191 P.3d 1182 (Nev. 2008), 47908, Chartier v. State
|Citation:||191 P.3d 1182|
|Opinion Judge:||PER CURIAM:|
|Party Name:||John Douglas CHARTIER, Appellant, v. The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.|
|Attorney:||JoNell Thomas, Las Vegas; Megan C. Hoffman, Las Vegas, for Appellant., Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Carson City; David J. Roger, District Attorney, James Tufteland, Chief Deputy District Attorney, and David L. Stanton, Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.|
|Case Date:||September 11, 2008|
|Court:||Supreme Court of Nevada|
JoNell Thomas, Las Vegas; Megan C. Hoffman, Las Vegas, for Appellant.
Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Carson City; David J. Roger, District Attorney, James Tufteland, Chief Deputy District Attorney, and David L. Stanton, Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.
BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.
The primary issue in this appeal is whether the district court abused its discretion in failing to sever appellant John Douglas Chartier's trial from that of his codefendant, David Wilcox. We conclude that the district court abused its discretion in failing to sever Chartier's trial from Wilcox's trial. Chartier suffered unfair prejudice because the cumulative effect of the joint trial violated Chartier's right to a fair trial by preventing the jury from making a reliable judgment as to
his guilt or innocence. For this reason, we reverse the judgment of conviction and remand to the district court for a new trial.
In the early morning hours of August 18, 2004, Rachel Bernat and her father, Carlos Aragon, were stabbed to death outside their home in Las Vegas. In addition to Bernat and Aragon, Bernat's two young daughters and her mother, Iola Jean Taylor, were living in the home at the time of the murders. Bernat's daughters were sleeping on the living room floor at the time and were awakened by their mother's cries for help.
Bernat's then ten-year-old daughter testified before the grand jury and at trial that from the living room floor she was able to see a person holding a knife and stabbing her mother. At first, Bernat's daughter told officers that she thought the assailant was Bernat's ex-husband, Chartier, but later recanted that statement. Taylor, upon hearing Bernat's screams, made her way to the front door and attempted to fend off Bernat's attacker with her cane and drag Bernat back into the house. The attacker grabbed the cane from Taylor and struck her with it and then continued to stab Bernat. Taylor testified that she was “ positive" that the man she saw stabbing her daughter was not Chartier. Aragon was stabbed twice and murdered somewhere near his van parked in the driveway.
At the time of the murders, Bernat and Chartier were involved in a child custody battle over their young son. Months before the killings, the Clark County Family Court granted Bernat's request for permission to move to another state with the boy. The court also granted Chartier visitation for seven weeks in the summer. Pursuant to the court's order, their son was in Chartier's custody at the time of the murders. By all accounts, Chartier was upset about the custody arrangement.
In the years prior to the murders, Chartier had developed a friendship with David Wilcox, one of Chartier's employees. Wilcox had an extensive military background as a sniper, a fact that intrigued Chartier. The two began a friendship out of Chartier's admiration for Wilcox, which lead to Chartier living with Wilcox and his wife, Cindy, for a short time after his divorce from Bernat. Following the murders, Cindy turned over a suicide letter written by Chartier in June of 2002. The letter was addressed to Wilcox and asked him to “ take out mom and grandpa" with a parenthetical explaining that grandpa was Aragon. The letter also instructed Wilcox to take custody of Chartier's young son and to destroy the letter before police arrived.
The State prosecuted Wilcox and Chartier for the murders on the theory that Chartier wanted Bernat dead because of the custody dispute and that he recruited Wilcox to carry out the murders. They were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of murder with the use of a deadly weapon. To support its theory, the State called several witnesses who testified to Chartier's arrears in child support payments and to statements Chartier made that Bernat “ deserved to be killed." Several witnesses also testified to Chartier's unusual relationship with Wilcox.
Chartier and Wilcox were tried together after the district court denied Chartier's motion to sever. At trial, Chartier defended primarily on the grounds that he had no motive to kill Bernat and Aragon because he felt that the custody issue was resolved largely in his favor and that he had an alibi. Chartier's then-girlfriend, Sharon Sutton, testified that Chartier was home with her the night of the murders and was in bed with her that morning. Wilcox's defense was that not only did he have no personal motive to kill Bernat and Aragon, but that Chartier was the mastermind and killer.
Chartier and Wilcox were convicted on all three charges following a five-day jury trial. Both men were sentenced to consecutive sentences of life without parole for each count of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon and four to ten years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Chartier raises numerous issues on appeal. Of those issues, we address only one: whether
the district court abused its discretion in failing to sever Chartier's trial from that of Wilcox.1 We conclude that the district court abused its discretion when it denied Chartier's motion to sever his trial from Wilcox's trial because the cumulative effect of joinder was so prejudicial as to affect Chartier's right to a fair trial.
Chartier offers three arguments to support his contention that the district court should have severed his trial from Wilcox's trial. First, Chartier argues that his defense was so antagonistic to Wilcox's defense as to render the trial unfair. Second, Chartier claims that his ability to prove his theory of the defense was impaired by the joinder. Third, Chartier argues that the cumulative effect of his and Wilcox's mutually antagonistic defenses and Chartier's inability to prove his theory of the case resulted in irreparable harm and prejudice such that an injurious effect was had upon the verdict. We agree with Chartier's argument that the cumulative effect of the joint trial warrants reversal and that the district court abused its discretion by denying Chartier's motion to sever.
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