Michigan Court of Appeals upholds Pierson man’s methamphetamine lab conviction

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:10 am on Tuesday, August 12, 2014

LANSING — The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of a Pierson man who was operating a methamphetamine lab in his home, where two young children lived.

Christopher Wilcox was convicted by a Montcalm County jury in October 2012 of operating/maintaining a meth lab as well as operating/maintaining a meth lab in the presence of minors. He was also a habitual offender fourth offense.

Christopher Wilcox

Central Michigan Enforcement Team (CMET) officers visited Wilcox’s home after receiving a tip that Wilcox was making meth. Officers could smell a strong odor of some type of solvent coming from the basement at the home and they found a water bottle with a coffee filter inside, along with some liquid residue.

The contents of the water bottle tested positive for pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in the production of meth.
Officers also found other components used to make meth, including muriatic acid, xylene solvent, ammonia nitrate cold pack plastic tubing and coffee filters.

Two minor children lived in the home, along with Wilcox’s wife.

Wilcox was sentenced to 12 to 30 years in prison. He appealed his conviction, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions.

“On appeal, (Wilcox) mistakenly contends that, because the prosecution’s case relied heavily on circumstantial evidence, he could only be convicted if an inference of criminality arose from the circumstantial evidence with ‘impelling certainty,’” the Court of Appeals stated in a written opinion. “This is not the law in Michigan.”

The Court of Appeals found there was sufficient evidence to support Wilcox’s convictions, noting by his own admission Wilcox had been using meth for several months and there was evidence that he had repeatedly paid his stepson to purchase Sudafed for him.

Wilcox also asserted on appeal that the trial court violated his due process rights to a fair trial in several ways. He contended two police officers — Lt. Steven Rau and Deputy Donald Wittkopp — gave opinion testimony about whether the items found in Wilcox’s basement were indicative of a meth lab.

The Court of Appeals noted Rau was qualified as an expert by the trial court in matters of “how meth is made, recognizing the different methods, the ingredients, equipment and components related.” Wilcox never objected to the testimony of either police officer during trial.

Wilcox also objected that the trial court violated due process by allowing evidence that Wilcox’s stepson and his stepson’s friend purchased Sudafed for Wilcox five times from July through October 2011. Wilcox also challenged Wittkopp’s testimony that Wilcox told Wittkopp that he had smoked meth since June 2011 and Wittkopp learned from Wilcox’s wife that she suspected he was manufacturing meth.

The Court of Appeals ruled this testimony explained the circumstances of Wilcox’s crime, providing the jury with a complete story surrounding the police investigation, as well as the items discovered in the basement and their likely significants. The Court of Appeals also stated that Wilcox did not show that the admission of this cumulative evidence affected the outcome of the trial.

Wilcox also asserted that the trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the meaning of the term “presence.” At trial, Wilcox objected to the court’s instruction on “presence,” arguing that it did not accord with the plain meaning of the term.

In this case, the term “presence” related to the heightened penalties imposed by state law when a violation of state law “is committed in the presence of a minor.”

At trial, the judge instructed the jury that the phrase “in the presence of a minor” “means that the minor was present in the building, structure, place or area at the time (Wilcox) owned or possessed the chemical or laboratory equipment and that (Wilcox) knew a minor was present.”

The Court of Appeals found the instruction given about the word “presence” fairly presented the issues to be tried and adequately protected Wilcox’s rights.

Finally, Wilcox raised several claims of misconduct by the prosecutor, that the lower court lacked jurisdiction in the case and that he was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals found no basis for any of these claims.

Wilcox has previous convictions on his record, including breaking and entering in 1990, armed robbery in 1996 and possession of a financial transaction device in 1996.

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