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Ronald F. Wyatt v. State of Alaska (5/28/99), 981 P 2d 109
Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in
the Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of
the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone
(907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
RONALD F. WYATT, )
) Supreme Court No. S-8252
Petitioner, ) Court of Appeals No. A-5291
v. ) Superior Court No.
) 1JU-S93-1416 CR
STATE OF ALASKA, )
) O P I N I O N
______________________________) [No. 5128 - May 28, 1999]
Petition for Hearing from the Court of Appeals
of the State of Alaska, on appeal from the Superior Court of the
State of Alaska, First Judicial District, Juneau, Larry R. Weeks,
Appearances: Margi A. Mock, Assistant Public
Defender, and Barbara K. Brink, Public Defender, Anchorage, for
Petitioner. Kenneth M. Rosenstein, Assistant Attorney General,
Anchorage, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau, for
Before: Matthews, Chief Justice, Eastaugh,
and Fabe, Justices. [Bryner, Justice, not participating.]
A jury convicted Ronald Wyatt of murdering his wife,
Diane. At trial, a women's shelter employee testified that Diane
called the shelter the day before her death and stated that she
wanted to divorce Ronald. Diane also told the shelter employee
that if Ronald were to learn of her plan to divorce him, there
would be "a possible lethal situation." The superior court
admitted this statement at trial over defense counsel's objection.
The court of appeals concluded that although the statement did not
fall within the Alaska Evidence Rule 803(3) hearsay exception for
state of mind, the error was harmless. Ronald petitioned for
hearing, arguing that such a hearsay statement implicated his right
to confrontation and that the error must be "harmless beyond a
We agree that if the court of appeals had been correct in
its determination that the statement did not qualify for the state-
of-mind exception, it should have applied the "harmless beyond a
reasonable doubt"standard rather than the "harmless error"
standard. But we conclude that the statement does fall within the
state-of-mind exception and that the court of appeals appropriately
reviewed admission of the statement under the "harmless error"
standard. We therefore affirm.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Ronald Wyatt and his wife Diane lived in Ketchikan in
Diane's home from a previous marriage. The State presented
evidence that Diane had gradually become unhappy during her
marriage of seven years to Ronald. Witnesses testified that her
husband made consistent efforts to intimidate and dominate Diane.
For example, on vacation in Mexico in 1990, Ronald threatened that
if she did not "behave,"they were going to leave and that if she
did not leave with him, he would destroy her home.
At trial, the State introduced two alternative theories
of Ronald's motive to kill Diane. First, it contended that Ronald
was a domineering, controlling husband who, when he learned that
Diane planned to divorce him, decided he would rather kill her than
lose her. Second, the State argued that Ronald was motivated to
kill Diane because he would not receive any of Diane's money if
To bolster both theories, the State presented evidence to
establish the seriousness of Diane's intent to obtain a divorce
despite her concerns about Ronald's potential reaction. In a
meeting with a marriage counselor in early October 1992, Diane
expressed her desire for a divorce, stating that the "final straw"
was when Ronald had threatened to "torch the house." On October 21
an employee of Women in Safe Homes (WISH) received a phone call
from Diane, requesting information about divorce and making an
appointment to discuss her situation. During this phone
conversation, Diane stated that "there was a possible lethal
situation when she told her husband about it." The WISH employee
testified: "[A]fter she said that statement, I -- I said, well,
are -- are you going to be safe, you know, until you come in on
Friday, and she said, if she kept her mouth shut she would be."
Diane had previously expressed similar concerns to her sister and
daughter about Ronald's reaction to her plan to divorce him.
In support of its theory that Ronald was motivated by his
fear of losing Diane's money, the State offered evidence of recent
financial transactions in the Wyatt accounts. The personal
representative of Diane's estate testified that around the first of
October, a joint checking account for the Wyatts was first opened.
Also during the month of October, about $53,000 was transferred
from Diane's personal accounts in a South Dakota bank into the
joint account and a personal account of Ronald Wyatt. Ronald's co-
worker testified that he saw a draft of a letter authorizing such
a transfer on Ronald's computer. The State presented testimony
that Diane's signatures on the actual letter authorizing the
transfer and the signature card opening the joint account were
The State also presented a strong case of circumstantial
evidence. On October 22 Diane disappeared. Earlier that day,
Diane informed her sister during lunch that she had made an
appointment at WISH for the next day to discuss the divorce. Diane
left lunch to meet a co-worker, but she never arrived at that
meeting. One of Ronald's co-workers testified that Ronald left
work before noon on October 22 and returned about 4:00 p.m.
Sometime in the afternoon, two neighbors saw the Wyatts' Isuzu
Trooper speeding up the driveway to the Wyatt home. Neighbors also
saw Ronald burning cardboard boxes on the beach in front of the
Wyatt home in the early evening. In the basement, police
investigators found cardboard boxes neatly stacked on one side and
strewn in disarray on the other and discovered traces of blood. At
approximately 10:30 p.m. on October 22, a security guard at the
Ketchikan Pulp Mill discovered the Wyatts' Isuzu Trooper near the
gate to the log sorting yard at Ward Cove. As the guard checked
the vehicle registration information, a man who was muddy from the
waist down, acting nervous, and breathing heavily, approached the
Five days later, a search dog and its handler discovered
Diane's body wrapped in a tarp and weighted with anchors and chains
in the water near the log sorting yard in Ward Cove. Approximately
one month before Diane's death, Ronald stated in a discussion of a
different murder case in Ketchikan with his co-workers that if he
wanted to kill his wife, he would dispose of the body by wrapping
it in a tarp, tying it securely, and weighting it down so it would
never be found.
At trial, the superior court admitted the testimony of
the WISH employee that she had talked to Diane on the phone about
divorce, and she testified that Diane had stated "there was a
possible lethal situation when she told her husband about [the
divorce]." Ronald objected to the admissibility of these
statements as hearsay during the trial, contending that the two
limited purposes for which the statement was relevant -- either to
prove Diane planned to get a divorce or to prove that Diane had an
appointment at WISH -- had already been established. Ronald also
argued that admitting the statement would have extreme prejudicial
impact. The superior court admitted the testimony under the state-
of-mind exception to the hearsay rule but provided a limiting
instruction to the jury, telling them they could not consider the
statement to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The jury
convicted Ronald of all charges.
Ronald appealed. He claimed that Diane's statement that
a "lethal situation"would arise when she informed Ronald of her
plans to divorce him constituted inadmissible hearsay and that its
admission violated his right to confrontation. The court of
appeals apparently determined that the statement was hearsay
testimony and did not fall within the state-of-mind exception:
[I]t appears to us that it was improper for
the court to admit the statement that "there was a possible lethal
situation when she told her husband about [the divorce]."The jury
might have used this statement for a forbidden hearsay purpose: to
conclude that because Diane Wyatt feared possible violence from her
husband when she told him of her intent to divorce him, that he had
But the court of appeals concluded that the trial court's error in
admitting the statement was harmless and affirmed the conviction.
It is somewhat unclear whether the court of appeals relied upon the
state-of-mind exception in rejecting the confrontation claim. [Fn.
Ronald then petitioned for a hearing in this court,
asserting among other claims that the court of appeals applied the
wrong harmless error standard in addressing the "lethal situation"
statement. We granted the petition to consider this issue.
A. Standard of Review
We review a trial court's ruling on the admissibility of
hearsay testimony for an abuse of discretion. [Fn. 2] We reverse
only if upon review of the record as a whole, we are left with a
definite and firm conviction that the trial court erred in its
ruling. [Fn. 3]
If the trial court erred in its ruling, we then determine
whether the error was harmless. A non-constitutional evidentiary
error is harmless if the error did not appreciably affect the
jury's verdict. [Fn. 4] If the trial court commits constitutional
error at trial, we must determine whether the error was harmless
beyond a reasonable doubt. [Fn. 5] The burden of proof under the
"harmless beyond a reasonable doubt"standard lies with the State.
B. Admission of the "Lethal Situation"Statement Was
1. The court of appeals's opinion does not clearly
state whether the statement falls within the state-of-mind
The parties disagree on whether the "lethal situation"
statement qualified as a hearsay exception. The court of appeals
concluded that the trial court erred in admitting Diane's statement
that she faced a potentially "lethal situation"if Ronald learned
of her plan to divorce him. But it is unclear from the court of
appeals's opinion whether it considered the "lethal situation"
statement to fall within the state-of-mind exception to the hearsay
rule. Ronald contends that the court of appeals "correctly
concluded that [the 'lethal situation' statement] did not fall
within the state of mind exception to the rule against hearsay."In
contrast, the State argues that the court of appeals "recognized"
that the WISH employee's statement fell within the hearsay
exception in Alaska Evidence Rule 803(3) but concluded that the
statement should not have been admitted under Alaska Evidence Rule
403 because its potential for unfair prejudice outweighed its
probative value. [Fn. 7]
In order to apply the proper harmless error standard to
an error in admitting an out-of-court statement, a reviewing court
must first clearly determine whether the statement falls within an
established exception to the hearsay rule. If Diane's statement
falls within the state-of-mind exception to the hearsay rule but
was improperly admitted because its prejudicial effect outweighed
its probative value, the court of appeals appropriately applied the
harmless error standard. But if the statement was inadmissible
hearsay that did not fall within any exception, the admission of
the statement implicates Ronald's right of confrontation. In that
case, the court of appeals should have determined whether the error
in admitting the statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Despite the State's argument that Rule 403 was the basis
for the court of appeals's holding, the court of appeals apparently
concluded that the statement did not fall within the state-of-mind
exception. While the trial court specifically addressed Rule 403
concerns, the court of appeals never discussed Rule 403, nor did it
review the trial court's balancing of the probative value of the
statement and its potential unfair prejudice. Instead, the court
of appeals focused on the purpose of the "lethal situation"
statement, concluding that "Diane's statement about 'a possible
lethal situation' was not admissible to prove that [Ronald] likely
did something . . . to justify Diane's fear." It determined that
while the statement was "relevant to show Diane's state of mind .
. . [and] to support the state's theory of Ronald Wyatt's motive
for murder,"it was improper to admit the statement because "[t]he
jury might have used [it] for a forbidden hearsay purpose: to
conclude that because Diane Wyatt [had] feared possible violence
from her husband . . . he had reacted violently." This language
suggests consideration of the scope of the state-of-mind exception,
rather than analysis of whether possible prejudice outweighed
Because the court of appeals does not appear to have used
Rule 403 in any part of its analysis, we agree with Ronald that the
court of appeals concluded that the "lethal situation"statement
did not fall within the state-of-mind exception. We therefore
examine the merits of that determination.
2. The "lethal situation"statement falls within the
Alaska Evidence Rule 803(3) allows admission of "[a]
statement of the declarant's then existing state of mind . . .
offered to prove [her] present condition or future action."
Evidence of a murder victim's fear of the accused is inadmissible
"if its only relevance is as circumstantial evidence of the
accused's conduct, that is, if its probative value depends on the
impermissible inference that, because the victim feared the
accused, the accused likely did something or planned to do
something to justify the fear."[Fn. 8] To admit such evidence,
the State must establish that the evidence is "directly relevant to
some genuinely disputed issue."[Fn. 9]
We must thus determine whether the superior court allowed
the statement for a permissible purpose: to prove Diane's state of
mind or plan for future action. The court of appeals recognized
that the WISH employee's testimony was "relevant to show . . . that
[Diane] had made up her mind to obtain a divorce from her husband
and was taking steps to obtain a divorce,"thus supporting the
State's theory of motive for murder. But it apparently concluded
that Diane's intent to divorce Ronald was not a disputed issue at
trial. We disagree.
Ronald argues that Diane's fear of her husband was not
relevant to any disputed issue at trial because everyone agreed
that Diane was determined to seek a divorce from Ronald. But
Ronald's closing argument belies his current assertion that he
never disputed Diane's intent to divorce him and the seriousness of
Now we just talked about suspicion and
conjecture. There is no question but that there was some
discussions between Ron Wyatt and Diane Wyatt about the state of
their marriage, and there['s] no question -- and it's not that
uncommon that they've been married for seven years or nine year[s],
that there was serious problems ongoing. But no -- no divorce
papers, no dissolution papers. Basically, -- and -- and it may be
-- well be true that she was going to divorce him. And sure it's
suspicious if someone's going to divorce someone and they get
killed. But -- but that's not proof. . . . There's some divorce
talk. What marriage . . . that goes on for seven to nine years
doesn't have some divorce talk in it. What person that truly loves
another person doesn't hope for a reconciliation.
Thus, Ronald disputed at trial that Diane seriously intended to
To prove either of the State's theories of motive for
murder -- that Ronald feared losing control of Diane or Diane's
money -- the State also had to convince the jury of Diane's intent
to divorce Ronald. As the State argues, Diane's fearfulness of
Ronald's reaction served as "a tangible measure both of how serious
she was about obtaining a divorce and of the likely imminence of
her action." Ronald undercut Diane's seriousness of purpose by
asserting that the evidence of her desire for a divorce was simply
idle talk where both persons may have "hope[d] for a
reconciliation." Thus, evidence of Diane's determination to
divorce Ronald despite any fear of a "lethal situation"
demonstrated the seriousness of her purpose and intent and was
therefore probative of her state of mind and plan for future
Accordingly, the court of appeals should have ruled that
the statement was admissible unless it was used for a forbidden
purpose. The court of appeals correctly stated that the testimony
was not admissible "to prove that [Ronald] likely did something or
planned to do something to justify Diane's fear." But that is not
the purpose for which the superior court admitted the evidence. In
fact, the prosecutor never mentioned the "lethal situation"
statement in his over one-and-a-half-hour closing argument. He
only referred to the WISH employee's testimony as proof that Diane
intended to divorce Ronald and that Ronald must have forged checks
drawn on Diane's account and cashed to a joint account in the last
month of her life in anticipation of the divorce:
So the day in which she makes an appointment
with WISH, the day in which she has decided . . . to get out of
this marriage, two weeks after telling a therapist in the presence
of her husband[, "]I want out,["] . . . she's going to write a
check to a joint account with her and her husband?
The prosecutor then immediately moved on to another point and never
again mentioned the testimony of the WISH employee.
The trial court also provided a limiting instruction to
the jury on the testimony during the trial. Shortly after the
prosecutor began to question the WISH employee, Ronald again
objected to the testimony and asked for a cautionary instruction.
The court then advised the jury:
The testimony that's being offered in this
case, Ladies and Gentlemen, has been allowed for the limited
purpose relating to the possible state of mind of Diane Wyatt at
the time that she made the statement to these people, if you find
that she made the statement. You may not consider it in any
fashion for the truth of the matter asserted. And it's being
offered to show that she went to this organization to get help with
respect to obtaining divorce, as I understand it, and not for any
Thus, the State did not use this evidence to establish that Ronald
was in fact planning to harm her and that he did so. [Fn. 10]
Because the parties disputed the seriousness of Diane's
intent to seek a divorce, the court of appeals erred in ruling that
the state-of-mind exception did not cover the "lethal situation"
3. Admission of the statement did not implicate
Ronald's right to confrontation.
Ronald contends that the admission of the "lethal
situation"statement violated his right to confrontation. [Fn. 11]
The admission of hearsay does not violate the Confrontation Clause
as long as the evidence has "indicia of reliability."[Fn. 12] A
court can infer reliability where the evidence "falls within a
firmly rooted hearsay exception"or where the evidence has
"particularized guarantees of trustworthiness."[Fn. 13] The
state-of-mind exception is a firmly rooted hearsay exception. [Fn.
Because we conclude that the "lethal situation"statement
falls within the state-of-mind exception and because the state-of-
mind exception is a firmly rooted hearsay exception, we find that
the "lethal situation"statement has sufficient indicia of
reliability. Even if the trial court failed to exclude the
evidence properly under Rule 403, this error does not constitute a
Confrontation Clause violation. [Fn. 15] Thus, the court of
appeals's ruling that admission of the statement did not violate
Ronald's right to confrontation was correct.
4. The court of appeals applied the correct harmless
Ronald argues that the court of appeals applied the wrong
harmless error standard. If Diane's statement did not fall within
a recognized hearsay exception, as the court of appeals appears to
have held, its admission violated Ronald's right of confrontation.
As Ronald argues, the court of appeals should have then applied the
"harmless beyond a reasonable doubt"standard. [Fn. 16] But we
conclude that Diane's statement properly falls within the state-of-
mind exception. Thus, although the court of appeals used only the
lesser harmless error standard, its choice did not prejudice Wyatt
because that standard would have been the correct one if the court
had properly evaluated Diane's statement under the state-of-mind
If the superior court correctly found that the statement
was an exception to the hearsay rule but erred in its evaluation of
the defendant's concerns of prejudice, the court of appeals need
only have applied the "harmless error"standard. A non-
constitutional error is harmless if it did not "appreciably affect
the jury's verdict."[Fn. 17] We have previously held that this
standard is proper even when hearsay is inadmissible under Rule
403. [Fn. 18] Here, the court of appeals evaluated the error under
this standard and concluded that "[i]n the context of this lengthy
trial and the extensive evidence against [Ronald], we are convinced
that the admission of this statement did not appreciably affect the
jury's verdict." We agree.
As the State argues, the State presented substantial
circumstantial evidence at trial indicating that Ronald murdered
his wife. Moreover, the State never seemed to focus on or
emphasize the "lethal situation"statement after it was admitted.
[Fn. 19] While the trial court could have sanitized the
potentially inflammatory comment or excluded it from evidence, we
do not believe that Diane's reference to a potentially "lethal
situation"appreciably affected the jury's verdict in this case.
Thus, the error was harmless.
The court of appeals incorrectly held that the "lethal
situation"statement did not fall within the state-of-mind
exception to the hearsay rule. But the court of appeals properly
analyzed the Confrontation Clause challenge and reviewed the issue
under the appropriate "harmless error"standard. Therefore, we
The court of appeals stated: "[T]he state-of-mind exception to
the hearsay rule is traditionally accepted and firmly rooted. . .
. [A]dmission of Diane Wyatt's statements to [the WISH employee]
did not violate Wyatt's rights under the confrontation clauses . .
See Colt Indus. Operating Corp., Quincy Compressor Div. v.
Frank W. Murphy Mfr., Inc., 822 P.2d 925, 932 (Alaska 1991); Ryan
v. State, 899 P.2d 1371, 1379 (Alaska App. 1995).
See Colt Indus., 822 P.2d at 932.
See Love v. State, 457 P.2d 622, 631-32 (Alaska 1969).
See Wamser v. State, 652 P.2d 98, 103 (Alaska 1982).
Alaska Evidence Rule 403 provides:
Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if
its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair
prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by
considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless
presentation of cumulative evidence.
Linton v. State, 880 P.2d 123, 130 (Alaska App. 1994)
(emphasis added), aff'd on reh'g, 901 P.2d 439 (Alaska App. 1995).
See, e.g., id. at 131 n.6 (noting that presenting evidence of
wife's state of mind as proof of husband's state of mind in order
to establish his likely conduct would be impermissible under Rule
The State argues that Ronald forfeited his right to confront
Diane about her "lethal situation"statement by killing her.
Several federal courts of appeals and state courts have held that
defendants may waive their Confrontation Clause rights by their own
wrongful conduct in preventing a witness from testifying at trial.
[Fn. 20] See, e.g., United States v. Smith, 792 F.2d 441, 442 (4th
Cir. 1986) (admitting witness's prior statement to police in arson
prosecution where defendant waived confrontation claim by procuring
absence of witness); United States v. Mastrangelo, 693 F.2d 269,
272-73 (2d Cir. 1982) (admitting grand jury testimony in drug
prosecution if court found on remand that the defendant killed the
witness); State v. Corrigan, 691 P.2d 1311, 1314-15 (Kan. App.
1984) (admitting witness's prior testimony in arson prosecution
because defendant ensured his wife would not testify). But this
waiver rule is inapplicable to the case before us. The cases
espousing this rule all involve a defendant who has intentionally
acted to silence an individual in order to prevent the witness from
testifying against the defendant on another criminal matter. Thus,
the "waiver-by-misconduct"rationale present in cases where a
defendant silences a witness to a crime is absent from this case.
Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56, 66 (1980) (internal quotation
See State v. McDonald, 872 P.2d 627, 643 (Alaska App. 1994).
See Larson v. State, 656 P.2d 571, 575 (Alaska App. 1982)
("Alaska Rule of Evidence 403, when properly applied, does not
violate a defendant's constitutional right to confront the
witnesses against him and present evidence in his own behalf.").
See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967).
Love v. State, 457 P.2d 622, 631-32 (Alaska 1969).
See Avery v. State, 514 P.2d 637, 645-46 (Alaska 1973).
Cf. Lemon v. State, 514 P.2d 1151, 1157 (Alaska 1973) (holding
that admission of nontestifying accomplice's hearsay was harmful
where "it was a major part of the state's case placing Lemon at the
See, e.g., United States v. White, 116 F.3d 903, 911 (D.C.
Cir. 1997); United States v. Houlihan, 92 F.3d 1271, 1280 (1st Cir.
1996), cert. denied, 117 S. Ct. 963 (1997); United States v. Smith,
792 F.2d 441 (4th Cir. 1986) (admitting witness's prior statement
to police in arson prosecution where defendant waived confrontation
claim by procuring absence of witness), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1037
(1987); United States v. Mastrangelo, 693 F.2d 269 (2nd Cir. 1982)
(admitting grand jury testimony in drug prosecution if court found
on remand that the defendant killed the witness), cert. denied, 467
U.S. 1204 (1984); Steele v. Taylor, 684 F.2d 1193 (6th Cir. 1982)
(admitting witness statement in murder prosecution where witness's
refusal to take stand was procured by defendant), cert. denied, 460
U.S. 1053 (1983); Balano, 618 F.2d 624 (admitting grand jury
testimony in prosecution for accessory after the fact to stolen
goods because defendant procured witness's absence by threats),
cert. denied, 449 U.S. 840 (1980); State v. Corrigan, 691 P.2d 1311
(Kan. App. 1984) (admitting witness's prior testimony in arson
prosecution because defendant ensured his wife would not testify).