April 22, 2019

Colorado Supreme Court: Two Different Sentence Enhancements Can Be Applied Together

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Adams on Monday, November 21, 2016.

Curtis Adams was found guilty of assaulting a corrections officer. Because he committed that crime while serving another sentence, the district court imposed an aggravated sentence of 12 years to be served consecutively with Adams’ other remaining sentences. Thus, Adams’ sentence was enhanced twice: once by the aggravated range and once by required consecutive sentencing.

Adams appealed, and the court of appeals concluded Adams was not subject to the term of years sentence. The court of appeals followed a decision of a different panel and determined that the aggravated range did not apply because the second degree assault statute contained its own enhancement—the requirement for consecutive sentencing. The court of appeals affirmed Adams’ conviction but reversed his sentence.

The People appealed, contending the trial court was required to apply both enhancements by the statutory language. The supreme court analyzed the statutory text and determined that because the different aspects of the sentence could be applied together without conflict, both applied. Adams argued that the consecutive sentencing requirement applies to the exclusion of the aggravated range, but the supreme court disagreed.

The supreme court reversed the part of the court of appeals’ decision vacating the sentence and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Aggravated Sentence Upheld Where Jury Would Have Found Supporting Facts

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Mountjoy on Thursday, June 2, 2016.

Consecutive Sentencing—Aggravated Range—Jury—Evidence.

Defendant was convicted of manslaughter, illegal discharge of a firearm (reckless), and tampering with physical evidence. The trial court imposed a sentence in the aggravated range on each count, to be served consecutively.

On appeal, defendant first contended that each of his aggravated range sentences violated Apprendi v. New Jersey and Blakely v. Washington. Answering a novel question, the court of appeals determined that if a trial court sentences in the aggravated range based on facts not found by a jury, the sentence may be affirmed based on harmless error if the record shows beyond a reasonable doubt that a reasonable jury would have found those facts had the jury been requested to do so by special interrogatory. Based on the overwhelming evidence of guilt in this case, a jury would have found the facts on which the trial court relied in imposing aggravated range sentences, and therefore any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant also contended that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing him consecutively on each conviction. A trial court may impose either concurrent or consecutive sentences where a defendant is convicted of multiple offenses. But when two or more offenses are supported by identical evidence, the sentences must run concurrently. Here, separate acts supported defendant’s convictions for manslaughter and illegal discharge of a weapon. Further, the facts supporting the tampering with evidence conviction did not involve the same acts as either the illegal discharge or manslaughter convictions. Because the record shows that each conviction was supported by distinct evidence, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing consecutive sentences.

The sentences were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Error Where More than One Aggravating Circumstance Proved by Same Facts

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Jackson v. Warrior on Tuesday, November 10, 2015.

Shelton Jackson repeatedly threw the two-year-old son of his girlfriend, Monica Decator, on the ground, severely injuring the child. He hid the injured child in the crawl space of a nearby vacant house. He went to a convenience store and emptied Ms. Decator’s bank account at an ATM, then went to watch wrestling at his uncle’s apartment as he regularly did. When he returned home, he killed Ms. Decator to keep her from reporting the child abuse to authorities. He then set fire to the house. He was arrested the next afternoon, when the bus in which he was traveling to Houston made a regularly-scheduled stop. At a police station in Tulsa, he gave directions to the child’s location and gave a statement confessing to the child abuse and killing. He was charged with first degree murder, first degree arson, and injury to a minor child. A jury found him guilty of all three crimes and recommended the death penalty. On appeal, the OCCA found that Jackson’s trial attorneys were constitutionally ineffective because they conceded his guilt without consulting with him or obtaining his consent or acquiescence. The OCCA reversed and remanded the murder conviction and death sentence, and affirmed the arson and child abuse charges.

On remand, Jackson was again convicted of first degree murder. At sentencing, the state urged four aggravating factors to support a death sentence: (1) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel; (2) Jackson killed Ms. Decator to avoid prosecution for a previous crime; (3) he posed a continuing threat; and (4) During Ms. Decator’s murder, Jackson knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person. The state offered evidence from the trial as proof of the first three factors and introduced the testimony of a doctor to prove the fourth factor. The sentencing court dismissed the continuing threat aggravator. The defense introduced mitigating evidence, mainly based on Jackson’s history, including cognitive and functional disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome, severe abuse, teasing, and time in a correctional facility that was later discovered to fail to protect children from abuse. The defense also introduced the testimony of Arthur Farakhan, who testified that Jackson was involved in a program for disadvantaged youth and that his life would have value in prison. The jury returned a death sentence.

On appeal after remand, Jackson asserted multiple contentions of error, including that there was insufficient evidence to prove the great risk of death aggravator beyond a reasonable doubt. The OCCA affirmed the murder conviction and death sentence. Jackson then sought post-conviction relief, contending his counsel was ineffective for calling Farakhan and failing to object to his potentially prejudicial testimony, and also for failing to raise that claim on direct appeal. The OCCA denied all requested relief. Jackson then filed a petition for habeas relief in federal district court, again arguing the evidence was insufficient to prove the great risk of death aggravator and that both trial and appellate counsel were ineffective. The district court denied habeas relief but granted a certificate of appealability.

On appeal to the Tenth Circuit, Jackson argued the trial court’s submission to the jury of the great risk of death aggravator unconstitutionally skewed its deliberations during the penalty phase. The Tenth Circuit recited Oklahoma law, which allows the “great risk of death” aggravator when another person is endangered by defendant’s acts in killing the victim. Jackson strenuously objected to the use of the great risk of death aggravator, contending that the focus should be on the killing act itself, and when he killed Ms. Decator the child was not present. The state argued that Jackson created a great risk of death to the child by killing Ms. Decator because, as his mother, she was the only person likely to look for the child. The trial court agreed with the state. The OCCA did not decide the issue because the facts used to support the great risk of death aggravator were the same facts as used to prove the “avoid arrest” aggravator, so the jury deliberations were not unconstitutionally skewed. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the case on which the OCCA relied, Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212 (2006). The Tenth Circuit determined that although Oklahoma was a state that weighed aggravating and mitigating factors, Sanders applies equally in weighing and non-weighing states, and the OCCA applied the correct rule in affirming Jackson’s sentence.

Jackson next argued that even if the OCCA applied the Sanders rule correctly, it erroneously conflated admissibility and “aggravatability.” The OCCA held that the great risk of death aggravator was not supported by any evidence that was not also admissible to support other aggravators. The OCCA held that the evidence of the nature and extent of the child’s injuries could have been admitted to prove the valid avoid arrest aggravator. The Tenth Circuit further noted that evidence of the child’s injuries supported Jackson’s knowledge of those injuries and motive of avoiding arrest and prosecution. The Tenth Circuit found that the OCCA’s determination that the physician’s testimony could support the avoid arrest aggravator was not objectively unreasonable. Jackson argued that the physician’s testimony would not have been admissible to prove the avoid arrest aggravator, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed, dismissing Jackson’s argument that the evidence before the jury should have been limited to what Jackson himself admitted. The Tenth Circuit found that the nature and extent of the child’s injuries was best described by a doctor.

Turning to Jackson’s ineffective assistance claim regarding Mr. Farakhan, the Tenth Circuit again found that the OCCA’s decision was objectively reasonable. Mr. Farakhan was brought to testify in Jackson’s mitigation, but he held strong opinions that the death penalty was appropriate for intentional murder. The state questioned Mr. Farakhan about his views on the death penalty, and during this questioning defense counsel did not object. Jackson contends this was error, and his counsel should not have called Mr. Farakhan in the first place because of his views on the death penalty. The OCCA found that defense counsel’s decision to call Mr. Farakhan was neither unreasonable nor unsound, and although the prosecutor’s questioning was improper, the single potentially prejudicial statement did not undermine the rest of the mitigating evidence. The Tenth Circuit applied a “doubly deferential” standard to evaluate the ineffective assistance claim, based on both Strickland and AEDPA. The Tenth Circuit found the OCCA reasonably rejected Jackson’s ineffective assistance claim, since there was ample evidence weighing both for and against the death penalty and it substantially outweighed any potential prejudice from Mr. Farakhan’s single statement.

Finally, Jackson argued that there was cumulative error requiring reversal. The Tenth Circuit found no error, so Jackson could not prove cumulative error. The Tenth Circuit affirmed Jackson’s conviction and sentence.