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State v. Burnam

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

July 17, 2018



          Lawrence-Berrey, C.J.

         We review de novo whether a trial court's exclusion of defense evidence violated the accused's constitutional right to present a defense. The more the exclusion of defense evidence prejudiced the accused, the more likely we will find a constitutional violation. Where the excluded defense evidence has minimal or no relevance, we affirm the trial court's ruling.

         Here, Corey Burnam sought to admit evidence that the woman he killed had four years earlier dated a man accused of murder and that she had hid the murder weapon. We agree with the trial court that this evidence had minimal or no relevance to Mr. Burnam's claim at trial that he feared serious injury or death. We therefore affirm.


         In January 2016, Mr. Burnam and Alicia Sweet were staying at the home of Norman Anderton and Pamela Schuman. One night, Mr. Anderton was at home and heard a few faint thumps from a bedroom, followed by a louder thump; he did not hear any voices. Mr. Anderton got up to investigate but the sound stopped, so he sat back down.

         Shortly after, Mr. Burnam appeared with a knife in his hand and blood on his shoe. Mr. Burnam went to the kitchen sink and washed his hands and face in the sink but did not put the knife down. Mr. Anderton went to check the bedroom but could not enter because the door was partially blocked. He could see Ms. Sweet on the floor, covered in blood. Mr. Anderton returned to the living room and attempted to use his telephone to call law enforcement, but Mr. Burnam took the telephone from him after remarking, "'You're calling 911, aren't you?'" Report of Proceedings (RP) at 274.

         Mr. Anderton left the home and got into his car to drive to a nearby relative's home. As he was leaving, he saw Mr. Burnam outside attempting to get into a blue truck owned by Ms. Schuman's father. Mr. Anderton arrived at the relative's home and called law enforcement.

          Law enforcement arrived and unsuccessfully tried to revive Ms. Sweet. In the bedroom, law enforcement found a shotgun barrel that was covered with blood toward the breech end. Law enforcement found blood in several places in the bedroom and outside the home, including near the bedroom window. Meanwhile, Mr. Burnam attempted to gain entry to the home of a neighbor, who refused him.

         Canine Deputy Jason Hunt arrived at the scene and began to track Mr. Burnam with his partner Gunnar. Deputy Hunt saw a person running down a nearby street and called out, but the man continued running and ducked behind a shed. Gunnar located Mr. Burnam underneath a nearby trailer and began to pull him out. As law enforcement pulled him out and arrested him, he exclaimed that Ms. Sweet had tried to kill him. Detective Kirk Keyser later performed a videotaped interview of Mr. Burnam. In this interview, Mr. Burnam claimed Ms. Sweet attacked him because she thought he had taken her heroin.

         An autopsy revealed Ms. Sweet had dozens of cuts and blunt impact injuries all over her body, head, and hands. Of particular note was a blunt impact head injury that went through several layers of Ms. Sweet's scalp, described as two symmetrical circles that appeared to be from the breech end of a shotgun barrel. Ms. Sweet had five stab wounds to the right side of her neck. The majority of those stabs wounds were in the same area of the neck and formed a wound that reached all the way to her cervical spine. In addition to hitting her spine, these stab wounds severed Ms. Sweet's jugular vein, typically a mortal injury on its own. In contrast, Mr. Burnam had a black eye, a cut on one of his left fingers, a cut on one of his right fingers, and a bite wound caused by Gunnar.

         Toxicology tests revealed that Ms. Sweet had methamphetamine and marijuana in her system, but no heroin. Mr. Burnam had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system, but no heroin. Blood testing revealed that the shotgun barrel had bloodstains on the breech end and that nearly all of the blood was from Ms. Sweet. Only a trace and an unidentifiable component was from another person, and that trace blood was on the center of the barrel. Law enforcement never recovered the knife used in the homicide.

         Procedural history

         The State charged Mr. Burnam with first degree murder or, in the alternative, second degree murder and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence.

         As trial approached, Mr. Burnam notified the court of his intent to testify on his own behalf in support of his self-defense claim and his intent to testify that Ms. Sweet had been involved in a prior homicide. Mr. Burnam claimed that this was character evidence and asked the court to analyze its admissibility under ER 404(b).

          According to the record, the prior homicide occurred in December 2012. Bud Brown allegedly murdered David Deponte. According to the affidavit of facts, law enforcement learned that Ms. Sweet was dating Mr. Brown at the time. Sometime after the homicide, Ms. Sweet briefly gave the firearm away and then attempted to get it back. When law enforcement questioned her, she was evasive and misleading. The State charged her with first degree rendering criminal assistance by means of concealing, altering, or destroying the gun. The affidavit does not state or imply that any person other than Mr. Brown was involved in Mr. Deponte's killing.

         Mr. Brown and Mr. Burnam are cousins. Mr. Brown's homicide trial was set to begin a few days after Mr. Burnam killed Ms. Sweet, a material witness in that case.

         Mr. Burnam made a lengthy offer of proof in support of his motion. Mr. Burnam argued that the evidence would help establish the reasonableness of his fear of serious harm or death during his struggle with Ms. Sweet. Mr. Burnam repeatedly asserted the jury should know that Ms. Sweet was involved ...

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