The Washington State Court of Appeals has overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a man found guilty of killing a Tacoma cabbie who fled his native Somalia seeking a better life.
In a decision released Wednesday, the three-judge Division II panel said Pierce County prosecutors violated Jaycee Fuller’s rights by suggesting to a jury that Fuller’s silences during portions of a police interview meant he was guilty.
Justices Marywave Van Deren, Lisa Worswick and David Armstrong also ruled that Superior Court Judge Katherine Stolz improperly allowed into evidence too much information about past acts by Fuller that weren’t directly related to his trial in the death of Mohamud Ahmed.
“Accordingly, we are compelled to reverse and remand for a new trial,” Van Deren wrote for the panel.
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who handled Fuller’s trial along with deputy prosecutor Grant Blinn, said the appeals panel got it wrong and did not rely on state law in rendering the opinion.
“We will be appealing to the state Supreme Court, and we’re confident we will prevail at that level,” Lindquist said.
Ahmed, a 22-year-old cab driver, died in March 2009 after being slashed and stabbed in his cab in a South Tacoma parking lot.
Lindquist and Blinn argued at trial that Fuller killed Ahmed in an attempted robbery also motivated by hate for immigrants. Fuller, who’s serving a 28-year sentence, maintained his innocence throughout the legal proceedings against him.
The case was overwhelmingly circumstantial.
Detectives tied a knit cap found at the scene of the murder to Fuller, and Blinn and Lindquist showed jurors security video of a man who resembled Fuller wearing a similar cap outside a Sixth Avenue restaurant about the time Ahmed picked up the person thought to have killed him.
Forensics experts found Ahmed’s blood on the outside of the cap and Fuller’s DNA on the inside of the hat, which was emblazoned with the logo of The Keg Steakhouse & Bar. Fuller received a similar cap when he worked for the restaurant in 2006.
The appeals panel homed in on the prosecutors’ use of portions of Fuller’s interview with detectives as its chief basis for overturning his conviction.
Fuller waived his right to remain silent before being questioned, meaning anything he said could be used against him in court, and Stolz ruled in pretrial motions that detectives could testify that Fuller neither admitted nor denied the crime.
Trouble was, Van Deren wrote, prosecutors used what Fuller didn’t say against him, which violated his constitutional rights. They showed jurors portions of the interview where Fuller does not deny killing Ahmed and does not deny being the person in the security video.
Even criminal defendants who waive their right to remain silent can refuse to answer some questions, Van Deren wrote, citing previously established case law on the subject.
“The Ninth Circuit has explicitly held that ‘the right to silence is not an all or nothing proposition. A suspect may remain selectively silent by answering some questions and then refusing to answer others without taking the risk that his silence may be used against him,’” Van Deren wrote.
Pierce County’s appeals lawyers argued Lindquist and Blinn used the non-statements to impeach Fuller’s defense theory, but the justices dismissed that argument.
“Fuller’s counsel argued that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Fuller committed Ahmed’s murder,” Van Deren wrote. “This is not a defense theory the state may attack using the defendant’s constitutionally protect silence.”
Fuller did not testify at his trial.
Lindquist said Wednesday the controlling law in the matter should have been State v. Richard M. Clark, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that once a defendant waives his right to remain silent anything he says or doesn’t say can be used by prosecutors.
“When a defendant does not remain silent and instead talks to police, the state may comment on what he does not say,” the Clark ruling reads in part.
Lindquist said that means he and Blinn did nothing wrong.
“Therefore, our arguments were proper under the trial court’s rulings and under the Washington State Supreme Court’s previous rulings,” he said.
Fuller will remain in jail while prosecutors appeal.