Wednesday, February 25, 2015

KYSC - St.Clair - Reversing on several grounds

Michael D. St. Clair v. Commonwealth, 2012-SC-000130, rendered 2/19/15, to be published, reversing. Opinion by Justice Noble, all concurring.

In St. Clair’s third Hardin County capital kidnap trial, St. Clair was convicted of capital kidnapping and sentenced to death in 2012. The jury found three aggravators, that the victim was not released alive, that St. Clair had a prior record of conviction for a capital offense, and the kidnapping was committed during a robbery. The Kentucky Supreme Court concludes here on direct appeal that the entire case must be remanded for a possible fourth trial due to improper introduction of prejudicial 404(b) evidence of an unrelated murder in New Mexico allegedly committed by St. Clair, and improper evidence of the New Mexico victim's background.

The case in Hardin County has now been reversed on appeal twice following jury trials due to errors committed by the prosecution. Additionally, a third trial ended in a mistrial due to a prosecutor’s improper opening statement in which he alluded to an unrelated New Mexico murder. The Supreme Court attributed some of the difficulty in trying this case to choices made by the prosecution. Had the prosecution joined the kidnapping case in Hardin County with the murder case in Bullitt County, the duplicative three trials (and now possibly a fourth) in Hardin County could have been avoided and evidentiary difficulties could have been avoided. (See page 8 of the Opinion.)

The common sense, cost effective reform identified in the ABA Kentucky Assessment Team’s 2011 Report and Senator Robin Webb’s SB 190 will help fix problems in Kentucky’s troubled death penalty system.

The Opinion contains numerous evidentiary rulings, as follows:

1)      Evidence of the murder of a victim in New Mexico was reversible error because this was a kidnapping case; however evidence of the robbery and abduction of that victim was not error;

2)      Victim background evidence related to the victim in New Mexico was reversible error; “evidence of victims of other crimes beyond those being tried has no place in a criminal trial”;

3)      Proof of St. Clair’s statement that killing people was easy, and proof that St. Clair saw the killing as a joking matter and that it had excited him was improper character evidence. It should not be allowed in a retrial.

4)      Evidence that St. Clair tore up the photo of the New Mexico victim’s daughter  and commented, there’s “a bitch that’s going to grow up without a daddy” was inadmissible evidence of “despicable character”:

5)      Evidence that before his escape from jail in Oklahoma St. Clair was considered a high security risk held in maximum security was admissible because it was relevant to his motive “to do anything to avoid going back to prison” including attempted murder of a police officer.

6)      Evidence that St. Clair had at least one LWOP sentence waiting for him in Oklahoma was relevant and admissible to show his motive to attempt to kill Trooper Bennett.

7)      Evidence that St. Clair was a danger to the friends that sheltered him and that he was already wanted for murder when he arrived in Kentucky was inadmissible, but prejudice was cured by admonition.

8)      The court did not err in excluding details regarding that the aaltperp’s prior murder because it was not similar enough to the Kentucky kidnap/murder.

Wanton prosecutorial misconduct is not enough.
While the Kentucky Supreme Court acknowledges in this Opinion that there was evidence that wanton prosecutorial misconduct caused the mistrial of the second, 2009 Hardin County capital kidnap trial, the Court here holds that merely wanton prosecutorial misconduct does not meet the “high standard” for a mistrial; to win a mistrial one must prove that misconduct was intended to cause a mistrial. The defense moved for mistrial and double jeopardy did not bar the third trial.

Death penalty for kidnap upheld without jury finding of murder.
The Court fails to answer whether the trial court erred by ignoring the mandate in St. Clair v. Commonwealth, 174 S.W.3d 474 (Ky. 2005) (Hardin I) requiring a jury finding that St. Clair murdered the victim as a pre-requisite to imposing a death penalty. The Opinion—contrary to the rule in the vast majority of states—approves (in dicta) allowing the death penalty for capital kidnap regardless whether a kidnap victim dies accidentally.
St. Clair was represented at trial by Scott Drabenstadt and Justin Brown. He was represented on appeal by Susan Balliet, Sam Potter, and Robert Yang.

Contributed by Susan Balliet.