June 7, 2010

Colorado Supreme Court decisions 6-7-10

Debella v. People            Abuse of Discretion / Unfettered Access to Video Tapes / Sexual Assault on a Child
Issue: Did the trial court abuse its discretion in allowing the jury unfettered access to the videotape during deliberations?
Held: Yes.
Synopsis and reasoning: A jury convicted Mr. Debella of sexual assault on a child. During trial, the trial court admitted videotape and allowed the jury unfettered access to the tape during deliberations. Further, the trial court did not instruct the jury regarding the tape, and did not set up any procedure for viewing the tape. Unlike the defense in People v. Frasco, counsel for Mr. Debella duly objected to the videotape, and preserved the error. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed Mr. Debella conviction. Instructively, the Court wrote: “The court could admonish the jury not to give the exhibit undue weight or emphasis, instruct the jury that it watch the video no more than a specific number of times, or even require that the video be viewed in open court or under the supervision of a bailiff. In selecting those controls appropriate for each case, the trial court will have made a record of its assessment. Here, though, absent such a record and in light of how the inconsistencies of the tape’s content with trial testimony were central to the resolution of the case, we cannot say that the trial court’s failure to exercise its discretion was harmless.”
People v. Clark            Sufficiency of the Evidence / DNA / Sexual Assualt
Issue: Is the DNA match from semen left on the complaining witness’s jacket and a black headband sufficient to convict Mr. Clark of sexual assault.
Held: Yes.
Synopsis and Reasoning: A jury convicted Mr. Clark of sexual assault. The complaining witness alleged that a stranger broke into her home, covered her head with her green fleece jacket, and sexual assaulted her. The SANE exam provided no physical evidence. However, the police recovered semen from the green fleece jacket and a black headband. The complaining witness told police she did not know where the headband came from. Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, the DNA from the semen matched his DNA. Mr. Clark argued on appeal that a DNA match alone, like a sole fingerprint, could not and should not be enough to convict him (the real problem for Mr. Clark was the source of the DNA was semen not some trace DNA evidence where the prosecution did not know the original source). The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, but on a different rationale than the Court of Appeals.
            The Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Clark’s conviction, and held pursuant to People v. Ray, 626 P.2d 167 (Colo. 1981) and Silva v. People, 459 P.2d 285 (Colo. 1969), the prosecution must disprove any reasonable explanation for the semen on the jacket and headband. In Ray, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed a burglary conviction where the sole basis for linking the accused to the crime was a fingerprint on the outside of a milk chute, “an innocent location," as the Court put it.
            Under Ray and Silva, the prosecution must disprove any other reasonable explanation for the presence of physical evidence matching the suspect to the scene. The Colorado Supreme Court held the prosecution has no such burden, and instead employed the test from People v. Bennett, 515 P.2d 466 (Colo. 1973). The Court wrote: “We employ a substantial evidence test to determine if the evidence presented to the jury is sufficient to sustain a defendant’s conviction. Our substantial evidence test considers ‘whether the relevant evidence, both direct and circumstantial, when viewed as a whole and in the light most favorable to the prosecution, is substantial and sufficient to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind that the defendant is guilty of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.’”  The Court also quoted language from Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), where the U.S. Supreme Court held “if it is found that upon the record evidence adduced at the trial no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” then a conviction may be reversed.


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