91 F.3d 91 (10th Cir. 1996), 95-2223, United States v. Gabaldon

Docket Nº:95-2223.
Citation:91 F.3d 91
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Steve Edward GABALDON, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:July 26, 1996
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Page 91

91 F.3d 91 (10th Cir. 1996)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Steve Edward GABALDON, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 95-2223.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 26, 1996

Page 92

Stephen P. McCue, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Albuquerque, NM, for Defendant--Appellant.

Mary Catherine McCulloch, Assistant U.S. Attorney (John J. Kelly, United States Attorney, with her on the brief), Albuquerque, NM, for Plaintiff--Appellee.

Before KELLY, BRISCOE and LUCERO, Circuit Judges.

LUCERO, Circuit Judge.

We are asked to clarify the standard of appellate review for claimed prosecutorial trial misconduct. Defendant Steve Edward Gabaldon appeals his conviction for burglary, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1152 and 13 and N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-16-3(A), and larceny, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1152 and 661. Mr. Gabaldon argues that the district court should have granted his motion for a mistrial on the basis of three instances of prosecutorial misconduct. We exercise jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We affirm.


Ron and John Abeita, cousins, lived across the road from one another on the Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. While working outside in the early evening of November 23, 1993, Ron saw a car pull up to the front door of his cousin's house, about 150 yards away from him. A man got out and knocked on John's door, walked to his car and then back to the door, and then kicked in the front door and entered the house.

Minutes later, Ron crossed the road and confronted the intruder outside the house. The two men spoke for about fifteen minutes. The stranger initially denied breaking into the house but, when Ron noticed a television in his car, admitted to doing so. The man returned the television, promised to pay for the damaged door, and drove away. Ron immediately called the police. When Officer Randy Hanes of the Isleta Police Department arrived, Ron described the man and his car, and gave Officer Hanes the car's license plate number. He described the burglar as between 5'6"' and 5'8"' tall, wearing blue jeans and a Chicago Bulls jacket. Defense counsel argues that Defendant Gabaldon is only 5'4"', and three witnesses--all relatives of the Defendant--testified that Gabaldon never wore blue jeans or team jackets.

The police traced the car to the home of Defendant's aunt, Darlene Williams, who lived in Los Lunas, New Mexico. The car and its license plates matched Ron Abeita's description of the thief's car, and the vehicle identification number was that of the car registered with those plates. Defendant frequently stayed with his aunt for short periods, did not own his own car, and had borrowed his aunt's car on prior occasions. Darlene Williams testified that she had not used the car that night, did not know whether the car had remained where she parked it during the hours in question, and had a habit of leaving the keys in the car.

As a result of a tip from Williams' brother Carl, the police showed Ron Abeita a photo array which included Defendant's picture. Ron chose Defendant's photograph out of the array.

A jury trial was held in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. In court, the prosecutor made three statements to which Defendant objected contemporaneously on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct:

(1) During voir dire of the jury: "There will also be evidence presented by the government in this case that one of the witnesses that you'll hear actually saw part

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of the burglary and went over and talked with the defendant."

Tr. at 26.

(2) During the prosecution's opening statement: "Mr. Ron Abeita will testify, the government believes, that he has no doubt in his mind who it was that broke into his cousin's house. And the government, as well, harbors the conviction that after you hear the evidence--" [At that point, the prosecutor was interrupted by the defense's objection].

Tr. at 51.

(3) During the prosecution's closing: "Again, the government believes that the evidence demonstrates ..." [Defense counsel again interrupted to object].

Tr. at 220. To the first objection, the court responded, "Well, that's--why don't you just ask if any of them know the witness?" Tr. at 26. The court sustained the other two objections. Before the case was submitted to the jury, Defendant's counsel moved for a mistrial on the basis of these statements. The court denied the motion, and the jury found Defendant guilty on both counts of the indictment--one count of burglary and one count of misdemeanor larceny.


We address a threshold issue concerning the appropriate standard of review. Defendant frames the sole issue on appeal as whether "Mr. Gabaldon was denied a fair trial by repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct." Appellant's Br. at 9. He asserts that "[a]n allegation of prosecutorial misconduct presents a mixed question of fact and law reviewed de novo." Id.; see, e.g., United States v. Ivy, 83 F.3d 1266, 1288 (10th Cir.1996). Appellee frames the issue in a different way: "Whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion when it denied appellant's motion for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct." Appellee's Br. at 1. The government points out that we review the denial of a motion for a new trial based on prosecutorial misconduct for abuse of discretion. Id. at 10; see, e.g., United States v. Oles, 994 F.2d 1519, 1524 (10th Cir.1993). 1 At oral argument, the United States requested that we clarify the appropriate standard of appellate review when, based on alleged prosecutorial misconduct, defendant has both objected contemporaneously and unsuccessfully moved the district court for a mistrial. We conclude that an abuse of discretion standard is appropriate.

When prosecutorial misconduct deprives a criminal defendant of a fair trial, the defendant's due process rights are violated, Greer v. Miller, 483 U.S. 756, 765, 107 S.Ct. 3102, 3108-09, 97 L.Ed.2d 618 (1987), and reversal is warranted, Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 89, 55 S.Ct. 629, 633, 79 L.Ed. 1314 (1935); United States v. Lowden, 900 F.2d 213, 217 (10th Cir.1990). When a defendant believes that prosecutorial misconduct has occurred, he or she may move for a mistrial. See Haar, 931 F.2d at 1374. While the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure offer little guidance on when judges should grant mistrial motions, we have focused on " 'whether ... [the defendant's] right to a fair and impartial trial was impaired.' " United States v. Torres, 959 F.2d 858, 860 (10th Cir.) (quoting United States v. Pinelli, 890 F.2d 1461, 1473 (10th Cir.1989), cert. denied, 494 U.S. 1038, 110 S.Ct. 1498, 108 L.Ed.2d 632 (1990)), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 882, 113 S.Ct. 236, 121 L.Ed.2d 171 (1992). The defendant may also move for a new trial pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. "The court ... may grant a new trial to that defendant if required in the interest of justice."...

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