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State v. Greeson

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 19, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Brian D. Greeson, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Monongalia County 15-F-12

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Brian D. Greeson, by counsel Jason D. Parmer, appeals the April 27, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County that denied his motion for a new trial and sentenced him to a term of forty years in prison for the offense of second-degree murder. The State of West Virginia, by counsel Zachary Aaron Viglianco, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner lived in an apartment with his co-defendant, Charles Shaffer, and the victim, Leslie Fields.[1] On December 15, 2014, while responding to a report of a potential burglary, the Morgantown Police Department encountered petitioner pounding on the locked door to his apartment in an effort to get in. Petitioner told the responding police officers that something "bad" was going on in the apartment, and that he did not have a key with him. The officers observed significant amounts of blood on petitioner's clothes and body.

         The officers knocked repeatedly on the door but there was no response. They eventually obtained a key from the landlord and gained entrance to the apartment where they discovered the victim's body. The autopsy revealed that the victim's body had thirty-nine stab wounds and twenty incised wounds and that the likely cause of death was blunt force trauma that caused a brain stem hemorrhage. Two knives were found at the scene, one next to the body and one underneath it.[2]

         On January 9, 2015, petitioner and Shaffer were jointly indicted in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County on one count each of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. On September 21, 2015, Shaffer entered into a plea agreement with the State of West Virginia in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of second-degree murder, a lesser-included felony in count one of the indictment; the State agreed to dismiss the conspiracy charge.

         Petitioner was tried before a jury. Prior to trial, the State filed a motion in limine to prohibit petitioner from introducing evidence of Shaffer's guilty plea on the ground that it was not relevant to petitioner's case. Petitioner filed a response. At a subsequent hearing, the circuit court granted the State's motion. However, the court advised the parties that if, at trial, the State were to open the door to such evidence, the court would allow petitioner to introduce it.

         Petitioner's defense at trial was that Shaffer alone killed Leslie Fields. Petitioner testified that he had drank heavily all day on the day of the murder and that he had gone upstairs to his room in the apartment to sleep. He testified that he awakened when Shaffer yelled for him and that it was then that he saw the victim lying on the floor. Petitioner testified that he became covered in the victim's blood when he tried to move the body. According to petitioner, Shaffer asked him to dispose of a bicycle part that Shaffer used to hit the victim on the head. Petitioner claimed that he encouraged Shaffer to go to the police to tell them what happened.[3] Petitioner placed the item in a backpack and disposed of it in a dumpster in downtown Morgantown. It was when he returned to his locked apartment that he encountered the police. Petitioner was taken to the police station where petitioner initially told police that someone other than Shaffer killed the victim. [4] Petitioner was also recorded while he sat alone in the police interview room, saying to himself, "man, I locked the f*****g door, " and "I wasn't trying to kill him." Also at the police station, when petitioner was told that he was being charged with first degree murder, he stated, "that's premeditated, there wasn't nothing premeditated or none of that, there goes my life, huh."[5]

         On February 5, 2016, petitioner was convicted of the offense of second degree murder. By order entered April 27, 2016, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion for judgment of acquittal or, alternatively, for a new trial, and sentenced petitioner to a term of forty years in prison. This appeal followed.

         Petitioner's case is before this Court on appeal from an order denying his motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, a judgment of acquittal. This Court applies the following standard when reviewing a circuit court decision denying a new trial:

In reviewing challenges to findings and rulings made by a circuit court, we apply a two-pronged deferential standard of review. We review the rulings of the circuit court concerning a new trial and its conclusion as to the existence of reversible error under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Vance, 207 W.Va. 640, 535 S.E.2d 484 (2000).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court violated his constitutional right to present a defense when it excluded evidence of his co-defendant's guilty plea to second degree murder.[6] Relying on syllabus point one, in part, of State v. Harman, petitioner argues that evidence of another perpetrator is relevant and admissible when it "tends to directly link such party to the crime . . . . [If] the testimony provides a direct link to someone other than the defendant, its exclusion constitutes reversible error." 165 W.Va. 494, 270 S.E.2d 146 (1980). According to petitioner, Shaffer's guilty plea was critical to the issue of petitioner's guilt as it was definitive evidence that Shaffer killed the victim and "is also circumstantial evidence probative of [petitioner's] theory that Shaffer acted alone." Petitioner argues further that the State opened the door to evidence of Shaffer's guilty plea but that the circuit court, nonetheless, refused to admit such evidence.

         It is well settled that "'[r]ulings on the admissibility of evidence are largely within a trial court's sound discretion and should not be disturbed unless there has been an abuse of discretion.' State v. Louk, 171 W.Va. 639, 301 S.E.2d 596, 599 (1983)." Syl. Pt. 2, State v. Peyatt, 173 W.Va. 317, 315 S.E.2d 574 (1983). As we explained in State v. Wakefield,

[o]nly rarely and in extraordinary circumstances will we, from the vista of a cold appellate record, reverse a circuit court's on-the-spot judgment concerning the relative ...

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