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State v. Oates

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Second Division

July 5, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
THOMAS OATES, Appellant.

         Appeal from St. Louis County Circuit Court Cause No. 14SL-CR05018-01 Honorable Kristine A. Kerr

          OPINION

          Colleen Dolan, Judge.

         Thomas Oates ("Oates") appeals the judgment of conviction of two counts of felony murder (§ 565.021.1(2)) and two related counts of armed criminal action (§ 571.015.1). Oates was initially charged with two counts of conventional second degree murder (§ 565.021.1(1)) and two counts of armed criminal action for shooting and killing two individuals. After his indictment, the State notified him that it may submit two felony murder charges, and if so, they would be based on "the attempted perpetration of the class C felony of Distribution of a Controlled Substance" pursuant to § 195.211.[1]

         After a jury trial, Oates was convicted on two counts of felony murder pursuant to § 565.021.1(2) and two related counts of armed criminal action. Before the case was submitted to the jury, Oates sought to include an instruction on self-defense as a basis for negating criminal liability for the felony murder charges. The trial court refused the instruction, finding felony murder to be a strict liability offense which precluded a defendant from raising a self-defense claim as a matter of law. Based on the statutory language of §§ 565.021.1(2) and 563.031.1(3), [2]we disagree with the trial court. Moreover, the evidence adduced at trial was sufficient to submit a self-defense instruction to the jury on both counts. Accordingly, this Court reverses the judgment and remands the case for a new trial.

         I. Background

         On May 21, 2014, Oates, his girlfriend ("Girlfriend"), and the two victims (collectively "Victims") met at a gas station for a potential marijuana sale-Oates as the seller and Victims as the potential buyers. Girlfriend remained in the vehicle while Oates approached Victims in their car. Oates presented the marijuana to Victims to inspect as part of the preliminary negotiations. Oates and Victims were arguing over terms of price and quantity. Oates claims he reached into Victims' car to retrieve the container of marijuana, and the victim who was in the driver's seat of the car ("Victim Driver") pressed the gas and drove away from the gas station. As this was happening, Oates tried to jump inside the car through the open driver's side window. For a short period of time, Oates's feet were "dangling" from the car as it was in motion. Victim Driver came to a stop, at which point Oates further entered through the driver's side window until his body was fully inside the vehicle. Oates testified he ended up in the backseat. A few seconds after the stop, two shots were fired from inside the car. Oates exited the vehicle and ran away holding two guns. Oates ran back to the vehicle where Girlfriend was waiting and told her, "I just saved my life." The two shots fired inside the vehicle proved to be fatal for both Victims.

         A couple of individuals witnessed some or all of the incident and remained near the scene. When the police arrived, Oates was quickly identified as the person fleeing Victims' car after the two gunshots were fired. Oates was then arrested outside of Girlfriend's residence.

         Oates was indicted for conventional second degree murder (two counts, one for each victim) and two accompanying armed criminal action counts. The State later filed a Notice of Intention to Submit Murder Second Degree-Felony, which informed Oates that if the State chose to submit two felony murder charges under § 565.021.1(2), it would be based on the deaths of Victims resulting from Oates's attempted perpetration of the class C felony of Distribution of a Controlled Substance.

         A jury trial was held in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County from March 14, 2016 through March 17, 2016. The facts adduced at trial are not a source of contention between the State and Oates. The most pertinent evidence adduced at trial-for purposes of this appeal and for making a viable self-defense claim-is the testimony provided by Oates. Oates testified that he was partially inside the car when Victim Driver began driving away from the gas station. Oates held onto the car and attempted to climb in through the driver-side window. Oates testified that if he could not get inside the car, he thought he "was going under the car and was going to get dragged." He added that the car was "going fast" and he "heard horns" as the car was in motion. Eventually, Oates was able to fully enter the window, where he "fell in [and] smashed the cup that was in the console." Victim Driver then hit the brakes and caused him to fall into the back seat. Oates further testified that Victim Passenger told him to calm down, but Victim Passenger then reached for a pistol under his seat. Oates explained Victim Passenger dropped the gun, and believing Victim Passenger would shoot and kill him after regaining control of the gun, Oates took out his own gun and shot Victim Passenger before he could shoot Oates. Victim Driver then reached for the same gun Victim Passenger had dropped, and Oates-once again believing he would otherwise be shot and killed-shot Victim Driver before she could pick up the gun. Oates testified he then exited the vehicle and took Victim Passenger's gun with him to prove he had shot Victims in self-defense. He then entered his and Girlfriend's vehicle and explained to her that he saved his own life because Victims had attempted to kill him.

         The jury was instructed on four different homicide theories: two counts of second degree murder (both conventional and felony murder) and two counts of the lesser-included offenses of conventional second degree murder-voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter in the first degree. Oates requested the court to instruct the jury on self-defense as to each degree of homicide submitted to the jury. The jury was instructed on self-defense as to conventional murder second, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, but the court sustained the State's objection to a self-defense instruction as to felony murder. This ruling is the focal point of Oates's appeal. The jury was also instructed on armed criminal action in connection with each homicide instruction given.

         On March 17, 2016, the jury convicted Oates on two counts of second degree felony murder (pursuant to § 565.021(2)) and two counts of armed criminal action (pursuant to § 571.015.1).[3] The court sentenced Oates to 15 years in prison for the murder of Victim Driver and 10 years for the murder of Victim Passenger. The court also sentenced him to 5 years in prison on each of the two accompanying armed criminal action counts. The sentences for all four counts were set to run concurrently for a total sentence of 15 years. Oates has raised two arguments on appeal. Finding the first point dispositive on the matter, we need not address the merits of Point II.[4]

         II. Discussion

         Point I - Oates was entitled to a self-defense instruction for his felony murder charges because the predicate felony was "non-forcible."

         We must address two questions to determine if Oates was entitled to a self-defense instruction for his felony murder charges: (1) is self-defense ever available as a defense to felony murder when the predicate offense is a non-forcible felony? And, if so, (2) is Oates entitled to a self-defense instruction based on the particular facts in this case?

         a. Self-defense is potentially an available defense to felony murder in Missouri when the predicate felony is not forcible.

         Oates argues that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense as to felony murder because the defense is available by law when the underlying felony is not forcible, and the court already determined there was sufficient evidence to support self-defense. The State contends the trial court did not err by refusing to give the self-defense instructions on both counts of felony murder, because "self-defense is, as a matter of law, not a defense to felony murder where it was not a defense to the underlying felony [regardless of whether the predicate felony is forcible or non-forcible]." Based on the State's conclusion, Oates would only be entitled to raise a self-defense claim if such a defense was available to excuse his underlying predicate crime of "Distribution of a Controlled Substance, " which it clearly is not.

         Oates's argument relies almost exclusively on statutory interpretation to support his contention. Interestingly, the State barely touches on Oates's arguments and relies on exploring the historical application of felony murder and its mechanics. These arguments will be discussed at length infra in Sec. II(a)(iii).

         i. Standard of Review

         "Statutory interpretation is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo." State v. Whipple, 501 S.W.3d 507, 513 (Mo. App. E.D. 2016) (citing Finnegan v. Old Republic Title Co. of St. Louis, Inc., 246 S.W.3d 928, 930 (Mo. banc 2008)). The primary rule of statutory construction is to determine and effectuate the intent of the General Assembly based on the statute's language. Bateman v. Rinehart, 391 S.W.3d 441, 446 (Mo. banc 2013). When the statutory language is clear, we will not engage in statutory construction, as "there is nothing to construe beyond applying the plain meaning of the law." Id. (quoting State ex rel. Valentine v. Orr, 366 S.W.3d 534, 540 (Mo. banc 2012)).

         However, if, and only if, the statute's language is "ambiguous or would lead to an absurd or illogical result, " will we look beyond the plain meaning of the statute. Id. at 446. Also, when the ambiguous language is part of a criminal statute, it "will be construed in the defendant's favor." State v. Hardin, 429 S.W.3d 417, 419 (Mo. banc 2014). When a court cannot use precedent or other authority as guidance on the issue of interpreting a statute, as is largely the case in the appeal before us, our Supreme Court has noted "the language of the statute itself provides the best guide, " and it has provided some general guidelines to ascertain the legislature's intent:

In determining the intent and meaning of statutory language, 'the words must be considered in context and sections of the statutes in pari materia, as well as cognate sections, must be considered in order to arrive at the true meaning and scope of the words.' State ex rel. Wright v. Carter, 319 S.W.2d 596, 600 (Mo. banc 1959). 'The provisions of a legislative act are not read in isolation but construed together, and if reasonably possible, the provisions will be harmonized with each other.' Bachtel v. Miller County Nursing Home Dist., 110 S.W.3d 799, 801 (Mo. banc 2003).

State v. McLaughlin, 265 S.W.3d 257, 267 (Mo. banc 2008) (quoting State ex rel. Evans v. Brown Builders Elec. Co., Inc., 254 S.W.3d 31, 35 (Mo. banc 2008)).

         When engaging in statutory construction, we presume the General Assembly carefully constructed the law, giving every word, sentence, and clause in the statute a purpose; we presume the legislature did not insert superfluous language. Bateman, 391 S.W.3d at 446. Additionally, we assume the General Assembly has knowledge of existing laws at the time it drafts a statute. Turner v. Sch. Dist. of Clayton, 318 S.W.3d 660, 667 (Mo. banc 2010).

         ii. ...


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