You Don't Need a Body to Prove a Murder

State v. Torres (ICA December 15, 2009)


Background. Gallegos worked as a cashier at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange. He was last seen leaving his post with Torres, a police officer on the base. Earlier that day, Gallegos was given a bag with $80,000. Later that day, Torres was found by federal law enforcement officers in his car on the base. The searched his car and found $78,000, a revolver, a stun gun, and Gallegos' personal belongings like his wallet and driver's license. Gallegos was never seen again.

At trial, Agent Robbins testified that he recovered Torres' revolver. He testified that the gun had been recently fired, "within the same day, probably about eight hours or so." Agent Robbins based his opinion on the moistness of the powder residue and the absence of any indication of rust on the gun.

Davis also testified at trial. Davis testified that years later she became acquainted with Torres, who had by then moved to California. Davis testified that Torres told her that he did something that "he felt really bad about and didn't know how to deal with it[.]" Davis testified that Torres was involved in a bank robbery back in Hawai'i and that something went wrong. According to Davis, Torres said that Torres thought his "buddy" was reaching for a gun in their getaway car and that he was scared. Davis explained that Torres told her he "took care of it" and gestured with his hand a gun making a clicking noise. Davis testified that Torres put his friend out of commission so that he would not be able to function.

Confessions and the Corpus Delicti. When it comes to proving a crime, the prosecution must establish the corpus delicti--the basic injury, the fact that the injury was the result of a criminal cause "rather than a natural or accidental cause[.]" State v. Hale, 45 Haw. 269, 277 n. 1, 367 P.2d 81, 81 n.1 (1961). The State can use the defendant's confession as proof of the corpus delicti so long as "the trustworthiness of the confession appears to be assured by circumstances shown by . . . independent evidence." State v. Yoshida, 44 Haw. 352, 357, 354 P.2d 986, 990 (1960). The corroborating evidence must "support[] the essential facts admitted sufficiently to justify a jury inference of their truth." Id. at 359, 354 P.2d at 991. The ICA held that Torres' confession was adequately corroborated by independent evidence.

Recovering the body is not Required . The ICA rejected Torres' argument that his motion for acquittal should have been granted. As a matter of first impression, the ICA held that "the recovery of a dead body is not a necessary condition for establishing murder." In a murder prosecution, the State must prove that the defendant "cause[d] the death of another person." HRS § 707-701.5. Moreover, "it is elementary that a criminal case may be proven beyond a reasonable doubt on the basis of reasonable inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence." State v. Murphy, 59 Haw. 1, 19, 575 P.2d 448, 460 (1978). Given the law on circumstantial evidence, the ICA concluded that there is "no reason why a different rule should apply in a murder case[.]"

Search of the Vehicle not in Violation of Federal Constitutional (and only Federal). The ICA held that the search of Torres' car by federal officers on a federal base was not in violation of the federal constitution. But before getting into that, the ICA had a choice of law problem--whether the state or federal constitution applies.

Hawai'i has adopted the exclusionary-rule analysis. State v. Bridges, 83 Hawai'i 187, 925 P.2d 357 (1996). Under that analysis, "the court first identifies the principles to be served by the exclusionary rule and then evaluates how the principles would be served by exclusion." Id. at 194-95, 925 P.2d at 364-65. There are three purposes to the exclusionary rule: (1) judicial integrity, (2) individual privacy, and (3) deterrence. Id.

For the judicial integrity purpose, the "courts should not place their imprimatur on evidence that was illegally obtained by allowing it to be admitted into evidence in a criminal prosecution." Id. at 196, 925 P.2d at 366. Whether evidence was illegally obtained is determined by looking to the laws of the situs state--the place where the evidence was obtained--rather than the forum state--the place of the prosecution. Id. In this case, that would be the federal jurisdiction. The individual privacy purpose is tied to an individual's expectation of privacy, which is based on the laws of the jurisdiction where the evidence was obtained. Id. at 198-99, 925 P.2d at 368-69. Finally, the deterrence purpose is based on the expectation that the suppression of evidence in one case will cause the police to refrain from that kind of violating conduct in the future. Applying the law of the forum state would, therefore, have little deterrence. In light of the three purposes, the ICA concluded that the situs state--the federal jurisdiction--should apply over Hawai'i law.

The Open Question? The ICA was careful to note that in Bridges the Hawai'i Supreme Court left for another day the issue of federal-state interplay: "one could argue that evidence obtained in Hawai'i by federal officers in compliance with federal law )and therefore not illegally obtained) but in violation of some more restrictive aspect of Hawai'i law should be suppressed in criminal prosecutions in Hawai'i state courts." Id. at 199 n. 15, 925 P.2d at 369 n. 15.

In this case, according to the ICA, the open question in Bridges need not be addressed because here we had federal law applying "evidence obtained by federal officers pursuant to the searches of Torres's car on PHNB, a closed military base[.]" Turning to federal law, the ICA held that the search was not unconstitutional. See United States v. Jenkins, 986 F.2d 76 (4th Cir. 1993).

How Narrow is it? The ICA stated that its holding on this issue was "narrow". But can it be distinguished from the Bridges footnote? After all, this is a case where federal officers obtained evidence that was used in a state prosecution. Isn't this just the case contemplated by the Bridges footnote. It should be significant to point out that Bridges involved HPD officers obtaining evidence in California and using that evidence in a Hawai'i court. The evidence was not in Hawai'i at all. What becomes of the Bridges footnote now? Is it still an open question?

Inadmissible Lay Opinion. The ICA agreed with Torres that Agent Robbins was incompetent to testify about the time frame in which the gun had been fired. Opinion testimony can either by lay opinion or expert. For lay opinion to be admissible, the witness has to have personal knowledge that forms the basis of the testimony, the testimony must be rationally based on perception, and the opinion must be helpful to the jury. State v. Jenkins, 93 Hawai'i 87, 105, 997 P.2d 13, 31 (2000); HRE Rule 701. Here, according to the ICA, although the State presented evidence that Agent Robbins was experienced with guns, it did not establish that his time-frame testimony was "rationally based on his perception or his personal knowledge." There was simply no foundation for it. In fact, Agent Robbins testified that he had not conducted any test that could tell a person when the gun was fired and he did not know how to determine the age of gunpowder residue.

Inadmissible Expert too . . . The ICA also held that Agent Robbins failed to qualify as an expert too. Experts must testify when the opinion requires "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge[.]" HRE Rule 702; Yoneda v. Tom, 110 Hawai'i 367, 385, 133 P.3d 796, 814 (2006). The ICA held that testimony about the time frame in which a gun had been fired requires specialized knowledge. This is not "a process of reasoning familiar in everyday life." Tennessee v. Brown, 836 S.W.2d 530, 549 (Tenn. 1992). Because it required specialized knowledge, Agent Robbins had to have qualified as an expert to testify about the time frame first. HRE Rule 702. There was no such qualification of his expertise. Thus, it was inadmissible.

. . . and not Harmless Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. According to the ICA, the State relied heavily on Agent Robbins' opinion. It was significant to its theory of the murder and used frequently at closing argument. The ICA held that "there is a reasonable possibility that [the circuit court's error] might have contributed" to the conviction, State v. Kassebeer, 118 Hawai'i 493, 505, 193 P.3d 409, 421 (2008), and, thus, it was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Other Issues. The ICA rejected the rest of Torres' claims, which included errors relating to the circumstantial evidence jury instruction and the admission of a letter noting the declining of prosecution based on insufficient evidence.


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