The District of Columbia Court of Appeals heard oral arguments today on whether an alleged execution-style shooting is enough to prove premeditation, a dividing line between a first-degree and second-degree murder charge.
Nathan Mott, 48, was convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Charlene Mumford, and sentenced to serve nearly 55 years in jail. According to police reports, Mumford was shot twice in the head,including once between the eyes and once in the temple. Mott called the police after finding her in a bed in his apartment, but he was soon arrested as the lead suspect.
Mott appealed his conviction, arguing that prosecutors had failed to present enough evidence to the jury to prove a charge of first-degree murder, let alone that he was responsible for Mumford’s death at all.
Chief Judge Eric Washington, sitting on the three-judge panel Friday morning, said that the evidence made this a “strange case.” There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, a gun was never found, and the prosecutor at trial, Washington said, had presented a relatively “weak” theory on what motive Mott had to kill Mumford and his own dog, which was found fatally shot in another part of his apartment.
The judges spent much of the hearing pressing attorneys on both sides to define the point at which a shooting like the one alleged in Mott’s case crossed the line to premeditated murder. Noting that prosecutors theorized that Mumford was shot while sleeping in Mott’s apartment, Senior Judge Michael Farrell said the case didn’t seem to present evidence “of a crime of passion.”
Judge Inez Reid asked Mott’s court-appointed lawyer, Landover, Md.-based solo practitioner Mindy Daniels, about case law that says that when someone is shot in the head, it can be enough to prove premeditation. Daniels responded that the rule is not hard and fast, and that there are several scenarios where someone could be shot in the head without it being premeditated murder.
Daniels told the judges that based on the evidence collected by police, she could offer any number of theories on who killed Mumford and how she ended up in bed in Mott’s apartment.
“The evidence just doesn’t fit,” she said, noting that Mott had no history of owning a gun and that Mott was the one to call the police.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Smith said that given the two gunshots to the head, the “execution-style” shooting was sufficient evidence to prove premeditation. When Reid asked Smith about alternate theories and suspects, Smith said that they were already presented and rejected by the jury.
Responding to Washington’s question about whether it was reasonable for the jury to find Mott guilty with “weak” motive evidence, Smith said that in cases where there’s a “special relationship” between the suspect and the victim – in this case, romantic – that automatically goes to motive. Smith added that there were no signs of forced entry and also that Mott had confessed to the murder, although Daniels disputed that evidence at trial.
During her rebuttal, Daniels made an emotional plea to the court to reverse the conviction, quoting a fellow attorney who Daniels said told her that the worst thing that can happen to an attorney is not disciplinary action, but to lose a case that they should have won for a client. That is this case for her, Daniels said.