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MICHIGAN v BILLY HOOVER,, Court of Appeals

2013 Mich. App. LEXIS 6

Nature of the case:

This case discusses the relationship between torture and domestic abuse and addresses the relevancy of a victim's letter expressing her desire that the charges be dismissed.

Facts and Issues on Appeal:

The defendant was convicted of first-degree home invasion, aggravated stalking and torture for charges that arose out of an incident at the victim's home where he grabbed her shirt and exposed her breast to his friends; took a knife from her kitchen and stated his intent to slash her tires; squeezed the victim's neck in a "choke hold" causing the victim to become light headed and collapse to the floor and holding a pillow against her face while telling someone on the telephone that he was going to kill the victim. When police arrived, they found the victim lying on the floor struggling to breathe. At trial, the defendant sought to admit as evidence a letter written by the victim to defense counsel indicating that she did not want to continue with the prosecution. The judge disallowed the letter as irrelevant. On appeal, the defendant argued that excluding the letter violated his right to present a defense because it showed the victim was lying about the charges. The defense argued that the letter showed the victim was not truthful because no victim who had actually suffered such harm would seek to drop the charges. The defendant also argued the evidence was insufficient to prove the crime of torture. The appellate court rejected the defendant's arguments, reasoning as follows:

Ruling & Rationale:

The letter indicating that the victim did not want to continue the prosecution did not prove or disprove the victim's credibility. It did not indicate that the assault never occurred but rather, "indicate[s] that the victim believed that the personal costs of prosecuting defendant outweighed any personal benefit that she may receive from his prosecution." This evidence is not relevant because a "victim's individual view of the nature of criminal proceedings bears no relationship to her credibility as a witness." See People v Adams, 233 Mich App 652, 658; 592 NW2d 794 (1999) ("We are cognizant that all too often, the victims of domestic assault and abuse are fearful and reluctant to assist in the prosecution of their assailants . . . ."). Moreover, the letter made reference to a personal protection order, which "suggests that the victim still had reason to fear defendant". Thus, rather than undermining the victim's credibility, the letter provided evidence "consistent with the actual occurrence of the assault".

To prove torture under Michigan law, the prosecution must show that the defendant inflicted either "great bodily injury" or "severe mental pain or suffering" upon the victim. There was no evidence the victim suffered "great bodily injury" within the meaning of the torture statute. Specifically, she did not suffer a serious impairment of body function, and there was no evidence to suggest that she suffered "internal injury, poisoning, serious burns or scalding, severe cuts, or multiple puncture wounds". "In fact, two police officers testified that they did not notice any such physical injuries on the victim after the assault". However, torture is also established where there is proof of "severe mental pain or suffering" which is defined as: "a mental injury that results in a substantial alteration of mental functioning that is manifested in a visibly demonstrable manner caused by or resulting from any of the following": (i) The intentional infliction or threatened infliction of great bodily injury. (ii) The administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt the senses or the personality. (iii) The threat of imminent death. (iv) The threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, great bodily injury, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt the senses or personality.

In this case, the defendant grabbed the victim's shirt and exposed her breast to his friends, which embarrassed her. Defendant pushed her and threw her cellular telephone at her. Defendant grabbed her from behind around the neck and put her in a choke-hold. The victim became lightheaded, her knees buckled, and she fell to the floor. Defendant would not let her get up. Defendant then grabbed a pillow and held it down over the victim's face with his foot so that she could not breathe. As the victim was being suffocated, she could hear defendant on a telephone stating, "I'm going to kill this . . . bitch," "I ain't going to save her," and she "should be out of here" in 15 minutes. The victim testified that she thought she was going to die. When police arrived, the victim was having a "very difficult time breathing" and was gasping for air. The victim was "in tears." Evidence at trial illustrated that the victim had been hit in the mouth, suffered a black right eye, injured her neck, and had marks on her arm. According to the victim, she suffered emotionally because of the assault. She became scared and "didn't want [her] son to be out of [her] sight." She also sought spiritual assistance from her pastor to cope with the aftermath of the assault.

This evidence is sufficient to prove mental pain or suffering under Michigan's torture statute as the defendant's conduct resulted in a "substantial alteration of mental functioning that is manifested in a visibly demonstrable manner."

Editorial Comment

This is an important case involving the highly underutilized law of torture. Torture law is available in most jurisdictions and should be considered by prosecutors in any case involving sexual or physical violence, irrespective of physical injuries, where the victim suffers "substantial alteration of mental functioning". This case is also important because the court rejected as irrelevant the victim's attempt to drop the charges via a letter sent to defense counsel indicating her desire not to participate in legal proceedings. Intimidation tactics and pressure on victims to drop charges or not testify in domestic abuse cases are common. This case is a hopeful indication that judges are moving away from the ill-advised philosophy that a victim should have the choice whether to participate in criminal trials involving domestic violence. The case is silent as to whether the defense counsel or perpetrator were investigated to determine whether they should be charged with witness intimidation or attempted obstruction of justice for their roles in securing the letter.

Submitted By: Megan Mitchell -- Law Student

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