October 19, 2018

Colorado Supreme Court: Unfettered Access to Crime Scene Video Allowed Because it Does Not Present Great Risk of Undue Influence

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rael v. People on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Electronic Exhibits—Crime Scene Videos—Statements by the Defendant—Jury Deliberations.

This case required the supreme court to decide whether it was reversible error for a trial court in a criminal case to provide the deliberating jury with “unfettered and unsupervised access” to a crime scene video and a video of a police interview of the defendant. A division of the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in either regard. In reaching this conclusion, the division relied on DeBella v. People, 233 P.3d 664, 665–66 (Colo. 2010), in which the court considered the propriety of a trial court’s order allowing the jury unfettered access to the videotapes of a child sexual assault victim’s out-of-court interviews. Although the supreme court agreed that the trial court retains discretion regarding juror access to the videos at issue, the court disagreed with the division that DeBella provides the appropriate framework for resolving this case.

The court nevertheless concluded that the division reached the correct result, namely, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the jury unfettered access to those videos during deliberations. In arriving at this conclusion, the court observed that the non-testimonial crime scene video did not present the same risk of undue emphasis as do videos documenting witnesses’ out-of-court, testimonial statements (like the videotapes at issue in DeBella). The court likewise observed, consistent with well-established precedent, that a defendant’s confession is not subject to the same limitations during deliberations as the out-of-court statements of other witnesses. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Statements Made After Promise of No Jail Time Involuntary; Error Not Harmless

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sharp v. Rohling on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

Kimberly Sharp was homeless and living in a camp with her two children, her boyfriend, and two other men when they were approached by David Owen, an activist who used unconventional methods to get homeless people off the streets. Owen had destroyed several campsites and carried photos of the burned campsites to show other homeless people, and he would frequently hand the homeless people phones and order them to call their families. When Owen approached Sharp’s camp, an altercation ensued and two of the men hog-tied him and dragged him into the woods. His body was found several weeks later and police began investigating the murder by interviewing homeless people camping near where his body was found. When the police approached Sharp, Detective Bryan Wheeles noted she looked scared and took her aside for questioning, eventually transporting her to the Topeka Police Department to be interviewed.

At the police department, Wheeles told Sharp she was under arrest and Mirandized her without specifically telling her why she was being arrested. Sharp told Wheeles she was sitting around a campfire when Owen approached the camp and told the homeless people they should not camp and should call their families. He also said he would have burned their camp if they were not there, upsetting everyone. An altercation ensued, and two of the men knocked Owen to the ground. One man dragged Owen into the woods. Sharp headed into the woods to see what was going on and saw one man over Owen with an axe poised to kill him. She told the man not to kill Owen, and the third man brought a rope which was used to hog-tie Owen. The two men continued to beat him. The third man then burned all Owen’s possessions while the other two dragged Owen into the woods. Sharp never saw him again. Wheeles asked Sharp if she had helped burn Owen’s stuff because she was scared, and she admitted she had, asking if she was going to jail. Wheeles said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” and continued that Sharp would be a witness unless she did “something dumb and jam[med] [her]self.” Sharp then detailed her role in burning Owen’s phones and notebooks.

When Sharp informed Wheeles that her kids were with another homeless person at another camp, he told her that person was a registered sex offender and they drove together to retrieve her kids. She asked about finding shelter for herself and the children and Wheeles promised he would take care of that. He drove her to the campsite, where Sharp gave a detailed recreation of what happened, including positioning, and informed Wheeles that she told the men not to kill Owen. At that point, he stopped her and asked if she said “don’t kill him” or “don’t kill him here,” to which she replied “don’t kill him here.” Sharp was transported back to the police station, where Wheeles asked her a few more questions before leaving her in the interview room with her kids. She was informed about an hour later that the district attorney had decided to charge her with murder, and she became angry and upset, saying Wheeles had lied to her and tricked her.

Sharp was charged with one count of felony murder and the indictment was later amended to include kidnapping with the intent to injure or terrorize. The state trial court held a hearing on whether to suppress Sharp’s statements as involuntary. Wheeles testified that he never made any promises to Sharp and that the district attorney would make the ultimate charging decision. Sharp did not testify, but her attorney argued the statements were involuntary because they were induced by Wheeles promises to be lenient and to find shelter for her and her children. The trial court reviewed the videos of the interview and reenactment and ruled that Sharp’s statements were admissible because Wheeles did not make any promises and because Sharp’s demeanor suggested she was relaxed and not impaired. The prosecution used Sharp’s reenactment video in its case, relying heavily on her statement “don’t kill him here,” and also relying heavily on her admission that she helped burn Owen’s possessions. She was convicted on both counts and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 20 years for the murder count and a concurrent 61 months for the kidnapping count.

Sharp appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing her statements were inadmissible because they were involuntary due to her reliance on Wheeles’ promises of lenience and shelter. The supreme court affirmed the trial court’s decision not to suppress the statements, finding substantial evidence supported that she was not acting under any promises during the interview. One justice dissented, criticizing the majority for relying on Wheeles’ testimony from the suppression hearing and arguing anyone in Sharp’s position would have interpreted Wheeles’ statements as a promise that she would not go to jail. The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the promises concerning Sharp’s children as a “collateral benefit,” finding instead that a promise to help Sharp’s young children was no less compelling than a promise of leniency. Sharp then filed a federal habeas petition in district court. The federal district court denied Sharp’s petition but granted her a COA.

The Tenth Circuit noted that AEDPA precluded habeas relief as to a claim decided on the merits in state court unless (1) the decision was contrary to clearly established federal law, or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The Tenth Circuit found Sharp met her burden based on 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2).

Sharp argued that Wheeles coerced her confession by promising leniency and assistance in finding shelter. The Tenth Circuit found that, on de novo review, Sharp’s statements were involuntary once Wheeles said she would not go to jail and the trial court committed harmful error by allowing the statements. Wheeles said “no” ten times when Sharp asked him if she was going to jail, followed by a statement that she would be a witness unless she incriminated herself. The Kansas Supreme Court found Sharp “was not operating under any promises,” and characterized Wheeles’ behavior as an exhortation to be truthful. The Tenth Circuit found that, after receiving a confession from Sharp, Wheeles immediately and unequivocally reassured Sharp she was not going to jail, which was essentially a promise. The Tenth Circuit found the supreme court’s finding that Wheeles made no promises unreasonable. The supreme court’s alternate theory that he only promised leniency if she did not incriminate herself was also unreasonable, since she already had.

The Tenth Circuit also found that the Kansas Supreme Court unreasonably applied the facts to the promise to find shelter for Sharp and her children. Wheeles used the word “promise” in his assurance that he would help Sharp find shelter, but the trial court and state supreme court both found Sharp was not “operating under a promise.” The Tenth Circuit ruled that this was error.

The Tenth Circuit next concluded that Sharp’s incriminating statements made after the promise of leniency were involuntary. Prior to the detective’s promises, Sharp had only incriminated herself as to burning Owen’s possessions. Trial testimony from the third homeless man at the camp indicated Sharp was angry at Owen and wanted to show him what it was like to have his stuff burned. Her confession to burning Owen’s stuff, admissible because it preceded Wheeles’ promise of no jail, was likely insufficient to support a conviction. The prosecution emphasized Sharp’s statement “don’t kill him here” at trial to implicate her in the killing, and the Tenth Circuit found that this made the error of admitting her involuntary statements not harmless.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court and granted Sharp’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus as to her convictions, subject to the state’s right to retry her within a reasonable time.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Jurors Appropriately Allowed Unfettered Access to Video of Defendant’s Voluntary and Admissible Confession During Deliberations

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Gingles on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

Jury—Evidence—Videotaped Admission—Deliberations—Jury Instructions—Invited Error—Vehicular Eluding—Double Jeopardy—Separate Volitional Acts.

Defendant fled from police in a stolen vehicle. After that vehicle broke down, he pushed a driver out of another vehicle and fled in that vehicle. A jury found defendant guilty, as charged, of second-degree kidnapping, one count of aggravated motor vehicle theft, and two counts of vehicular eluding. The jury also found him guilty of robbery and third-degree assault, as lesser-included offenses of his other charges.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred in permitting the jury to have unfettered access to the video recording of his confession. Jurors are allowed unrestricted access during deliberations to a defendant’s voluntary and otherwise admissible confession. Therefore, the court did not err.

Defendant also contended that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that he could be convicted of robbery based on the use of force, threats, or intimidation “against any person” rather than against the innocent driver specifically. Because defense counsel proposed the instruction, the invited error doctrine bars defendant’s challenge to it on appeal. The case was remanded with instructions to correct the mittimus to reflect that defendant was convicted of robbery, not aggravated robbery.

Defendant further contented that his two convictions for vehicular eluding were imposed in violation of constitutional double jeopardy guarantees. Defendant committed two different volitional acts directed at two different officers at different times. Therefore, the evidence was sufficient to support two separate convictions of vehicular eluding. The judgments were affirmed and the case was remanded with directions.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Burying the Body—Dismantling the Corpus Delicti Rule and Adopting the Trustworthiness Standard (Part 2)

Evig_SamuelBy Samuel A. Evig

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 is available hereThe article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of The Colorado Lawyer.

Evidence Corroborating a Confession

The LaRosa Court articulated three distinct ways in which evidence can corroborate a confession, and these three ways seem only to confound the philosophical question of whether trustworthiness is an interpretation of corpus delicti or replacement for it. Further, although the Court articulated three ways to corroborate confessions, it provided no examples or guidance to illustrate those methods. Trial courts, at least initially, must rely on case law from other jurisdictions to guide their rulings. Although the opinion provides little distinct guidance, analyzing the three methods helps to sketch the outlines of the standard.

The first method the Court articulated is when facts provided at trial “corroborate facts contained in the confession.”[1] Under this scenario, the visitor logs provided by the prosecution in LaRosa would help to corroborate the confession.[2] Those logs corroborate facts contained in the confession—LaRosa’s statement about where and when the offense happened. Cases interpreting the trustworthiness doctrine do not require independent corroboration for each fact articulated in a confession.[3] All that is required is that some facts corroborate some parts of the confession.

U.S. v. Kirk[4] illustrates this method of corroborating a confession. There, Kirk confessed to trading drugs for a handgun, and was found in possession of a handgun.[5] Authorities charged him with distributing a controlled substance in relation to the incident where he obtained a handgun.[6] No witness testified about any of the facts of that sale, except the witnesses presenting Kirk’s confessions. The non-confession evidence offered by the prosecution (possession of a gun, possession of drugs, Kirk’s prior history of drug distribution) would not, by themselves, have been sufficient to convict him of drug distribution.

Yet the appellate court upheld Kirk’s conviction, relying on the “detailed nature” of Kirk’s confessions, evidence showing Kirk had significant prior involvement in drug trafficking, the physical evidence near him (a gun, drugs, and drug paraphernalia), and a second confession to a cellmate.[7] The court noted, in terms of the necessary evidentiary standard, that the “evidence need not be sufficient, on its own, to establish the body of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, or even by a preponderance of the evidence.”[8] In the Kirk case, the finding of the gun (alleged proceeds from an earlier drug transaction), along with the other factors, provided sufficient corroboration.[9]

The second way to corroborate the confession, according to LaRosa, is for the prosecution to “provide facts that establish the crime which corroborate facts contained in the confession.”[10] Although this method sounds like the first, it applies in situations where the prosecution proves the existence of a crime, but has to rely on the confession to prove a key element of it—such as the identity of the perpetrator. One way to distinguish these two methods is that the first uses corroboration to prove a crime occurred, while the second uses corroboration to show who committed a crime.

An example of this method of corroboration comes from Fontenot v. State.[11]There, authorities accused Fontenot of a robbery that turned into a kidnapping and first-degree murder.[12] Fontenot made incriminating statements to a friend and fellow inmate that fell short of outright confessions but that implicated him, and he made a detailed confession to police admitting involvement in the kidnapping and robbery.[13] His confession to police implicated a third party as the actual killer, but that third party was later exonerated.[14] At trial, independent, non-confession evidence proved a crime happened. The victim, clearly, had been murdered; yet none of the non-confession evidence proved Fontenot’s involvement.

The court, applying a trustworthiness standard, analyzed evidence at trial and affirmed the conviction. The court first found the statements he made to a cellmate and to a friend to be of a different character than his outright confession to police—and these statements buttressed the confession to police.[15] In addition, the court considered the similarities between the non-confession evidence and the confession evidence. Among other similarities, the court noted that witnesses’ descriptions of the abductor’s truck matched what Fontenot described, that the amount taken during the robbery roughly matched the amount Fontenot admitted he stole, and that descriptions of the clothing the victim wore during the abduction matched the description Fontenot gave of the robbery victim’s clothing.[16] Although the case contained conflicting evidence, the court found all that was necessary was that the confession be corroborated in some manner.[17] Because facts presented at trial corroborated specific facts in the confession; the confession was trustworthy and served to prove Fontenot’s involvement in the crime.

The third way to corroborate a confession is when “facts under which the confession was made show that the confession is trustworthy or reliable.”[18] It is the LaRosa Court’s inclusion of this third method that makes the case unique, and that kindles the debate about whether the Court was jettisoning the corpus delecti rule or merely interpreting it. Deciding whether a confession is itself sufficiently reliable to be trustworthy involves a host of factors, many of which apply to the more common but related problem of deciding when to suppress a confession as involuntary under the Fifth Amendment.[19]

First, a court may consider the person to whom the defendant confessed, because a confession to a friend or family member may not carry the same concerns of coercion or overreaching as a confession to police.[20] Second, the circumstances prompting the confession may be relevant—because some circumstances provide a very clear motive to falsely confess.[21] When the confession occurred in relation to when the suspect became aware of an investigation also can be important, because the lack of an investigation eliminates the possibility of police coercion.[22] Some courts even consider whether the suspect confessed more than one time,[23] although other courts disagree with this reasoning.[24] Still other courts look for information within the confession that is not available to the public or that shows an independent source of knowledge.[25]

As the LaRosa Court noted, “[t]he corroborating facts may be of any sort whatever, provided only that they tend to produce a confidence in the truth of the confession.”[26] If Colorado follows case law from other jurisdictions, almost anything corroborating the confession can be used to support it. The question then becomes exactly what standard of proof is necessary for the corroboration and how does a court determine what is sufficient corroboration.

The Evidentiary Standards

The question of what level the corroboration must meet to support a confession-based conviction is at the heart of the argument between the LaRosa dissenters and the majority. Neither the dissent nor the majority argues that the trustworthiness standard affects the admission of confessions. Instead, the standard presents a question of sufficiency to support conviction.[27] Both the dissent and the majority understand that the trial court—as opposed to a jury—makes a decision regarding the legal sufficiency of the evidence. Where the parties disagree is whether the standard is incorporated into Colorado’s existing sufficiency of the evidence law or is something new. Understanding the dissent’s position on this issue is a useful way to understand the application of the new rule.

First, the dissent argues the majority misinterpreted the Opper series of cases because those cases did not create a new standard but only imposed a way of interpreting the common-law rule of corpus delicti for federal courts.[28] The dissent argues the trustworthiness standard is the kind of “open-ended balancing test exhaustively disparaged and ultimately rejected as constitutionally inadequate by the Supreme Court.”[29] Besides being too open-ended, the dissent asserts the “substantial evidence standard” overruled corpus delicti and that LaRosa should have been decided on this basis alone.[30]

The “substantial evidence standard” mentioned by the dissent is set forth in Crim.P. 29. It permits the defense to move for judgment of acquittal once the prosecution rests.[31] The test for such motions is articulated in People v. Bennett.[32] Under Bennett, the trial court must consider 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.[33]

The test requires the prosecution to have provided evidence, sufficient to convict, for each element of the crime.

The LaRosa dissent argues that the substantial evidence standard, adopted by our rules of criminal procedure, implicitly overturned the common law of corpus delicti.[34] The argument is that Crim.P. 29 now requires all the evidence, including stand-alone confessions, to be viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, that the rule has long eliminated any distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence, and thus a confession standing alone often will be sufficient to defeat a motion for judgment of acquittal. That is, the jury should decide whether a confession in any particular case is sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The majority does not go so far. Instead, it states that the trustworthiness standard is to be treated “like a rule affecting the sufficiency of the evidence to be analyzed by the court following a motion for judgment of acquittal.”[35] The key difference, according to the majority, is that the trustworthiness standard focuses not on the elements of the crime, but only on the evidence corroborating the confession itself.[36] Thus, it serves a different purpose than the sufficiency of the evidence test.[37]

The majority did not articulate what should happen if a trustworthy confession is the sole piece of incriminating evidence. Based on the limited guidance in the opinion, if that confession is trustworthy, it should suffice to support a conviction (assuming it provides evidence for each material element of the crime). That seems to be the whole reason behind jettisoning the corpus delicti rule. Of course, the corollary to that reasoning is that if the confession is not trustworthy, and it is the sole piece of incriminating evidence, the majority would bless the trial court granting the motion for judgment of acquittal.

The dissent would not engage in a trustworthiness analysis at all, and instead simply would apply the substantial evidence standard to reach a decision. Under the dissent’s position, an uncorroborated confession must be viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution—that is, it must be viewed as trustworthy—and in that light would never justify a judgment of acquittal.

Guidance for Practitioners

Practitioners first need to be aware of when the trustworthiness doctrine applies. It does not apply to all cases with confessions; only cases where the primary piece of incriminatory evidence is a confession should be affected. Another way of recognizing affected cases is for attorneys to ask themselves whether the case has proof, other than the confession, which if true would be sufficient to sustain a conviction. In terms of typical fact patterns, attorneys should beware of inchoate crimes and crimes with silent victims (pre-verbal children, disabled persons, or deceased victims where the cause of death is at issue).

Practitioners need to recognize a second issue regarding whether the standard applies. That issue involves whether Colorado courts will find a difference between “admissions” and “confessions.”[38] Some courts, based on their reading of Opper, do not distinguish between admissions and confessions.[39] But other courts do.[40] Still other courts do not make the admission/confession distinction, but find some kinds of statements (pre-investigation statements for instance) so reliable as to require no corroborating evidence.[41] There are strong policy reasons to treat admissions and confessions made before a criminal investigation differently—namely, there should be no real concern about police overreaching when police are not yet involved. Where Colorado falls on the spectrum of admissions versus confessions or pre-investigation statements versus post-investigation statements is not at all clear.

If the confession is the primary piece of incriminating evidence, the practitioner needs to examine whether other facts corroborate facts within the confession, whether facts establish the crime the confession describes, and the specific facts surrounding the confession itself.[42] As noted above, case law from other jurisdictions is likely to be persuasive given the lack of Colorado law on this topic. The flexibility of the standard means almost anything is in play at this point to help corroborate the confession.

Conclusion

The fine lines defining this new doctrine have yet to be sketched by Colorado’s appellate courts. Some case law is necessary to fill in the cracks of this new construction. Until then, the one clear point from LaRosa is that it gives prosecutors a fighting chance in cases where victims cannot speak for themselves. For the defense bar, LaRosa signals a shift as well, because under corpus delicti, the defense could have a hearing before trial on the issue and, if successful, avoid trial altogether.[43] The current guidance in LaRosa indicates the proper time to apply the test is “like a rule affecting the sufficiency of the evidence to be analyzed by the court following a motion for judgment of acquittal.”[44] Further, proving that a confession is trustworthy is often much easier than proving the crime happened—which is something both the defense bar and prosecutors may need to consider in plea bargaining cases. Ultimately, the decision creates new issues for both prosecutors and defense attorneys in some of the most difficult cases for both sides.

Samuel A. Evig is a deputy district attorney in the 18th Judicial District—sevig@da18.state.co.us. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

 

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[1] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578.

[2] The majority opinion in LaRosa does not explicitly decide whether the evidence presented would be enough to support his conviction under the trustworthiness standard. The majority does not address this issue because they decided application of the new standard would violate his due process rights. LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578-79. Given that the Court found corpus delicti could operate to frustrate justice in crimes against very young children, and that the Court found this reasoning (along with other factors) sufficient to overturn the rule, it seems likely the Court would have upheld a trial court finding of sufficient corroboration. In fact, the Court cited both Robson and Meredith as support for cases in which convictions were barred by the rule in its discussion. Id. at 575. Those cases, for the most part, are factually indistinguishable from LaRosa. The implicit guidance of the opinion is that if the case were decided under the trustworthiness standard, LaRosa’s conviction would stand.

[3] Moran, supra note 3 at 852. Moran argues independent evidence can bolster “any aspect of the confession, including obvious and uncontroverted facts,” and thus the rule does not protect defendants as well as corpus delicti. See also U.S. v. Sterling, 555 F.3d 452 (5th Cir. 2009) (prosecution need not corroborate each part of a confession for it to support a conviction; rather, the corroboration of portions of the statement suffice to corroborate the statement as a whole); Heiges, 779 N.W.2d at 912-13 (analyzing a confession of a mother to drowning her newborn child under a Minnesota statute requiring corroboration of confessions and holding corroboration is not necessary for every part of the confession).

[4] U.S. v. Kirk, 528 F.3d 1002, 1106-07 (8th Cir. 2008).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 1110.

[7] Id. at 1112-13.

[8] Id. at 1111, citing U.S. v. Eagle, 515 F.3d 794, 807 (8th Cir. 2008) and Whiteside v. U.S., 346 F.2d 500, 505 (8th Cir. 1965).

[9] A similar case is Sterling, 555 F.3d at 456-57. There, a defendant confessed to acquiring a gun in a drug deal sometime before his arrest. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to find the confession corroborated (even though defendant took the stand and recanted the confession) based on officers finding the gun, prior act evidence showing Sterling had dealt drugs, and the facts of the confession being specific enough to enhance its reliability.

[10] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578.

[11] See generally Fontenot II, 881 P.2d 69.

[12] Id. at 73-74, citing Fontenot v. State, 742 P.2d 31 (Okla.Cr. 1987) (Fontenot I).

[13] Id. at 76-78. The specific statements that were not to made police involved him telling a friend he knew the identity of the criminals and telling a cellmate that he “knew we’d get caught.”

[14] The confession he made to police was similar to a confession provided by a co-defendant named Ward. Both men attempted to cast blame for the actual homicide on a third person, Tidwell. Evidence conclusively proved that Tidwell had no involvement. See Fontenot I, 742 P.2d at 31; Fontenot II, 881 P.2d at 79. Here, the trustworthy confession was trustworthy in the general sense to prove Fontenot’s involvement in the crime, but obviously not trustworthy in all its details.

[15] Fontenot II, 881 P.2d at 78.

[16] Id. at 78-79.

[17] The inconsistencies were not minor. Fontenot stated the victim was stabbed, but forensics showed she was shot; the body was not found where he said it would be; and there was no evidence the body had been set on fire, as he claimed it had. Id. at 79. In addition, the person Fontenot implicated as a conspirator was exonerated. As noted by the Fontenot II Court, the standard does not require that there be “no inconsistencies whatsoever between the facts proven and the facts related in the confession.” Only when the inconsistencies “so overwhelm the similarities” is a confession rendered untrustworthy. Otherwise, the jury decides what weight to assign to the confession.

[18] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578.

[19] There is an expansive body of case law regarding the voluntariness of confessions. See generally Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986); People v. Gennings, 808 P.2d 839 (Colo. 1991). Although the factors articulated in these cases and their progeny play into the trustworthiness analysis, practitioners must remember that trustworthiness is a sufficiency finding, as opposed to an admissibility finding. Further, although a confession may or may not be voluntary, that does not, by itself, render it trustworthy. See In re K.A., 60 A.3d 442.

[20] Heiges, 779 N.W.2d at 911; Fontenot II, 881 P.2d at 78.

[21] In re K.A., 60 A.3d 442 at 450.

[22] Heiges, 779 N.W.2d at 911.

[23] Tilley v. State, 963 P.2d 607, 612 (Ok.Crim.App. 1998) (upholding a murder conviction against a claim of lack of trustworthiness of confessions based, in part, on the finding that there were multiple confessions) superseded by statute on other grounds in Coddington v. State, 142 P.3d 437 (Ok.Crim.App. 2006).

[24] Weisser, 150 P.3d at 1051. Weisser specifically held that multiple confessions do not establish the trustworthiness of such statements. The factual context of the case involved a man confessing to molesting a child on several occasions, then claiming Huntington’s disease caused the confessions.

[25] Mauchley, 67 P.3d at 489.

[26] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 577-78, citing Wigmore on Evidence § 2071 at 511.

[27] Id. at 578. The majority states, in a paragraph about whether the trustworthiness standard is a rule affecting admissibility or sufficiency, that “the better approach is to treat the trustworthiness standard, at least for procedural purposes, like a rule affecting the sufficiency of evidence to be analyzed by the court following a motion for judgment of acquittal.” The dissent agrees the test is one of sufficiency. See id. at 580-81. Other jurisdictions find the test to be one of admissibility. See Mauchley, 67 P.3d at 490.

[28] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 580.

[29] Id., citing Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 68 (2004). In this argument, the dissent is not alone. See Moran, supra note 3 at 851-53. The majority even notes some state courts reject the very arguments the majority adopted. LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 579, citing People v. McMahan, 548 N.W.2d 199, 204 (Mich. 1996) and State v. Ray, 926 P.2d 904, 906 (Wash. 1996) (court applying the corpus delicti rule overturned the conviction of a defendant who molested his 3-year-old child).

[30] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 581.

[31] This is, of course, a useful simplification, because Rule 29 lists several times at which the defense may raise the motion.

[32] People v. Bennett, 515 P.2d 466, 469 (Colo. 1973).

[33] Id.

[34] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 581.

[35] Id. at 578.

[36] Id. at 576.

[37] Id.

[38] The term “confession” means, here, an “admission of guilt.” LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 576. The term “admission” means, here, a statement falling short of admitting guilt, but tending to prove guilt. A good example is Opper’s admission to providing loans (discussed in the text above). His statement did not admit guilt, but tended to prove guilt when viewed with the other evidence in the case.

[39] See State v. Trexler, 342 S.E.2d 878, 880 (N.C. 1986) (describing the difference between admissions and confessions and holding the trustworthiness standard applies to both).

[40] See Fontenot II, 881 P.2d at n.11. The court there found two admissions Fontenot made to be exempt from the rule, and recognized a conflict with Opper. See also Heiges, 779 N.W.2d at 908-13 (incriminatory admissions to non-police witnesses helped to sufficiently corroborate a confession to police).

[41] See U.S. v. Irving, 452 F.3d 110, 118 (2d Cir. 2006) (identifying statements made before the commission of a crime and co-conspirator statements as requiring no corroboration), citing Warszower v. U.S., 312 U.S. 342, 347 (1941) and U.S. v. Simmons, 923 F.2d 934, 954 (2d Cir. 1991).

[42] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578.

[43] See Robson, 80 P.3d at 913 (case dismissed after a hearing before trial).

[44] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 578.

Burying the Body—Dismantling the Corpus Delicti Rule and Adopting the Trustworthiness Standard (Part 1)

Evig_SamuelBy Samuel A. Evig

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of The Colorado Lawyer.

In People v. LaRosa, announced in January 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned Colorado’s corpus delicti rule.[1] That rule, generally speaking, requires evidence of guilt beyond a defendant’s confession. In jettisoning the corpus delicti rule, the Colorado Supreme Court negated more than 100 years of its own precedent.[2] The decision, in a sort of circle-of-life for legal rules, signals both the death of one doctrine and the beginning of a new one by setting forth a new standard of evidentiary sufficiency for cases where a confession is the major (if not only) piece of truly incriminating evidence. The new test, labeled by the Court as the “trustworthiness standard,”[3] comes from federal cases, and the opinion provides some limited guidance in its application for practitioners.[4] This article examines the opinion with an eye toward helping attorneys recognize situations in which the trustworthiness standard applies, and looks at how other courts have handled issues soon to confront Colorado practitioners.

The Facts of LaRosa

LaRosa confessed to his wife, mother, pastor, a police dispatcher, and a detective that days before he had molested his daughter in a private area of a recreation center by performing oral sex on her while he masturbated.[5] At the time of the offense, his daughter was only 2-and-a-half years old and therefore unable to recall the incident. Besides multiple confessions, the prosecution presented evidence that LaRosa appeared lucid and not mentally ill during his confessions; introduced visitor logs proving he had, indeed, visited the recreation center on the date in question; and provided photographs of the shower area where he said the offense occurred.[6] Both before and during the trial, the defense argued the corpus delicti rule operated to preclude his conviction.[7] The trial court rejected those arguments.

Although LaRosa took the stand in his own defense and explained why he confessed to something that did not happen, the jury nevertheless convicted him of all charges.[8] In an unpublished opinion, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the convictions based on the corpus delicti rule.[9] The prosecution petitioned for certiorari, requesting that the Colorado Supreme Court join a growing number of jurisdictions abandoning the corpus delicti rule, and the Court agreed to hear the case.

In a 5–2 decision written by Chief Justice Bender, in which Justices Eid and Coats dissented, the Court discarded the corpus delicti rule, and announced a new standard applicable to situations like LaRosa’s—where a confession is the principal piece of incriminating evidence. It also concluded that due process prevented applying the new standard to LaRosa’s case, and thus affirmed the reversal of his convictions.[10]

The Corpus Delicti Rule

The corpus delicti rule is the sort of classic legal rule lawyers love. It is Latin, and thus sounds impressive. It means literally (if still mysteriously) the “body of the crime.”[11] The rule requires the prosecution to prove the crime described in a confession actually happened—using evidence other than the confession itself.[12] The LaRosa majority found “little consensus” concerning the reasoning behind the rule,[13] but other sources indicate the original purpose of the rule was to prevent the conviction of people who confessed to nonexistent crimes.[14] Scholars cite cases involving the disappearance of a victim, the identification of a suspect, the suspect confessing, the subsequent conviction and execution (or near execution) of the suspect, and then the victim being found alive.[15] The driving force behind the rule is the recognition that false confessions sometimes happen, and it contains an implicit policy decision that the danger of a wrongful conviction outweighs the danger of a wrongful acquittal.

As surprising as it may seem, situations triggering the rule—a confession in the absence of any other incriminating evidence, either before or after it—do not appear to be all that unusual. In Colorado alone there are at least eight reported cases where the rule operated to overturn or preclude a confession-dependent conviction.[16] That number is misleadingly low because prosecutors who are aware of the rule likely decline a number of cases that would have triggered the rule. Indeed, the ubiquity of the stand-alone-confession is what apparently gave rise to the corpus delicti rule.

As noted by the LaRosa majority, the goal of the rule is to “reduce the possibility that a person is convicted based on a confession to a crime that never happened.”[17] Criticism of the rule focuses on three issues. The first criticism is that it prevents the conviction of a suspect confessing to an imaginary crime but does not preclude the conviction of a suspect falsely confessing to an actual crime.[18] If a crime demonstrably happened, a mentally ill person falsely confessing to it could still be convicted. The court referred to this as an “incongruity,” and stated it came from the rule’s “inherently flawed design.”[19]

The second criticism the LaRosa Court noted is that changes in the law, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona[20] and the proliferation of statutory crimes, have helped curtail the problem of coerced confessions and made the application of the rule in certain situations very difficult.[21] The Court noted Miranda lessened the danger of “overzealous” police interrogations and that showing a tangible injury for inchoate crimes is sometimes impossible.[22] Further, courts have noted that statutory crimes have become so numerous and well-defined that determining what constitutes the corpus delicti of some offenses is nearly impossible.[23]

Finally, critics have noted the rule carries the very real risk of obstructing justice by preventing the conviction of offenders who commit crimes with no evidence of tangible injury.[24] An easier way to consider this criticism is to think of the rule as being over-inclusive because it may result in wrongful acquittals—that is, it sometimes operates to free those who commit and then confess to an actual as opposed to imaginary crime, but one with no tangible remains of provable harm. These types of crimes tend to be those in which victims are either absent or are unable to articulate what happened to them. For example, the Court identified cases in which the rule resulted in dismissals against defendants who admitted to molesting very young children.[25]

The LaRosa Court found each of these criticisms valid, and concluded that more good than harm would come from departing from precedent.[26] It abrogated the corpus delicti rule and, like many other state and federal courts, replaced it with a more forgiving inquiry grounded in analyzing the trustworthiness of the confession.

Formation of the Trustworthiness Standard

The LaRosa Court adopted the reasoning of a trio of U.S. Supreme Court cases announced in 1954. The cases, Opper v. U.S., U.S. v. Calderon, and Smith v. U.S., all dealt with financial crimes where the most damning evidence came from confessions.[27] Of the three, Opper provides the clearest formulation of the standard.

The government accused Opper of conspiring with and bribing a government employee named Hollifield.[28] At trial, the government presented evidence Opper and Hollifield had met and that, soon after the meeting, Hollifield made a decision favorable to Opper. The rest of the proof presented at trial consisted of statements Opper made to federal authorities about a number of “loans” to Hollifield soon after the favorable decision.[29]

After his conviction, Opper appealed and eventually the Supreme Court reviewed the case. One of Opper’s arguments concerned the sufficiency of the evidence—whether the statements he made were sufficient to support a conviction.[30] Opper’s “confession,” after all, was an admission to providing loans—not that the loans were bribes. The Court formulated a rule requiring the prosecution to “introduce substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish the trustworthiness of the statement.”[31] This, then, was the first formulation of the trustworthiness standard.

The Opper Court went on to conclude that the additional information presented by the government (the timing of Hollifield’s decision and evidence showing the two had met) provided enough corroboration to make the defendant’s statements trustworthy.[32] The statements, when added to the other evidence, were enough to permit a fact finder to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Hollifield committed the charged offense. The Court specifically noted the need for a flexible rule by saying “[e]ach case has its own facts admitted and its own corroborative evidence, which leads to patent individualization of the opinions.”[33]

Versions of this new trustworthiness standard have been adopted by a host of federal and state courts.[34] But a note of caution is appropriate in surveying these cases—a note whose roots are grounded in a philosophical debate about the scope of the original corpus delicti rule, the scope of the trustworthiness rule, and whether the latter really is a substitute for or rather a reinterpretation of the former. Some judges (including the LaRosa dissenters) consider the trustworthiness standard to be the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal common law of corpus delicti.[35] Others assert corpus delicti no longer exists in the federal system and the trustworthiness standard is a wholly new construct.[36] Still others use the two terms somewhat interchangeably.[37]

In any event, the flexibility of the trustworthiness standard, at once its greatest asset and its greatest limitation, caused the Colorado Supreme Court to provide some additional guidance to help trial judges and lawyers apply the standard.[38] In doing so, the Court seemed to shift the focus of the inquiry from whether other evidence proved the crime occurred to whether other evidence proved the confession was reliable.[39] Of course, these two inquiries are related. If there is corroborating evidence of the crime, it automatically corroborates the trustworthiness of the confession, but the discussion in LaRosa seems focused on the circumstances surrounding the confession in a way that the analysis in Opper did not. The Opper court emphasized facts directly supporting the prosecution’s case quite apart from the confession, most critically the timing of the loans compared to the governmental decision. It said virtually nothing about the circumstances of Opper’s confession. The LaRosa Court, in contrast, articulated a test in which facts outside the confession (such as the timing of the loans in Opper) are but one way to establish its trustworthiness. This expanded test is both more and less inclusive than the corpus delicti rule.

The change is less inclusive because the trustworthiness standard can, in some cases at least, prevent the “incongruous” result presented by corpus delicti—where a false confession to a crime that actually happened, but one the confessor did not commit, still would result in a conviction.[40] After all, a strict application of corpus delicti would result in a conviction if the prosecution could show the crime demonstrably happened without the confession. In theory, the trustworthiness standard could prevent the conviction of a mentally ill person falsely claiming credit for an actual crime because the inquiry focuses on the trustworthiness of the confession itself.

The new standard is more inclusive because corroborating the confession is often much easier than showing a crime occurred with independent evidence. This change lessens the possibility of the wrongful acquittal. The LaRosa case itself just might be such an example of a wrongful acquittal under the corpus delicti rule that would, but for the due process issues, have been a rightful conviction under the trustworthiness standard. Of course, by tipping the scales in adopting this standard, the Court also increased the possibility of a wrongful conviction.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Stay tuned.

Samuel A. Evig is a deputy district attorney in the 18th Judicial District—sevig@da18.state.co.us. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

 

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[1] People v. LaRosa, 293 P.3d 567, 575 (Colo. 2013).

[2] In Dougherty v. People, 1 Colo. 514, 528 (Colo. Terr. 1872), announced in 1872 (before Colorado became a state), the Supreme Court of the Colorado Territory examined the doctrine and upheld a conviction based on the accused administering “boneset” to cause an abortion.

[3] Also sometimes called the “corroboration rule” or the “Opper corroboration rule.” See Moran, “In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule,” 64 Ohio State L.J. 817, 851-52.

[4] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 577-78.

[5] Id. at 570-71.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 571.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. The Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion quotes portions of the unpublished decision. Based on those quotes, it appears the court of appeals decided the case based on the fact that prosecution’s non-confession evidence could not establish the crime actually occurred. Instead, the evidence showed only that LaRosa had a chance to commit the offense, something the court of appeals said “every custodial parent has on a virtually continuing basis.”

[10] Id. at 578-79. One of the difficult parts of interpreting this decision is whether, had the trustworthiness standard been applied to this case, the outcome might have been different. Although it is possible to read too much into this opinion, given the Court’s dissatisfaction with the corpus delicti rule and the specific criticism of the rule as sometimes frustrating justice, it is likely that the result would have been very different. Had the dissenters won the day, the result would have been different.

[11] Black’s Law Dictionary 346 (7th ed., West Group, 1999).

[12] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 572, citing Downey v. People, 215 P.2d 892, 899 (Colo. 1950).

[13] Id.

[14] Moran, supra note 3 at 817, citing 2 Hale, Pleas of the Crown 290 (1678); Moran, supra note 3 at n.60, citing Perkins, “The Corpus Delicti of Murder,” 48 Virginia L.Rev. 173 (1962) and Margolis, “Corpus Delicti, State of the Disunion,” 2 Suffolk University L.Rev. 44 (1968).

[15] Moran, supra note 3 at 826-29. According to Moran, the doctrine came from English commentators and became a part of American jurisprudence. Moran traces the foundations of the rule to 17th century England.

[16] See Meredith v. People, 380 P.2d 227 (Colo. 1963) (rule operated to overturn conviction of man for engaging in “unnatural” sex acts with a 5-year-old boy); People v. Rankin, 554 P.2d 1107 (Colo. 1976) (rule overturned conviction for distributing drugs); People v. Robson, 80 P.3d 912 (Colo.App. 2003) (rule precluded trial of man accused of sexually assaulting his infant daughter); Owen v. People, 392 P.2d 163 (Colo. 1964) (rule overturned conviction for sexual assault and incest of a deceased 16-year-old victim); Cobianchi v. People, 141 P.2d 688 (Colo. 1943) (rule operated to overturn second-degree murder conviction); People v. Maestas, 508 P.2d 782 (Colo. 1973) (theft conviction reversed because of the rule); People v. Applegate, 509 P.2d 1238 (Colo. 1973) (forgery conviction reversed based on the rule); People v. T.A.O., 36 P.3d 180 (Colo.App. 2001) (rule operated to overturn adjudication of a juvenile who confessed to sexually touching his sister).

[17] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 572, citing McCormick on Evidence § 145 at 595.

[18] Id. at 574. The Court used this argument to conclude the rule was “originally erroneous.” This reasoning is somewhat puzzling because the rule did stop the conviction of someone falsely confessing to a crime that did not happen, a laudable if narrow goal. See Moran, supra note 3 at 836-37. If the original purpose of the rule was to stop the conviction and subsequent execution of someone for a crime that did not happen, how is the rule originally erroneous when it protects against the very harm it was designed to prevent?

[19] Id.

[20] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

[21] Id. at 574-75. But see generally Moran, supra note 3. Moran defends the corpus delicti rule using a murder case he defended to show that no constitutional doctrines involving confession would have operated to prevent the conviction of his client, and further asserts the trustworthiness standard is too malleable to protect suspects.

[22] Id.

[23] See State v. Mauchley, 67 P.3d 477, 487-488 (Utah 2003) (noting that different states have taken different approaches to whether corpus delicti applies to aggravators for capital murder, that some states specifically exclude the rule from applying to some crimes because of the difficulty, and ultimately abolishing the rule rather than attempting to work around the rule’s limitations). The problem of deciding what elements exactly establish the body of the crime is an even greater difficulty in states such as Utah, which require proving corpus delicti before the confession is admitted.

[24] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 575, citing State v. Parker, 337 S.E.2d 487, 494 (N.C. 1985) (noting the difficulty of applying corpus delicti in crimes without a tangible injury and providing a broad discussion of the rule), and Mauchley, 67 P.3d at 488 (noting that other jurisdictions had to “selectively apply” the rule and ultimately deciding to abandon the rule). As noted by the Court in LaRosa, “the rule may operate to bar conviction for crimes committed against the most vulnerable victims, such as infants, young children and the mentally infirm.” Such concerns are valid; a number of cases involving the corpus delicti rule are horror shows. See supra note 16. See also Gibbard, “Corpus Delicti: Three Unusual Colorado Cases,” 38 The Colorado Lawyer 83 (March 2009) (a historical examination of the rule reversing three convictions, one involving a victim possibly being beaten to death, the second involving a victim dying after a possible illegal abortion and a “rabbit test,” and the third involving a man’s body being interred in his yard by his wife after either a murder or suicide). See also Williams v. People, 158 P.2d 447 (Colo. 1945) (mother put on trial after the discovery of the bodies of three of her babies—two of them mummified—found in her belongings). The Court is correct in articulating that the rule operates to prevent convictions in some cases where proving an actual injury is difficult; however, some might argue this is one purpose of the rule.

[25] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 575, citing Robson, 80 P.3d at 913-14, and Meredith, 380 P.2d at 228.

[26] Id.

[27] Opper v. U.S., 348 U.S. 84 (1954) (prosecuting defendant for bribing a federal employee); Smith v. U.S., 348 U.S. 147 (1954) (prosecution for tax evasion); U.S. v. Calderon, 348 U.S. 160 (1954) (prosecution for tax evasion).

[28] Opper, 348 U.S. at 84-87.

[29] Id. at 88.

[30] Id. at 91-95.

[31] Id. at 93.

[32] Id. at 93-94.

[33] Id. at 93.

[34] See generally Schopler, Annotation, “Corroboration of Extrajudicial Confession or Admission,” 45 A.L.R.2d 1316 (originally published in 1956); Weisman, Annotation, “Sufficiency of Evidence to Support Homicide Conviction Where No Body Was Produced,” 65 A.L.R.6th 359 (originally published in 2011).

[35] See LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 580 (stating the trustworthiness standard “was therefore not a new restriction on the effect of confessions at all, but rather the Court’s definitive interpretation of the common-law rule, for the federal courts”).

[36] See Fontenot v. State, 881 P.2d 69, 78 (Okla.Crim.App. 1992) (Fontenot II),citing U.S. v. Kerley, 838 F.2d 932, 940 (7th Cir. 1988).

[37] See State v. Heiges, 779 N.W.2d 904, 909-12 (Minn.App. 2010) (Minnesota also has a statute requiring corroboration to sustain a conviction based on a confession—indicating it is a codification of the common-law rule—and using trustworthiness standard cases to support its position). See also State v. Weisser, 150 P.3d 1043, 1048 (N.M.C.A. 2006) (conflating the trustworthiness doctrine with corpus delicti) distinguished by State v. Wilson, 248 P.3d 315 (N.M. 2010).

[38] LaRosa, 293 P.3d at 577-78. In footnote 9 of the opinion, the Court notes several attempts by other courts to outline a proper application of the rule.

[39] Id.

[40] See In re K.A., 60 A.3d 442 (D.C.App. 2013). There, police searched a home and found guns under the mattress of a grandfather living at the home. About an hour after learning of the arrest, and while police were still on scene, K.A. confessed that the guns belonged to him and told officers to release his grandfather. K.A. provided a more detailed statement in which he identified the guns, but the court found his confession to be insufficiently corroborated. A strict application of the corpus delicti rule in this case would have created a different result because K.A. did, indeed, confess to a crime that actually occurred (possession of unregistered firearms).

Colorado Supreme Court: Court Abandons Corpus Delecti Doctrine in Favor of Trustworthiness Standard

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. LaRosa on Monday, January 14, 2013.

Corpus Delicti Rule—Trustworthiness Standard—Due Process.

The Supreme Court abandoned the corpus delicti rule, which requires the prosecution to prove that a crime occurred using evidence other than a defendant’s confession. In its place, the Court articulated the trustworthiness standard, which requires the prosecution to present evidence that proves that a confession is trustworthy or reliable. To determine whether corroborating evidence proves the trustworthiness or reliability of a confession, the Court held that the trial court must find that corroboration exists from one or more of the following evidentiary sources: facts that corroborate facts contained in the confession; facts that establish the crime that corroborate facts contained in the confession; or facts under which the confession was made that show that the confession is trustworthy or reliable. Because the corpus delicti rule has been consistently applied for more than 100 years, the Court held that applying the trustworthiness standard here would violate LaRosa’s due process rights. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the court of appeals’ decision reversing LaRosa’s convictions under the corpus delicti rule.

Summary and full case available here.