State v. Weber

State v. Weber, 2016 MT 138 (June 7, 2016) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court abused its discretion by refusing to admit the inventory list offered by defense counsel; (2) whether the district court abused its discretion by limiting defense counsel’s examination of defense investigator Peck; and (3) whether defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to admit the evidence.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; and (3) yes.

Reversed and remanded for a new trial

Facts: Weber was a janitor at Sydney High School. He was working the night a tool used to cut metal and steel went missing from the high school shop classroom. The principal later identified Weber on surveillance video on the shop the night the plasma cutter disappeared. After an investigation, the state charged Weber with theft in excess of $1,500.

Weber’s trial counsel, from the public defender’s office, had two goals in trial: to deny that Weber took the plasma cutter, and to show the plasma cutter was worth less than $1,500, which would reduce a conviction to a misdemeanor.

The state used three witnesses to establish the value of the plasma cutter. On cross-examination of the shop teacher, Weber’s counsel attempted to introduce an inventory spreadsheet as evidence. The state objected for lack of foundation, as the shop teacher had not created the spreadsheet and could not verify that the plasma cutter on the spreadsheet was the same one stolen from the school. Weber’s counsel attempted to lay proper foundation, but was unable to get the spreadsheet into evidence. Similarly, he had difficulty getting in evidence that the cutter was worth less than $1,500 through his investigator.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The jury found Weber guilty of felony theft, determining the plasma cutter was worth more than $1,500. Weber moved for a new trial, the district court denied the motion and Weber was sentenced to four years in prison, all deferred. Weber appeals form the order denying the motion for a new trial and the evidentiary rulings, and also raises claims of ineffective assistance. The Supreme Court reverses and remands for a new trial.

Reasoning: (1) The spreadsheet was likely admissible under multiple hearsay exceptions and was clearly admissible as a business record. Weber’s counsel was not properly prepared and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying admission of the list. Counsel failed to lay foundation for the admission of the list before he began asking questions about its content.

(2) Similar to the mistakes made regarding the spreadsheet, counsel’s questions jumped directly to the content and final conclusion on value. The district court properly sustained the objections to the investigator’s testimony because Weber’s counsel failed to establish a foundation for he investigator’s conclusions.

(3) The Court concludes for two reasons that there is “no plausible justification” for Weber’s counsel’s mistakes. It first concludes that trial counsel’s failure to gain admission of the inventory list falls outside of the “wide range of reasonable professional assistance” provided for under Strickland because he arrived at trial unprepared and uninformed regarding the inventory list and the manner in which to lay foundation for its admission. It next concludes there is no plausible justification for counsel’s failure to establish a key element of Weber’s defense, the market value of the plasma cutter, when the evidence was available. The first prong of Strickland is met. The second Strickland prong, prejudice, is also met. Trial counsel’s failures prejudiced Weber’s right to a fair trial. Weber has demonstrated a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel’s deficient performance, the outcome would have been different.