300 So.3d 945 (Miss. 2020), 2017-DP-00504-SCT, Julio Garcia v. State

Docket Nº2017-DP-00504-SCT.
Citation300 So.3d 945
Opinion JudgeMAXWELL, JUSTICE:
Party NameAlberto JULIO GARCIA a/k/a Alberto J. Garcia a/k/a Alberto Garcia v. STATE of Mississippi.
AttorneyTRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JOEL SMITH HERMAN F. COX WILLIAM CROSBY PARKER LISA D. COLLUMS JASON McDONALD PAYNE ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL BILLY EDWARD STAGE. ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER BY: ALISON R. STEINER   ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL . ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATT...
Judge PanelRANDOLPH, C.J., COLEMAN, BEAM, CHAMBERLIN, ISHEE AND GRIFFIS, JJ., CONCUR. KING, P.J., CONCURS IN PART AND IN RESULT WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY KITCHENS, P.J. KITCHENS, P.J., JOINS THIS OPINION. KING, PRESIDING JUSTICE, CONCURRING IN PART AND IN RESULT:
Case DateMay 14, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of Mississippi

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300 So.3d 945 (Miss. 2020)

Alberto JULIO GARCIA a/k/a Alberto J. Garcia a/k/a Alberto Garcia

v.

STATE of Mississippi.

No. 2017-DP-00504-SCT.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc.

May 14, 2020.

Rehearing Denied September 10, 2020.

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 01/25/2017

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COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. LISA P. DODSON TRIAL JUDGE

TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JOEL SMITH HERMAN F. COX WILLIAM CROSBY PARKER LISA D. COLLUMS JASON McDONALD PAYNE ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL BILLY EDWARD STAGE.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER BY: ALISON R. STEINER ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL .

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: CAMERON LEIGH BENTON, Jackson.

MAXWELL, JUSTICE:

¶1. After a twelve-hour search, police found the dead body of a missing five-year-old girl. Her body was located in a filthy, abandoned trailer fifty yards from her apartment complex. She had been sexually assaulted, vaginally and anally, and then hanged by the neck with a pair of socks tied to a window crank. Twenty-nine-year-old Alberto Garcia, a resident of the same apartment complex, confessed to killing the child in the course of raping her. Forensic evidence confirmed Garcia's DNA had been found in the child's vagina and anus.

¶2. On the eve of his capital-murder trial, Garcia pled guilty. He also waived his right to a jury at sentencing. Following a three-day hearing, the trial judge, the Honorable Lisa Dodson, found two aggravating circumstances—the young victim was killed during the course of a sexual battery and the nature of the capital offense was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel—outweighed the mitigating factors of Garcia's lack of significant criminal history, relatively young age, and difficult childhood. Based on these findings, she sentenced Garcia to death.

¶3. Garcia appeals his sentence only.1 Applying the heightened scrutiny that a death-penalty appeal demands, we find no merit to Garcia's claims the trial judge erred in her sentencing decision. Because the death penalty is constitutional and because Garcia's death sentence is proportionate to other sentences imposed for the capital murder of a young sexual-assault victim, we affirm his sentence of death.

Facts & Procedural History

I. JT goes missing and is later found hanged.

¶4. On the evening of July 16, 2014, five-year-old JT2 was running in and out of the patio door of her apartment, playing with a neighbor outside. Around 5:30 p.m., her mother called to her, but JT did not answer. After two hours of searching, JT's mother called 911. Police, neighbors, and volunteers systematically searched the area through the night.

¶5. At 7:45 a.m. the next morning, police found JT's half-naked body in the bathroom of an abandoned trailer approximately fifty yards from JT's apartment. She had been hanged with a pair of socks tied around her neck and fastened to the shower window. There were signs of sexual penetration of her vagina and anus. There were also scratch marks around her neck showing she had tried to free herself from the makeshift noose before she died from ligature strangulation.

II. Garcia approaches the police.

¶6. Based on a tip, investigators developed a person of interest—one of JT's neighbors in the apartment complex, Julian Casper Gray. As police searched Gray's apartment the evening

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of July 17, Garcia, Gray's friend and neighbor, engaged the police commander in conversation. Because Garcia appeared to be volunteering information relevant to the investigation, a detective went to Garcia's apartment. He asked Garcia if he would be willing to speak with investigators at the police station.

¶7. Garcia agreed. On the ride to the police station, Garcia mentioned that his fingerprints would likely be found in the trailer because he had been in the trailer the weekend before. At the station, another detective formally interviewed Garcia after reading Garcia his Miranda rights and obtaining a waiver. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966) (requiring that, before a custodial interrogation, the person interrogated be warned he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he makes may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed). Garcia told the detective he had stolen some items from the trailer a few days earlier. So his fingerprints and possibly DNA would be in the trailer. He also mentioned his semen may be in the trailer because he had masturbated there while visiting the trailer's prior occupants. Garcia claimed he had possibly blacked out around the time of JT's disappearance and that he woke up with feces on his penis and inner thighs. Garcia said the feces was not his.3 And he immediately took a shower and washed his clothes. The interview ended when Garcia asked for a lawyer.4

¶8. Based on this information, police obtained a search warrant for Garcia's apartment. In his bedroom, police found an Xbox 360 game console, which was connected to the internet. A digital forensic examiner recovered the internet searches made on the console in the days leading up to JT's rape and murder. These search phrases included "toddler hentai,"5 "poor little thing," "kidnapped and raped," and "virginravisher."

¶9. Garcia was arrested and held without bond. On October 5, 2015, a grand jury indicted Garcia for capital murder in the commission of felony sexual battery.

III. Garcia moves to suppress his statements.

¶10. On July 15, 2016, Garcia moved to suppress the Xbox search and his statements to the police. He claimed his apartment was illegally searched because he had never been read his Miranda rights before being recorded in the police car. He suggested his statement on the way to the police station and all his following statements and evidence were "fruit of the poisonous tree." Marshall v. State, 584 So.2d 437,

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438 (Miss. 1991) (explaining the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine—also known as the exclusionary rule—deems inadmissible any evidence obtained incident to an unlawful search or seizure (citing Murray v. United States, 487 U.S. 533, 536, 108 S.Ct. 2529, 101 L.Ed.2d 472 (1988))).

¶11. On July 26, 2016, the trial court held a suppression hearing. Police Commander Ken Brown testified that, on July 17, 2014, during the search of Gray's apartment, he was in the hallway when Garcia approached him and asked about the investigation. At this point, Garcia was not a person of interest or a suspect. This conversation was relayed to Detective Clay Fulks. Detective Fulks, a patrol officer in July 2014, followed up by going to Garcia's apartment. Garcia volunteered to go to the police station to provide information. While Garcia chose to ride in the back of the police car, he was not restrained. Detective Fulks activated the vehicle's recording system. During the fifteen-minute drive, the two engaged in a casual conversation. But at some point Garcia mentioned that his fingerprints may be found in the trailer where JT was discovered. Garcia explained that he knew the trailer's former occupants. Detective Fulks testified that, at this point, Garcia was not a suspect. When they arrived at the station, Detective Fulks parked in the front parking lot and not at the sally port where suspects are delivered. Detective Fulks testified Garcia was one of three witnesses he transported to the police station during the investigation.

¶12. During Detective Fulks's testimony, the State played the recording of the fifteen-minute ride to the police station. The trial court ruled the video could come in as evidence against Garcia. Garcia was not in custody at the time. And it was clear from the video that Garcia was the one who started the conversation. He volunteered, without being asked, that his fingerprints would be found in the trailer because he had been there just days before, rummaging through the prior occupants' belongings.

¶13. The trial court also ruled that the search warrant for Garcia's apartment had been supported by probable cause—namely, the statement Garcia gave to investigators at the police station after he voluntarily waived his Miranda rights.6

IV. Garcia moves to change venue.

¶14. At the same July 26, 2016 hearing, the trial court took up Garcia's motion to change venue, which he had filed July 14, 2016. In his motion, Garcia argued there was a reasonable likelihood that an impartial jury could not be impaneled in the First Judicial District of Harrison County. He asserted the disappearance and death of JT was "sensational, front-page news throughout the Gulf Coast region." To support his motion, he attached copies of various media reports, along with affidavits by three community members. See Miss. Code § 99-15-35 (Rev. 2015) (requiring a motion to change venue be "supported by the affidavits of two or more credible persons").

¶15. At the hearing, Garcia, the State, and the trial court agreed to the following procedure: Garcia would present his evidence supporting the motion, and the State would present its evidence opposing the motion. Then, the question of pretrial publicity would be put to fourteen people who had been summoned but not selected for

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jury duty for an unrelated trial being held that day. But after Garcia and the State presented their arguments and evidence, the court learned the case scheduled for trial had ended in a guilty plea, so there were no jurors...

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