December 12th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its decision in State v. Jones (No. 97,279). In a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Johnson, the Court rejected Eric Jones’ appeal of his conviction for the first-degree murder of Brannon Wright, in Wyandotte County. In reaching its decision the Court developed its 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause jurisprudence in two ways. Firstly, in the light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Giles v. California, the Court overturned its own precedent in State v. Meeks. Secondly and more notably, it found a ‘dying declaration’ exception in the Confrontation Clause.
The background to this case was the killing of Brannon Wright in Kansas City, Kansas over the alleged theft of $300-400 from Jones’ girlfriend at a party in Kansas City, Missouri the night before. Jones and several others, including one Terrae Johnson, approached Wright and witnesses reported that Jones threatened Wright with a handgun before they fled for cover. Almost immediately afterwards they reported hearing multiple gunshots. Paramedics attending to Wright asked him about what had happened and he gave them the address of Jones’ girlfriend and Jones’ nickname. Wright eventually succumbed to his wounds before giving a proper statement to police. Jones and the others had fled the scene. Johnson was later apprehended with the gun while evidence tied Jones to a bloody shirt and shoe found discarded in a plastic bag. At trial Jones maintained that Johnson was the shooter, but the District Judge allowed the admission of the paramedic’s account of Wright’s statements which, along with the witnesses who had heard the shooting, identified Jones.
Jones’ appeal argues that the District Court erred in allowing this evidence to be included. The Kansas Supreme Court’s prior implementation of the ‘forfeit by wrongdoing’ exception to the 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause (State v. Meeks) had allowed for this kind of testimony to be admitted where the defendant’s actions had prevented the appearance of the witness (based on a preponderance of the evidence standard). Thus, since it was likely that Jones had shot Wright, the testimony could be included. However, Jones argued that Meeks was incorrect and that an element of intent was required also, i.e. to show that Jones shot Wright with the intent that he be unable to testify. Jones’ argument proved to be prescient – the US Supreme Court came to that same conclusion earlier this year in Giles v. California – and the Kansas Supreme Court here duly overrules and clarifies Meeks as a result.
However, the Court refused to remand Jones’ case for a ruling on whether he had intended to prevent Wright from testifying (while shooting him five times), because it identified a different exception in the Confrontation Clause. At common law hearsay evidence was blocked except under two exceptions. One of these was the aforementioned ‘forfeit by wrongdoing’ exception. The other was the ‘dying declaration’ exception, which was where a victim’s reported testimony was given voluntarily when they were conscious of their impending death. Such statements were admitted at common law. The US Supreme Court opinions incorporating the first exception have noted the ‘dying declaration’ exception’s existence in footnotes (without ruling on the merits of its incorporation). The Kansas Supreme Court takes that step in this case and incorporates the ‘dying declaration’ exception into the 6th Amendment right to confront ones accusers.
In disposing of Jones’ appeal the court also rejected two other arguments: prosecutorial misconduct by way of a prejudicial closing statement and error by failing to instruct on lesser included offenses. The former claim is rejected because the prosecutors’ comments taken in context as part of the totality of his argument did not rise to the level required to trigger this type of misconduct. The latter is rejected because the offenses Jones was arguing for are offenses based on either loss of self control or killing by recklessness, which no rational jury could have convicted on, given that Jones maintained at trial that Johnson had shot Wright.
Jones’ 25 to life sentence is therefore upheld.