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United States v. Tapaha

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

June 5, 2018

CORNELIA TOM TAPAHA, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico (D.C. No. 1:16-CR-01099-MV-1)

          Justine Fox-Young, Albuquerque, New Mexico (Robert J. Gorence, Gorence & Oliveros, Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her on the briefs), for Defendant-Appellant.

          Marisa A. Ong, Assistant United States Attorney (James D. Tierney, Acting United States Attorney, with her on the brief), Las Cruces, New Mexico, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before MATHESON, KELLY, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges.


         Ms. Cornelia Tapaha was convicted of assault for hitting her boyfriend, Mr. Myron Yazzie, with her car. She appeals this conviction, arguing that the district court

• violated her constitutional right to present a defense by excluding certain testimony from three witnesses: (1) Ms. Tamara Tapaha, Cornelia's sister;[1] (2) Mr. Yazzie; and (3) Cornelia herself,
• violated the Confrontation Clause by excluding certain testimony by Mr. Yazzie, and
• erred in refusing to admit redacted portions of an interview with a law-enforcement officer.
We conclude that
• exclusion of the testimony did not deprive Cornelia of her right to present a defense,
• exclusion of certain testimony by Mr. Yazzie did not violate the Confrontation Clause, and
• the district court did not err in excluding the redacted interview statements.

         Therefore, we affirm.

         I. Background

         To analyze Cornelia's appellate arguments, we begin with the acts underlying the conviction and consider how they related to the evidence that was excluded.

         A. Cornelia runs her car into Mr. Yazzie, allegedly in self-defense.

         The acts underlying the conviction are largely undisputed. Cornelia and Mr. Yazzie picked up Tamara, and the three of them drank together in the car. As Mr. Yazzie drove, he grew increasingly agitated by Cornelia's need to make frequent stops so that she could urinate.

         When they arrived at a gas station, Cornelia went inside and Mr. Yazzie retrieved a large wrench and put it in the back seat. On returning to the car, Cornelia learned about the wrench; she later confronted Mr. Yazzie about what he was planning to do with it. Mr. Yazzie responded by punching Cornelia in the face, and the two continued to bicker.

         Eventually, Mr. Yazzie exited the car while yelling at Cornelia. Cornelia followed Mr. Yazzie with the car and "nicked" him once. Appellant's App'x, vol. 2 at 792. At that point, Mr. Yazzie started pounding on the hood and yelling. He then moved away, [2] and Cornelia struck him again with the car.

         In district court, Cornelia asserted self-defense, alleging that she had been scared because of years of abuse by Mr. Yazzie. To support this defense, Cornelia sought to present evidence of Mr. Yazzie's past acts of violence.

         The district court allowed Cornelia, Tamara, and Mr. Yazzie to testify about the day of the incident and three prior instances of Mr. Yazzie's violence toward Cornelia. But the court excluded testimony about other acts of violence.

         B. Cornelia tells a police officer about past acts of violence, but the court admits only a redacted version of the statements.

         After hitting Mr. Yazzie with her car, Cornelia spoke to a police officer (Mr. Jefferson Joe). At trial, Officer Joe testified about some of Cornelia's statements. Cornelia sought introduction of other statements that she had made to Officer Joe, but the district court excluded them.

         II. Constitutional Right to Present a Defense

         In claiming the denial of a constitutional right to present a defense, Cornelia relies on the exclusion of testimony by herself, Tamara, and Mr. Yazzie.

         A. Standard of Review

         For this claim, we apply

. the abuse-of-discretion standard to the district court's application of the Federal Rules of Evidence and
. de novo review to the constitutionality of the evidentiary rulings. See United States v. Dowlin, 408 F.3d 647, 659 (10th Cir. 2005).

         B. The Admitted Testimony

         To apply this standard, we must consider how the excluded testimony related to the evidence introduced at trial.

         1. The Day of the Incident

         The district court allowed extensive testimony by Cornelia and Tamara about the day of the incident. The sisters described the events on the day in question, which included four relevant facts:

1. The sisters feared what Mr. Yazzie might do with the wrench after retrieving it.
2. After leaving the gas station, Cornelia and Mr. Yazzie argued and Mr. Yazzie seemed "jealous about something." Tamara testified that Mr. Yazzie had frequently gotten jealous and that when he did, he would get mad at Cornelia. Appellant's App'x, vol. 2 at 615.
3. Mr. Yazzie tried to hit Cornelia multiple times and landed a blow to her face while she was driving, causing her to swerve.
4. After they pulled over, Tamara left the car and started walking away. Cornelia testified that at that point, Mr. Yazzie hit her again and threatened her, saying that he wished she was dead and that he would "make [going to jail] worth it this time." Id. at 788.

         In testifying about these facts, Cornelia stated that she had hit Mr. Yazzie with the car to protect herself, explaining that she wanted to scare him because he would otherwise have continued to hurt her if he had reentered the car. Id. at 794.

         2. Mr. Yazzie's Prior Acts of Violence

         The district court also admitted testimony from the three witnesses about Mr. Yazzie's prior violence toward Cornelia. For example, Cornelia testified that Mr. Yazzie would "usually" hit her with a closed fist and that his blows would "always [be] on the face." Id. at 757.[3] Mr. Yazzie added that he had hit Cornelia when they were living together and that he had gone to jail as a result.

         The witnesses also testified about three prior incidents.

         First, both sisters testified that on Halloween a few years earlier,

• Tamara, Cornelia, and Mr. Yazzie had been drinking in a car;
• Mr. Yazzie had gotten drunk, stopped the car, and argued with Cornelia; and
• Mr. Yazzie then hit Cornelia in the face and pushed her into oncoming traffic.

         Second, Cornelia testified about a past incident in which Mr. Yazzie had punched her in the face and stabbed her brother in the chest with a knife. Mr. Yazzie corroborated this incident, though he claimed that he had only "poked" Cornelia's brother with the knife. Id. at 711.

         Third, Cornelia testified about another incident in which Mr. Yazzie had hit her twice in the face with his fist.

         C. The Excluded Testimony

         Cornelia unsuccessfully tried to present additional testimony from the three witnesses. That testimony would have encompassed both the day of the incident and Mr. Yazzie's prior acts of violence.

         1. The Day ...

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