Memorandum decisions of this Court do not create legal precedent.
A jury convicted Anthony W. Stiffarm Jr., a prisoner at Wildwood Correctional Center, of three counts of second-degree sexual assault
Stiffarm appealed his convictions to this Court. His primary claim on appeal was that the superior court violated his due process rights by permitting the State to introduce evidence of an out-of-court identification by the victim that Stiffarm claimed was too unreliable to be admissible at trial. Stiffarm also argued that the superior court erred in summarily rejecting the defense attorney's request for various Department of Corrections records pertaining to other inmates in the facility — records that the defense attorney claimed were directly relevant to the reliability of the victim's identification and the attorney's ability to effectively challenge that identification.
In our earlier decision in this case, we concluded that the superior court violated Stiffarm's discovery rights under Alaska Criminal Rule 16 by summarily denying this request for booking photos and basic information on the other inmates without holding an adequate inquiry.
On remand, the superior court ordered the Department of Corrections to produce the requested discovery for an in camera review. Based on that review, the superior court determined that Stiffarm was entitled to the discovery he requested, and the court provided that discovery to the parties. The parties were then given the opportunity to argue whether the court's error in refusing to compel this discovery earlier entitled Stiffarm to a new trial. Following those proceedings, the superior court ruled that Stiffarm was not entitled to a new trial because (1) the discovery would not have altered the court's pretrial decision to admit K.B.'s identification of Stiffarm, and (2) there was no reasonable possibility that the discovery error affected the jury's verdict.
After we received the court's findings and decision on remand, we directed the parties to file supplemental briefs in this Court. We have now reviewed the supplemental briefing as well as the discovery materials at issue, and we agree with the superior court that Stiffarm was not prejudiced by the court's failure to provide this discovery. As the superior court noted, the additional discovery simply confirmed what the defense attorney argued to the jury — that there was a "pretty significant" population of Native Alaskan inmates at Wildwood who fit the victim's initial generic description of her assailant as a "round-faced Native." Significantly, however, the newly discovered materials did not reveal any Native Alaskan inmate who closely resembled Stiffarm. The discovery materials therefore did not undermine the State's strongest evidence against Stiffarm at trial — namely, a time-lapse video that showed a person who looked like Stiffarm outside the entry to the stairwell immediately before and after the sexual assault, and then showed that same person going into Stiffarm's cell. We therefore conclude that Stiffarm is not entitled to a new trial despite the erroneous discovery ruling that occurred in his case.
Stiffarm raises two other claims that we declined to resolve in our earlier decision. First, Stiffarm argues that the superior court erred when it ruled that K.B.'s out-of-court identification of him from a single photograph was reliable and admissible at trial. Second, he argues that the court erred by instructing the jury that this single-photo identification procedure was "legal and lawful."
We conclude that any error in admitting K.B.'s identification was harmless given the circumstances of this case.
We reach a similar conclusion with regard to the court's instruction that the single-photo identification procedures used to obtain K.B.'s identifications were "legal and lawful." We agree with Stiffarm that this instruction was confusing and improper. As Stiffarm points out, his attorney never argued that the identification procedures were "illegal;" instead, he argued only that single-photo identifications were disfavored and not the best practice because they could lead to unreliable witness identifications. Instructing the jury that single-photo identification procedures were "legal and lawful" was therefore not only unnecessary but also potentially misleading, as it could be misinterpreted by the jury as the court's vouching for the legitimacy of this type of suggestive identification procedure.
We nevertheless conclude that, when viewed in context, any error in giving this instruction was harmless. We note that the rest of the court's instruction properly directed the jurors to "attribute such weight to the factual accuracy of the identification(s) as you see fit." The jurors were also separately instructed that they were the sole judges of the credibility of the witnesses, and that if the judge said anything at trial that seemed to suggest that the judge believed or disbelieved a witness, the jury was to "disregard [that suggestion] and form your own opinion." Moreover, as already noted, K.B.'s single-photo identification of Stiffarm was essentially cumulative of the other identification evidence in the case, which included the time-lapse video and the identification of Stiffarm by the two inmates. Based on this record, we are convinced that the instruction, although confusing and potentially misleading, did not appreciably affect the jury's verdict, and was therefore harmless error.
We AFFIRM the judgment of the superior court.