674 S.E.2d 602
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
JUSTICE KETCHUM concurs and reserves the right to file a concurring opinion.
JUSTICE ALBRIGHT not participating.
SENIOR STATUS JUSTICE McHUGH sitting by temporary assignment.
Per Curiam: (See footnote 1)
Gloria Jean Willett, defendant below and appellant herein (hereinafter referred to as Mrs. Willett), appeals from an order of the Circuit Court of Raleigh County denying her motion for a new trial. Mrs. Willett was sentenced to prison after being convicted by a jury on four counts of drug possession with intent to deliver. She was also convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit a felony. (See footnote 2) In this Court, Mrs. Willett assigns error to the trial court's ruling that permitted the jury to hear evidence of collateral crimes under Rule 404(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence. (See footnote 3) After a careful review of the briefs and the record submitted on appeal, and having listened to the oral arguments of the parties, we affirm.
The standard of review for a trial court's admission of evidence pursuant to Rule 404(b) involves a three-step analysis. First, we review for clear error the trial court's factual determination that there is sufficient evidence to show the other acts occurred. Second, we review de novo whether the trial court correctly found the evidence was admissible for a legitimate purpose. Third, we review for an abuse of discretion the trial court's conclusion that the other acts evidence is more probative than prejudicial under Rule 403.
State v. LaRock, 196 W. Va. 294, 310-11, 470 S.E.2d 613, 629-30 (1996). In State v. McGinnis, 193 W. Va. 147, 455 S.E.2d 516 (1994), we explained that this Court will review the trial court's decision to admit evidence pursuant to Rule 404(b) under an abuse of discretion standard. McGinnis, 193 W. Va. at 159, 455 S.E.2d at 528. McGinnis further held:
Our function on . . . appeal is limited to the inquiry as to whether the trial court acted in a way that was so arbitrary and irrational that it can be said to have abused its discretion. In reviewing the admission of Rule 404(b) evidence, we review it in the light most favorable to the party offering the evidence, in this case the prosecution, maximizing its probative value and minimizing its prejudicial effect.
McGinnis, 193 W. Va. at 159, 455 S.E.2d at 528. Guided by these standards, we now consider the substantive issues herein raised.
Where an offer of evidence is made under Rule 404(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence, the trial court, pursuant to Rule 104(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence, is to determine its admissibility. Before admitting the evidence, the trial court should conduct an in camera hearing as stated in State v. Dolin, 176 W. Va. 688, 347 S.E.2d 208 (1986). After hearing the evidence and arguments of counsel, the trial court must be satisfied by a preponderance of the evidence that the acts or conduct occurred and that the defendant committed the acts. If the trial court does not find by a preponderance of the evidence that the acts or conduct was committed or that the defendant was the actor, the evidence should be excluded under Rule 404(b). If a sufficient showing has been made, the trial court must then determine the relevancy of the evidence under Rules 401 and 402 of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence and conduct the balancing required under Rule 403 of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence. If the trial court is then satisfied that the Rule 404(b) evidence is admissible, it should instruct the jury on the limited purpose for which such evidence has been admitted. A limiting instruction should be given at the time the evidence is offered, and we recommend that it be repeated in the trial court's general charge to the jury at the conclusion of the evidence.
The prosecution filed notice of its intention to introduce Rule 404(b) evidence through Mr. Reed at the trial. (See footnote 9) In its notice, the prosecution declared the purpose for which the evidence was to be offered was that of motive, planning, and intent. Mrs. Willett filed a motion to exclude the testimony of Mr. Reed. The trial court then conducted an evidentiary hearing with respect to the prosecutor's notice and Mrs. Willett's motion. During the hearing, the trial court heard testimony from Mr. Reed, Mrs. Willett, and Mr. Willett. Ultimately, the trial court found that the prosecutor satisfied the requirements for admitting Mr. Reed's testimony under Rule 404(b). (See footnote 10)
Mrs. Willett's brief appears to challenge the trial court's Rule 404(b) ruling on the basis that the evidence was insufficient to establish that Mr. Reed's testimony was reliable. She also asserts that the probative value of the evidence was outweighed by its prejudicial effect. (See footnote 11) We address those two matters separately.
As to the reliability issue, Mrs. Willett argues that Mr. Reed was unable to provide any specific date on which the drug transactions occurred, and there was no evidence to corroborate his testimony. We reject these arguments as a basis for reversal. The record is clear. The prosecutor established by a preponderance of the evidence that the acts occurred and that Mrs. Willett took part in them.
At the suppression hearing, Mr. Reed testified that he was involved in 50 to 100 drug transactions with Mrs. Willett over a two-year period. Mr. Reed testified that he was introduced to Mrs. Willett by her brother, Gary Lilly. Mr. Reed stated that he went to see Mr. Lilly to buy drugs. Mr. Lilly had no drugs. However, Mr. Lilly informed Mr. Reed that he could buy drugs from his sister, Mrs. Willett. The following testimony was given by Mr. Reed during direct and cross examination at the hearing:
Q. How did you find out Mrs. Willett had pills to sell?
A. Her brother introduced me to her.
Q. What's her brother's name?
A. Gary Lilly.
. . . . .
Q. And I take it that Gary would be a person who would be available to confirm or deny that particular statement?
Q. Now _ and where did that particular transaction take place?
A. I went down to Gary's and Gary said he didn't have any, so we went to his sister's house.
Q. And both of you went?
Q. And that would have been, to your best recollection, two years ago?
The prosecutor had intended to have Mr. Lilly testify at the hearing, but he was not available. Mrs. Willett acknowledged at the hearing that Mr. Lilly was in Florida. More importantly, Mrs. Willett's testimony revealed that Mr. Lilly gave a statement to the police that corroborated Mr. Reed's testimony. Mrs. Willett stated that she had read the statement by Mr. Lilly. Mrs. Willett asserted that the statement was not true. According to Mrs. Willett, Mr. Lilly made up the accusations because he thought that she was going to inform the police that he had previously broken into her home. However, at no time did Mrs. Willett inform the police about the alleged break-in. After extensive questioning about the matter, Mrs. Willett testified as follows:
Q. I guess I'm wondering if nothing happened to your brother at that _ as a result of the break-in and that was in November of '04, why did he give a police statement in May of '05?
A. Because I had quit talking to him because of this incident of him breaking into my house, and I had told him I was going to call the police.
There was further testimony by Mr. Reed. He testified that, on at least two occasions, he cut Mrs. Willett's lawn, and she paid him with drugs. Mrs. Willett acknowledged that Mr. Reed had cut her lawn. She stated, however, that she had paid him cash for his services. Mr. Reed also testified that, while he was incarcerated, he called the police to inform them that Mrs. Willett was a drug dealer in order to make a deal to get out of jail. The record reflects that the prosecutor refused to offer any deal to Mr. Reed.
When looking at the evidence in its totality, we are satisfied that the trial court properly admitted Mr. Reed's testimony under Rule 404(b). Even though Mr. Reed was unable to give any specific dates regarding his drug transactions with Mrs. Willett, that matter is tempered by the fact that there was testimony by Mrs. Willett that her brother gave the police a statement that corroborated Mr. Reed's accusations against her. (See footnote 12) Consequently, we find no clear error in the trial court's determination that there was sufficient evidence to show that the other bad acts actually transpired. We further find that the trial court properly deemed the evidence admissible for a legitimate purpose under the Rule 404(b) analysis. It was used to demonstrate Mrs. Willett's motive, planning, and intent.
Likewise, we find the circuit court properly concluded that the prejudicial effect of Mr. Reed's testimony did not outweigh the probative value of that evidence. This Court has previously stated that [m]ost, if not all, [evidence] which one party to an action offers in evidence [is] calculated to be prejudicial to the opposing party; therefore, it is only 'unfair prejudice' with which . . . [Rule 404(b) is] concerned. State v. McIntosh, 207 W. Va. 561, 573, 534 S.E.2d 757, 769 (2000) (internal quotations and citations omitted). We
have also made clear that [u]nfair prejudice does not mean damage to a defendant's case that results from the legitimate probative force of the evidence; rather it refers to evidence which tends to suggest [a] decision on an improper basis. LaRock, 196 W. Va. at 312, 470 S.E.2d at 631. Applying this standard, the trial court reasonably could have concluded that Mr. Reed's testimony was probative of a fact and was not unduly prejudicial.
Mr. Reed's testimony about the uncharged drug transactions was integrally connected to the criminal activity charged in the indictment. Evidence of the prior drug sales was necessary to place Mrs. Willett's possession of such a large amount of narcotic prescription pills in context and to complete the story of the charged crimes. Mr. Reed's testimony was so highly probative that any possible prejudice evaporated in comparison to it. Discerning no error, we hold the trial court acted within the realm of discretion in permitting the jury to hear and consider the contested testimony. LaRock, 196 W.Va. at 313, 470 S.E.2d at 632.