Reporters don't often linger over court documents for their gripping lyricism or narrative flow. Which is why it's so enjoyable to stumble onto a brief or judicial opinion that's written like a novel. So kudos to Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, whose attention to detail and vivid prose clearly sets the literary bar for his black-robed peers.
Earlier today, the Court of Appeals posted a brief he penned when ruling on the case of Patrick Harris, who'd been convicted in the Circuit Court of Cole County of assault, robbery, armed criminal action and possession of a firearm by a felon. His oral conviction carried life imprisonment for the assault, plus 45 years for the other offenses. Harris appealed, among other things, the life imprisonment sentence, because the written judgment suggested the sentence should be 99 years.
In any case, the following story is composed entirely of excerpts from Pfeiffer's description of events, and with the exception of a just a few minor tweaks, it's more or less verbatim. It doesn't include all of Harris's points of appeal, so to see his full arguments, read the opinion here.
Chapter 1: Schneiders
A group of seven friends met on Tuesday nights to talk, have a cigar and sometimes a few drinks outside of Brian Stumpe's Jefferson City law office.
On October 13, 2009, six of the men were outside the office around a fire pit. Stumpe was inside.
Patrick Harris walked up to the men wearing a hooded sweatshirt, some kind of face covering and blue surgical gloves.
The men thought it was some kind of joke. (There were a couple practical jokers in the group.)
"Can we help you?" one of the men, Justin Schneiders, asked.
Harris responded by raising a .38 revolver and pointing it at the men. "This is a robbery," he said. He told them to drop whatever they were holding and go inside.
Before Harris got them inside, Stumpe came out of his law office, talking on his cell phone. Harris yelled at Stumpe to drop the phone, and Stumpe complied.
Harris then forced all the men, at gunpoint, into the conference room of Stumpe's law office.
Harris then ordered all of them to lie face-down and put everything on the floor. The men complied by taking out their wallets and cell phones and removing their wedding rings, placing the property on the floor near their heads.
But Schneiders, instead of taking his wallet out of his pocket, took his concealed pistol out of its holster and lay on top of it.
Harris ordered one of the men, Kent Cordray, to stand up and use a trash bag to collect the property the men had put on the floor. But before he could start, Harris noticed he was wearing a necklace. Harris ripped the necklace off his neck.
"Don't you be holding out on me," he yelled.
Cordray then began working his way around the conference room, picking up the property left on the ground by the men laying face-down on the floor. To speed things up, Harris started picking up property on the other side of the room.
Harris got to Schneiders, who was lying on his pistol. He noticed that Schneiders's wallet was not out on the floor like everyone else's.
Harris decided to check Schneiders himself and found Schneiders's empty holster.
"Look what we have here," said Harris. "Where's the gun?"
Schneiders told Harris he had left the gun in his car because he planned on drinking that evening.
Harris scoffed and made Schneiders stand up. As he stood up, Schneiders picked up the gun and tried to keep it hidden. But Harris opened Schneiders's coat.
Harris stuck his own revolver against Schneiders's stomach, and fired.
The first shot missed Schneiders's stomach and hit his left palm, shattering his thumb, and exiting through his wrist.
Schneiders shot back at Harris. Harris shot him again, this time in the right hand.
Harris then started backing up around the conference table. During their ensuing gunfight, Harris shot Schneiders once more, this time in the chest. Schneiders fired multiple times at Harris, at least once as Harris stood near the conference room door.
Once Harris ran out of ammunition, he fled the office. The men locked the door behind him and called the police.
Chapter II: Harris
The next day, a woman who lived in an apartment above Stumpe's law office went to check on her neighbor. The woman noticed blood drops leading up to the door, so she told the police. Jefferson City police officers searched the apartment at the end of the blood trail. In the apartment's laundry room, the officers found Harris hiding behind a curtain.
Harris had a gunshot wound to his hand, which he had covered with a towel and duct tape. Officers found a .38 revolver underneath a mattress.
While in the hospital, Schneiders was able to identify Harris in a photo lineup. Likewise, Stumpe identified Harris in a lineup.
The police read Harris his Miranda Rights and questioned him.
"Yeah you're right," said Harris. "I'm the one that did it. I did the robbery and shot the guy."
The police collected blood samples from the conference room and the .38 revolver.
Malena Jimenez, a Missouri State Patrol Crime Laboratory employee, tested the blood. Based on her testing of the samples, she determined that the blood found on the conference room door frame and the revolver was consistent with Harris's blood.
Chapter III: Pfeiffer
After Harris's jury trial, he was convicted of first-degree assault for shooting Scheneiders, first-degree robbery, armed-criminal action and posession of a firearm by a felon.
At trial, the defendant was referred to as Patrick L. Evans, AKA Harris.
The trial court's oral pronouncement of Harris's sentence was life imprisonment for the assault conviction. The trial court's written judgment, however, reflected that Harris's sentence for the assault conviction was 99 years' imprisonment instead of life imprisonment.
The defendant, however, ignored the compelling evidence of his guilt: identification in a photo lineup by both Schneiders and Stumpe; a trail of blood leading from the scene of the crime to the apartment where Harris was found; the gun used in the robbery being found in the apartment where Harris was hiding; Harris's hand injury, caused by a gunshot; and Harris's confession to the Jefferson City Police Department.
The trial court's written judgement differs from the trial court's oral pronouncement of Harris's sentence.
If there is a material difference between the court's oral pronouncement of sentence and the written judgment, the oral pronouncement of sentence holds.
The trial court's judgement is, thus, modified by our ruling today to reflect that Harris's sentence on the assault conviction shall be for a term of life imprisonment.