July 20, 2010

Colorado Court of Appeals decisions 6-24-10

People v. Frye             Prosecution Appeals
Synopsis: In 1973, the state charged Mr. Frye with murdering his wife. However, the trial court back then dismissed because the prosecution could not go forward. Some decades later, in 2006, Mr. Frye’s sister told police that Mr. Frye confessed to murdering his wife to their mother. Of course, mom died prior to the sister testifying or disclosing the confession. The prosecution moved to admit the hearsay under the residual clause of hearsay rule. The trial court found the circumstances surrounding the hearsay to be unreliable, and denied admission of the statements by the mother via the sister. The prosecution then moved to dismiss the case, and appealed the trial court’s evidentiary decision.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held the trial court’s ruling denying admission of the hearsay statement was not a final disposition of the case, and dismissed the appeal.
Reasoning: The Court of Appeals reasoned that the prosecution’s actions amounted to nolle prosequi. The CofA stated simply, “ ‘A nolle prosequi only means that the state is not prepared to go forward with the prosecution of the criminal charge.’ When granted by the trial court, ‘[a] nolle prosequi order is not the final disposition of a criminal case, but leaves the matter in the same condition as before the charges were filed.’ ” (citations omitted).

People v. Price            Suicide Attempt and Mistrial / Right to Testify and Structural Error / Competency of the Defendant
Facts: The defense moved for mistrial after Mr. Price attempted suicide, and could not attend the rest of the trial. The trial court denied the motion for mistrial.
Held: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defense motion for mistrial. Further, the Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Mr. Price voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings.
Reasoning: The CofA pointed out, in its factual summary, that deputies admitted Mr. Price on a mental health hold – not upon some health issue related to the suicide attempt. The Court highlighted the stipulated instruction informing the jury that Mr. Price ‘voluntarily’ absented himself from the trial, but the absence should not affect their decision in any way. (Next time, let the Court figure out the solution, and do not help.) The CofA showed a clear lack of understanding surrounding suicide and suicide attempts by adopting the following reasoning,  “Thus, under Stephenson and the above-cited federal authorities, a defendant's absence may be deemed voluntary where the record establishes that he or she created the medical necessity in order to effect his or her absence from trial.” Lastly, the Court also found that the suicide attempt does not make Mr. Price incompetent to stand trial, and that Mr. Price’s inability to testify did not amount to a structural error.
Editorial: Curiously, if a mom on the Internet pretends to be a boyfriend of her daughter’s rival and the mom’s character breaks up with the rival, suddenly mom is responsible for the rival’s suicide. However, if someone is under the pressure of a jury trial and fearing the soul crushing life imprisonment penalty, suddenly any empathetic gestures evaporate. With anyone accused of a crime, the suicide attempt is viewed as some cynical ploy to delay the trial.

People v. Sanchez             Inconsistent Verdicts / Flight Instruction
Facts: The Court of Appeals recited the facts like this, “A group of about thirty people, including defendant, attended an overnight party at a campground. During the night, R.M. left his tent and noticed C.R. inside of his boss's Jeep and defendant standing outside the Jeep. R.M. approached the Jeep and saw C.R. holding a camera that belonged to R.M.'s boss. R.M. asked what C.R. and defendant were doing and told them to get out of the Jeep. R.M. was angry, pointed his finger at C.R. and defendant, and accused them of stealing. Defendant told R.M., “We're ready for this,” and, “You don't want to do this.” Defendant stabbed R.M. in the chest with a folding knife, and then stabbed S.P. and D.C., two onlookers, as D.C. fought C.R. R.M. and D.C. survived, but S.P. died from his stab wound.” The jury found Mr. Sanchez guilty of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, heat of passion first-degree assault, and heat of passion second-degree assault. From the opinion, it appears the defense never asked for the jury to be instructed on second-degree murder with heat of passion or attempted second-degree murder with heat of passion.
Holding and Reasoning: The CofA held the convictions for attempted first degree murder and first degree assault with heat of passion on one victim were inconsistent, but the inconsistency did not require reversal. Moreover, the CofA held that the convictions for attempted first degree murder and heat of passion second degree assault were inconsistent, but again, the inconsistency did not require reversal. The Court cited People v. Frye, 898 P.2d 559 (Colo. 1995), which held, “that Colorado law does not generally require consistent verdict. However, the Frye court noted that if a jury returned verdicts convicting a defendant of two or more crimes, and the ‘the existence of an element of one of the crimes negates the existence of at necessary element of the other crime,’ ‘courts are generally uniform in their agreement that the verdicts are legally and logically inconsistent and should not be sustained.” The CofA found the existence of heat of passion did not negate any element of first-degree murder or attempted first-degree murder.
Lesson: If your theory is self-defense and heat of passion, submit second-degree murder with the heat of passion. Otherwise, your client will end up screwed like Mr. Sanchez.  Sounds like the jury would have convicted him of heat of passion second-degree murder and heat of passion attempted second-degree murder.
Flight Instruction: Generally, not advisable, but no abuse of discretion here in instructing the jury on flight. (Champ, after deciding to escalate a mere 1° criminal trespass into a 1° murder by stabbing folks when he got caught, ran and hid in a trailer.)

People v. Wilson             Restitution and the Statute of Limitations
The Court of Appeals held that when Ms. Wilson pled guilty to theft from 2002 onward, she waived any applicable rights under the statute of limitations. Essentially, the CofA went with the assumption that subsection (12) of §16-5-401, the Statute of Limitations, applies to plea bargains. Thus, pleading guilty waives any rights under the Statute of Limitations. Subsection (12) reads:
“The applicable period of limitations specified in subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to charges of offenses or delinquent acts brought to facilitate the disposition of a case, or to lesser included or non-included charges of offenses or delinquent acts given to the court or a jury at a trial on the merits, by the accused.”

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