Category Archives: Homicide & Manslaughter

Juror Misconduct

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In Godoy v. Spearman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a murder conviction because a juror inappropriately communicated with a “judge friend” about the case during deliberations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Enrique Godoy was convicted of second-degree murder by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury. A week before his June 12, 2006 sentencing, he moved for a new trial alleging that Juror 10 had improperly communicated about the case with a “judge friend” during deliberations. To substantiate his allegations, Godoy brought brought alternate juror “E.M.” to his sentencing hearing. The trial court continued Godoy’s sentencing to a future court date. Later, Godoy sent the Prosecutor a declaration about Juror 10’s misconduct from alternate juror N.L., who wrote the following:

“During the course of the trial, juror number ten kept continuous communication with a gentleman up north, who she referred to as her “judge friend.” Juror number ten explained to us, the jury as a whole, that she had a friend that was a judge up north. From the time of jury selection until the time of verdict, juror number ten would communicate with her “judge friend” about the case via her TMobile Blackberry, a two way text paging system. When the jury was not sure what was going on or what procedurally would happen next, juror number ten would communicate with her friend and disclose to the jury what he said.”

Despite this “smoking gun” declaration, the trial court nevertheless sentenced Godoy to 16 years’ to life imprisonment. Godoy appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeal, arguing the trial court erred by (1) refusing to presume Juror 10’s communications prejudiced the verdict and (2) refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the alleged misconduct. However, the California Court of Appeal rejected both of these arguments on the merits and affirmed Godoy’s conviction. Gody again appealed, this time going to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

This Ninth Circuit’s opinion began with the following:

“One of the most fundamental rights in our system of criminal justice is the right to trial before an impartial jury. Its common law origin can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It was enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and it has been embraced by the Supreme Court in numerous cases . . .”

Against this backdrop, the Ninth Circuit held that the California Court of Appeal decision violated the clearly established Supreme Court law that governs this case. It reasoned that under Mattox v. United States, due process does not tolerate any ground of suspicion that the administration of justice has been interfered with by external influence.

“Thus, when faced with allegations of improper contact between a juror and an outside party, courts apply a settled two-step framework,” said the Ninth Circuit. At step one, the court asks whether the contact was “possibly prejudicial,” meaning it had a tendency to be injurious to the defendant. If so, the contact is deemed presumptively prejudicial and the court proceeds to step two, where the burden rests heavily upon the State to establish the contact was, in fact, harmless. If the State does not show harmlessness – or in other words, if the defendant was, in fact, harmed by the juror’s contact with an outside party – then the court must grant the defendant a new trial.  However, when the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear, then the trial court must hold a hearing to determine the circumstances of the contact, the impact thereof upon the juror, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

“Here, the California Court of Appeal failed to adhere to this framework in three key respects,” said the Ninth Circuit. First, although the State court correctly acknowledged at step one that N.L.’s declaration raised a presumption of prejudice, it never required the State to rebut that presumption at step two. It concluded instead that the presumption was rebutted because Godoy’s evidence failed to prove prejudice.” The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that under Mattox and Remmer, however, Mr. Godoy was not required to prove prejudice at step two. Once he triggered the presumption, the burden rested heavily upon the State to disprove prejudice. “Thus, in denying relief because Godoy’s evidence did not prove prejudice at step two, the State court acted contrary to well established law,” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Second, the California Court of Appeal decision to set aside the State court’s failure to hold the State to its burden was error. In other words, it was wrong for the California Court of Appeal to rely on the very same statement from N.L.’s declaration both to raise the presumption of prejudice and to rebut it.  “This defies not only logic, but also the clearly established definition of a ‘presumption,’” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

Third, the California Court of Appeal denied Godoy a hearing on prejudice under the wrong legal rule. It held he had to show a “strong possibility” of prejudice, but Remmer requires a hearing whenever, as here, the presumption attaches but the prejudicial effect of the contact is unclear from the record. “Because the state court’s decision contravened these bedrock principles, it was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1),” reasoned the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that because Godoy showed the presumption of prejudice, he was entitled to the evidentiary hearing that he never had to begin with. With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded the case back with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the circumstances of Juror 10’s misconduct, the impact thereof upon the jury, and whether or not it was prejudicial.

My opinion? There’s a lot to be learned from this case. First, in all of my trials I admit a jury instruction prohibiting the jurors from accessing the internet and/or their smartphone devices. Jurors must rely on the evidence and the law and not be guided by outside influences. Second, I try and discuss the case with jurors immediately after they render verdicts. These conversations are very helpful teaching moments because jurors reveal what swayed their decisions. Also – and important to the defense of my clients – jurors may reveal whether their fellow jurors committed misconducts  similar to the type described in this case.

Good decision. And kudos to the defense attorney who discovered the juror misconduct. Although my heart goes out to the friends and family of the murder victim, justice is not served when our courts fail to administer their obligation to give defendants a fair trial.

Diminished Capacity Defense Denied

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In a deeply divided decision of 5-4, = the WA Supreme Court held in State v. Clark that the defendant’s Diminished Capacity defense was properly excluded at trial, even though lay witnesses could testify that the defendant was “slow,” participated in special education, and received Social Security disability benefits.

The defendant Anthony Clark killed the victim, D.D., with a single gunshot to the back of his head. D.D.’s body was found in a garbage can behind the triplex apartment building where Clark lived. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting other than Clark himself. The State theorized that Clark killed D.D. with premeditation in order to steal D.D.’s gun and cocaine. Clark contended the shooting was an accident. The primary disputed issue was thus Clark’s level of intent.

CHARGES

Clark was charged with premeditated first degree murder, first degree felony murder, first degree robbery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Clark pleaded not guilty on all counts.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Before trial, the defense moved to suppress statements Clark made to police after the shooting, contending that he did not validly waive his Miranda rights before speaking to police. To support its motion, the defense offered an expert evaluation from a doctor. At the suppression hearing, Dr. Oneal testified that Clark scored in the bottom first to third percentile in standardized intelligence tests. The court found that Dr. Oneal was a credible witness but denied Clark’s motion to suppress.

The State then moved to exclude testimony about Clark’s “intellectual deficits” for trial purposes. However, Clark argued that the doctor’s testimony was admissible for three purposes: (1) to help the jury understand Clark’s affect during testimony, (2) to explain why Clark does not work, and (3) to contest the State’s evidence of intent.

The court granted the State’s motion in part and excluded the doctor’s expert testimony because, in light of the fact that Clark specifically disavowed any intention to argue diminished capacity, expert testimony on Clark’s intellectual deficits would be irrelevant and confusing to the jury. It did, however, allow for relevant observation testimony bearing on Clark’s intellectual deficits, including his participation in special education, his receipt of Social Security disability benefits, and “that people who knew him considered him slow or tended to discount his testimony.”

JURY TRIAL

At trial, the defense renewed its request to admit the doctor’s expert testimony; arguing that the testimony was necessary to rebut the State’s evidence of intent and to explain Clark’s affect when he testified. Nevertheless, the defense consistently maintained that it was not asserting diminished capacity. The court adhered to its ruling excluding the doctor’s testimony and reminded counsel that relevant observation testimony by lay witnesses was admissible.

The defense brought testimony that Clark had been in special education, had an individualized education plan, and received Social Security disability benefits. It relied on this evidence in its closing argument, emphasizing that Clark was “not your average 20 year old” and arguing that in light of Clark’s actual intellectual abilities, the State had not proved intent to commit murder.

Clark was convicted of premeditated first degree murder as charged, as well as all the other charged counts.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

  1. Did the trial court properly exclude expert testimony regarding Clark’s intellectual deficits?
  2. Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to object when the State informed prospective jurors that it was not seeking the death penalty?
  3. Did cumulative error deprive Clark of his right to a fair trial?

ANALYSIS

1. The Court Properly Excluded Expert Testimony of Diminished Capacity Evidence.

The Court gave background that under ER 702, expert testimony is admissible “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” It also reasoned that diminished capacity “allows a defendant to undermine a specific element of the offense, a culpable mental state, by showing that a given mental disorder had a specific effect by which his ability to entertain that mental state was diminished.” Also, the intent to assert diminished capacity must be declared before trial. Pretrial disclosure is required because when asserting diminished capacity, the defense must obtain a corroborating expert opinion and disclose that evidence to the prosecution pretrial, giving the State a reasonable opportunity to decide whether to obtain its own evaluation depending on the strength of the defense’s showing,” citing CrR 4.7(b).

Ultimately, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s expert testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of rebutting the State’s evidence of intent.

“However, expert opinion testimony that a defendant has a mental disorder that impaired the defendant’s ability to form a culpable mental state is, by definition, evidence of diminished capacity. And where, as here, the defense does not plead diminished capacity, such testimony is properly excluded.”

Additionally, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of explaining Clark’s unusually flat affect while testifying:

“The jury had the ability to evaluate Clark’s affect to the same extent it had the ability to evaluate the affect of every testifying witness, and Clark has not shown that Dr. Oneal’s expert testimony would have been helpful for that purpose.”

2. Defense Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failing to Object When the State Informed Prospective Jurors It Was Not Seeking the Death Penalty.

The Court gave background that in order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that trial counsel’s performance was “deficient,” and that, “but for counsel’s deficient performance, there is a ‘reasonable probability’ that the outcome would have been different.”

Here, the Court reasoned there was no indication that the jury disregarded its instructions or paid less attention to the evidence presented throughout Clark’s trial because it was told that the death penalty was not at issue.  Additionally, there was also no reason to believe that a contemporaneous objection by defense counsel would have reduced any potential for prejudice more than the court’s proper, written instructions did. “We thus hold that Clark has not carried his burden of showing prejudice and therefore has not established ineffective assistance of counsel.”

3. Cumulative Error Did Not Deprive Clark of His Right to a Fair Trial.

The Court reasoned Clark does not show any error, so the cumulative error doctrine does not apply.

CONCLUSION.

The Court concluded that Clark’s defense consisted of diminished capacity evidence. With that, the trial court properly excluded expert testimony from Clark’s doctor because Clark did not assert or plead diminished capacity or show that his doctor’s testimony was otherwise relevant. Moreover, the court properly allowed relevant observation testimony, which the defense relied on in its attempt to rebut the State’s evidence of intent. The Court affirmed his conviction.

THE DISSENT.

The dissenting judges reasoned that the trial court admitted certain lay observation testimony supporting the defense, but excluded the more neutral and more persuasive medical expert testimony supporting the same defense theory.  It also reasoned that the majority judges wrongfully equated all expert testimony about intellectual deficits with a diminished capacity defense. Additionally, the dissenting judges reasoned that by excluding defense evidence that could rebut the State’s evidence of intent, the trial court violated Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense. Finally, the dissenters reasoned that the exclusion of expert testimony on Clark’s mild mental retardation was not harmless error:

“To rebut the State’s evidence that he was a cold, calculated killer, Clark offered lay and expert testimony about how he was slow and did not process information the way other people his age did. But the trial court excluded most of it. It barred all testimony from Dr. Oneal about Clark’s substantial intellectual deficits. 6 Dr. Oneal would have testified, based on his personal testing and evaluation of Clark, that Clark was born prematurely and with significant developmental delays, was highly suggestible and therefore prone to change his story when pressured, and had a very low IQ score indicating that he had extremely poor perceptional reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension skills compared to others his age.”

With that, the dissenting judges held that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of Clark’s intellectual deficits in violation of the Evidence Rules and Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense; and that this error was not harmless.

My opinion? Diminished Capacity is a worthwhile – and difficult – defense to bring forward. Prosecutors consistently try to preclude defense counsel from bringing the defense. Here, it’s too difficult to determine why defense counsel did not assert the defense from the beginning. We’ll never know.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, it the majority court believed Mr. Clark did not properly assert the defense. Instead, it allowed Clark to get some evidence of his mental deficits through law witnesses. This is lawful, albeit not enough. A defendant can assert a roundabout defense of diminished capacity through law witness observations. What’s problematic, however, is that law witnesses won’t bring the requisite level of insight that experts bring.

Interesting opinion.

 

Protective Sweeps of Homes

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In State v. Chambers, the WA Court of Appeals decided (1) the police’s “protective sweep” of the defendant’s home was improper because the defendant was arrested outside his home and the officers did not have specific facts that other armed individuals might be inside the defendant’s home, and (2) the defendant’s 3.5 Motion to Suppress statements made to police was rightfully denied because police scrupulously honored the defendant’s Fifth Amendment invocation of his right to remain silent.

In this case, defendant Lovett Chambers was drinking at the Feedback Lounge, a neighborhood bar in West Seattle that he frequented. Chambers was a convicted felon of African-American descent who moved to Seattle in 1989, worked in the construction industry, obtained degrees in computer science and started an IT business. In 1992, he got married and later purchased a house in West Seattle with his wife. A few years later, Chambers asked his wife to buy him a Colt .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun. She did so, apparently unaware that he was a convicted felon.

On the night of the incident, Mr. Chambers had numerous drinks at the Feedback Lounge. He carried and concealed his .45 pistol.   At some point, two Caucasian men entered the bar and began drinking. The gentlemen did not know Mr. Chambers. Later, all of the gentlemen departed the bar simultaneously and walked to their respective vehicles which were parked nearby each other in the parking lot.

For reasons unknown, words were exchanged between Chambers and the two gentlemen, who apparently uttered racial epitaphs to each other, Mr. Chambers, or both. One of the gentleman – Michael Travis Hood – pulled a shovel from his vehicle; apparently to defend himself from Mr. Chambers. However, Chambers shot Mr. Hood three times with his .45 pistol. Chambers walked away, got into his car and drove home in his BMW.

Mr. Hood died from lethal gunshot wounds to his back.

Seattle police arrested Chambers at his home at 10:49 p.m. Officer Belgarde read Chambers his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. Chambers smelled of alcohol. He was “swaying,” had trouble balancing, slurred his words, and was argumentative. Officer Galbraith drove Chambers to the precinct. Officers obtained a warrant to search Chambers’ home and seized a loaded .45 caliber handgun, a spare magazine, and the BMW keys. The police impounded the BMW. Later, officers interrogated Chambers and obtained numerous incriminating statements regarding the shooting.

The State charged Chambers with murder in the second degree of Hood while armed with a deadly weapon. Chambers asserted a claim of self-defense. Before trial, Chambers filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence seized from his house and the statements he made. The court denied the motion to suppress the evidence seized from the house. The court concluded the police “were authorized to enter the house to conduct a protective sweep to ensure their safety.” The court also denied the motion to suppress Chambers’ statements to police and reasoned his “right to remain silent was scrupulously honored” under Michigan v. Mosley.

The jury found Chambers guilty of the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree. By special verdict, the jury found Chambers was armed with a firearm at the time he committed the crime. The court imposed the low-end standard range sentence of 78 months plus the mandatory consecutive 60-month firearm enhancement. Chambers appealed.

  1. Evidence Seized from the House Was Obtained Through a Unlawfully Conducted “Protective Sweep,” However, The Trial Court’s Decision to Deny Chambers’ Suppression Motion Was Harmless Error.

Chambers contends the court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence the police seized from his house: the Colt .45, a magazine clip with .45 caliber bullets, and the keys to the BMW.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search and seizure unless the State demonstrates that one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a “protective sweep” of the home. The court further reasoned that under Maryland v. Buie the U.S. Supreme Court describes a protective sweep as a limited cursory search incident to arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.

The Court of Appeals decided the trial court erred in concluding the police had the authority to conduct a protective sweep of Chambers’ house. First, a warrantless search of “spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest” without probable cause or reasonable suspicion does not apply when the police arrest an individual outside his home.

Here, the undisputed facts do not support the warrantless entry and protective sweep of the kitchen under Buie and the court erred in denying the motion to suppress:

“The record does not support the conclusion that there were “articulable facts” that the kitchen harbored “an individual posing a danger.” The police had information that only Chambers shot Hood and was alone when he drove away. The findings establish the only individual in the house when police arrested Chambers was his spouse. The front door was open after the arrest and the police could see Sara was sitting on the living room couch watching television and remained in the living room.”

However, the Court of Appeals also ruled that the verdict would have been the same absent the trial court’s error. Chambers testified he acted in self-defense when he shot Hood with the Colt .45. Chambers admitted that he parked his BMW in front of the Beveridge Place Pub on January 21, that he kept a .45 caliber gun under the passenger seat of the BMW, and that he used the Colt .45 to shoot Hood near Morgan Junction Park. For these reasons, the trial court’s decision to deny Chamber’s motion to suppress was harmless error.

2. Chamber’s Incriminating Statements Are Admissible.

On appeal, Mr. Chambers asserts the detectives did not “scrupulously honor” his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “No person shall be . .. compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court adopted “procedural safeguards” to protect the privilege and held that before questioning an individual in custody, the police must clearly inform the suspect of the following:

That he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Here, the Court of Appeals decided that because the circumstances leading up to the police’s interview with Chambers show the police scrupulously honored Chambers’ right to cut off questioning, the court did not err in denying the motion to suppress the statements Chambers made.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the record shows the police advised Chambers of his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. when he was arrested on January 21. Chambers stated he understood his rights and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police. The record establishes the police did not “ask the defendant any questions or persist in repeated efforts to wear him down or change his mind after he invoked his rights.” After he invoked his right to remain silent at 10:51 p.m. on January 21, the police did not question Chambers while at police headquarters. And while driving to Harborview to obtain a blood draw at 3:07 a.m. on January 22, the detectives did not ask Chambers any questions.

Nonetheless, on the way to Harborview, Chambers said he did not want to talk about what happened. While at Harborview, Chambers seemed to have “sobered up.” When they left Harborview approximately 45 minutes later, Detective Steiger advised Chambers of his Miranda rights again. Chambers stated he understood his rights and did not invoke the right to remain silent.

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the undisputed facts support the conclusion that the right to cut off questioning was scrupulously honored.

The Court affirmed the jury verdict.

My opinion? The police should have advised Mr. Chambers of his Ferrier warnings, a topic which I have blogged many times. Ferrier warnings must be given if police officers seek to enter the home to conduct a warrantless search for evidence of a crime or contraband. Still, even if Ferrier warnings were given and Mr. Chambers denied the police entry into his home, his incriminating statements to police ultimately assigned harmless error to the unlawful search.

State v. Ortuno-Perez: “Other Suspect” Evidence

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In State v. Ortuno-Perez, the WA Court of Appeals held that a murder defendant was wrongfully prohibited from introducing evidence that another person, who was armed at the murder scene, actually committed the murder.

In the early morning hours of October 12, 2013, Jesus Castro was shot in the head while standing outside of a house in Renton. He died several days later.

The single shot was fired at close range from a .22 caliber firearm. At the time the shot was fired, anywhere between 5 to 12 people were standing in close proximity to Castro. In that group were 2 individuals particularly pertinent here, the defendant Santiago Ortuno-Perez and Austin Agnish—each of whom was armed with a handgun at the time.

On the same day that Castro was shot, Ortuno-Perez was identified as a suspect and subsequently arrested outside of a house in Kent. In the days that followed, Ortuno-Perez was identified as the shooter by several witnesses who were present at the scene, including Agnish. Ortuno-Perez was subsequently charged with one count of murder in the first degree, committed while armed with a firearm.

Crucial to his defense at trial, Ortuno-Perez sought to introduce evidence that another person, not him, killed Castro. In particular, his counsel sought to identify Austin Agnish as the shooter, to cross-examine the State’s witnesses for potential bias in their testimony, and to present additional evidence indicating that a person other than Ortuno-Perez was the shooter.

However, the trial court denied Ortuno-Perez’s request because Ortuno-Perez had not demonstrated that Agnish had taken steps to commit the crime.

Four days later, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel filed a detailed offer of proof regarding the “other suspect” evidence that the defense would have introduced but for the trial court’s adverse ruling. Again, the trial court excluded the “other suspect” defense.

On the 10th day of testimony, Ortuno-Perez moved for a mistrial, arguing that his right to present a defense had been denied by the trial court’s “other suspect” rulings. The judge denied the motion for mistrial.

The jury convicted Ortuno-Perez of murder in the second degree, committed while armed with a firearm. He was sentenced to 280 months of confinement. Ortuno-Perez appealed.

Ultimately, the WA Court of Appeals reversed  Ortuno-Perez’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

“OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE.

The court reasoned that Washington’s “other suspect” evidence rule—applicable to proffered evidence that a specific person other than the defendant committed the charged crime—has developed from a broad common law rule to a specific and focused application of well established principles of materiality and probative value. Furthermore, the court reasoned that State v. Franklin holds that such evidence should be admitted if there is an adequate nexus between the alleged other suspect and the crime. Thus, the threshold analysis for “other suspect” evidence involves a straightforward, but focused, relevance inquiry, reviewing the evidence’s materiality and probative value for whether the evidence has a logical connection to the crime.

THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.

The Court further reasoned that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. This right, however, is not absolute. It may, in appropriate cases, bow to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process, including the exclusion of evidence considered irrelevant or otherwise inadmissible. As with all evidence, the proponent bears the burden of establishing the admissibility of “other suspect” evidence.

Because the premise underlying the introduction of “other suspect” evidence is to show that someone other than the defendant committed the charged crime, the standard for admission is whether the proffered evidence tends to indicate a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. Evidence is relevant when it is both material—the fact to be proved is of consequence in the context of the other facts and the applicable substantive law — and probative — the evidence has a tendency to prove or disprove a fact.

SUPPRESSING “OTHER SUSPECT” EVIDENCE VIOLATED ORTUNO-PEREZ’S RIGHTS UNDER THE SIXTH AMENDMENT.

Here, the Court of Appeals agreed that the “other suspect” evidence that Ortuno-Perez proffered actually supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Prior to trial, defense counsel sought permission to present evidence to the jury that Agnish, not Ortuno-Perez, killed Castro. In his briefing, Ortuno-Perez’s counsel indicated that it planned to present evidence that Agnish (1) was using prescription drugs at the time that Castro was shot, potentially altering his perception of the shooting and his memory thereof, (2) was armed with a handgun and in close proximity to Castro at the time of the shooting, (3) lied about having access to guns other than the one he admitted carrying at the time of the shooting, and (4) was a member of a gang and had expressed a belief that Castro belonged to a rival gang.

However, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court abused its discretion by improperly excluding the proffered evidence. It said the evidence proffered by Ortuno-Perez relating to Agnish’s potential culpability was of a type that tended to logically connect Agnish to Castro’s murder:

“If credited by the jury, it would establish Agnish’s motive (a gang clash), his opportunity (he was present at the murder scene and in close proximity to Castro at the instant of the shooting), and his means (he was armed with a handgun). Thus, the evidence proffered was plainly relevant to the question of the identity of Castro’s murderer and was of a type that, if credited by the jury, would support a reasonable doubt as to Ortuno-Perez’s guilt.”

The Court of Appeals said that as a result of the trial court’s erroneous rulings , Ortuno-Perez was unfairly prejudiced in two major respects: (1) his ability to confront the witnesses against him was compromised by the rulings preventing him from exploring the potential biases of witnesses who may have been covering for Agnish out of either affinity or fear; and (2) his ability to argue in closing argument that logical inferences from the evidence actually admitted during trial supported a reasonable doubt as to his guilt was compromised by rulings precluding him from suggesting to the jury that anyone other than Ortuno-Perez himself had shot Castro.

The trial court’s erroneous rulings were not harmless. The “other suspect” evidence which the trial judge excluded could have caused a reasonable juror to doubt whether Ortuno-Perez was guilty as charged. Consequently, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, allowing attorneys to argue inferences from the evidence is a rudimentary aspect of this right.  Defense Counsel must be afforded the utmost freedom in the argument of the case and some latitude in the discussion of their causes before the jury.

Premeditated Murder Unproved.

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In State v. Hummel, the WA Court of Appeals Division I reversed a defendant’s conviction for first degree murder due to insufficient evidence of premeditation. It reasoned that proof of a strong motive to kill the victim does not, in itself, establish planning or the method of killing. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on murder in the second degree, the Court dismissed the case with prejudice.

The facts are interesting. Two juries in Whatcom County Superior Court found defendant Bruce Allen Hummel guilty of killing his wife, Alice Hummel. Both were retired Alaska teachers. Their two daughters lived on Alabama Hill in Bellingham in the early 1990s. This case was heavily covered in the Bellingham Herald.

The story begins with Mr. Hummel informing their children that their mother decided to move away and leave the family. Over the years, the girls continued to receive letters and gifts in the mail from Alice. Bruce Hummel told the girls Alice had earned a promotion and moved to Texas.

In 2001, the girls reported their mother missing in 2001. They recalled the strange circumstances of their mom’s disappearance. Bellingham police detectives found only traces of their mother’s existence: a current driver’s license from Alaska, monthly disability deposits from a teachers’ retirement system in Alaska, and withdrawals from a bank account in Alaska. Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he had collected under Alice’s name, Mr. Hummel admitted Mrs. Hummel had been dead for years. He claimed she committed suicide by cutting her wrists. Her body was never found.

Hummel was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud in federal court, for the theft of the disability checks, then charged with murder in the first degree in Whatcom County.

At his first trial in August 2009, Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He appealed as he started serving a sentence of 45 years in prison. The Washington State Court of Appeals found, in 2012, that that there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, but that Hummel’s rights were violated during voir dire, when potential jurors were questioned in private about sensitive issues in their personal lives. (Many other similar, serious cases have been overturned in Washington for not undertaking what is called the Bone-Club analysis, essentially a checklist to avoid violating a defendant’s right to a public trial).

At his second trial in May 2014, Hummel was again convicted of first-degree murder. This time he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a shorter term because the Court of Appeals found his federal crimes should not count toward his criminal history because there was no comparable state law to federal wire fraud in 1990.

Hummel appealed with assistance from the Washington Appellate Project. Hummel argued there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction because the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential element of premeditation.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It reasoned that no trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Hummel killed Alice with premeditated intent to commit murder in the first degree. Reversal for insufficient evidence is “equivalent to an acquittal” and bars retrial for the same offense.  Also, the Court reasoned that the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids a second trial for the purpose of affording the prosecution another opportunity to supply evidence which it failed to muster in prior proceedings. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on the lesser included crime of murder in the second degree, the Court of Appeals held it could not remand to enter a judgment on murder in the second degree.
The Court of Appeals reversed and vacate the conviction for premeditated murder in the first degree, and remand the case back to Superior Court to dismiss the conviction with prejudice.
My opinion? This isn’t over. I’m certain the State shall appeal to the WA Supreme Court.

Corpus Delicti & Murder Confessions

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In State v. Young, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s confession to murder was properly admitted because the State presented ample independent evidence of (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

On the morning of July 4, 2013, John Young entered the Desert Food Mart in Benton City and asked the cashier to call 911 because he had witnessed a shooting of a man named Jacob. Police were summoned. As the investigation proceeded, Mr. Young became a suspect. He was brought in for questioning, and consented to audio and video recording of an interview.

During the interview, an officer read Mr. Young Miranda warnings and obtained his agreement that he understood he was now a suspect and any statements he made could be used against him. Mr. Young then confessed that Jacob was involved in a drug deal gone wrong. With the assistance of an accomplice named Joshua Hunt,  Mr. Young admitted he fired one shot into Jacob’s head near the temple-cheek region, killing him.

Mr. Young also confessed that he and Mr. Hunt disposed of their shoes and gun by putting the items into a backpack and throwing the backpack into a river. Later, police recovered the shoes and gun.  The shoes matched footprints and shoe patterns that had been found in the sand near Jacob’s body. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory determined that all of the bullets recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the Charter pistol found in the backpack.

Mr. Young was charged with first degree murder.

During a 3.5 hearing, Young’s attorney lawyer stipulated to the admission of the videotaped interview, telling the court:

“We believe it’s in our interests to actually stipulate to the 3.5 hearing, and I’ve discussed that with Mr. Young, and I know the Court will make its own inquiries, but he knows and understands he has a right to that hearing, but we believe it’s in our benefit and strategic interest to proceed with the stipulation.”

The court questioned Mr. Young, who stated he understood he had a right to a hearing on the admissibility of the statements but was agreeing instead that all of his statements were admissible.

During trial, Mr. Young’s videotaped confession was played for the jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Young appeals.

Mr. Young argued his defense counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by stipulating to the admission of Mr. Young’s confession when there was no independent evidence apart from his confession, under the corpus delecti rule, sufficient to establish all the elements of first degree murder.

For those who don’t know, corpus delicti is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must be proved to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.

The Court of Appeals rejected Young’s arguments. It reasoned that in a homicide case, the corpus delecti generally consists of two elements: (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act. It can be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, which need not be enough to support a conviction or send the case to the jury. In assessing whether there is sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti independent of a defendant’s statements, the Court assumes the truth of the State’s evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in a light most favorable to the State.

Here, the corpus of the crime of murder was amply established by (1) a dead person; (2) multiple gunshot wounds that established a casual connection with a criminal act; (3) testimony eliminating the possibility of self-inflicted wounds; and (4) the recovery of the weapon miles away from the dead body.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State is not required to present independent evidence of the defendant’s mental state. It reasoned the State is not required to present independent evidence sufficient to demonstrate anything other than the fact of death and a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Young’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

“It appears from his closing argument that Mr. Young’s trial lawyer believed his client’s videotaped interview would advance that argument. Mr. Young fails to demonstrate that his trial lawyer lacked a strategic reason for the stipulation.”

With that, the Court of Appeals confirmed Mr. Young’s conviction.

My opinion? This case represents a fairly straightforward analysis of the corpus delicti defense. I’ve had great success when it applies, and have managed to get many criminal charges reduced or dismissed under this defense. However, the corpus delicti defense is extremely narrow. Aside from the defendant’s confession, there must be virtually NO independent evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Here, other evidence existed which implicated Mr. Young and the defense was found inapplicable.

“Voodoo Science” Debunked

Image result for voodoo forensic science courtroom

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal written Alex Kozinski , a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals since 1985, discusses how the U.S. has relied on flawed forensic evidence techniques for decades, resulting in false convictions.

According to Judge Kozinski, the White House released a report that fundamentally changes the way many criminal trials are conducted. The new study from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) examines the scientific validity of forensic-evidence techniques—DNA, fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis. It concludes that virtually all of these methods are flawed, some irredeemably so.

The study indicates that only the most basic form of DNA analysis is scientifically reliable. Some forensic methods have significant error rates and others are rank guesswork. “The prospects of developing bitemark analysis into a scientifically valid method” are low, according to the report. In plain terms, says Judge Kozinski, “Bitemark analysis is about as reliable as astrology.” Yet many unfortunate defendants languish in prison based on bad science.

Even more disturbing, the article states that forensic scientists – who are often members of the prosecution team – sometimes see their job as helping to get a conviction. This can lead them to fabricate evidence or commit perjury, says Judge Kozinski. Many forensic examiners are poorly trained and supervised. They sometimes overstate the strength of their conclusions by claiming that the risk of error is “vanishingly small,” “essentially zero,” or “microscopic.” The report calls such claims “scientifically indefensible,” but jurors generally take them as gospel when presented by government witnesses who are certified as scientific experts.

Apparently, problems with forensic evidence have plagued the criminal-justice system for years.

The PCAST report recommends developing standards for validating forensic methods, training forensic examiners and making forensic labs independent of police and prosecutors. “All should be swiftly implemented,” says Judge Kozinski, who adds that preventing the incarceration and execution of innocent persons is as good a use of tax dollars as any:

“Among the more than 2.2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, countless may have been convicted using unreliable or fabricated forensic science. The U.S. has an abiding and unfulfilled moral obligation to free citizens who were imprisoned by such questionable means. If your son or daughter, sibling or cousin, best friend or spouse, was the victim of voodoo science, you would expect no less.”

My opinion? Jurors rely HEAVILY on forensic evidence in their deliberations. And it makes sense: it’s a huge task to weigh evidence and sift through the rhetoric of arguments from the prosecution and defense. Cold, hard, quantifiable and scientific facts make it easy for jurors to render decisions.

Consequently, the information from this report is both good and bad news. It’s good because the truth about  “voodoo science” in the courtroom has finally surfaced to the mainstream. It’s bad because hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people are convicted of crimes and serve years in prison based on unreliable evidence for crimes they didn’t commit.

Fortunately, there’s hope. According to Judge Kozinski, the report “provides a road map for defense lawyers to challenge prosecution experts.” Excellent.

Competent attorneys should immediately gain an understanding of challenging prosecution experts who bring voodoo science in the courtroom. It’s the only way to shed light on this grim subject and bring justice to our courts.

State v. Keodara: Overbroad Search Warrant for Cell Phone

In State v. Keodara, the WA Court of Appeals ruled that a search warrant was overbroad in violation of the particularity requirement because it allowed police to search a cell phone “for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever.”

In 2011, the defendant Say Keodara was involved in a shooting at a bus stop.  Several weeks later, police arrested him for an unrelated incident. They searched his backpack and found his cell phone. Outside the backpack police found drugs, drug packaging and drug paraphernalia.  An officer submitted an affidavit in support of a search warrant for the contents of the cell phone. The affidavit made several generalizations about drug dealers and gang members in support of the officer’s conclusion that there was evidence of crime on the cell phone. The judge issue the warrant pursuant to the affidavit, which ultimately allowed police to search Keodara’s entire phone without any limitations.  Police searched the phone and found evidence that the State used when trying Mr. Keodara for the shooting at the bus stop.

Keodara was charged with Murder in the First Degree, three counts of Assault in the First Degree (each with a separate firearm enhancement), and Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the First Degree. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 831 months of prison (69.25 years).

On appeal, Keodara argued that the evidence from his phone should have been suppressed because the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. I, §7 of the Washington State Constitution. He also argued that his substantial prison sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

Ultimately, the court held that although the search of Keodara’s phone violated the federal
constitution, the failure to suppress the evidence was harmless. It also held that Keodara’s sentence violated the 8th Amendment because the court failed to Keodara’s youth and other age-related factors into account. Accordingly, the court affirmed Keodara’s conviction but remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that a warrant is overbroad if it fails to describe with particularity items for which probable cause exists to search. In this case, the affidavit for the warrant for Keodara’s phone contained blanket statements about what certain groups of offenders tend to do and what information they tend to store in particular places. Furthermore, the warrant’s language also allowed Keodara’s phone to be searched for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever. The court also said the following:

Here, no evidence was seized that would have linked Keodara’s phone to the crimes listed in the warrant-unlawful possession of firearms, possession with intent to deliver or sell narcotics, or assault. Nothing in the record suggests that anyone saw Keodara use the phone to make calls or take photos. In addition, the phone was found in a backpack, separate from the drug paraphernalia or the pistol. There was no indication that evidence of firearms or drugs were found with the phone. We conclude that the warrant was overbroad and failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also held that the trial court committed harmless error in admitting evidence police found on the phone:

Here, the untainted evidence of Keodara’s guilt was strong. Cellular phone tower records placed him near the location of the shooting, two eyewitnesses identified him, and another witness testified that Keodara contacted him and told him about the shooting. We find that the trial court’s denial of Keodara’s motion to suppress does not warrant reversal and, accordingly, we affirm his convictions.

The Court of Appeals also addressed the issue of whether Keodara’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. In short, the court said, “Yes.” It reasoned that the trial court did not take into account that Keodara was a juvenile at the time he committed the crimes or consider other age related factors that weigh on culpability or his capacity for rehabilitation. Based on that, the Court concluded that the sentence imposed in this case violated Keodar’s constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

My opinion? Good decision. It appears that, more and more, our courts are rightfully acknowledging a Defendant’s youth at sentencing.

State v. Afeworki: “Band It” Restraint Is Constitutional

In State v. Afeworki, the WA Court of Appeals Division I held, among other rulings, that a “Band It” prisoner restraint system worn by the Defendant during trial does not violate the Constitutional right to a fair trial or the presumption of innocence.

The Defendant Tomas Afeworki was charged with Murder in the First Degree. During pretrial proceedings, he experienced significant and ongoing conflict with each of his several attorneys. On the eve of trial, Afeworki repeatedly threatened his attorney, who was permitted to withdraw as a result. Afeworki was, thereafter, required to represent himself. He was found guilty.

On appeal, Afeworki contends that this deprived him of his right to counsel. After threatening his attorney, Afeworki was also required to wear a “Band It” physical security restraint, not visible to observers, while in the courtroom. Afeworki argues that wearing the “Band It” violated his right to a fair trial.

The court reasoned that under State v. Finch, a defendant in a criminal case is entitled to appear at trial free from all bonds or shackles except in extraordinary circumstances. This is to ensure that the defendant receives a fair and impartial trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution.”

In short, restraining a defendant during trial infringes upon this right to a fair trial for several reasons: (1)it violates a defendant’s presumption of innocence, (2) it restricts the defendant’s ability to assist his counsel during trial, (3) it interferes with the right to testify in one’s own behalf, and (4) it offends the dignity of the judicial process.

Washington case law also says that, given the constitutional implications of using restraints in a criminal trial, shackles or other restraining devices should only be used when necessary to prevent injury to those in the courtroom, to prevent disorderly conduct at trial, or to prevent an escape. That said, a trial court has broad discretion to determine which security measures are necessary to maintain decorum in the courtroom and to protect the safety of its occupants.

A trial court may consider the following factors in determining whether the use of restraints is justified: the seriousness of the present charge against the defendant, their temperament and character, age, physical attributes, past record, past escapes or attempted escapes, evidence of a present plan to escape, threats to harm others or cause a disturbance, self-destructive tendencies, the risk of mob violence or of attempted revenge by others, the possibility of rescue by other offenders still at large, the size and the mood of the audience, the nature and physical security of the courtroom and the adequacy and availability of alternative remedies.

The court described the “Band-It” restraint system as a device that essentially as a 50,000-volt taser contained in a band that is worn under a sleeve or pant leg. Unlike most restraints, which are either visible to jurors or readily perceived by jurors, the Band-It is not visible when the wearer is clothed. Also, unlike other restraints, the Band-It does not in any way directly constrain the wearer’s movements. In fact, the Band-It can cause a wearer’s movements to be constrained only when it is activated.

Here, reasoned the court, the Band-It restraint system does not implicate the presumption of innocence because it is not visible to observers. Moreover, it does not implicate the defendant’s right to the assistance of counsel because it does not physically constrain a defendant’s movements. Finally, the defendant’s antics, aggressive behavior and threats to his defense counsel justified the trail judge’s reasons for making the defendant wear the device:

“The court thereby fashioned a comprehensive order that protected both Afeworki’s constitutional rights and the safety of the people present in the courtroom for his trial. The trial court’s decision was reasonable. There was no error.”

State v. Elkins: Officers Need Not Re-Advise Miranda in All Cases

In State v. Elkins, the WA Court of Appeals decided that whether the officers have scrupulously honored the defendant’ s right to silence and right to counsel under Miranda must be determined on a case -by -case basis, and that there is no bright-line rule requiring police officers to fully re-advise previously Mirandized suspects when reinitiating interrogation.

Yakima County deputies received a tip that defendant Eugene Elkins had killed his girlfriend Kornelia Engelmann. Yakima County deputies arrived and arrested him. He was advised of his Miranda rights. For those who don’t know, police officers must inform defendants of their Miranda rights once police place a defendant in custody and/or conduct investigations via questioning the defendant. The Miranda rights are stated as follows:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

Miranda protects a defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination, and may incline defendants to stop talking and/or immediately seek the advice of an attorney. Once a defendant asserts their Miranda rights, the police MUST stop questioning the defendant. And, generally speaking, police must repeat and re-inform defendants of their Miranda rights if questioning continues at a later time; and/or defendants change their minds and want to speak to the police.

Here, at around 3;30 p.m., Yakima County deputies advised Elkins of his Miranda rights before arresting him. Elkins declined to make a statement, and the Yakima County deputies did not question him further. They took him into custody.

Later, the police again attempted to interview Elkins at about 8: 30 PM. Although they did not re-advise Elkins of his Miranda rights, police asked Elkins if he had been advised of these rights, if he remembered them, and if he understood those rights were still in effect. After Elkins confirmed that he recalled being advised of his Miranda rights and that he understood those rights were still in effect, Elkins agreed to talk to the deputies. In short, he informed the police that he and Ms. Engelmann had a verbal argument which led to a physical altercation.

When the deputies commented on the extensive bruising on Engelmann’ s body and asked Elkins if he had kicked her, hit her with something, or hit her with a closed fist, Elkins said that he did not want to talk to the deputies any longer and requested an attorney. The deputies ended the interview.

On June 7, the very next day, Elkins gave a full written statement to police after they re-advised him of his Miranda rights. In the statement, he admitted to killing Engelmann. Elkins was subsequently charged with Murder in the Second Degree.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. Before trial, Elkins moved under CrR 3.5 to suppress the statements he made to the police on June 6 and June 7. However, the trial court admitted all of Elkins’ statements. At trial, Elkins was found guilty of Murder in the Second Degree. He appealed his conviction to the WA Court of Appeals Division II.

In rendering its decision, the Court acknowledged that fully re-advising a suspect of his Miranda rights is clearly the best practice when resuming questioning of a suspect who has asserted his right to silence. However, the Court also said there is no bright-line rule that law enforcement officers must always fully re-advise a defendant of his or her Miranda rights. In addition, they said that the issue of whether a defendant’ s rights have been scrupulously honored must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The Court further reasoned that under the totality of the circumstances, Elkins statements were not coercively obtained by police. The facts show that ( 1) the Yakima deputies ceased questioning Elkins immediately when he asserted his right to silence, (2) no law enforcement officer attempted to interrogate Elkins for a significant period of time, five hours, before his subsequent contact with the police, ( 3) no law enforcement officer engaged in any coercive tactics, and (4) the police did not interrogate Elkins until after they confirmed that he had been read his rights, that he recalled those rights, and that he understood those rights were still in effect. The court also said the following:

“[T]he subsequent interrogation is proper if the State has shown that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived those rights given the totality of the circumstances, not whether the subsequent contact was preceded by law enforcement fully re-advising the defendant of his or her Miranda rights. When this and the other factors . . . are met, the officers have scrupulously honored the defendant’ s rights.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Elkins’ June 6 waiver was knowing and voluntary under the circumstances. They also reasoned that his statements made during transport and June 7, 2014 statements were also admissible because Elkins initiated the relevant conversation following his assertion of his right to counsel and then knowingly and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

My opinion? My heart goes out to the victim’s friends and family. I sincerely hope they find comfort in the Court of Appeals’ decision. However, I disagree with the decision. When it comes to protecting people’s constitutional rights, bright-line rules work best. And its always been a time-tested rule that police MUST re-advise suspects of their Miranda rights, especially under circumstances like this.