Conner v. State, 57109.

Citation130 Nev. Adv. Op. 49,327 P.3d 503
Decision Date26 June 2014
Docket NumberNo. 57109.,57109.
PartiesCharles Reese CONNER, Appellant, v. The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.
CourtSupreme Court of Nevada

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Philip J. Kohn, Public Defender, and Howard Brooks, Deputy Public Defender, Clark County, for Appellant.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, and Pam Weckerly and Nancy Becker, Deputy District Attorneys, Clark County, for Respondent.

BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

OPINION

By the Court, CHERRY, J.:

In this appeal, we primarily consider whether the district court committed clear error by overruling appellant Charles Reese Conner's Batson1 objection and allowing the State to exercise a peremptory challenge against an African–American prospective juror. We also explain the district court's obligation to conduct a sensitive inquiry into all the relevant circumstances before deciding whether the opponent of a peremptory challenge has demonstrated purposeful discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. After considering all the relevant circumstances and having concluded that it is more likely than not that the State struck at least one prospective juror because of race, we hold that the district court committed clear error in its ruling on Conner's Batson objection, and we therefore reverse and remand. Further, we reject Conner's claim that insufficient evidence supports his convictions,

I.

On the night of June 2, 1985, neighbors heard Beth Jardine enter her Las Vegas apartment with a man. When Jardine and the man walked past the neighbors' apartment, one neighbor testified that he heard “a little chuckle [or laughter] here and there.” Later that night they heard what they believed to be cupboard doors banging around. When one neighbor went down to the laundry room, he noticed that Jardine's front door was ajar. The next day, a maintenance man found Jardine's nude body inside the bedroom of her apartment. She had been bludgeoned to death. After Jardine's body was transported to the Clark County Medical Examiner's Office, a crime scene investigator for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Metro) took swabs from the victim's anal and vaginal openings. After forensic tests eliminated Metro's prime suspect, the case went cold.

In 2004, a detective from Metro's Cold Case Unit asked the Las Vegas crime lab to conduct a DNA analysis on the swabs. Two years later, the test was performed and the DNA profile from the vaginal swab was entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). On March 2, 2007, the detective received a report indicating that the CODIS database had matched the DNA profile from the vaginal swab to Conner's DNA profile. Conner's fingerprints were then compared to those recovered from an artist lamp and bed sheet found in the apartment and determined to match.

Later that month, detectives traveled to Arkansas to confront Conner with evidence that his DNA was found inside Jardine and his fingerprints were found at the crime scene. The interview was recorded after Conner waived his Miranda2 rights. Conner initially denied any knowledge of the incident, telling detectives that he was drunk most of his time in Las Vegas and he did not remember much. He eventually confessed and told detectives that he hit Jardine with a hammer in a blind rage after he just snapped. At that time, detectives had not told Conner that the weapon used was a hammer. Conner also told detectives that he remembered having sex with Jardine and had anal sex with her after he struck her with the hammer. Conner was charged with one count of open murder and two counts of sexual assault by vaginal and anal penetration.

At trial, Conner admitted that he murdered Jardine but contended that it was not premeditated or committed during the perpetration of sexual assault because the sex was consensual. The State called Dr. Alane Olson, a medical examiner in the Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner. She testified to another medical examiner, Dr. James Clark's, findings as memorialized in his 1985 autopsy report as well as her own conclusions based on the autopsy report and photographs taken during the autopsy. Dr. Olson testified that based on her review of the autopsy report and photographs, Jardine had between 20 and 25 separate injuries to her head and neck. She was also asked to relay Dr. Clark's opinion as to the cause of death as contained in the autopsy report. Dr. Olson testified that it was Dr. Clark's opinion that the manner of death was homicide, caused by [c]erebral lacerations and hemorrhage due to fragmented and depressed skull fractures, due to heavy multiple blunt force trauma to [the] head.” She also testified to Dr. Clark's opinion that there was, [a]nal and vaginal sexual intercourse, probable rape.” Other findings made by Dr. Clark were also introduced through Dr. Olson's testimony, including that a grid like pattern associated with the injury appeared to be the same pattern present on the end of the hammer that was discovered at the crime scene, there was an area of bruising near the posterior fourchette of the vagina, and sperm was present on the vaginal and anal swabs taken from Jardine before the autopsy.

After hearing all the evidence, a jury rendered a special verdict of guilty against Conner for two counts of sexual assault (vaginal and anal penetration), and one count of first-degree murder, based on both premeditated and felony murder, and sentenced him to death.

II.

Conner contends that the State presented insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions for first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault. SeeNRS 200.030(1)(a) and (b); NRS 200.366(1). He argues that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the sexual intercourse was not consensual or that the murder was “willful, deliberate and premeditated.” We disagree.

“The Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution requires that an accused may not be convicted unless each fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Rose v. State, 123 Nev. 194, 202, 163 P.3d 408, 414 (2007). To determine whether due process requirements are met, [t]he standard of review in a criminal case is ‘whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’ McNair v. State, 108 Nev. 53, 56, 825 P.2d 571, 573 (1992) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979)). “In assessing a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, ‘a reviewing court must consider all of the evidence admitted by the trial court, regardless whether that evidence was admitted erroneously. Stephans v. State, 127 Nev. ––––, ––––, 262 P.3d 727, 734 (2011) (emphasis in original) (quoting McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U.S. 120, 131, 130 S.Ct. 665, 175 L.Ed.2d 582 (2010)).

When all of the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational juror could conclude that nonconsensual anal and vaginal penetration occurred and that Conner deliberately and with premeditation intended to kill Jardine by repeatedly striking her in the head with the hammer. [I]t is the jury's function, not that of the court, to assess the weight of the evidence and determine the credibility of witnesses,” and “a verdict supported by substantial evidence will not be disturbed by a reviewing court.” McNair, 108 Nev. at 56, 825 P.2d at 573; see also Buchanan v. State, 119 Nev. 201, 217, 69 P.3d 694, 705 (2003) (explaining that circumstantial evidence alone may sustain a conviction).

III.

Even where, as here, there was sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, that conviction cannot stand where the State engages in discriminatory jury selection. See Diomampo v. State, 124 Nev. 414, 423, 185 P.3d 1031, 1037 (2008) (explaining that discriminatory jury selection in violation of Batson constitutes structural error that requires reversal). “The harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant and the excluded juror to touch the entire community.” Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 87, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). “That is, the very integrity of the courts is jeopardized when a prosecutor's discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury's neutrality, and undermines public confidence in adjudication.” Miller–El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 238, 125 S.Ct. 2317, 162 L.Ed.2d 196 (2005) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Discriminatory jury selection is particularly concerning in capital cases where each juror has the power to decide whether the defendant is deserving of the ultimate penalty, death.

A.

At the beginning of Conner's trial, the district court held four days of voir dire narrowing the venire to 32 prospective jurors who survived the for-cause challenges. The State exercised nine peremptory challenges, using six of them to strike minority members of the remaining venire. Conner alleged that these challenges established a pattern of racial discrimination. In response to this allegation,the State provided race-neutral reasons for the six peremptory challenges. The State argued that all of the veniremembers it struck were “weak on penalty” and explained:

Every single one of these jurors, ... each one of them indicated either [1] they couldn't imagine a scenario where the death penalty would be appropriate or [2] they flat out switched their questions from what was in their questionnaire where they said they couldn't consider the death penalty and all of a sudden had a change of heart. And those are the reasons, and those are race neutral reasons.... That's the basis we used for all those jurors.

Conner argued that these general explanations for striking all six prospective jurors were insufficient and specifically pointed to...

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    ...opportunity to prove that the prosecutor's reasons for striking minority veniremembers were pretextual.” Conner v. State, 130 Nev. ––––, ––––, 327 P.3d 503, 509 (2014). The district court should sustain the Batson objection and deny the peremptory challenge if it is “more likely than not th......
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