LANSING - The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of an Atlanta man found guilty of murdering his uncle in 2011 and vacated one of his sentences.
Appeals Court judges Stephen Borrello, Deborah Servitto and Jane Beckering ruled against claims of improper admission of evidence of other acts and ineffective assistance of counsel for Henry Allen Mager, but vacated Mager's life sentence for breaking into Terry Lee's safe. Lee was Mager's uncle and the man Mager was convicted of killing.
In 2012, a jury found Mager guilty of murder, first-degree home invasion, safe breaking and other lesser charges, according to the ruling. He was sentenced to life without parole for the murder, five to 20 years for first-degree home invasion, life for safe breaking and two to five years for an additional charge, to be served concurrently. He'll also serve an extra two years for felony firearm. The appeals court ruling upholds all convictions but vacates the safe breaking sentence.
Appeals court judges vacated Mager's life sentence for safe breaking because the 26th Circuit Court didn't prepare a presentencing information report for the first-degree home invasion conviction, according to an unpublished ruling. The defendant had argued the life sentence for this charge went beyond the sentencing guidelines maximum of 19 years, and that the court never calculated the sentencing guidelines range for the conviction. However, the appeals court ruled that cases where defendants face concurrent sentences on multiple convictions require only one report for the highest-class conviction, and murder already carries a mandatory sentence.
"Thus, contrary to the assertions of the defendant, the trial court was required only to score the highest crime class subject to scoring, which was the first-degree home invasion conviction," the judges wrote in their ruling.
The appeals court judges remanded Mager's safe breaking conviction for resentencing.
Appeals Court judges rejected the defendant's argument that the circuit court admitted too much evidence about Mager's invasion of Ehlers's home, enough to outweigh the probative value and risk unfair prejudice. Instead, the appeals court noted Montmorency County Prosecutor Terrie Case presented the DNA evidence to show Mager had access to the murder weapon. Testimony from the cellmate linked Mager to the home invasion in which he stole the murder weapon, and showed that he was planning to escape from jail, retrieve the other gun he stole from Ehlers and rob another individual.
"Further, any risk of unfair prejudice was alleviated by the trial court's detailed cautionary instruction regarding this evidence, i.e., that the evidence that defendant sought to escape from jail could be considered for a limited purpose, and not to show that defendant was a bad person, likely to commit crimes, or that defendant should be convicted because he may be guilty of other bad conduct," the judges wrote in their ruling.
The appeals court also rejected an argument that Mager's attorney gave ineffective counsel by failing to object to an exchange where a detective supposedly gave his opinion as to Mager's guilt. The detective testified that he believed the murderer wrapped Lee's body in a blanket as "a sign of guilt or remorse for what happened," adding this opinion comes from his training and experience "and... just common sense too."
Appeals court judges concluded in their ruling that the detective was explaining the significance of the murderer tucking Lee's body into a blanket. The detective never expressed an opinion as to Mager's guilt, and his testimony was relevant to how police identified and eliminated possible suspects for Lee's murder. He was explaining why he thought the evidence pointed away from a stranger as a possible suspect.
"Counsel cannot be faulted for failing to make a futile or meritless objection," the judges wrote in their ruling.
Mager was convicted of murdering Lee on Oct. 22, 2011, after breaking into Lee's house, cracking open a safe and stealing opiate pills, marijuana, cash and other belongings, according to the ruling. Police found Lee's bullet-riddled body the next day, wrapped in a blanket in his kitchen.
A firearms expert matched casings found at Lee's house to those ejected from a gun Mager had stolen from Donald Ehlers 11 days prior to the murder, according to the ruling. Ehlers had fired Mager three days before the break-in, and police found DNA evidence linking Mager to the scene. They also found a round of ammunition in Mager's home believed to be stolen from Ehlers, and Mager's cellmate testified that Mager told him he knew the location of another gun and other property he'd stolen from Ehlers. Other evidence and testimony placed Mager at the scene of the crime as well.
Messages left with Daniel Rust, who served as Mager's attorney according to the Appeals Court docket, and the Michigan Attorney General's office were not returned as of press time. Case could not be reached Friday.