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State v. Sanders

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

July 11, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
CHRISTOPHER M. SANDERS, Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JACKSON COUNTY The Honorable Edith L. Messina, Judge

          PATRICIA BRECKENRIDGE, JUDGE

         Christopher Sanders is serving a sentence of life imprisonment for the murder of Sherilyn Hill. Mr. Sanders appeals a judgment convicting him of one count of murder in the second degree, section 565.021.1, [1] claiming the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter. Consistent with the indictment, the trial court instructed the jury it must find Mr. Sanders guilty of second degree murder if the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Sanders knowingly caused Ms. Hill's death by "kicking her and strangling her." The trial court also instructed the jury on voluntary manslaughter, which, like the second degree murder instruction, required the jury to determine whether Mr. Sanders caused Ms. Hill's death by "kicking her and strangling her." The trial court refused Mr. Sanders' requested instruction on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter, which would have required the jury to determine whether Mr. Sanders "recklessly" caused Ms. Hill's death by "kicking her." The trial court did not err by refusing to instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter because Mr. Sanders' proffered involuntary manslaughter instruction impermissibly modified the charged offense by requiring the jury to find he caused Ms. Hill's death by kicking her as opposed to kicking and strangling her. The judgment is affirmed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On December 7, 2011, a maintenance worker discovered Ms. Hill's body under the stairwell of a motel in Kansas City, Missouri. A sheet and towel were wrapped around her neck and the lower part of her face. A medical examiner determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and strangulation.

         An investigation revealed that, "around Thanksgiving, " Mr. Sanders rented a room at the motel and shared it with Ms. Hill and Zonia Brown. Ms. Brown told police Mr. Sanders and Ms. Hill were involved in a violent fight at the motel. The police arrested and questioned Mr. Sanders. Mr. Sanders denied there was an altercation in the motel room. A search of Mr. Sanders' home revealed Ms. Hill's blood on Mr. Sanders' boots. The state charged Mr. Sanders with murder in the second degree for knowingly causing Ms. Hill's death "by kicking her and strangulating her."

         At trial, Ms. Brown testified she and Ms. Hill agreed to have sex with Mr. Sanders in exchange for crack cocaine. An argument ensued when Mr. Sanders provided what Ms. Brown and Ms. Hill believed was an insufficient quantity of crack cocaine. On three separate occasions, Ms. Hill pointed a knife at Mr. Sanders and demanded more crack cocaine. After Ms. Hill left her knife in the bathroom, Mr. Sanders knocked her down and repeatedly kicked her in the head until she lay lifeless on the floor. When asked what Ms. Hill was doing during the time she was being kicked, Ms. Brown stated, "She was fighting for her life. She was trying to get up but she - every time she tried to get up, he would kick her." Ms. Brown stated she left the room as Mr. Sanders wrapped a bed sheet around Ms. Hill's head.

         Mr. Sanders' trial testimony offered a different version of events. Mr. Sanders testified Ms. Hill pulled out a knife, stuck it in his face, and demanded more crack cocaine. Mr. Sanders declined to give her more crack, and she put the knife back in her pocket. Mr. Sanders testified Ms. Hill approached him from behind, held her knife to his throat, cut him, and said she would "just take" Mr. Sanders' belongings. Ms. Hill then took Mr. Sanders' wallet, threw it to Ms. Brown, and said, "Get his money." Mr. Sanders grabbed her arm and hit her in the head. Ms. Hill swung at Mr. Sanders with the knife. Mr. Sanders testified he believed she was going to stab him. He elbowed Ms. Hill in the head as hard as he could. As she staggered backwards, she kept swinging the knife. Mr. Sanders kicked Ms. Hill in the chest and hit her in the mouth, causing her to fall backward and hit her head on the sink. Mr. Sanders testified Ms. Hill tried to reach for the knife, so he tried to kick the knife away but accidentally kicked her in the face, causing her to flip over and strike her head against the wall. Ms. Hill was rendered unconscious. Mr. Sanders denied he attempted to wrap her in a bedsheet but admitted he carried her out of the room, placed her on the stairway landing, and told the motel manager there was a woman passed out on the stairway. Mr. Sanders testified he left the motel and, when he later returned to his room, Ms. Hill was no longer on the stairwell, so he assumed she left. The trial court instructed the jury on second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The verdict director for second degree murder instructed the jury to determine whether Mr. Sanders knowingly caused Ms. Hill's death by kicking her and strangling her and whether he did so without the influence of sudden passion and not in lawful self-defense. The verdict director for voluntary manslaughter instructed the jury to determine whether Mr. Sanders knowingly caused Ms. Hill's death by kicking her and strangling her and that he did not act in lawful self-defense.[2] The court also instructed the jury on self-defense.

         The trial court refused to submit Mr. Sanders' proffered involuntary manslaughter instruction, which would have required the jury to determine whether he recklessly caused Ms. Hill's death by kicking her. Unlike the second degree murder instruction, Mr. Sanders' proffered involuntary manslaughter instruction did not require the jury to determine whether he caused Ms. Hill's death by strangulation.

         The jury found Mr. Sanders guilty of second degree murder. The trial court sentenced Mr. Sanders to life imprisonment. Mr. Sanders appeals. This Court granted transfer following an opinion by the court of appeals. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 10.

         Mr. Sanders' sole point on appeal asserts the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to instruct the jury on the nested lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter. Mr. Sanders asserts the instructional error is presumed prejudicial and the trial court's erroneous refusal to instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter prevented the jury from considering whether he recklessly caused Ms. Hill's death. Mr. Sanders also asserts the jury could have found he recklessly used excessive force when he acted in self-defense.

         Standard of Review

         The trial court's rejection of Mr. Sanders' proffered involuntary manslaughter instruction is subject to de novo review. State v. Jackson, 433 S.W.3d 390, 395 (Mo. banc 2014). Instructional error requires reversal when the error is "so prejudicial that it deprived the defendant of a fair trial." State v. Zetina-Torres, 482 S.W.3d 801, 810 (Mo. banc 2016) (quoting State v. Nash, 339 S.W.3d 500, 511-12 (Mo. banc 2011)). Prejudice is presumed when a trial court fails to give a requested instruction to submit a nested lesser included offense. Jackson, 433 S.W.3d at 395 n.4 (citing State v. Redmond, 937 S.W.2d 205, 210 (Mo. banc 1996)). Nonetheless, a trial court does not commit instructional error by rejecting an improper jury instruction for the lesser included offense. State v. Blurton, 484 S.W.3d 758, 766 (Mo. banc 2016). The "trial court's rejection of a proffered instruction should be affirmed '[i]f the trial court was correct . . . for any reason[.]'" Id. (quoting State v. White, 936 S.W.2d 793, 794 (Mo. banc 1997)); see also State v. Bradley, 811 S.W.2d 379, 383 (Mo. banc 1991) (judgment will be affirmed on any sustainable ground even if the stated reason for a circuit court's ruling is incorrect).

         The Circuit Court Did Not Commit Instructional Error

         Section 556.046, RSMo Supp. 2002, defines the trial court's obligation to instruct on lesser included offenses. In pertinent part, section 556.046.2, RSMo Supp. 2002, provides, "The court shall not be obligated to charge the jury with respect to an included offense unless there is a basis for a verdict acquitting the defendant of the offense charged and convicting him of the included offense." Section 556.046.3, RSMo Supp. 2002, further provides:

The court shall be obligated to instruct the jury with respect to a particular included offense only if there is a basis in the evidence for acquitting the defendant of the immediately higher included offense and there is a basis in the evidence for ...

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