PEOPLE OF MI V DAVID EDWARD ESTEPAnnotate this Case
STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN,
June 30, 1998
Genesee Circuit Court
LC No. 92-037290 FH
DAVID EDWARD ESTEP,
Before: Kelly, P.J., and Reilly and Jansen, JJ.
Defendant was charged with second-degree murder, MCL 750.317; MSA 28.549, and use of
a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), MCL 750.227(b); MSA 28.424(2). A
jury convicted defendant of voluntary manslaughter, MCL 750.321; MSA 28.553, and felony-firearm.
The trial court sentenced defendant as an habitual third-time offender, MCL 769.11; MSA 28.1083, to
eighteen to thirty years’ imprisonment, to be served consecutively to the mandatory two-year sentence
for the felony-firearm conviction.
Defendant appealed his convictions as of right, contending, that the trial court erred in rejecting
the plea agreement that he had entered into with the prosecutor. By the terms of the bargain , defendant
agreed to plead guilty to the crime of careless use of a firearm resulting in death, MCL 752.861; MSA
28.436(21), a two-year misdemeanor. The trial court refused to accept defendant’s guilty plea to that
felony because the family of the victim expressed strong opposition to it. In an unpublished opinion,
released June 11, 1996, we held that, in light of the revisions to MCR 6.301 and MCR 6.302, the
adoption of the staff comments to MCR 6.301(B), and this Court’s decision in People v Grove, 208
Mich App 574; 528 NW2d 796 (1995)1, the trial court did not have discretion to reject defendant’s
guilty plea, primarily because defendant’s sentencing was not part of the underlying plea agreement.
People v Estep, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued June 11, 1996
(Docket No. 167806). Therefore, we reversed defendant’s convictions and remanded the case for
acceptance of defendant’s guilty plea, as consistent with the opinion.
The prosecutor applied for leave to appeal this panel’s decision. In lieu of granting leave, the
Supreme Court remanded this matter to the trial court to determine “whether the prosecutor in off-the
record discussions with defense counsel or defendant expressly conditioned any plea offer on the
concurrence of the victim’s family.” People v Estep, 453 Mich 917; 554 NW2d 910 (1996). At the
hearing on this matter, witnesses for the prosecution, including the Genesee County Prosecutor and the
assistant prosecutor in charge of the case, testified that the plea agreement was conditioned on the
acquiescence of the victim’s family, a fact of which defendant’s attorney had been apprised. However,
the defense attorney could not recall whether the plea agreement had been conditioned on the family’s
approval. The trial court resolved this matter against defendant, finding that the plea disposition was
actually conditioned on the family’s approval.
By order dated February 28, 1997, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal,
vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to this Court for reconsideration
in light of the findings of the circuit court.
On appeal after remand, defendant argues that the trial court abused its discretion by rejecting
the plea agreement. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in People v Grove, 455 Mich 439; 566
NW2d 547 (1997), we must disagree. In Grove, the defendant had been charged with first-degree
criminal sexual conduct,2 a charge carrying a possible maximum sentence of life imprisonment,3 and
second-degree criminal sexual conduct,4 which carries a maximum fifteen-year sentence.5 Defendant
agreed to plead guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct,6 a misdemeanor carrying a maximum
sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a $500 fine.7 In exchange, the prosecutor was to dismiss the
other charges against defendant and recommend that he serve not more than one year in the county jail.
Id. at 444-445. The trial court rejected the proposed plea agreement, because the victim, who was the
defendant’s fifteen-year-old daughter, recommended that defendant serve prison time, and the cap as
recommended by the prosecutor would not allow for prison time. Id. at 446. Subsequently, a jury
convicted the defendant of one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Id. at 447. This Court
reversed the defendant’s conviction on the basis that “a trial court retains the option to reject a
defendant’s underlying guilty plea only when the plea agreement includes a specific sentence
disposition,” and the Grove defendant’s plea agreement included only a prosecutorial sentence
recommendation. People v Grove, 208 Mich App 574, 579; 528 NW2d 796 (1995). The Supreme
Court reversed, stating, “[T]he decision whether to accept or reject a bargained plea, on the basis of
whether acceptance of the proffered plea presents an undue interference with the judge’s sentencing
discretion, given the facts of the individual case, is a proper exercise of the trial court’s discretion.” 455
Mich at 460.8
In this case, on reconsideration we find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by
rejecting the plea agreement. Defendant was originally charged with second-degree murder, an offense
that carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment. MCL 750.317; MSA 28.549. Motivated by the
strong objections of the victim’s family, the trial court rejected the proposed plea of careless use of a
firearm resulting in death, which effectively would have constrained the trial court’s sentencing discretion
by reducing the maximum potential sentence to imprisonment for only two years. MCL 752.862; MSA
28.436(21). As in Grove, we find that the trial court’s rejection of defendant’s guilty plea “reflected
[its] understanding of the plea agreement, considering the facts and the interests of the victim, as a
substantial hinderance of [its] ability to impose an appropriate sentence under the plea bargain where the
offense to which the defendant agreed to plead guilty . . . is a two-year maximum misdemeanor, while
the originally charged offense w[as] subject to a sentence of life or any term of years.” Id. at 463
464. After Grove, it is clear that the trial court has discretion to reject a plea where the sentencing
potential differs substantially from that posed by the originally charged offense, even where the plea
agreement contains no suggested sentence. Accordingly, we find that the trial court did not abuse its
discretion by rejecting defendant’s plea based on the victim’s family’s desire for harsher sentencing.
Next, defendant argues that the trial court committed reversible error in failing to disqualify the
jury panel after a police captain was excused after informing the panel he would be biased due to his
professional contact with the defendant. We disagree.
Under MCR 6.414(A), the trial court must take appropriate steps to ensure that the jurors will
not be exposed to information or influences that might affect their ability to render an impartial verdict on
the evidence presented in court. Reversible error will not be presumed because a juror is exposed to
prejudicial remarks made by a stranger or bystander; error only occurs where actual prejudice can be
shown. People v Dean, 103 Mich App 1, 5; 302 NW2d 317 (1981). See also People v Nick, 360
Mich 219; 103 NW2d 435 (1960). In the absence of a showing of actual prejudice, it is within the
court’s discretion in dealing with the problem to ask the jurors whether what they had heard would
prejudice their view of the defendant’s guilt or innocence and to give a cautionary instruction to ignore
any such comments. Id., at 5. A trial court’s determination of a juror’s ability to render an impartial
verdict will be reversed only where an appellate court finds a clear abuse of discretion. People v
Johnson, 103 Mich App 825, 830; 303 NW2d 908 (1981).
In this case, defendant has failed to show that he was actually prejudiced by Captain Peek’s
remarks. Moreover, defendant testified at trial that he had prior convictions for attempted uttering and
publishing, attempted breaking and entering and attempted larceny from a building. In light of
defendant’s admission that he had prior contacts with the criminal justice system, Captain Peek’s
remarks are nothing more than harmless error. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in
refusing to dismiss the jury panel.
Defendant next argues that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel by his attorney’s
failure to argue that a statement in a lab report was an admissible prior consistent statement. A claim of
ineffective assistance of counsel is reviewed de novo. People v Daniel, 207 Mich App 47, 58; 523
NW2d 830 (1994). In People v Pickens, 446 Mich 298; 521 NW2d 797, reh den sub nom People
v Wallace, 447 Mich 1202 (1994), Michigan adopted the federal standard articulated in Strickland v
Washington, 466 US 668; 104 S Ct 2052; 80 L Ed 2d 674, reh den 467 US 1267; 104 S Ct 3562;
82 L Ed 864 (1984), for determining whether a defendant was denied the effective assistance of
counsel. Under this standard, a defendant is denied the effective assistance of counsel if (1) counsel’s
performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) that the representation
prejudiced the defendant as to deprive him of a fair trial. Id., at 302-303.
Defendant claims the statement, a police lab report describing the blood splattering at the crime
scene, was consistent with his witness’s testimony describing the position of the parties at the scene of
the crime. At the time the statement was made, the witness was defendant’s wife. The prosecution
attacked the witness’s credibility with a charge of recently fabricating her testimony when asked if she
had spoken with others or to her husband prior to testifying. Defendant asserts this prior consistent
statement should have been used to rehabilitate the witness’s credibility. Use of such a statement
requires that (1) the impeachment of the sworn testimony attacked the witness as having a motive for
changing or falsifying her testimony so as to have been of recent contrivance or fabrication, and (2) the
earlier consistent statement was given at a time prior to the existence of any fact which would motivate
bias, interest, or corruption. People v Edwards, 139 Mich App 711, 716; 362 NW2d 775 (1984).
Defendant has failed to show the existence of any fact which would motivate bias, interest, or
corruption arising after the witness gave the statement which was included in the report. The witness
was married to defendant at the time the statement was made. Thus, the witness’s statement in the lab
report was not a prior consistent statement admissible to rebut a charge of recent fabrication.
Therefore, defendant was not denied the effective assistance of counsel by defense counsel’s failure to
argue that a statement in a lab report was an admissible prior consistent statement.
Next, defendant argues that the sentencing judge abused his discretion by apparently rejecting
defendant’s challenge to the twenty-five point scoring of OV3 in the presentencing report, and
correspondingly, imposing a disproportionately harsh sentence on defendant.
In People v Mitchell, 454 Mich 145, 176-177; 560 NW2d 600 (1997), the Supreme Court
held that appellate review is not available for claims of error based on alleged misinterpretation or
misapplication of the scoring guidelines. See People v Raby, 456 Mich 487; 572 NW2d 644 (1998).
Further, the current sentencing guidelines used by the trial courts do not have the force of law.
Therefore, a claim of a miscalculated variable is not in itself a claim of legal error. Id., at 175.
Application of the guidelines states a cognizable claim on appeal only where (1) a factual predicate is
wholly unsupported, (2) a factual predicate is materially false, and (3) the sentence is disproportionate.
Id., at 175. Defendant’s claims do not meet these requirements.
Regardless of how the sentencing judge interpreted the facts surrounding the conviction, we do
not believe that defendant’s sentence for the voluntary manslaughter conviction is disproportionate given
the circumstances surrounding this matter. People v Cutchall, 200 Mich App 396, 409-10; 504
NW2d 666 (1993). Defendant has failed to overcome the presumption of proportionality; therefore,
the trial court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant. People v Milbourn, 435 Mich 630,
654; 461 NW2d 1 (1990).
The next issue is whether the defendant was denied a fair trial by the prosecutor’s misconduct.
After reviewing the record, we do not believe that defendant was denied a fair trial by the alleged
instances of prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecutor’s remarks did not rise to the level of impropriety
which necessitates reversal. People v Mack, 190 Mich App 7, 19; 475 NW2d 830 (1991). See also
People v Marji, 180 Mich App 525, 539; 447 NW2d 835 (1989).
As to defendant’s claim of instructional error, while erroneous jury instructions which pertain to
a basic and controlling issue in the case would result in a miscarriage of justice, there is no error if an
imperfect jury instruction fairly presents to the jury the issues to be tried and sufficiently protects the
rights of the defendant. People v Federico, 146 Mich App 776, 785; 381 NW2d 819 (1985). A
review of the court’s instruction in its entirety reveals that the court adequately informed the jury that it
was to consider any prior inconsistent statements only for determining the witnesses’ credibility. Thus,
even if the court’s instruction was imperfect, it fairly presented to the jury the law on the use of prior
inconsistent statements for impeachment purposes.
Defendant next asserts that the trial court erred in overruling defendant’s objection to the
prosecutor’s urging of the jury to use the impeachment evidence in a substantive fashion. The
prosecutor argued in his closing argument that the witness, “even though he denies it, in terms of
credibility” stated in his statement to the police that “they” (referring to defendant and his wife) handed
the phone to the victim, indicating defendant was aware of the victim’s presence in the home prior to
any alleged assault on the defendant’s wife. Defense counsel objected. In response, the court left it up
to the jury to use its own judgment as to how the evidence should be used. These actions by the trial
court were erroneous. People v King, 58 Mich App 390, 396-97; 228 NW2d 391 (1975). See also
People v Kelly, 386 Mich 330, 337; 192 NW2d 494 (1971). However, in light of our conclusions
above regarding the later given jury instruction, defendant was not prejudiced. This Court has held that
where a trial court gives an erroneous instruction to the jury and later expressly repudiates the incorrect
instruction and corrects the error in a timely manner, the defendant is not prejudiced. People v
Hardesty, 139 Mich App 124, 132; 362 NW2d 787 (1984). Further, the prosecutor, in his closing
remarks, prefaced his argument by indicating the statement should be examined “in terms of credibility.”
Therefore, the court’s comments did not unduly influence the jury.
Finally, defendant claims the statements made by the prosecutor in his closing argument denied
him a fair trial. Defendant objected to the statements when made, therefore, the issue is preserved.
When reviewing a prosecutor’s comments for impropriety, the Court must examine the pertinent portion
of the record and evaluate the prosecutor’s remarks in context. People v Legrone, 205 Mich App 77,
82; 517 NW2d 270 (1994). See People v Saunders, 189 Mich App 494, 496; 473 NW2d 755
(1991). As stated above, in light of his preface when introducing the witness’s statement into his
argument, the prosecutor’s comments did not deprive defendant of a fair trial.
/s/ Michael J. Kelly
/s/ Maureen Pulte Reilly
/s/ Kathleen Jansen
This opinion was later reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court. See People v Grove, 455 Mich
439; 566 NW2d 547 (1992).
MCL 750.520b(1)(a); MSA 28.788(2)(1)(a).
MCL 750.520b(2); MSA 28.788(2)(2).
MCL 750.520c(1)(a); MSA 28.788(3)(1)(a).
MCL 750.520c(2); MSA 28.788(3)(2).
MCL 750.520e; MSA 28.788(5).
MCL 750.520e(2); MSA 28.788(5)(2).
The Supreme Court found that MCR 6.302(C)(3)(a) specifically authorized the trial court to reject a
plea agreement that included either a sentence agreement, or a sentence recommendation. Id. at 455
456. Additionally, the Supreme Court noted that, contrary to the defendant’s argument, nothing in
People v Killebrew, 416 Mich 189; 330 NW2d 834 (1982), “suggests a limitation on the trial court’s
option to reject a plea agreement in which the agreement did not provide for a specific sentence
disposition.” Id. at 456. Lastly, the Supreme Court stated that the “interests served by the nolle
prosequi statute,” MCL 767.29; MSA 28.969, which requires the trial court to grant leave before a
nolle prosequi may be entered, “would be defeated” if the prosecutor and defendant could compel the
trial court to accept an underlying plea “no matter how severe the departure from the original charge
and its sentencing framework.” Id. at 459-460.