Mata-Medina v. People

Citation71 P.3d 973
Decision Date02 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01SC702.,01SC702.
PartiesAntonio MATA-MEDINA, Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

71 P.3d 973

Antonio MATA-MEDINA, Petitioner,
The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent

No. 01SC702.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc.

June 2, 2003.

As Modified on Denial of Rehearing June 30, 2003.

71 P.3d 975
David S. Kaplan, Colorado State Public Defender, Kathleen A. Lord, Chief Appellate Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioner

Ken Salazar, Attorney General, Lauren E. Park, Assistant Attorney General, Deborah Isenberg Pratt, Assistant Attorney General,

71 P.3d 976
Appellate Division, Criminal Justice Section, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent

Justice KOURLIS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

In this case, a jury convicted Antonio Mata-Medina of the second-degree murder of Mandy Gettler on August 29, 1996. The trial court sentenced Mata-Medina to thirty-two years in the Department of Corrections. Mata-Medina appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, which affirmed. People v. Medina, 51 P.3d 1006 (Colo.App.2001).1 The defendant sought certiorari before this court on two issues: whether the trial court erred in refusing his tendered instruction on criminally negligent homicide; and whether the evidence was sufficient to support his conviction for second-degree murder. We now determine that the trial court did err in refusing to instruct the jury on criminally negligent homicide; however, because the jury considered but rejected the intermediate offense of reckless manslaughter, we determine that such error was harmless as a matter of law. We also hold that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals and uphold the conviction.

I. Facts

On August 29, Antonio Mata-Medina, Mandy Gettler, Ms. Gettler's boyfriend, Hector Hernandez, and other friends attended a party. The men were relaxing in the yard and drinking. At some point in the evening, Mandy Gettler, Hector Hernandez, Sabino Hernandez and Mata-Medina went to a park. At the park, Gettler had sex with her boyfriend, while the other two men waited. They flipped a coin to see who would approach her next.

Defendant, Antonio Mata-Medina, won the coin toss and Sabino Hernandez departed. When Mata-Medina attempted to have intercourse with Gettler, he was unable to achieve an erection. She laughed and attempted to excite him; however, he was unresponsive and they abandoned the effort.

Mata-Medina, Hector Hernandez and Gettler then left the park to walk home together. Hernandez testified that he walked with Gettler, and the two were laughing at Mata-Medina. Mata-Medina did not say anything, and appeared "[m]aybe embarrassed a little" but did not seem angry. Hernandez reached his home first and said he left Gettler and Mata-Medina alone. That was the last time Hernandez saw Gettler alive.

Later, Mata-Medina returned to his home. His wife noted that he had been drinking but did not appear drunk. He told her to come in the bedroom with him, where he lay down in bed but did not get under the covers.

She awoke the next morning when Mata-Medina's friends called to see if he was coming to work. At that point, Mata-Medina was gone. He had taken the couple's van. At about ten o'clock that morning, she received a phone call from her husband asking her to call a taxi for him because the van had become stuck in the mud.

Soon afterwards, the taxi arrived with her husband and she paid the fare. He confessed that "there had been an accident," and that he had killed Mandy Gettler. Mata-Medina's wife testified at trial that at that time Mata-Medina said he had been at a party "and the girl was asking for money, and she kept hitting him in the chest and he was trying to walk away, and he told her to get out of his face, and he finally had enough, and then he punched her in the throat, and she fell down, and he left."

No one called the police. Mata-Medina convinced his wife to rent a chainsaw, and take a cab to where he had abandoned the van. With the chainsaw, they freed the van from barbed wire where it was entangled. A few days later, they returned to that location and Mata-Medina retrieved the body in a wheelbarrow from its initial location. He and his wife placed it in the van, then drove to a bridge. The two threw the body over the side of the bridge, where it landed on dry ground. Mata-Medina went under the bridge and buried the body and then disposed of the victim's clothing.

71 P.3d 977
Two weeks after August 29, the couple moved to New Mexico. Throughout the course of these events, Mata-Medina's wife questioned him about what had happened and later testified that he gave her multiple conflicting versions of the events. The defendant's other versions of what happened each varied slightly from his original story. He stated that the victim had wanted $100 for sex and harassed him because he didn't have any money, following him, grabbing at his wallet, and hitting him in the chest. He pushed her away, hitting her in the chest and she fell. In another version, he got into a fight with a friend. He said the victim was pushed when she tried to break up the fight and then she hit her head

Eventually, Mata-Medina and his wife moved back to Colorado, where his wife cooperated with police to recover the body. A team of archaeologists exhumed Gettler's body seven months after her death.

Mata-Medina was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. At trial, the judge instructed the jury on the lesser included offense of reckless manslaughter; however, he refused to give an instruction on criminally negligent homicide. After twice informing the court they were deadlocked and being told to continue deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the second-degree murder charge.

Mata-Medina appealed, arguing both that he was entitled to an instruction on criminally negligent homicide and that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of second-degree murder. The court of appeals affirmed, finding that the failure to instruct was harmless as a matter of law and that the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict. Mata-Medina appealed to this court and we granted certiorari.2 We now conclude that Mata-Medina was entitled to an instruction on criminally negligent homicide; however, because the jury was given the opportunity to consider but rejected the lesser included offense of reckless manslaughter, thereby finding the presence of all the elements of second-degree murder, we determine that the error was harmless as a matter of law.

II. Entitlement to the Instruction

Defendant argues that he was entitled to a criminally negligent homicide instruction because the evidence offered could support an acquittal of knowing and reckless homicide. He maintains that his theory of the case would support a conviction for criminally negligent homicide.

Specifically, the defendant notes that Dr. Robert Stewart, who performed the autopsy on the remains of the victim testified that she had not been shot or stabbed; however, because of the advanced state of decay, the doctor stated he could not draw any further conclusions with certainty. The doctor did testify that no bones had been broken, and that she did not die from a blow to the head or a severe jerking of the neck.

At trial, in response to questions about whether the victim might have died from a shove to her chest or neck, the doctor reported that some people can suffer a reflex phenomenon from a blow that causes instant death, and leaves no identifiable mark on the body. The blow could come from a closed fist, open palm, or flat of the hand. The doctor explained that there is no way to tell, looking at a person, whether she is susceptible to this condition.

Accordingly, the defendant argues that the evidence could support a conclusion that he did not understand the degree of risk that his behavior courted, because he could have struck Gettler in the chest or neck without realizing that such a blow could cause death.

To the contrary, the People argue that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction because there was no factual evidence that Mata-Medina did not understand that his actions, including an alleged blow to the

71 P.3d 978
neck, could cause death; or stated otherwise, no evidence that he failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his actions might cause the death of the victim.

The defendant is entitled to an instruction supported by a reasonable construction of the evidence; therefore, we agree with Petitioner.

A. Distinguishing the Offenses

A person commits criminally negligent homicide when he "causes the death of another person by conduct amounting to criminal negligence." § 18-3-105, 6 C.R.S. (2002). Criminally negligent homicide is a class 5 felony. Id. Criminal negligence is a state of mind that exists when "through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists." § 18-1-501(3). By contrast, a person commits reckless manslaughter, a class 4 felony, when he "recklessly causes the death of another person." § 18-3-104(1)(a). A person acts recklessly in this context "when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that his actions will cause death. § 18-1-501(8). Second-degree murder is a class 2 felony,3 which requires a showing that the defendant knowingly caused the death of the victim. § 18-3-103.

We recently explained in detail the statutory elements of reckless manslaughter, which are distinguishable from criminally negligent homicide only by degree of culpability. In People v. Hall, 999 P.2d 207, 215-16 (Colo.2000), we explained that to determine whether a risk was substantial and unjustifiable, the "trier of fact must weigh the likelihood and potential magnitude of harm presented by the conduct and consider whether the conduct constitutes a gross deviation from...

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