Mills v. State

Citation521 P.3d 335
Decision Date13 December 2022
Docket NumberS-21-0232
Parties Mario M. MILLS, Appellant (Defendant), v. The STATE of Wyoming, Appellee (Plaintiff).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender: Diane Lozano, Wyoming State Public Defender; Kirk A. Morgan, Chief Appellate Counsel. Argument by Mr. Morgan.

Representing Appellee: Bridget Hill, Wyoming Attorney General; Jenny L. Craig, Deputy Attorney General; Joshua C. Eames* , Senior Assistant Attorney General; Rachel Edelman, Student Intern. Argument by Ms. Edelman.


FOX, Chief Justice.

[¶1] Mario M. Mills was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his friend, Trevor Bartlett. On appeal, he claims the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress his statement to law enforcement. We reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand.


[¶2] We restate the issues on appeal as follows:

1. Did the district court correctly conclude that Mr. Mills was not in custody during his police station interview until such time as law enforcement took his cell phone, declined his request to speak to his wife, and directed him to remain in an interview room?
2. Was the district court's error in determining when Mr. Mills’ interrogation became custodial harmless?
3. Does the record support the district court's conclusion that Mr. Mills’ statement to law enforcement was voluntary?

[¶3] On the evening of March 25, 2020, Mario M. Mills and his wife, Courtnie Mills, spent time in the garage of their Riverton, Wyoming home, drinking and playing cribbage with Trevor Bartlett, a longtime friend of Mr. Mills. Ms. Mills went to bed, and Mr. Mills and Mr. Bartlett remained in the garage drinking and talking. Their conversation turned to Mr. Bartlett's desire to kill himself, something he had threatened on numerous past occasions, and they argued about it. At one point, Mr. Mills handed Mr. Bartlett a gun from his workbench and said, "If you are going to do it, just do it." Mr. Mills then wrestled the gun away from Mr. Bartlett and returned it to the workbench.

[¶4] The two men continued to drink and talk, and the conversation again turned to Mr. Bartlett's desire to commit suicide and to take others with him. He told Mr. Mills he had over a hundred rounds of ammunition and a list of people he wanted to shoot, and he would not give up until someone took him out. He then asked Mr. Mills to kill him, and they continued arguing. Mr. Mills finally asked Mr. Bartlett if he was sure that was what he wanted. When Mr. Bartlett said yes, Mr. Mills retrieved the gun from the workbench and shot him in the head.

[¶5] By this time, it was approximately 1:30 in the morning. Mr. Mills woke his wife and told her what he had done, and she checked on Mr. Bartlett and confirmed he was dead. Ms. Mills wanted to call the police, but Mr. Mills persuaded her to wait. The two returned to the garage where Mr. Mills put on latex gloves, picked up the pistol from the garage floor, put it in Mr. Bartlett's hand, and then unloaded it and placed it on a workbench. The Mills then left the garage and went upstairs to their bedroom, where they disrobed and placed their clothing and the latex gloves in a plastic garbage bag, which they hid under the bed.

[¶6] Later that morning, at approximately 5:00, Ms. Mills called 911 and reported that she had just discovered Mr. Bartlett dead in her garage and believed he had shot himself. Officers from the Riverton Police Department responded to the scene, and Detective James Donahue arrived a little after 6:00 a.m. He interviewed both the Mills, and they each gave the same version of events Ms. Mills had given when she called 911. Mr. Mills also reported that he had found the gun on the garage's concrete floor, about three feet from Mr. Bartlett's body.

[¶7] After examining the scene, Detective Donahue concluded it was unlikely Mr. Bartlett shot himself. The stippling around the wound was spread out, and not concentrated near the wound, indicating the gun had been fired from greater than six inches away. He also observed that the gun had no blood spatter or blowback, which was inconsistent with the blood spatter pattern found on other items near the wound. He had also learned that Mr. Bartlett was right-handed, yet the wound was on the left side of his head. Finally, he noted that there were no impact marks on the gun, which he would have expected had it fallen from Mr. Bartlett's hand and hit the concrete floor three feet from his body.

[¶8] Detective Donahue left the Mills’ home between 8:30 and 8:45 that morning, but before leaving he asked the Mills if they would be willing to come to the police department to discuss the events of the prior evening. They agreed, and he asked when would be convenient for them. They said they would be there by 10:00 that morning. After law enforcement left their home, the Mills drove to Ms. Mills’ place of employment and discarded the bag that contained their clothing and the latex gloves.

[¶9] At approximately 9:45 a.m., the Mills arrived at the Riverton Police Department, along with Mr. Mills’ minor daughter, MM. After entering the City Hall building through its front entrance, they were admitted through a secure access door into the police department lobby. The access door was locked from the outside but could be pushed open from the interior. They were offered water, and they waited in the lobby where they had access to City Hall, the restroom, and the parking lot.

[¶10] After about five to ten minutes, Detective Donahue began his separate interviews of the Mills. He first interviewed MM. Detective Donahue testified at the suppression hearing:

Q. Okay. Did she tell you – did she tell you that somebody in her house had killed Trevor Bartlet[t]?
A. She described waking up a little after 1:00 a.m. on the 26th to sounds of her mother and father, Courtnie and Mario, upset, and hearing a description of Trevor being dead in their garage. She thought that this was pretty odd. It was also very disturbing to her. She had a very difficult time going back to sleep.
Q. Did she tell you that Mr. Mills had shot Trevor Bartlet[t]?
A. No.
Q. Did she tell you Courtnie Mills had shot Trevor Bartlet[t]?
A. No.

[¶11] After interviewing MM, Detective Donahue asked if she would be willing to wait in an activity room where the department kept games, coloring items, and snacks, and she agreed. He next interviewed Ms. Mills, who initially gave the suicide story she originally reported. At some point in the interview that changed.

Q. What is – generally what does she tell you?
A. Generally she describes being woken up by Mario Mills a little after 1:00 in the morning on the 26th. She describes him telling her that he had shot Trevor and Trevor was dead in the garage.
She describes going down the stairs in a panic, going into the garage. She is a nurse, and she describes being able to recognize when someone is deceased, and checking his pulse and finding that Trevor is, in fact, dead. She describes coming back into the house and talking with Mario Mills on the stairwell.

[¶12] Ms. Mills told Detective Donahue that she tried to call 911, but Mr. Mills asked her not to because he did not want to go to jail. She also told him they returned to the garage, and she described the steps they took to conceal the crime and make Mr. Bartlett's death look like a suicide, and how they disposed of the clothing they had worn. After completing her interview, Detective Donahue asked if she would like to join MM or go somewhere else, and she chose to wait with MM.

[¶13] About five minutes after Detective Donahue completed his interview of Ms. Mills, Mr. Mills was led to an interview room and patted down by another detective. Mr. Mills entered the interview room followed by Detective Donahue, and Detective Donahue closed the door. All subsequent events were recorded via audio and video (consisting of five video recordings).

[¶14] The district court accurately described the interview room as follows:

Th[e] room appears to be the size of a medium or small office and is shaped like an octagon that has been cut in half. The floor is carpeted, the walls are painted in a light color, and there is a medium sized wipe board (with no writing on it) hanging on the wall. There are no other wall hangings and no windows visible on the video, yet, there is a microphone hanging down from the ceiling. It appears there is only one door to this room, however, it is not visible on the video. Overall, there are five pieces of furniture in the room visible on the recording. There is a small couch at the end of the room opposite the camera view. There is a medium-sized, rectangular shaped folding banquet type table placed next to the wall near the middle of the room, and on each side of the table (lengthwise) there are two plain chairs, with another chair placed against the wall near the door.

[¶15] After entering the room, Mr. Mills took a seat at the end of the table farthest from the door, and Detective Donahue sat at the other end, about three to four feet from him. Mr. Mills was not in handcuffs or restrained in any manner, and he had been permitted to keep his cell phone. Detective Donahue was in plain clothes and was the only detective or officer in the room. He was soft-spoken and remained so throughout the interview.

[¶16] Detective Donahue started his interview of Mr. Mills at 12:08 p.m. and told him at the outset that he was not under arrest. He also informed him they were being recorded by both audio and video and pointed to those devices. He began by complimenting Mr. Mills on the raising of his daughter and commending him for his military service. About a minute and a half into the interview, he told Mr. Mills that he had spoken to MM and Ms. Mills, and Mr. Mills nodded. He then told him, "We're in the business of truth," and stressed the importance that, as a man, he be honest even if he was afraid. He then asked...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT