In State of Vermont v. Glen Haskins, Jr., 2016 VT 79 (July 15, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision and upheld Defendant’s conviction.
Issue: In January 2012, an altercation in downtown Burlington resulted in a stabbing. While there was initially some confusion as to who had stabbed the victim, Defendant’s friends ultimately all came to the conclusion that he was the perpetrator, and reported him to the police. Defendant was then arrested, charged, and subsequently convicted of attempted second-degree murder. On appeal, he argued that the trial court erred in refusing to allow a police officer to testify, since the testimony would have been offered for the falsity of a witness’s statement and therefore was not hearsay; that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that the term “beyond reasonable doubt” means being convinced with “great certainty;” that the trial court’s instruction on inferring an intent to kill suggested that the evidence proved Defendant’s “specific intent to kill;” and that the trial court committed plain error by instructing the jury that it could infer intent to kill from evidence that a knife was used, but failing to instruct the jury that it had to find that the facts leading to the inference were “proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Holding: The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision and upheld Defendant’s conviction for attempted second-degree murder. With regard to Defendant’s first argument, the Court found that the trial court did err in excluding the officer’s testimony, but that it was a harmless error. In determining whether the error was harmless, the Court looked to the strength of the case against Defendant without the evidence and to the strength of the excluded evidence, determining that the State’s case was strong enough without the excluded evidence to lead to a conviction. The Court delved into the evidence with some detail in coming to this conclusion, ultimately finding that the excluded testimony did not go to the issue of Defendant’s guilt or innocence. With regard to Defendant’s second argument, the Court found that the fact that the trial court used the phrase “great certainty” instead of “utmost certainty” was not an error. The Court looked at the trial court’s jury instruction as a whole before finding that there was no error (but noted that it strongly cautioned against attempting to explain the phrase “reasonable doubt”). With regard to Defendant’s third argument, the Court found that the trial court’s jury instruction on intent was a proper statement of the law – the court told the jury that there had to be a “specific intent to kill,” that the jury could infer intent from circumstantial evidence, and correctly explained what attempt means in the context of attempted murder. With regard to Defendant’s final argument, the Court found that the jury instructions were not misleading, and that the jury had sufficient evidence upon which to base its conclusion that there was intent to kill.
Dissent: Robinson, J. dissented, agreeing with the majority’s finding that the trial court erred in excluding the police officer’s testimony, but disagreeing with the majority’s finding that the error was harmless. Justice Robinson reviewed Vermont’s harmless error standard in depth before reviewing the evidence in depth as well. She noted the discrepancies in eyewitness testimony, as well as the discrepancies in the testimony of the individuals Defendant was with before the stabbing occurred. She then determined, based on the evidence, that the State’s case had enough strengths to go before a jury, but that it had enough weaknesses to potentially lead to an acquittal. Given the interplay of the strengths and weaknesses in the State’s case, it is possible that the excluded evidence would have supported Defendant’s theory of the case (that his friends and acquaintances conspired against him to tell the police that he was the assailant). Because many of the weaknesses in the State’s case stemmed from the credibility of the witnesses that Defendant could have been able to impeach with the excluded evidence, Justice Robinson could not, beyond a reasonable doubt, conclude that the exclusion of the officer’s testimony did not impact the jury’s guilty verdict.