here, the prospective juror’s husband had been murdered, and the
accused murderer was represented by a lawyer in the same Public
Defender’s Office that also served as counsel for Medici. While
we have no reason to question Bennett’s honesty and sincerity, we
think that permitting her to sit as a juror, in the circumstances
of this case, would weaken public confidence in the integrity of
criminal trials. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court abused
its discretion in failing to strike Bennett as a juror and that
the ruling constitutes reversible error.

IV

We next consider whether Medici’s prior convictions of rape in
California were improperly admitted into evidence during the
Commonwealth’s case-in-chief. Medici makes three arguments in
support of this contention.[2]

A

First, Medici argues that the admission of the evidence in the
guilt/innocence phase of his trial violated the Due Process
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.
As previously noted, Medici was charged in three counts of the
indictment with violating the rape and forcible sodomy statutes.
He was also charged with the violation of Code
? 18.2-67.5:3, which provides in subsection A as follows:

Any person convicted of more than one offense specified in
subsection B, when such offenses were not part of a common act,
transaction or scheme, and who has been at liberty as defined in
? 53.1-151 between each conviction shall, upon conviction
of the second or subsequent such offense, be sentenced to life
imprisonment and shall not have all or any portion of the
sentence suspended, provided it is admitted, or found by the jury
or judge before whom he is tried, that he has been previously
convicted of at least one of the specified offenses.

Medici asserts that, "because the Commonwealth currently
has a bifurcated system in place[,] . . . the prior
conviction should be introduced in the [penalty] phase of the
trial." Medici further assets that, "[t]o do otherwise
would be to violate a defendant’s right to due process."

In Spencer v. Texas, 385 U.S. 554, 567-69
(1967), the Supreme Court upheld a defendant’s conviction despite
the admission into evidence in the guilt/innocence phase of the
trial of the defendant’s prior conviction for the purposes of
sentence enhancement. More recently, in Marshall v. Lonberger,
459 U.S. 422, 438 n.6 (1983), the Supreme Court reaffirmed Spencer
and held that the accused’s due process rights were not violated
by the admission of his prior conviction into evidence in the
guilt/innocence phase of the trial. Similarly, in Brown v.
Commonwealth, 226 Va. 56, 59, 307 S.E.2d 239, 241 (1983),
we ruled that "[d]ue process does not require that an
accused be given a bifurcated trial when he is charged under a
statute authorizing enhanced punishment for repeating
offenders."

The Supreme Court also has stated that "a state rule of
law ‘does not run foul of the Fourteenth Amendment because
another method may seem to our thinking to be fairer or wiser or
to give a surer promise of protection to the prisoner at
bar.’" Spencer, 385 U.S. at 564 (quoting Snyder
v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 104 (1934)). The Court has
further noted that "[a] determination of the ‘best’
recidivist trial procedure necessarily involves a consideration
of a wide variety of criteria . . . [and] is a far cry
from a constitutional determination that this method of handling
the problem is compelled by the Fourteenth Amendment." Id.
at 567-68.

In the present case, the trial court instructed the jury that
Medici’s prior convictions "should be considered
. . . only for proof . . . of a prior
conviction, and not as proof that [Medici] committed the offenses
to which he is charged." We presume that jurors followed a
court’s instruction, unless the record plainly shows otherwise. See
Spencer v. Commonwealth, 240 Va. 78, 95, 393 S.E.2d
609, 619, cert. denied, 498 U.S. 908 (1990). Here,
nothing in the record suggests that the jury did not follow the
court’s instruction.

We express no opinion whether the better policy would be to
introduce a prior conviction into evidence only during the
sentencing phase. We also do not decide whether a prior
conviction is an element of the offense charged. Medici’s
assignment of error merely alleges that the admission into
evidence of his prior convictions in the guilt/innocence phase of
his trial violated his "right to due process." We
reject this contention and, for the reasons stated, hold that
Medici’s due process rights were not violated.

B

Medici next contends that the trial court erred in admitting
into evidence his prior California rape convictions because the
California statute "allows a conviction for rape for acts
that do not constitute an offense under Code
? 18.2-61," thereby rendering the Virginia and
California statutes not "substantially similar." We do
not agree.

"Prior convictions," within the meaning of Code
? 18.2-67.5:3(C), include "adult convictions for
felonies under the laws of any state or the United States that
are substantially similar to those listed in subsection
B." (Emphasis added.) Subsection B of Code
? 18.2-67.5:3 includes the crime of rape.

In 1985, Medici was convicted of rape in California, in
violation of California Penal Code ? 261(2), which, at the
time of the offense and his conviction, read, in pertinent part,
as follows:

Rape is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a
person not the spouse of the perpetrator, under any of the
following circumstances:

. . . .

(2) Where it is accomplished against a person’s will by means
of force or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the
person or another.

Code ? 18.2-61(A)(i), under which Medici was charged in
the present case, provides the following:

If any person has sexual intercourse with a complaining
witness who is not his or her spouse . . . against the
complaining witness’s will, by force, threat or intimidation of
or against the complaining witness or another person,
. . . he or she shall be guilty of rape.

It is true that the California statute, when read in its
entirety, permits a rape conviction for acts that would not
necessarily constitute rape in Virginia. In making a comparison
regarding the similarity of the statutes, however, we need only
compare the Virginia rape statute with the subsection of the
California statute under which Medici was charged and convicted. See
Honaker v. Commonwealth, 19 Va. App. 682, 684, 454
S.E.2d 29, 30 (1995).

Clearly, the language in subsection 2 of California Penal Code
? 261 is substantially similar to the language in Virginia
Code ? 18.2-61(A)(i). Therefore, we hold that the trial
court did not err in admitting into evidence Medici’s convictions
under a substantially similar statute.

C

Medici also contends that the trial court erred in admitting
the California convictions into evidence because, according to
him, the conviction order was not properly certified. The prior
convictions order admitted in the present case was marked on the
back with a stamp reading, "Allen Slater, Executive Officer
and Clerk of the Superior Court of the State of California, in
and for the County of Orange." The order also contained the
seal of the Orange County Superior Court and was signed by
"Flor L. Perez," whose signature appears next to the
word, "Deputy."

Code ? 8.01-389(A1) provides that "[t]he records of
any judicial proceeding and any other official record of any
court of another state or country, or of the United States, shall
be received as prima facie evidence provided that such records
are authenticated by the clerk of the court where preserved to be
a true record." We think the California order complies with
the requirements of Code ? 8.01-389(A1), and, therefore,
the trial court properly admitted it into evidence.

V

Finally, we consider Medici’s offer to stipulate. Medici
offered to stipulate his prior rape convictions in the sentencing
phase of his trial if he were convicted of the charged offenses.
He contends on appeal that the trial court erred in refusing to
accept the stipulation. We have held, however, that an accused
"may not preclude the Commonwealth from introducing
otherwise admissible evidence by offering to stipulate the facts
which the evidence would show." Spencer, 240 Va. at
91, 393 S.E.2d at 617. We conclude, therefore, that the trial
court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to accept Medici’s
qualified stipulation offer.

VI

In sum, we hold that the trial court committed reversible
error in refusing to strike for cause prospective juror Bennett,
and the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s
ruling. We further hold that the trial court did not err in
admitting into evidence Medici’s California rape convictions and
in refusing to accept Medici’s stipulation and that the Court of
Appeals did not err in affirming these rulings of the trial
court. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgments of the trial
court and the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the Court
of Appeals with direction that the case be remanded to the trial
court for further proceedings.

Reversed and remanded.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] We also awarded an appeal on the issue whether
the indictment is defective. We will not consider Medici’s
contention that the indictment is defective, however, because the
issue was not raised before the jury returned its verdict, as
required by Rule 3A:9. Therefore, the issue was waived.

[2] We will consider Medici’s other assignments of
error because the issues raised are likely to arise again upon
retrial.

 

 

 

 

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