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State v. Alexander

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

November 29, 2016

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
RALPH ALEXANDER, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1322-CR01179 Honorable Jimmie M. Edwards

          ROBERT M. CLAYTON III, Presiding Judge.

         Ralph Alexander ("Defendant") appeals the judgment entered upon a jury verdict convicting him of one count of first-degree murder, one count of first-degree assault, two counts of armed criminal action, and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Evidence Presented at Defendant's Jury Trial

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence presented at Defendant's jury trial revealed the following facts. During the early evening hours of April 5, 2012, James Goldsby was driving a Nissan Maxima that belonged to his girlfriend Erica Johnson, who was present in the car along with her uncle and cousin. Goldsby and the other passengers arrived at Johnson's aunt's house, which was located in the City of St. Louis on Aldine Avenue near Whittier Street. While the others went inside the house, Goldsby remained in the parked car in front of Johnson's aunt's house.

         After some time passed and Johnson had not returned to the car, Goldsby called her so that the two could leave. Two men walked by the Maxima while Goldsby was on the phone. The men, whom Goldsby recognized as "Little Ralph" and "Boo Man, " looked inside the car as they slowly walked by, then continued walking down the street and turned the corner. However, after just a few seconds, they came back around the corner and walked towards the Maxima, causing Goldsby to grow suspicious. Goldsby began to drive away, but because of how the car was parked, he had to drive towards the men. Then, Little Ralph and Boo Man reached into their jackets, pulled out guns, and began shooting. Goldsby was still on the phone with Johnson at that point, and told Johnson that Little Ralph and Boo Man were shooting at him. Goldsby saw both men holding guns, and both men were shooting. Further, Goldsby believed he heard six or seven shots fired rapidly, and Johnson also stated that she could hear the gunshots.

         Goldsby drove past the shooters and continued until he saw two police officers, to whom he reported that Little Ralph and Boo Man had fired guns at him. Then, as Goldsby was talking with the officers, he heard more gunshots. Johnson also heard this second round of gunshots from her aunt's house, and recalled that there were "way more" shots fired than the first set of shots but were also in rapid succession.

         Also on the evening of April 5, 2012, around 5:30 p.m., Tracy Jones picked up his fiancée, Sylvia Scott from work. Jones told Scott that he wanted to stop at a neighborhood hangout called "The Yard, " located in the City of St. Louis behind an apartment building on Whittier Street between Aldine Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Jones parked Scott's Chevrolet Prizm on Whittier Street, and walked across the street to The Yard while Scott remained in the car. Jones then left The Yard for a moment but returned shortly thereafter.

         Jermaine Ward, a friend of Jones, was at The Yard that evening, and heard gunshots coming from the direction of Aldine Avenue and Whittier Street. Ward saw two men firing handguns at a car in front of Johnson's aunt's house. After Ward saw the car speed off, he watched the two men begin to walk away as they appeared to reload their guns.

         Jones also heard the first set of gunshots and told Ward he was leaving to take Scott home. Ward watched Jones cross Whittier Street towards the Prizm. Ward then witnessed the same two men who had shot at the car on the corner of Aldine Avenue and Whittier Street run toward the Prizm, go directly to the driver-side door, and open fire on Jones. Ward saw both men shooting, and heard at least ten shots fired in rapid succession.

         Scott, who had remained in the Prizm, ducked down in the car when she heard the first round of gunshots. Scott had worked in security and believed the shots were fired in rapid succession from an automatic weapon. After the shooting stopped, Scott looked around and could see Jones walking towards the car. Jones then opened the door and asked Scott if she was ready to go, to which she agreed. As Jones was getting in the vehicle, shooting began again and he dove into the car on top of Scott, who was shot in the leg. Once the shooting stopped, Ward watched the two gunmen walk away. Ward approached the Prizm and saw Jones slumped over on the passenger side with his arms and head hanging out of the passenger door and blood running from his head.

         The officers who had interviewed Goldsby put out a radio broadcast identifying Little Ralph and Boo Man as suspects in a shooting. Officer Michael Missel heard the broadcast, and recognized the nicknames as belonging to Defendant and Dontrell Sanders, respectively. Officer Missel knew Defendant lived on Whittier Street near the scene of the shooting, and that Sanders lived on East Garfield near Whittier Street. Officer Missel went to Sanders' house, where he was told by Sanders' father that Sanders, but not Defendant, was in the house. Eventually, Sanders and his father came out of the house to be interviewed by homicide detectives. Shortly thereafter, Officer Missel saw Defendant leave the house and walk towards Whittier Street; Officer Missel then detained Defendant.

         Officers were given permission to search the portion of the house where Sanders lived. There, they found gun boxes for two Smith & Wesson pistols, a .40-caliber and nine-millimeter, and for one Glock .22-caliber pistol. Ammunition, including a box of .40-caliber ammunition and a nine-millimeter clip, was also found.

         Goldsby later identified Defendant in photo arrays, physical lineups, and at trial as one of the assailants. He also identified Sanders in a lineup as the other shooter. Also at trial, Johnson testified that she knew who Little Ralph and Boo Man were, and she identified Defendant as Little Ralph.

         Defendant did not testify or present any evidence.[1]

         B. Relevant Procedural Posture

         Based on the events which occurred on April 5, 2012, Defendant was charged with eight counts. Counts I, II, and V relate to Defendant's firing a gun at the Prizm and killing Jones, including charges of first-degree murder (Count I), armed criminal action (Count II), and unlawful use of a weapon (Count V). Counts III and IV relate to the shots aimed at the Prizm and hitting Scott, including charges of first-degree assault (Count III) and armed criminal action (Count IV). Finally, Counts VI - VIII relate to Defendant's firing a gun at Goldsby, including charges of first-degree assault (Count VI), armed criminal action (Count VII), and unlawful use of a weapon (Count VIII).

         Defendant's jury trial commenced and in the State's opening statement, the prosecutor described how police found gun boxes and ammunition while searching Sanders' house.[2] After noting that a box for a nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson handgun was found in Sanders' closet, the prosecutor told the jury that Defendant had previously been found in possession of the gun which belonged in that box, allegedly attempting to establish an additional connection between Defendant and Sanders. Following the State's opening statement, Defendant's counsel ("Defense Counsel") objected to the State's reference to the 2010 possession of the nine-millimeter handgun, as they argued it constituted improper prior bad act evidence. Although the trial court sustained the objection, the judge overruled Defense Counsel's request for a mistrial.

         At the close of the State's evidence and at the close of all the evidence, Defense Counsel filed a motion for a judgment of acquittal, which was subsequently denied. The jury then found Defendant guilty of Counts I, II, and V - VIII; Defendant was acquitted as to Counts III and IV. Defendant filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, or alternatively, motion for new trial asserting, inter alia, the trial court erred in denying Defendant's motions for judgment of acquittal and the trial court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial after the State's opening statement. The trial court subsequently denied Defendant's post-trial motion.

         The trial court entered a judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict, and sentenced Defendant as a prior offender to life imprisonment without parole as to Count I, life sentences each as to Counts II, V, and VII, and five years of imprisonment each for Counts VI and VIII, with all sentences to run concurrently except for Counts I and II, which were to run consecutively. Defendant appeals.

         II. DISCUSSION

         In Defendant's first point on appeal, he argues the trial court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial after the State's opening statement alluded to evidence that was later ruled inadmissible. In his second point on appeal, Defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of all the evidence because the evidence was insufficient to support Defendant's convictions for first-degree murder and armed criminal action, Counts I and II. Finally, in his third and fourth points on appeal, Defendant argues the trial court erred in entering convictions and sentences for four of his counts as they allegedly violated the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

         A. Whether the Trial Court Erred in Refusing to Grant a Mistrial Because of the State's Allegedly Improper Opening Statement

         In his first point on appeal, Defendant argues the trial court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial after the State's opening statement alluded to evidence that was later ruled inadmissible.

         1. Standard of Review and General Law Relating to Defendant's Claim

         We initially note that the parties disagree as to whether Defendant properly preserved this claim for appeal. However, as we find that Defendant's claim fails under either abuse of discretion or plain error review, we analyze the issue as if it was preserved.[3]

         The scope of opening statements is within the discretion of the trial court, and we review an objection to opening statements for abuse of discretion. State v. Thompson, 68 S.W.3d 393, 395 (Mo. banc 2002). An appellate court also reviews the denial of a request for a mistrial for abuse of discretion. State v. Kelly, 119 S.W.3d 587, 591 (Mo. App. E.D. 2003). An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's ruling "is clearly against the logic of the circumstances then before the court and is so arbitrary and unreasonable as to shock the sense of justice and indicate a lack of careful consideration." State v. Fassero, 256 S.W.3d 109, 115 (Mo. banc 2008) (quotations in original). A mistrial is a drastic remedy, and should only be granted in extraordinary circumstances. Kelly, 119 S.W.3d at 591.

         The purpose of an opening statement is to describe to the jury the evidence that the party plans to introduce. State v. McFadden, 391 S.W.3d 408, 430 (Mo. banc 2013). Accordingly, opening statements are limited to factual statements that can be proven. Thompson, 68 S.W.3d at 394. It is not error for a prosecutor to refer to evidence in an opening statement, even if that evidence is later excluded, if the evidence mentioned is arguably admissible and the prosecutor acts in good faith - with reasonable grounds for believing he will be able to introduce such evidence. McFadden, 391 S.W.3d at 430; State v. Debler, 856 S.W.2d 641, 656 (Mo. banc 1993); State v. Hodges, 586 S.W.2d 420, 426 (Mo. App. E.D. 1979). In ...


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