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State v. Cooper

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

January 31, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Plaintiff-Respondent,
RONELL M. COOPER, Defendant-Appellant.




          DON E. BURRELL, J.

         Ronell M. Cooper ("Defendant") was convicted after a bench trial of third-degree domestic assault for causing physical injury to S.A ("Victim") "by grabbing and twisting her wrist[.]" See section 565.074.[1] Victim did not testify at Defendant's trial. In a single point, Defendant asserts that the admission of Victim's out-of-court statements to police violated his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him.[2] Finding merit in this claim, we reverse and remand.

         Applicable Principles of Review and Governing Law

         As relevant here, the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him[.]" U.S. Const. amend. VI. Missouri's constitution provides the same right. Mo. Const. art. 1, sect. 18(a); State v. Schaal, 806 S.W.2d 659, 662 (Mo. banc 1991).

         Whether a defendant's confrontation rights were violated is a question of law that we review de novo. State v. March, 216 S.W.3d 663, 664-65 (Mo. banc 2007). "Properly preserved confrontation clause violations are presumed prejudicial[, ]" State v. Justus, 205 S.W.3d 872, 881 (Mo. banc 2006), and any resulting conviction may only be upheld if the violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, "meaning that there is no reasonable doubt that the error . . . failed to contribute to the [trial court]'s verdict." March, 216 S.W.3d at 667 (citing Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967)).

         The Evidence

         The State's misdemeanor information alleged that on or about September 25, 2014, Defendant "recklessly caused physical injury to [Victim] by grabbing and twisting her wrist, and [Victim] and [D]efendant were family or household members in that [Victim] and [D]efendant were adults who were related by blood." The only witnesses at Defendant's trial were Springfield Police Department officers Eric Rogers ("Officer Rogers"), Patrick Lightwine ("Officer Lightwine"), and Alberto Estrada ("Corporal Estrada"). Of these witnesses, only Officer Rogers testified about what Victim told the police, and his testimony was as follows.

         Sometime after 10:00 p.m. on September 25, 2014, Officer Rogers was dispatched to a residential address to investigate an assault call. Upon being admitted to the residence, he spoke with Victim. Victim was crying, she was holding her right arm against her body, and she had a swollen lip. Officer Rogers said he asked Victim about "what had happened" to her. When the prosecutor asked him what Victim said, defense counsel objected that any responses would constitute hearsay and would violate Defendant's "right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and . . . Article I, Section 18(a) of the Missouri Constitution." The prosecutor responded that the testimony was admissible under the "excited utterance" exception to the hearsay rule and that it would not implicate the Confrontation Clause because Victim's statements were not testimonial. After some discussion, the trial court ultimately overruled defense counsel's objection and then allowed defense counsel to have a continuing objection "to all the statements [of Victim]"

         Officer Rogers then proceeded to testify that, according to Victim, Defendant had forced open her front door and said he was there "to get [his] stuff." Victim tried to stop him, but Defendant pushed past her and ran toward a bedroom where he then began to throw the contents of a closet onto the floor. The prosecutor asked Officer Rogers about whether Victim had explained how her arm had been injured. Officer Rogers replied:

Yes. I -- after -- I'd have to refer to my report to the exact -- but it was -- after he had pushed her initially into the hallway -- or to the doorway that led to the hallway from the bedroom, and -- she was able to get up. She had a -- she called it a dolphin lamp -- I assumed it was a lamp that -- that looked like a dolphin -- in her hand, and she also had a hammer in her hand. Went back to her -- or went back to him and at that point was again telling him to stop going through the stuff. He turned around, grabbed her by the right arm, twisted it, and -- and then flung her up against the -- onto the bed. And then once onto the bed -- and that's when she's claiming that her shoulder and her wrist was hurt, whenever he grabbed her right arm and twisted it and flung her onto the bed. That's when she told me that that's what caused the injury to her shoulder and her right wrist.

         On cross-examination, Officer Rogers testified as follows:

Q. You put all the information she told you into a report; ...

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