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144762 - People v Williams (Johnny)

The People of the State of Michigan,
 
Erin Leigh Birkam
 
Plaintiff-Appellee,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Wayne – Boykin, U.)
 
Johnny Lee Williams
 
Neil J. Leithauser
 
Defendant-Appellant.
 


Summary

​After fatally shooting another man at a Detroit motorcycle club, Johnny Lee Williams left the club with his fiancée. Fifteen days later, Williams turned himself in to the police. Williams claimed that he acted in self-defense, believing that the victim was reaching for a gun; Williams said he left the club because he feared being attacked by another man at the club, and delayed going to the police because his cousin advised him to first hire an attorney.

 

At Williams’ trial, in closing arguments, the prosecutor referred to Williams’ account of events: “[H]e wants you to believe that he is the victim in this case … That’s what he says, but do his actions suggest that in any way? He said he stood outside the club for less than a minute, that he ordered his girlfriend to drive away, that she did so, that the police were coming in their direction, but yet he doesn’t go to the police … he still doesn’t have anyone take him to the police station until fifteen days later. Ladies and gentlemen, an innocent man, a victim is someone that’s going to not run out a front door and stay gone for fifteen days.” The trial judge sustained Williams’ objections to these and similar remarks by the prosecutor, ruling that Williams “has an absolute right not to make any statements” and “has no obligation to talk to the police.”

 

A jury convicted Williams of second-degree murder, MCL 750.317, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, MCL 750.227b. The judge sentenced Williams to 23 years (276 months) to 40 years for the murder and two years for the felony-firearm conviction. Statutory sentencing guidelines include offense variables, which represent different aspects of a crime; the statute assigns a range of points for each OV. In this case, the judge scored 10 points for OV 19, MCL 777.49, interference with the administration of justice. The judge based this score on Williams’ 15-day delay in turning himself in to the police. Without the 10 points for OV 19, the statutory minimum sentence would have been in the range of 162-270 months, rather than the 180-300 month minimum with the 10 points.

 

Williams appealed, challenging his convictions on several grounds; he also argued that the trial judge erred by scoring 10 points on OV 19. But in an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals upheld Williams’ convictions and his sentence.

 

Williams contended that the prosecutor’s closing argument improperly shifted the burden of proof to Williams by referring to his 15-day delay in going to the police. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument: “To the extent that the challenged comments here could be viewed as improper, the trial court’s instructions to the jury cured any error.”

 

Williams also argued that his actions did not amount to interference with the administration of justice; he did not affirmatively interfere with the police investigation, had no legal duty to remain at the shooting scene, and left only because he feared for his life, Williams maintained. Moreover, once he retained an attorney, Williams did turn himself in to the police, he asserted. The prosecution countered that Williams’ 15-day delay in turning himself in – despite knowing that he was wanted for the crime – amounted to interference with the administration of justice. When driving away from the scene of the crime, Williams’ fiancée pulled over for a police car, and Williams jumped out and fled; he avoided his home and kept his whereabouts a secret from his fiancée in an attempt to hinder the investigation, the prosecution said. Moreover, Williams attempted to influence his fiancée’s testimony; he also disposed of the gun he used in the shooting, the prosecution stated.

 

The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge properly assessed 10 points for OV 19. “OV 19 requires a trial court to assess ten points where ‘[t]he offender otherwise interfered with or attempted to interfere with the administration of justice,’” the appellate court said, citing MCL 777.49. “Any acts by a defendant that interfere or attempt to interfere with the judicial process or law enforcement officers and their investigation of a crime may support a score for OV 19.”

 

The Court of Appeals observed, “Here, there was trial testimony that defendant left the scene by jumping in [his fiancée’s] van and driving away with her…Although defendant did not directly flee from police at the scene, he admittedly left the scene and did not contact the police for 15 days, even though he was aware that he was wanted in connection with the shooting. Thus, defendant hindered law enforcement efforts by leaving the scene and by remaining at large for more than two weeks. Because there is some support in the record for the trial court’s scoring of OV 19, we uphold the trial court’s scoring decision.”

 

Williams appealed, and in an October 24, 2012 order, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal, “limited to the issue whether OV 19 (interference with the administration of justice) was correctly scored.”