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State v. Brownlee

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

March 1, 2018


         Criminal Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CR-16-604052-A

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Rick L. Ferrara Rick L. Ferrara, Esq.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Michael C. O'Malley Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Anna M. Faraglia Assistant County Prosecutor Justice Center

          BEFORE: Stewart, P.J., Blackmon, J., and Jones, J.



         {¶1} When defendant-appellant Eddie Brownlee, discovered that the 64 year-old victim (one of his drug customers) had become an informant for the state and participated in a controlled drug buy that led to Brownlee's arrest, he ordered three of his associates to "f*** him up." The associates went to the victim's apartment and, using Brownlee's gun, shot and killed the victim. The associates made plea deals with the state, and testified against Brownlee. A jury found Brownlee guilty of aggravated murder, murder, felonious assault, aggravated burglary, and kidnapping. The court ordered Brownlee to serve a 33-year sentence prior to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

         I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         {¶2} Because it is potentially dispositive, we begin with Brownlee's seventh assignment of error and his claim that there was insufficient evidence to prove aggravated murder, murder, or conspiracy to commit murder. He argues that he only ordered his associates to beat up the victim, not kill him, so the victim's murder was not a foreseeable consequence of his actions. He also argues that his order to beat up the victim meant that he did not have the requisite mental state to purposely cause the victim's death.

         {¶3} We determine whether the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain a conviction by viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution, and deciding whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Monroe, 105 Ohio St.3d 384, 2005-Ohio-2282, 827 N.E.2d 285, ¶ 47.

         {¶4} The evidence showed that after receiving complaints about drug-dealing, the police made three controlled drug buys from the victim. The victim was arrested and agreed to cooperate in a buy-bust operation against Brownlee, his drug supplier. The victim and his girlfriend made three controlled drug buys from Brownlee and Brownlee's girlfriend, codefendant Sheila McFarland. The police arrested Brownlee and McFarland after the third controlled drug buy.

         {¶5} In a phone call he made while being held in jail, Brownlee told one of his associates, Ryan Motley, that he suspected that the victim had betrayed him. He said that he would be released from jail shortly and, with respect to the victim, that "we gonna handle it." Motley then went to a hotel room where Brownlee had been staying and took a gun belonging to Brownlee. In another telephone conversation, Brownlee told Motley to "[g]et those motherf***ers" and to "handle it." After Brownlee had been released from jail, he and Motley met at Brownlee's hotel room. Motley testified that Brownlee wanted him to "f*** up" the victim. At some earlier point in time, Motley had given the gun he took from Brownlee's hotel room to Brownlee's brother, but after meeting with Brownlee at the hotel room, Motley retrieved the gun from Brownlee's brother.

         {¶6} The victim's girlfriend said that on the night before the victim's murder, she overheard a call Brownlee made to the victim. Brownlee said that both the victim and the girlfriend "are gonna see our graves." She testified that not long after that call ended, the victim told her that a black truck with four men pulled up in front of their apartment. The men, one of whom was Brownlee, exited the truck and pointedly stood by the truck watching their apartment. When the victim told the men that he was calling the police, they left. The police arrived quickly and advised the victim and the girlfriend to stay somewhere else that night. They left the apartment, but they decided to return just a few hours later.

         {¶7} More threatening calls followed. Motley testified that he recruited two others and drove to the victim's apartment building. Armed with Brownlee's gun and wearing a mask and gloves, Motley and his associates waited in a stairwell for the victim to leave his apartment. When the victim left the apartment, Motley pulled out the gun and "bum-rushed" the victim. According to Motley, the victim started "running towards me." Motley testified that he "squeezed the gun to make sure [the victim] doesn't take it from me and it went off." From inside the apartment, the girlfriend heard the victim say, "somebody help me" and then heard a gunshot. The victim had been shot in the chest.

         {¶8} Motley and his companions fled the building. He called Brownlee and said, "it's done." On orders from Brownlee, he threw the gun into an abandoned car. Later that evening, Motley went to Brownlee's hotel room and told him that "I made a mistake and shot him." Brownlee replied, "it's gonna be all right. And hate to see him go like that, but what's done is done." Brownlee gave Motley cocaine with a street value of $2, 800 in drugs as payment.

         {¶9} Brownlee first argues that the evidence showed only that he asked Motley to beat the victim, not kill him. He claims that Motley's independent decision to carry a gun to the victim's apartment broke the chain of causation necessary to show that Brownlee conspired to commit murder.

         {¶10} To prove that Brownlee was part of a conspiracy, the state had to show that he acted with purpose to commit or promote or facilitate an aggravated murder and planned or aided in the commission of the offense or agreed with Motley that one or more of them would engage in conduct that facilitates the offense. See R.C. 2923.01(A).

         {¶11} The evidence showed that Brownlee told Motley that he would "get those motherf***ers" and that he wanted Motley to "f*** up" the victim in retaliation for cooperating with the police. These conversations set into motion a chain of events that caused Motley to retrieve Brownlee's gun and then use it to kill the victim. These events all naturally flowed from Brownlee's own threat that the victim would see his "grave" as a result of cooperating with the police - a clear allusion to the victim's death. A rational trier of fact could have found that the state established the elements of a conspiracy.

         {¶12} The same evidence refutes Brownlee's argument that he did not act with purpose to kill the victim, but only with an intent to injure. One conspirator is criminally liable for the acts of a coconspirators done in furtherance of the conspiracy and reasonably foreseeable as a necessary or natural consequence of the conspiracy. State v. Robinson, 98 Ohio App.3d 560, 574, 649 N.E.2d 18 (8th Dist.1994); State v. Chambers, 53 Ohio App.2d 266, 272, 373 N.E.2d 393 (9th Dist.1977). On this basis alone, the murder was a natural consequence of the conspiracy that sought, by Brownlee's own threat, to put the victim in his grave.

         {¶13} And even if the evidence did not so strongly indicate that the object of the conspiracy was to kill the victim, Motley's testimony that he "accidentally" fired the gun did not absolve Brownlee. Motley testified that he pleaded guilty to "purposeful murder" for his part in the conspiracy. That was an admission that he acted purposely to kill the victim; it was evidence that the jury could view as establishing the true intent of the conspiracy. The firing of the gun was an act of a co-conspirator that did not constitute an independent intervening cause that freed Brownlee of responsibility for the victim's death. State v. Jefferson, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 15828, 1997 Ohio App. LEXIS 887, 22 (Mar. 14, 1997).

         II. Trial Errors

         A. Jury Instructions

         {¶14} Brownlee argues that the court failed to instruct the jury that testimony by Motley and his two associates should be considered with grave suspicion in light of their guilty pleas. He concedes that defense counsel did not request the instruction, but maintains that the court's failure to give the instruction amounted to plain error.

         {¶15} If an alleged accomplice of the defendant testifies against the defendant in a case where the defendant is charged with complicity in committing an offense, the court must give substantially the following instruction:

The testimony of an accomplice does not become inadmissible because of his complicity, moral turpitude, or self-interest, but the admitted or claimed complicity of a witness may affect his credibility and make his testimony subject to grave suspicion, and require that it be weighed with great caution.
It is for you, as jurors, in the light of all the facts presented to you from the witness stand, to evaluate such testimony and to determine its quality and worth ...

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