Intentions weigh heavily in culpability as accomplice

By Dan Heilman
BridgeTower Media Newswires

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — When does someone present during the commission of a crime become an accomplice? That was the issue in a decision published recently by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

It happens when a defendant knew the alleged accomplices were going to or were committing a crime, the Court of Appeals said in State of Minnesota v. Daley Marie Smith, affirming instructions given in the Mille Lacs County District Court.

The case resulted from an assault and robbery in the home of two people in December 2013. A third person was there as a visitor. On that day, Chadric McKee struck one of the residents three times in the head, fracturing the person’s jaw. McKee grabbed the other resident by the hair, pointed a gun at her head, and demanded money. Smith was present.

Finally, McKee approached the visitor with the gun in his hand and took her cash, prescription medication and cell phone.

Smith was charged as McKee’s accomplice under Minn. Stat. § 609.05. The main issue in a trial at Mille Lacs County District Court was whether Smith was criminally liable for the crimes committed by McKee.

As it turns out, Smith had repeatedly asked to borrow money from the person visiting the home, J.F., who initially agreed to lend money to Smith but then changed her mind. Earlier in the day, before the robbery in question, Smith visited the home of the two victims to ask to borrow money. J.F. was there, but hid in a bedroom. Smith told the two residents that she would return later.

She returned with McKee, whom the residents did not know. J.F. again retreated to the bedroom to avoid Smith. As McKee assaulted the two victims, J.F. called 911 from a bedroom closet. Smith went to the bedroom and discovered J.F. as the 911 call was in progress.

When J.F. asked appellant what was going on, Smith said, “[McKee’s] going crazy.” McKee approached the bedroom and stopped near the door, holding the gun in his hand. J.F. gave him her money, prescription pills, and cell phone, which was still connected to 911. J.F. testified that Smith stood by while this occurred, but did not demand or physically take any of the items. McKee and Smith left the house together.

Smith was arrested and charged by the state as an accomplice to first-degree aggravated robbery, second-degree assault and third-degree assault. At trial, the District Court instructed the jury about each of those offenses and the lesser-included offense of simple robbery, along with an accomplice-liability instruction with the instructions for each crime.

The instructions told the jury that a defendant’s presence constitutes aiding if “the defendant knew her alleged accomplices were going to or were committing a crime” and “intended that her presence and actions aid the commission of the crime.” This accomplice-liability instruction mirrored the CRIMJIG 4.01 instruction. 10 Minnesota Practice, CRIMJIG 4.01 (Supp. 2016).


Culpability or mere presence?

Smith was found guilty of each charged offense, and appealed, arguing that the District Court’s jury instruction constitutes plain error affecting her substantial rights. According to Smith’s attorneys from the Appellate Public Defender’s office, the jury instruction on accomplice liability deviated from language used by the Minnesota Supreme Court in numerous cases to describe the knowledge element under Minn. Stat. § 609.05. The result, the defense said, was that the instruction allowed Smith to be convicted for merely being present at the scene of a crime.

The state maintained at trial that Smith enlisted McKee to help her steal the money she had asked J.F. for previously. The appeals court agreed that the evidence that this happened was sufficient, but it also said that if it was true that instructions allowed the jury to find Smith criminally liable for crimes of another beyond the scope of the accomplice-liability statute, then a new trial was warranted.

“Because the jury was only asked to decide if appellant was guilty or not guilty, the adequacy of the jury instruction is critically important,” wrote Court of Appeals Judge John R. Rodenberg.

The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s decision based on a review of the jury instruction for plain error. An error is plain if it “contravenes case law, a rule or a standard of conduct,” according to
State v. Ramey, a Supreme Court decision from 2006.

More specifically, an accomplice-liability instruction is erroneous if it allows the jury to find a defendant guilty as an accomplice without first finding that he or she knowingly and intentionally assisted in the commission of a crime. In State v. Milton (2012), the Supreme Court said an accomplice-liability instruction must explain to the jury that “in order to find a defendant guilty as an accomplice, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew his alleged accomplice was going to commit a crime and the defendant intended his presence or actions to further the commission of that crime.”

Based on those and other precedents, the appeals court found that those principles were effectively communicated to the jury through the District Court’s accomplice-liability instruction, noting that deviation from the Supreme Court’s specific language does not indicate error.

The case law indicates that defendant must possess knowledge of a crime before the defendant intentionally aids in its commission. “A defendant who acquires the requisite knowledge while the accomplice is in the process of committing the offense, and makes the choice to aid in its commission either through her presence or her actions, is guilty as an accomplice under the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 609.05,” the court said.

“Put another way, a defendant is criminally liable under Minn. Stat. § 609.05 for crimes committed by another if she intends her presence or actions to aid the other in committing an offense that she knows is criminal,” the court continued.

“We are satisfied that the jury understood that appellant was subject to liability as an accomplice if she intended her presence or actions to aid in the commission of an offense at a point in time when she knew her accomplice was going to commit or was in the process of committing a crime,” wrote Rodenberg.

Attorneys for Smith and for the state were unavailable to comment on the case.