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State v. Walters

June 8, 2007

STATE OF KANSAS, APPELLEE,
v.
FREDERICK DEAN WALTERS, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Wyandotte district court; JOHN J. McNALLY, judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Under the state and federal Constitutions, a defendant is entitled to present the theory of his or her defense, and the exclusion of evidence that is an integral part of that theory violates a defendant's fundamental right to a fair trial. However, the right to present a defense is subject to statutory rules and case law interpretation of the rules of evidence and procedure.

2. When a party challenges the admission or exclusion of evidence on appeal, the first inquiry is relevance. Once relevance is established, evidentiary rules governing admission and exclusion may be applied either as a matter of law or in the exercise of the district judge's discretion, depending on the contours of the rule in question. When the adequacy of the legal basis of a district judge's decision on admission or exclusion of evidence is questioned, an appellate court reviews the decision de novo.

3. When self-defense is asserted for conduct resulting in death, K.S.A. 21-3211 requires two separate inquiries. The first inquiry examines a defendant's subjective belief and requires evidence indicating that the defendant honestly and sincerely believed it would be necessary to kill in self-defense because of an aggressor's imminent use of unlawful force. The second inquiry is objective and requires evidence showing that a reasonable person in the defendant's situation would have perceived the necessity of killing in self-defense.

4. When self-defense is raised to criminal charges arising out of a death caused by the defendant, evidence of the victim's prior specific bad acts of violence and threats may be admitted to prove the defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime, i.e., the defendant's honest and sincere belief that it was necessary to kill in self-defense, and to show that the belief was reasonable.

5. Determining whether evidence is too remote to be admissible rests within the sound discretion of the trial court. Mere lapse of time alone is not sufficient to deprive evidence of its probative value but goes to the weight of the evidence to be considered by the jury.

6. Before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the appellate court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; stated another way, that the error had little, if any, likelihood of having changed the result of the trial.

Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished decision filed May 26, 2006.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nuss, J.

Judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the district court is affirmed. Judgment of the district court is affirmed.

A jury convicted Frederick Dean Walters of voluntary manslaughter for shotgunning Matt Cochran, the ex-husband of his girlfriend, Kristen Lentz. The Court of Appeals affirmed in State v. Walters, No. 92,592, unpublished opinion filed May 26, 2006. Walters argues the district court denied his fundamental right to a fair trial by excluding key pieces of evidence establishing that his actions were in self-defense. Our jurisdiction is under K.S.A. 20-3018(b).

The issues on appeal, and our accompanying holdings, are as follows:

1. Did the district court err in excluding the following:

a. Evidence of Cochran's standoff with Gardner police? Yes.

b. A photograph of Cochran holding a handgun in his vehicle? Yes.

c. Testimony from Lentz' sister regarding a specific threat made by Cochran toward Lentz and Walters? No.

d. Evidence that Cochran had not been prosecuted for previous incidents? No.

2. Was the exclusion of any evidence reversible error? No.

Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of the Court of Appeals and district court.

FACTS

On April 23, 2003, Frederick Dean Walters, his girlfriend Kristen Lentz, and Brett Bierman were at Walters' home in Kansas City, Kansas. Lentz' ex-husband, Matt Cochran, drove to the house to make contact with her. Walters killed Cochran with a shotgun blast to the head and was later charged with one count of second-degree murder.

In February 2004, the State filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of a number of Cochran's bad acts and Cochran's prior arrests, and encounters with police, e.g., a January 2003 standoff in Gardner, Kansas. Defense counsel opposed the motion because Walters was claiming self-defense, and the proffered evidence would be offered to establish both his state of mind and the reasonableness of his conduct.

"Basically, Your Honor, all of these documents and all of the evidence we're trying to introduce is that, you know, he [Cochran] was acting irrationally when it came to his ex-wife, that he was doing threatening things, that would lead anyone to believe after they had been threatened by him as well to believe that he was unstable enough that the threat might be made good, and that he wasn't afraid to use guns against police officers."

The motion in limine was granted.

At trial Walters revisited the issue, seeking to admit evidence in support of his self-defense claim, including: (1) testimony about the standoff between Cochran and the Gardner police; (2) a photograph of Cochran in his vehicle holding a handgun below an outside viewer's line of sight; (3) a previous threat that Cochran was coming to Walters' house to kill everyone and commit suicide; and (4) evidence that Cochran had not previously been prosecuted for any of his acts because his father was a judge. The district court disallowed the evidence.

At trial, Walters' housemate, Brett Bierman, testified for the State. The day of the shooting, Bierman was working on his motorcycle in the attached garage with the door up. Around 6 p.m., he watched a white Ford Excursion with a trailer attachment pull up on the wrong side of the road in front of the house. An unknown man, later identified as Cochran, sat in the Excursion, staring at the house. After approximately 5 minutes, Cochran drove away.

Five to 10 minutes later, Bierman again watched the Ford Excursion, now trailer-less, pull up in front. He came out of the garage and asked Cochran what he wanted. When Cochran replied that he wanted to talk to Lentz, Bierman told him that he had plenty of chances to speak with her in the past and that he needed to leave. Cochran "sat there for a few minutes kind of smirking" before he drove away.

After Cochran left, Bierman went into the house to talk with Walters. Bierman asked him "what was going to happen" if Cochran came back again. According to Bierman, Walters replied, "[I]f he comes on the property and starts any trouble [I will] shoot him." Bierman had not ever seen Cochran with a weapon. Although Walters had a cell phone on his person, he did not call the police.

According to Bierman, 5 to 10 minutes later Cochran drove back to the house a third time, got out of his Excursion, and walked toward the house. Bierman stayed in the garage and listened to what he thought was someone banging on the front of the house. After hearing glass break, he walked out of the garage with a large torque wrench in his hand. Bierman told Cochran he needed to leave. When Cochran smiled, Bierman headed toward him with the wrench; Cochran eventually retreated to his Excursion. Bierman then heard someone say, "[S]ee who laughs last."

Bierman testified that less than a minute after Cochran got inside his Excursion, Cochran started to drive away. Bierman watched as the Excursion turned up the driveway and hit another car. He then saw someone exit the passenger side and run away. He turned and saw Walters standing in the house doorway with a shotgun. When Bierman asked, "Did you shoot?," Walters replied that he had fired once in the air and once at Cochran. Walters then put down the shotgun and called 911. A redacted version of the call was played for the jury.

Gary Freeman next testified for the State. On the day of the shooting, he and Cochran were hauling scrap metal in a trailer pulled by a Ford Excursion. In the early afternoon, they drove to Walters' home because Cochran wanted to speak to Lentz. Twenty to thirty minutes later, they drove back to Walters' home; Cochran honked the Excursion's horn but no one came out from the house. After Cochran placed an envelope on the windshield of a car in the ...


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