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State v. Robinson

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

May 24, 2018


          Criminal Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CR-16-610574-A

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Joseph C. Patituce Patituce & Associates.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Michael C. O'Malley Cuyahoga County Prosecutor BY: Daniel A. Cleary Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.

          BEFORE: Celebrezze, J., E.A. Gallagher, A.J., and Stewart, J.


          FRANK D. CELEBREZZE, JR., J.

         {¶1} Defendant-appellant, Stefon Robinson (hereinafter "Robinson"), brings this appeal challenging his convictions of murder and felonious assault in the death of Chandler Appling (hereinafter "Appling"). Specifically, Robinson argues that the trial court erred when it provided to the jury erroneous written and oral instructions and such error constituted plain error and structural error, that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to these erroneous jury instructions, and that Robinson's convictions were against the manifest weight of the evidence. After a thorough review of the record and law, this court affirms.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         {¶2} On Saturday, October 8, 2016, Robinson went alone to the Drop Bar located in downtown Cleveland on West 6th Street. At the end of the evening, at approximately 2:00 a.m. Sunday, October 9, 2016, Robinson escorted LaTroya Edwards (hereinafter "Edwards") and two of Edwards's female acquaintances, to Edwards's vehicle that was parked in a large parking lot located directly across the street from Drop Bar. Although Edwards testified that she knew both Robinson and the victim, Appling, for approximately four years, that she had "hung out" with both of them in the past and knew them "from the neighborhood, " Edwards stated that she did not spend any time with either Robinson or Appling while at Drop Bar that evening.

         {¶3} Upon leaving Drop Bar and walking across the street, Robinson, Edwards and two of Edwards's female friends encountered Appling. Edwards testified that Appling approached Robinson, a verbal argument ensued between the two men, and Robinson and Appling engaged in a mutual fist fight. Edwards further testified that Appling threw the first punch and at one point, Appling was physically on top of Robinson. Then, Appling got off of Robinson and the two reengaged in a mutual fist fight. This was corroborated by the state's witness, Lawaiyn Coker (hereinafter "Coker"), who knew both Appling and Robinson as well. Coker testified that Robinson and Appling "post(ed) up" (squaring off to fight) and thereafter engaged in a mutual fist fight. At some point after re-engaging, the two men disengaged and Robinson then stabbed Appling in the chest with a knife. Appling died as a result of the single stab wound.

         {¶4} Robinson was arrested on October 9, 2016, for the fatal stabbing of Appling. On November 1, 2016, Robinson was indicted on the following charges: aggravated murder, murder, and two counts of felonious assault. The case proceeded to a jury trial on May 24, 2017, and the jury returned verdicts of not guilty as to the aggravated murder charge, and the lesser included murder charge, and verdicts of guilty on the remaining counts. On June 7, 2017, Robinson was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life on the murder charge.

         {¶5} The state presented several witnesses in its case-in-chief. Testimony presented showed that there were hundreds of people within the immediate area of the fight as several bars on West 6th Street were closing and patrons were exiting all the bars at this time. Further, uniform police officers, working off-duty security details, were stationed at these bars as well. Cleveland Police Department Sergeant Kenneth Allen (hereinafter "Sgt. Allen") was working an off-duty shift, assigned to work crowd control on the front patio area of Drop Bar, which was within the immediate area of the fight between Robinson and Appling. Sgt. Allen specifically testified that he heard someone scream loudly and that this scream caught his attention. Sgt. Allen testified that he saw Robinson walk towards Appling and that Robinson appeared to punch Appling twice in the stomach area. Then, Sgt. Allen observed Robinson walk away directly towards Sgt. Allen, when Robinson got within five feet of Sgt. Allen, he observed a knife in Robinson's hand, and then Robinson took off running. Robinson was eventually apprehended and arrested after a foot chase with additional off-duty police officers who were also working security detail at the other surrounding bars.

         {¶6} Robinson now appeals his convictions arguing the following four assignments of error:

I. The erroneous instructions given in writing and orally to the jury constituted structural error.
II. Trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the erroneous self-defense instructions recited to the jury.
III. The erroneous instructions given in writing and orally to the jury constituted plain error.
IV. Appellant's conviction was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Structural Error and Plain Error

          {¶7} In his first and third assignments of error, Robinson argues the trial court committed structural error and plain error when it gave erroneous oral and written jury instructions regarding self-defense. As these two assignments of error constitute the same issue, we address them together.

         {¶8} Structural errors are constitutional errors that "defy analysis by 'harmless-error' standards" because they "affect the framework in which the trial proceeds, " rather than just being error in the trial process itself. United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 148, 126 S.Ct. 2557, 165 L.Ed.2d 409 (2006). "A structural error permeates the entire conduct of a trial so that the trial cannot reliably serve its function as a means for determining guilt or innocence." State v. Brabson, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 100969, 2014-Ohio-5277, ¶ 25, citing Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 309-310, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991).

         {¶9} A structural error mandates a finding of "per se prejudice" and results in "automatic reversal." State v. Colon, 118 Ohio St.3d 26, 2008-Ohio-1624, 885 N.E.2d 917, ¶ 20, overruled on other grounds, State v. Horner, 126 Ohio St.3d 466, 2010-Ohio-3830, 935 N.E.2d 26, ¶ 45. Although all structural errors are by nature constitutional errors, not all constitutional errors are structural. As a result, some constitutional errors can be deemed nonprejudicial so long as the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Brabson at ¶ 26, citing State v. Payne, 114 Ohio St.3d 502, 505, 2007-Ohio-4642, 873 N.E.2d 306, ¶ 18. Indeed, it is the rarest of cases that an error is held to be structural, thus requiring an automatic reversal. Washington v. Recuenco, 548 U.S. 212, 218, 126 S.Ct. 2546, 165 L.Ed.2d 466 (2006).

         {¶10} In the present matter, the trial court charged the jury, in relevant part, as follows:

When it comes to the affirmative defense, the duty then shifts to the defendant and the burden of going forward with the evidence of self defense, against the danger of death or great bodily harm, and the burden of proving this affirmative defense rests upon the defendant. He must establish such defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

(Tr. 490-491.)

If the weight of the evidence is equally balanced or if you are unable to determine which side of an affirmative defense as to preponderance, then the defendant has not established such affirmative defense * * * [t]he defendant claims to have acted in self defense. To ...

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