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Collateral estoppel does not bar gun evidence

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 13, 2023

Collateral estoppel does not bar gun evidence

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 13, 2023

Where a Chesterfield County jury acquitted appellant of being a felon in possession of a firearm, collateral estoppel does not bar introduction of the same firearm and related photos at his Richmond murder trial.


An eyewitness identified appellant as the victim’s shooter. The victim later died from his wound. Appellant and the victim, his uncle, lived together in a Richmond residence, along with other family members.

Two witnesses, Murray and Hinton, saw appellant and his uncle arguing before the shooting. Hinton, who previously had a relationship with appellant, identified him as the shooter.

“Immediately after the shooting, the appellant ran to Hinton’s car, got in still holding the gun, and told her to make a U-turn rather than drive past the family residence. The two went to a convenience store on Midlothian Turnpike and afterward to a nearby hotel. Surveillance videos showed them at both locations[.]”

The two parted their ways the next morning. Hinton went to the police and told Detective Mansfield that she saw appellant shoot the victim. She claimed she did not know where he was and returned to the hotel, where the two spent the next night.

“The following morning, Hinton received a text saying that a warrant had been issued for the appellant’s arrest. She did not respond to the text and instead went to work. The appellant went with her, telling her ‘he didn’t have anywhere to go.’

“He remained outside in her car while she went inside. Hinton ‘panicked’ and called 911. She ‘made up a lie saying that [the appellant] had kidnapped her’ and then told police where they could find him.”

When Chesterfield police arrested appellant, a gun was found on the car’s floorboard, near where appellant had been sitting.

A Chesterfield jury acquitted appellant of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Appellant sought to apply collateral estoppel principles, arguing that the Chesterfield acquittal prevented the gun from being introduced at his Richmond jury trial. Following his murder conviction, he “renewed his challenges to the admission of evidence about the firearm found at the time of his arrest.”

Collateral estoppel

“Collateral estoppel means that ‘when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit.’”

Appellant’s possession charge required proof of three elements, “proof that the defendant possessed the item, that the item was a firearm, and that the defendant was a convicted felon.” Appellant did not explain which of the three elements the Chesterfield jury found the evidence insufficient.

“Of critical importance in this case is that a defendant seeking to invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel must prove that ‘the precise issue [of fact] … he seeks to preclude was raised and determined in the first action.’

Without an explanation of the basis for the Chesterfield jury’s acquittal, “appellant failed to establish that the precise fact relevant to the admissibility issue in his Richmond murder trial (whether the appellant possessed the firearm found in the car at the time of his arrest in Chesterfield) was resolved by his acquittal” on the Chesterfield possession charge.

“Consequently, we hold that the trial court’s refusal to exclude the firearm and related photos on collateral estoppel grounds was not error.”

Hinton’s credibility

“[T]he appellant’s allegations that Hinton’s testimony was inherently incredible are very specific. He argues that she had a motive to accuse him. He notes that Hinton was angry with him because he broke up with her and was dating someone new.

“He also suggests that she implicated him out of concern ‘due to her [own] involvement’ and fear that she ‘could be an accessory.’

“Finally, the appellant points to the fact that Hinton was ‘dishonest’ with the police when she originally claimed that he had abducted her.

“It is well established that the mere fact that a witness may have a motive to lie does not render that witness’s testimony inherently incredible. …

“Consequently, none of the claims regarding Hinton’s motives compel the conclusion that her testimony was inherently incredible as a matter of law.

“With regard to the appellant’s claim that Hinton was angry with him for ending their relationship, defense counsel had a full opportunity to cross-examine Hinton about the fact that the appellant broke up with her, as well as the extent to which she might have wanted to get back at him for hurting her.

“The jury was able to assess the impact of that information on Hinton’s truthfulness and was free to find her a credible witness in spite of it. …

“With regard to the appellant’s claim that Hinton had a motive to falsely identify him as the perpetrator to protect herself, he does not explain how identifying him falsely would accomplish such a goal.

“Other evidence – the testimony of a second eyewitness, bystander LaKeisha Murray – established that the shooter was a male in a white shirt, and no evidence indicated that Hinton was the person who shot the victim.

“Accordingly, the evidence did not implicate Hinton as the actual shooter, and if Hinton was an accomplice, she was an accomplice regardless of the identity of the actual perpetrator.

“Finally, Hinton’s prior false statement that the appellant kidnapped her did not render her testimony inherently incredible. The fact that a witness had made prior inconsistent statements is ‘a factor in determining the credibility of a witness,’ but such statements ‘do[] not automatically render the witness’[s] testimony incredible [as a matter of law].’ …

“Where a single witness makes contradictory statements, those statements ‘go not to competency but to the weight and sufficiency of the testimony.’”

Affirmed and remanded for correction of a clerical error in the conviction and sentencing orders.

James v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0896-21-2, Dec. 6, 2022. CAV unpublished opinion (Decker). From the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond (Hairston). Daniel W. Hall for appellant. Timothy J. Huffstutter, Jason S. Miyares for appellee. VLW 022-7-555, 22 pp.

VLW 022-7-555

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