Dodds v. State, No. A-7086.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Alaska
Writing for the CourtMANNHEIMER.
Citation997 P.2d 536
PartiesIan DODDS, Appellant, v. STATE of Alaska, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. A-7086.
Decision Date10 March 2000

997 P.2d 536

Ian DODDS, Appellant,
v.
STATE of Alaska, Appellee

No. A-7086.

Court of Appeals of Alaska.

March 10, 2000.


997 P.2d 537
Marcia E. Holland, Assistant Public Defender, Fairbanks, and Barbara K. Brink, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Appellant

Marcelle K. McDannel, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, Anchorage, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Before COATS, Chief Judge, and MANNHEIMER and STEWART, Judges.

997 P.2d 538
OPINION

MANNHEIMER, Judge.

Ian Dodds appeals his conviction for first-degree robbery.1 He contends that the trial judge committed error by failing to have the jury decide whether the State had proved the corpus delicti of robbery. But Dodds did not ask for a corpus delicti instruction, so he must establish plain error to prevail on appeal. As we explain here, the facts of Dodds's case raise no real issue of corpus delicti. Moreover, Alaska law provides no clear answer to the question of whether corpus delicti is to be decided by the trial judge or the jury. For these reasons, we conclude that the trial judge's failure to instruct the jury on the issue of corpus delicti does not constitute plain error, and we therefore affirm Dodds's conviction.

Facts of the case and the challenged jury instruction

On the night of September 6, 1997, two men broke into a Fairbanks residence and robbed the homeowners. One week later, the police questioned Ian Dodds about this crime, and Dodds confessed that he was one of the robbers.

At Dodds's ensuing trial for first-degree robbery, the State introduced evidence of Dodds's confession. Accordingly, Dodds's attorney asked the trial judge to give Criminal Pattern Jury Instruction 1.24, which discusses whether a defendant's out-of-court statement should be categorized as an admission or a confession:

A statement made by a defendant other than at the defendant's trial may be either an admission or a confession.
An admission is a statement by a defendant which by itself is not sufficient to warrant an inference of guilt but which tends to prove guilt when considered with other evidence.
A confession is a statement by a defendant which discloses intentional participation in the criminal act for which the defendant is on trial and which, if believed, proves the defendant's guilt of that crime.
You are the exclusive judges as to whether an admission or a confession was made by the defendant and if the statement is true in whole or in part. If you should find that such statement is entirely untrue, you must reject it. If you find that it is true in part, you may consider that part which you find to be true.
Evidence of an oral admission of the defendant ought to be viewed with caution.

Even though Dodds asked for this instruction, he now claims that the trial judge committed plain error in giving it. The error in the instruction, Dodds contends, is the way it describes a defendant's confession.

According to the instruction, a confession is "a statement by a defendant which discloses [the defendant's] intentional participation in the [crime charged] and which, if believed, proves the defendant's guilt of that crime." (emphasis added) Dodds argues that this italicized language misstates the doctrine of corpus delicti because it suggests that a defendant's confession, standing alone, may be sufficient to prove a defendant's guilt.

The proof required by the corpus delicti rule

Dodds insists that, even without request, the trial judge was obliged to instruct the jury that Dodds's confession was not sufficient to prove his guilt unless the State presented substantial independent evidence corroborating the confession. In particular, Dodds argues that the trial judge committed plain error when he neglected to tell the jury that they could not convict Dodds unless the State presented substantial independent evidence tending to establish that Dodds was, in fact, one of the robbers.

Under the doctrine of corpus delicti, a criminal conviction can not rest on an uncorroborated confession.2 But Dodds's argument misapprehends the corpus delicti rule. While corpus delicti requires independent evidence that the charged crime occurred,

997 P.2d 539
it does not require independent evidence that the defendant participated in that crime

Generally speaking, to prove that a defendant has violated a criminal statute, the government must establish (1) the occurrence of the injury, loss, or other harm specified in the statute, and (2) the defendant's culpable participation in causing this injury, loss, or harm.3 The corpus delicti rule requires the State to introduce independent evidence of the first factor, but not the second.4 The Alaska Supreme Court has explicitly adopted this interpretation of the rule.5

In Dodds's case, the first factor—the occurrence of the robbery—was amply demonstrated by the testimony of the two victims and was not seriously contested. The primary dispute at trial involved the second factor—whether Dodds participated in the robbery. This dispute raised no issue of corpus delicti.

To qualify as "plain error", an error must be obviously prejudicial to the fairness of the proceedings.6 Because Dodds did not dispute the occurrence of the robbery, there was no dispute concerning the existence of the corpus delicti. Therefore, even if it was error to fail to instruct the jury on this issue, the error was not manifestly prejudicial to the fairness of Dodds's trial.7

Whether corpus delicti is an issue for the trial judge or the jury

The corpus delicti rule is universally interpreted as requiring the government to lay an evidentiary foundation (by producing corroborating evidence) as a predicate for introducing the defendant's confession. In its traditional form, the rule may have barred the government from introducing the confession until it first had proved the corpus delicti.8 Nowadays, courts and commentators generally take the position that a trial judge has the discretion to vary the order of proof—allowing the government to introduce the defendant's confession before it has introduced the additional evidence that will establish the corpus delicti, so long as the corpus delicti is proved before the government rests.9 This is the position adopted by the

997 P.2d 540
Alaska Supreme Court.10

But, leaving aside the order of proof, another question remains: Is corpus delicti purely a rule specifying the evidentiary foundation that must be laid for admission of the defendant's confession at a criminal trial? Or is corpus delicti an implicit element of the government's proof of a criminal charge?

If the corpus delicti rule simply defines the evidentiary foundation needed to support introduction of the defendant's confession, then this decision would be made by the trial judge before the case is submitted to the jury. The judge would assess the sufficiency of the State's evidence to prove the corpus delicti, and this decision would be one of law—similar to the judge's assessment of the sufficiency of any other evidentiary foundation under Alaska Evidence Rule 104(a)-(b). Assuming the judge ruled that the corpus delicti had been established, then, at the end of trial, the jury would consider all of the evidence (including the defendant's confession) and decide whether the State had established each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

If, however, the corpus delicti rule establishes an implicit element of the government's proof, then the trial judge's evidentiary ruling would be merely preliminary to the jury's later determination of corpus delicti. The defendant's confession would not be admissible unless the trial judge found that the corpus delicti had been established. But even after the trial judge ruled that the confession was admissible, the jury would be asked to again determine whether the State's evidence satisfied the corpus delicti rule. That is, the jury would be asked to decide whether the State's other evidence was sufficiently corroborative of the confession to establish the occurrence of the crime.

Wigmore notes that there is a divergence of legal opinion on this question, with some courts taking the "evidentiary foundation" approach to corpus delicti and others taking the "implicit element" approach.11 According to Wigmore, most courts follow the "implicit element" approach, with the jury making the final determination of corpus delicti.

The "implicit element" approach to corpus delicti is difficult to reconcile with our law's normal view concerning a jury's ability to dispassionately assess a confession. Confessions can be powerful evidence, and courts have traditionally feared that, once a jury hears the defendant's confession, the jury will be unable to put aside this knowledge.

One example of the cautious approach taken by courts when faced with admitting defendants' confessions is the Bruton rule—the rule that, when two or more defendants are being tried jointly, if one defendant has confessed and has implicated the co-defendants, that confession can not be admitted unless the confessing defendant takes the stand.12 The problem is that, unless the confessing defendant takes the stand, their confession is admissible only as the statement of a party opponent.13 Thus, the confession would be admissible against the defendant who made the confession, but inadmissible against the other defendants. The Supreme Court had previously held that this problem could be solved by instructing the jurors that the confession could be used only to assess the confessing defendant's guilt, not the guilt of the other defendants.14 But in Bruton the Supreme Court reversed course and rejected this solution. The Court concluded that, once the jury heard that one of the defendants had confessed and had implicated one or more co-defendants, the jurors simply could not be trusted to obey an instruction that forbade them from considering that confession

997...

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11 practice notes
  • State v. Cardenas-Flores, NO. 93385-5.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • August 17, 2017
    ...could dispassionately discharge this duty.’ " Langevin v. State , 258 P.3d 866, 870 (Alaska Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Dodds v . State , 997 P.2d 536, 541 (Alaska Ct. App. 2000) ).¶64 While insufficient evidence claims had once been brought under traditional corpus delicti, the Jackson model h......
  • Langevin v. State , No. A–10510.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • June 3, 2011
    ...the criminal charge, or is it a retrial? For the reasons explained in this opinion and in this Court's prior decision in Dodds v. State, 997 P.2d 536 (Alaska App.2000), we conclude that the issue of corpus delicti is a question for the trial judge. In addition, for the reasons explained her......
  • Olrun v. State, Court of Appeals No. A-13056
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • August 26, 2020
    ...that a different uncle had also sexually abused her. 3. Langevin v. State, 258 P.3d 866, 870 (Alaska App. 2011) (quoting Dodds v. State, 997 P.2d 536, 538 (Alaska App. 2000)). 4. Id. at 871 (alteration in original) (quoting Armstrong v. State, 502 P.2d 440, 447 (Alaska 1972)). 5. See 1 Kenn......
  • Tennyson v. State, Court of Appeals No. A-12352
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • November 15, 2017
    ...evidence that the charged crime occurred, it does not require independent evidence that the defendant participated in that crime." 997 P.2d 536, 538-39 (Alaska App. 2000). Here, the crime was the operation of a gillnet in closed waters. Trooper Wittkop's testimony was sufficient to establis......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
11 cases
  • State v. Cardenas-Flores, NO. 93385-5.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • August 17, 2017
    ...could dispassionately discharge this duty.’ " Langevin v. State , 258 P.3d 866, 870 (Alaska Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Dodds v . State , 997 P.2d 536, 541 (Alaska Ct. App. 2000) ).¶64 While insufficient evidence claims had once been brought under traditional corpus delicti, the Jackson model h......
  • Langevin v. State , No. A–10510.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • June 3, 2011
    ...the criminal charge, or is it a retrial? For the reasons explained in this opinion and in this Court's prior decision in Dodds v. State, 997 P.2d 536 (Alaska App.2000), we conclude that the issue of corpus delicti is a question for the trial judge. In addition, for the reasons explained her......
  • Olrun v. State, Court of Appeals No. A-13056
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • August 26, 2020
    ...that a different uncle had also sexually abused her. 3. Langevin v. State, 258 P.3d 866, 870 (Alaska App. 2011) (quoting Dodds v. State, 997 P.2d 536, 538 (Alaska App. 2000)). 4. Id. at 871 (alteration in original) (quoting Armstrong v. State, 502 P.2d 440, 447 (Alaska 1972)). 5. See 1 Kenn......
  • Tennyson v. State, Court of Appeals No. A-12352
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Alaska
    • November 15, 2017
    ...evidence that the charged crime occurred, it does not require independent evidence that the defendant participated in that crime." 997 P.2d 536, 538-39 (Alaska App. 2000). Here, the crime was the operation of a gillnet in closed waters. Trooper Wittkop's testimony was sufficient to establis......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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