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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

June 13, 2019

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,

          Criminal Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CR-17-614402-A

          Michael C. O'Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, and Tasha Forchione, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for appellee.

          P. Andrew Baker, for appellant.



         {¶ 1} Michael Suells Williams ("Suells")[1] appeals from his convictions for rape, kidnapping, and other associated offenses and assigns the following errors for our review:

I. Defendant-appellant's conviction[s] must be reversed because his waiver of counsel was not knowingly and voluntarily made, and therefore it was ineffective.
II. Defendant-appellant's conviction[s] must be reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct.
III. The trial court erred in granting a continuance during testimony from the alleged victim.
IV. The trial court erred in failing to allow defendant-appellant to properly cross-examine the alleged victim.
V. Defendant-appellant's conviction must be reversed because the conviction for the firearm specification was not supported by sufficient evidence.
VI. Defendant-appellant's conviction must be reversed because the conviction on the sexually violent predator specifications [was] not supported by sufficient evidence.
VII. Defendant-appellant's conviction must be reversed because the trial court erred in failing to merge the kidnapping and rape charges.
VIII. Defendant-appellant's conviction[s] must be reversed because all convictions were against the manifest weight of the evidence.

         {¶ 2} Having reviewed the record and pertinent law, we affirm the trial court's judgment. The apposite facts follow.

         {¶ 3} On October 21, 2016, Suells, who knew the victim C.H. "from the neighborhood," picked C.H. up from work, took her back to his house, and allegedly raped her multiple times. C.H. did not report the incident to the police. One week later, on October 28, 2016, as C.H. was walking to her apartment, Suells confronted her with a gun and forced her into her house. He forced his penis into her mouth multiple times, then received a phone call and left her house. On November 14, 2016, C.H. filed a police report because she believed Suells was going to continue to terrorize her.

         {¶ 4} On April 3, 2018, Suells was charged with three counts of rape, three counts of kidnapping, two counts of having a weapon while under disability, and two counts of aggravated burglary. Suells's indictment included firearm, sexual motivation, and sexually violent predator specifications. Suells was declared indigent and assigned court-appointed counsel. On May 21, 2018, Suells filed a pro se motion of self-representation, requesting that defense counsel be terminated and that he represent himself "at all further proceedings henceforth."

         {¶ 5} On May 30, 2018, the court granted defense counsel's oral motion to withdraw and appointed new counsel for Suells. On July 25, 2018, the court permitted the second defense attorney to withdraw as counsel and assigned a third attorney to represent Suells. On August 1, 2018, the court held a hearing on, and then granted, Suells's motion to waive counsel. Additionally, Suells signed a written waiver of counsel. The court ordered the third defense attorney to "remain as advisory counsel" for Suells.

         {¶ 6} On August 13, 2018, Suells waived his right to jury trial, and this case proceeded to a bench trial. On August 30, 2018, the court found Suells guilty of the following offenses associated with the October 28, 2016 incident: rape in violation of R.C. 2907.02(A)(2), a first-degree felony; kidnapping in violation of R.C. 2905.01(A)(4), a first-degree felony; aggravated burglary in violation of R.C. 2911.11(A)(1), a first-degree felony; aggravated burglary in violation of R.C. 2911.11(A)(2), a first-degree felony; and having a weapon while under disability in violation of R.C. 2923.13(A)(3). The court also found Suells guilty of four one-year firearm specifications, four three-year firearm specifications, one sexual motivation specification, and two sexually violent predator specifications. The court acquitted Suells of all other charges, which were associated with the October 21, 2016 incident.

         {¶ 7} On September 5, 2018, the court sentenced Suells to life in prison with parole eligibility after 32 years. It is from these convictions that Suells appeals.

         Trial Testimony

         {¶ 8} The following evidence was presented at Suells's bench trial:

         {¶ 9} On August 15, 2018, C.H. testified that, in October 2016, she was living at 40th and Quincy in Cleveland. C.H. first met Suells when he got out of prison in 2016, although they knew of each other from the "28th projects" on the "West side" of Cleveland. Asked to explain how well she knew Suells, C.H. stated, "I don't know. It's like we somehow related some ways." They began talking and texting, and C.H. was interested in dating Suells.

         {¶ 10} From here, C.H.'s testimony became dubious. For example, the prosecutor asked C.H. about a time when Suells picked her up as she was walking to the bus stop after work. She testified, "That's the thing. I don't remember the month, the dates, and times." Additionally, C.H. could not recall where Suells took her after picking her up. "It's so long. So much stuff happened. I don't remember." Asked why she was testifying in court that day, C.H. replied, "I don't remember, dude. * * * There's a lot going on right now." The court took a recess, and when it went back on the record, C.H. refused to reenter the courtroom.

         {¶ 11} The bench trial proceeded, and the state called Cleveland Police Detective Richard Durst ("Det. Durst") to testify. Det. Durst testified that he has been a police officer for almost 20 years, and he has been with the sex crimes unit for almost ten years. In October 2016, Det. Durst was assigned to follow up on a report C.H. made alleging that Suells raped her. When Det. Durst interviewed C.H. at the police station, C.H. was "nervous. Upset." Det. Durst testified that the alleged rape occurred at the house Suells was staying in on Drake. Det. Durst tried to track Suells down, but during the course of his investigation, Suells was taken into custody "by the feds. * * * He was considered an escapee from his halfway house."

         {¶ 12} Det. Durst interviewed Suells in February 2017, at the federal prison in Youngstown. Suells was aware of C.H.'s allegations because C.H.'s police report was introduced into evidence at his federal court hearing for the escape charge. During the interview with Det. Durst, Suells answered questions by reading directly from his copy of C.H.'s statement to the police, changing only the issue of consent. "Where [C.H.] had stated it was rape, you stated it was consensual. Everything else was consistent." Det. Durst testified that Suells "was making his statement as he was looking at the police report." According to Det. Durst, it was "not normal" that a suspect had the police reports at his or her disposal during an interview. "It was - it was like he had studied. Like he had a cheat sheet for a test. It was too perfect. Two people's recollection of one event normally touches on the same major components. But his was almost verbatim except for the fact of consent."

         {¶ 13} Det. Durst testified that C.H. waited 17 days after the incident to report it to the police. In the detective's experience, victims may delay reporting "[b]ecause they're scared. They're afraid. They're afraid of retribution or not being believed."

         {¶ 14} Cleveland Police Officer Jeffrey Frinzl ("Officer Frinzl") testified that on November 14, 2016, he received a dispatch call for a sexual assault at C.H.'s house on Quincy Avenue. When Officer Frinzl arrived at the house, C.H. told him that Suells raped her. Officer Frinzl testified that C.H. was "[v]ery scared. * * * You could tell she was nervous about talking to me to begin with. She seemed paranoid, afraid for her safety and for herself and her kids. She explained in detail some of the history that he has that she knew about and some of his prior jail time, stuff like that." Officer Frinzl further testified as follows: "She expressed a great fear. We felt the need to do as much as we could for her. We tried finding alternative housing. We made as many connections with resources as we could because we felt we had a real victim. * * * We tried to get her placed into a shelter for women because she was fearful to stay where she was."

         {¶ 15} C.H. continued her testimony on August 21, 2018. This time, she recollected two incidents with Suells in detail. C.H. testified that in August 2016, she "was becoming friends" with Suells with the intention of possibly dating, but "things started going down like after a few months." One day in September or October, Suells picked her up on the east side of Cleveland after she finished working as a home health aide. According to C.H., Suells took her to his house.

He was drinking, very aggressive, but I started getting used to it because that's how he was. * * * Like when I started getting to know him, he was like - he was cool at first, and then he started being very controlling, started scaring me, talking about my dead sister, do I know why she was dead. * * * Nobody gives a fuck about me. Nobody will never believe nothing that I say because he is him and I am me.
* * *
He was talking about * * * my sister that is deceased, and it got me emotional. And he made me bend over, and I told him no, I didn't want to do it. He did it anyway and he got disgusted because I was bleeding.
** * He pulled my pants down and that was the only thing that got off was my pants. * * * He did what he wanted to do. * * * Put his penis inside of me. * * * Just * * * kept telling me no matter what I say, nobody will believe me, and I believed him.

         {¶ 16} Asked if Suells put his penis in her vagina or anus, C.H. replied, "My butt." C.H. testified that "you can't tell him no. * * * Because he was in control." According to C.H., the rape lasted until she began bleeding. "It seemed like he was disgusted, so he made me get in the tub with bleach. I had to sit in the tub with him with bleach. * * * He scrubbed my body." C.H. further testified about other details she remembered from that day, including how, after the rape, Suells called his caseworker about his "food stamps." C.H. recalled that Suells got angry with the caseworker, and he made her sit between his legs and turn her phone off while he was on the call. C.H. testified that she was at Suells's house for "like six hours" before he drove her home. Furthermore, while they were in the car, Suells punched C.H. in the mouth, causing the wire bracket to fall off of her braces.

         {¶ 17} Asked if she called the police after Suells took her home, C.H. testified, "No. * * * Because I was scared that nobody will believe me. * * * That if I did say something, the reputation that [Suells] had, I could have got killed."

         {¶ 18} C.H. next testified about a second time Suells raped her. Although she could not recall the exact date, she testified that Suells "caught" her as she was getting out of a friend's car outside of her house. This time, Suells had a gun in one hand and a beer in the other hand, and said, "I want my dick sucked." C.H. told Suells no, but "he put the gun up to my head, and I said, You going to have to make me give you head. He made me. * * * With the gun up to my head, walked me, told me don't say nothing. Go in the house. Shut the fuck up, bitch."

         {¶ 19} Suells forced C.H. into her house at gun point, and while they were in the kitchen, "[h]e kept forcing [his penis] in my mouth. * * * By that time, the gun was on my head. I just kept trying to keep my mouth shut tight as long as I can. He didn't even care that my braces was scratching him."

         {¶ 20} Asked how Suells was acting, C.H. testified, "To him, it was turning him on. To me, it was torture." According to C.H., Suells put his penis inside her mouth "[t]wice that night." Eventually, Suells received a phone call and "left with his gun and the rest of his beer * * *. That's what saved me that night."

         {¶ 21} C.H. further testified that she did not call the police when Suells left her house. "He had it in my head that nobody will believe me. He had more power in the streets, like now." C.H. further testified as follows:

What caused me to call the police is because he just kept threatening me. And he had this girl and he kept trying to make my friend fight me. He had people thinking that I - that I was - had her thinking I was playing on their phone and stuff. And then when he knew that that didn't work, him and another girl, Tini, when he knew that it didn't work, they tried to pay her to fight me. * * * I had flagged some officers down when I got off work. I was getting scared because he be riding past the house, asking me why this person over here.

         {¶ 22} C.H. asked the officers what she could do if she had been raped but did not go to the hospital. The officers told her to call 911. C.H. made this call on November 14, 2016. A recording of this 911 call was played for the court.

         {¶ 23} Suells called the following witnesses to testify: Breana McQueen, Kenya Meyers, Aaron Harmon, Sasha Reed, Brittany Nettles, and Grayland Hargett. These witnesses all testified that they knew Suells and C.H. "from the neighborhood." Some of these witnesses testified that C.H. claimed to be pregnant with Suells's child. However, none of these witnesses were present when either alleged rape occurred, and none of these witnesses testified about the events that occurred on the two dates in question. Rather, the testimony Suells elicited from these witnesses was mostly inadmissible, because it was hearsay or not based on firsthand knowledge. The testimony that was properly admitted mostly concerned how many cell phones Suells had and whether or not C.H. had called these ...

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