1998 -NMSC- 48, State v. Munoz, 24,015

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation126 N.M. 535,972 P.2d 847,1998 NMSC 48
Docket NumberNo. 24,015,24,015
Parties, 1998 -NMSC- 48 STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Alex MUNOZ, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date24 November 1998

Page 847

972 P.2d 847
126 N.M. 535, 1998 -NMSC- 48
STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Alex MUNOZ, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 24,015.
Supreme Court of New Mexico.
Nov. 24, 1998.

Page 849

William J. Friedman, Santa Fe, for Appellant.

Tom Udall, Attorney General, M. Victoria Wilson, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, for Appellee.



¶1 Defendant Alex Munoz appeals his conviction for first-degree murder for the stabbing death of James Rogers. He asserts that his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and his right against compelled self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment were violated by the admission of a coerced confession obtained without his being advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 467, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). He also asserts that the jury was improperly instructed on the cause of death, that there was insufficient evidence that his admitted act of stabbing the victim was a cause of death, and that there was insufficient evidence that the killing took place in New Mexico. We hold that various specific factors, if they influenced Defendant's confession, did not render it involuntary. We also hold that because Defendant's freedom of action at the time of the confession was not curtailed in a way that could be associated with a formal arrest, he was not denied his right to be free from self-incrimination. Finally, we affirm the trial court as to the remainder of Defendant's claims.


¶2 On or about May 15, 1994, Defendant was at a party in El Paso, Texas, and saw his friend get into a fight, apparently involving the victim. Later that night, Defendant, the victim, and others went to a remote area on a military installation where the victim was beaten, stabbed, and killed. Defendant's confession, obtained the following year, is important in analyzing several issues raised on appeal. We therefore discuss at length the circumstances in which Defendant gave the confession.

¶3 At 9:50 a.m. on February 17, 1995, Larry Houpt and Carlos Conejo, special agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), approached Defendant's grandparents' house, where Defendant lived. When Defendant's grandfather answered the door, the agents identified themselves and told him they wanted to speak with Defendant about the death of a young man. Defendant's grandfather asked if they were referring to "the one in the desert," which surprised Houpt. Houpt replied that that was the death they were investigating and the grandfather left to get Defendant. Several minutes later, Defendant appeared at the door, looking somewhat tired, yawning and stretching. Houpt and Conejo introduced themselves to Defendant and told him they wanted to talk with him about the death of James Rogers, but away from his home. He left to put some shoes on and returned to the door.

¶4 Defendant testified that he was scared and did not want to go with the FBI agents, but he went with them because his grandfather told him that he must go. His grandfather told him that he had to listen to his grandfather because he lived in his home. Defendant's grandfather strongly urged him

Page 850

to go with the FBI agents and told him not to worry about it.

¶5 After they left the home, but before they entered the car, Houpt told Defendant that he did not have to go with them, that he did not have to talk to them, that he was not under arrest, that he would be free to leave at any time, and that they would bring him back to his house after the interview. Houpt did not advise Defendant that he could have an attorney present during the interview. Defendant said that he didn't mind talking with the agents. He consented to being interviewed and expressed no objection to it. Houpt told Defendant he did not have to talk to them and did not have to go with them to make clear to Defendant that he was not in custody.

¶6 They drove to an empty parking lot a few minutes' driving time from Defendant's residence. Houpt and Conejo had decided prior to arriving at Defendant's residence that they would conduct the interview away from the home, that they would not arrest Defendant prior to interviewing him about Rogers' murder, and that they would conduct the interview only on a voluntary basis.

¶7 Houpt led the interview, though Conejo interjected questions from time to time. Pursuant to FBI policy, Houpt was seated in the back seat with Defendant while Conejo sat in the front seat of the car. Houpt explained that if Defendant were to become violent, the agents might be endangered if both were seated in the front seat. Defendant testified that he did not feel free to go because one of the agents was in the back seat with him.

¶8 Houpt told Defendant that he knew the essential facts about what happened the night James Rogers was killed and that Defendant should not waste his and Conejo's time by lying to them. At that point, Defendant proceeded to tell his story in narrative form, with Houpt and Conejo periodically interjecting with questions of clarification. According to Houpt, he never raised his voice during the interview. Defendant testified, however, that Houpt raised his voice and that Houpt and Conejo primarily told the story of what happened and he interjected to fill in what he knew.

¶9 Defendant testified that he was still intoxicated from the previous evening, when he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. Defendant testified that he had a memory deficit that he attributed to his years of abuse of spray paint, pills, and other drugs. Defendant testified that he had a fear of detectives and police officers because a detective beat him up once after he and the detective's son had gotten into a fight. Houpt testified that he did not know about this incident or Defendant's fear of law enforcement. Houpt testified that, although Defendant appeared tired when he came to the door, he was alert and "calm and laid back" during the interview. Houpt did not detect an odor of alcohol, or any other odor or physical appearance that would indicate that Defendant was under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or any other drug.

¶10 Defendant testified that he was scared and intimidated by the location of the interview in the parking lot away from his home. Houpt testified that it was standard procedure and, in his experience, good practice to conduct an interview about a matter as serious as an apparent homicide away from a private residence, where the telephone, television, and visitors might interrupt the interview at a critical juncture. Furthermore, in Houpt's experience, a private residence is not an appropriate location for a solemn interview about such a serious matter.

¶11 At the conclusion of the interview, Houpt drafted a three-page hand-written statement. Defendant read the statement, made several corrections and additions to it, initialed the top of the first two pages, and signed the last page. The statement recited the fact that it was being made freely and voluntarily, that Defendant knew he was free to leave and that no threats or promises had been made. He then stated that a group of people went to the desert, that the victim was beaten, and ultimately that he, Defendant, "stabbed the guy's neck a couple of times." He made sure the victim was dead, then moved the body under a bush and kicked dirt on it.

Page 851

¶12 Defendant testified that he read only the parts of the statement surrounding the corrections which he made and initialed. He claimed that he did not "really" read it; but that he only read it for proofreading purposes because Houpt had told him there were some errors that he wanted Defendant to correct. Defendant asserts that he had no idea what the statement was about, only that he was told to sign it and did so. He testified that he was not aware that he was making a confession by signing the statement. Defendant testified that the agents told him that signing the statement would help him out and that he need not worry. He signed the statement based on this implied promise.

¶13 Houpt testified that he took notes during the interview and that immediately after the interview, he told Defendant that he was going to prepare a statement based on the interview and Houpt's notes. He asked Defendant to read, correct, and sign the statement. He then prepared the statement while Defendant was seated next to him. Houpt testified that there was casual conversation while Houpt prepared the statement. After Houpt completed the statement, he told Defendant that he had deliberately made a few errors and wanted Defendant to spot them and correct them. He asked Defendant to read the statement, and initial any corrections or additions Defendant felt were necessary. He wanted Defendant to initial the top of each page and to read the statement aloud. Defendant read the statement, initialed at the top of each page, filled in a blank on the first page indicating that he had completed the twelfth grade, made seven corrections or additions, initialed each of them, read the statement aloud, and signed the statement. Houpt and Conejo also signed the statement as witnesses. One of the errors Defendant corrected was inadvertent.

¶14 Houpt explained that he follows a practice of deliberately making at least one mistake per page and asking the interviewee to spot and correct these errors. He does this to ensure that the interviewee understands and comprehends the English language and is knowingly and intelligently confessing to the content of the written statement. He testified that it is standard FBI procedure to take notes during the interview, and immediately draft a written statement to be reviewed, corrected, and signed by the interviewee.

¶15 After Defendant had made his statement orally, Houpt told Defendant that they did not know what would happen. They asked him to keep the interview confidential because there were other witnesses...

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