People v. LaRosa, No. 11SC664.

Docket NºNo. 11SC664.
Citation293 P.3d 567
Case DateFebruary 11, 2013
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

293 P.3d 567

The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
v.
Jason LaROSA, Respondent.

No. 11SC664.

Supreme Court of Colorado,
En Banc.

Jan. 14, 2013.
Rehearing Denied Feb. 11, 2013.
*


[293 P.3d 569]


John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Paul Koehler, First Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioner.

Forrest W. Lewis, P.C., Forrest W. Lewis, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent.


Chief Justice BENDER delivered the Opinion of the Court.
I. Introduction

¶ 1 Jason LaRosa, the defendant, confessed to his wife, his mother, his pastor, a police dispatcher, and an investigating police officer

[293 P.3d 570]

that he had sexually assaulted his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He was charged with various crimes, and a jury convicted him of all charges. On appeal, a division of the court of appeals reversed LaRosa's convictions under the corpus delicti rule.1 That rule requires the prosecution to prove that a crime occurred using evidence other than a defendant's confession. The court of appeals reasoned that the prosecution had presented only opportunity evidence (other than the confessions) establishing that LaRosa had an opportunity to commit a crime, not that the crimes in fact occurred. The People appealed to this court, and we granted certiorari to address the viability of the corpus delicti rule.

¶ 2 This case requires us to decide whether to abandon our judicially created corroboration requirement, the corpus delicti rule, and with it over one hundred years of precedent. If we abandon the corpus delicti rule, then we must decide another issue: what corroboration requirement, if any, to articulate in its place. The People argue that we should abandon the corpus delicti rule in favor of the trustworthiness standard, which requires corroborating evidence that proves that a confession is reliable, or, in the alternative, the sufficiency of the evidence test, which requires no corroborating evidence. Instead, the sufficiency of the evidence test would treat confessions like any piece of evidence to be analyzed in the light most favorable to the prosecution during a motion for a judgment of acquittal.

¶ 3 We abandon the corpus delicti rule because we hold that sound reasons exist for doing so. In its place, we articulate the trustworthiness standard, which requires the prosecution to present evidence that proves that a confession is trustworthy or reliable. To determine whether corroborating evidence proves the trustworthiness or reliability of a confession, we hold that the trial court must find that corroboration exists from one or more of the following evidentiary sources: facts that corroborate facts contained in the confession; facts that establish the crime which corroborate facts contained in the confession; or facts under which the confession was made that show that the confession is trustworthy or reliable.

¶ 4 Applying the trustworthiness standard to this case raises another issue. We must decide whether applying the trustworthiness standard here would violate LaRosa's due process right to have fair warning of any judicial decision altering a common law doctrine of criminal law. We hold that, because we have consistently applied the corpus delicti rule as a substantive principle of law for over one hundred years, LaRosa did not have fair warning of our decision to abandon it. Thus, we are constitutionally prohibited from applying the trustworthiness standard in this case.

¶ 5 Hence, we affirm the court of appeals' decision reversing LaRosa's convictions. We remand the case to that court with directions to return it to the trial court to enter a judgment of acquittal.

II. Facts and Proceedings Below

¶ 6 While in Florida, LaRosa called an emergency dispatch operator in Douglas County and told her that he had had inappropriate sexual contact with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. LaRosa explained that he had already called his wife, mother, and pastor and told them the same thing. The dispatcher told LaRosa that an investigating officer would call him back. When called back, LaRosa told the investigating officer that he had taken his daughter swimming at a community recreation center and had performed oral sex on her in a private family shower while he masturbated. LaRosa told the investigating officer that he would return to Colorado and turn himself in to authorities, which he did. Upon arrival, LaRosa was arrested and charged with sexual assault on a child, sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust, and aggravated incest. 2

[293 P.3d 571]

¶ 7 Before trial, LaRosa filed a motion to dismiss the charges under the corpus delicti rule. He argued that his confessions to the dispatcher and the investigating officer were insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction because there was no physical evidence that a crime had occurred. There were no eyewitnesses, and his daughter could not remember the incident. The prosecution contended that it would present evidence at trial corroborating LaRosa's confessions, including medical evidence and the daughter's statements to a social worker. Ultimately, the prosecution presented neither. The trial court denied LaRosa's motion, and the case went to trial.

¶ 8 The prosecution's case depended on LaRosa's confessions to the dispatcher and the investigating officer, both of which were admitted into evidence. The dispatcher testified that she had training and experience dealing with callers who suffer from mental illness, and LaRosa had seemed “very lucid” during their conversation. The investigating officer testified that he also had experience dealing with mentally ill callers, and during his confession LaRosa had provided a coherent story, explained his motivation for confessing, described his expectations of what would happen to him, and at no point suggested “he was out of touch with reality.” The prosecution's other evidence consisted of the recreation center's visitor logs, which showed that LaRosa had visited the center several times, and photographs of the family shower rooms.

¶ 9 Following the prosecution's case-in-chief, LaRosa moved for a judgment of acquittal, again based on the corpus delicti rule. LaRosa argued that the prosecution's evidence was opportunity evidence showing only that he had the opportunity to commit a crime, not that the crimes occurred. The trial court denied LaRosa's motion.

¶ 10 The trial continued, and LaRosa testified that, when he confessed, he was suffering from marital and financial problems, was “extremely tired,” and had confessed to fictitious events. The jury convicted him of all charges.

¶ 11 On appeal, a division of the court of appeals reversed LaRosa's convictions based on the corpus delicti rule. That court reasoned that the prosecution had not presented evidence other than his confessions to establish that the crimes occurred. Rather, the prosecution's evidence established that LaRosa had an opportunity to sexually assault his child, “which every custodial parent has on a virtually continuing basis.” The court of appeals therefore reversed LaRosa's convictions and directed the trial court to enter a judgment of acquittal. The People appealed to this court, and we granted certiorari to examine the viability of the corpus delicti rule in Colorado.3

III. Applicable Law

¶ 12 Before addressing the parties' contentions, we provide an overview of the applicable law. Specifically, we discuss the judicially created corroboration requirement and its two formulations at issue here, the corpus delicti rule and the trustworthiness standard.

¶ 13 Almost all courts adhere to a corroboration requirement, which requires the prosecution to present corroborating evidence of a defendant's confession to either allow for its admission into evidence or sustain a conviction. Kenneth S. Broun, McCormick on Evidence § 145, at 592–93 (6th ed. 2006). We adhere to the conventional formulation of the corroboration requirement, the corpus delicti rule. See Downey v. People, 121 Colo. 307, 319, 215 P.2d 892, 898 (1950). Federal courts and a growing number of state jurisdictions adhere to a newer formulation of the corroboration requirement, the trustworthiness standard. See State v. Mauchley, 2003 UT 10, ¶ 19, 67 P.3d 477, 482–83.

The Corpus Delicti Rule

¶ 14 To establish guilt in a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the corpus delicti, or “body of the crime.” This means

[293 P.3d 572]

that the prosecution must prove that the crime occurred.4

¶ 15 From this corpus delicti concept, we have derived the corpus delicti rule. That rule requires the prosecution to present evidence other than a defendant's confession that proves that the crime occurred. Downey, 121 Colo. at 320, 215 P.2d at 899. Without corroborating evidence, a defendant's confession is insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. Roberts v. People, 11 Colo. 213, 216, 17 P. 637, 639 (1888). The corroborating evidence “need only be slight,” but it must be sufficient “to convince the jury that the crime is real and not imaginary.” Neighbors v. People, 168 Colo. 319, 322, 451 P.2d 264, 265 (1969).

¶ 16 The People state, and our independent research confirms, that the earliest reported case applying the corpus delicti rule in Colorado is from 1872. See Dougherty v. People, 1 Colo. 514, 524 (1872). Since then, we have consistently applied this rule. See People v. Rankin, 191 Colo. 508, 510, 554 P.2d 1107, 1108 (1976); People v. Smith, 182 Colo. 31, 33, 510 P.2d 893, 894 (1973); Meredith v. People, 152 Colo. 69, 71, 380 P.2d 227, 227–28 (1963).

¶ 17 There seems to be little consensus concerning the rationale behind the rule, but courts typically rely on some amalgam of the following: protecting defendants from conviction based on confessions to imaginary crimes; avoiding reliance on coerced confessions extracted under police pressure; and promoting better police investigations by ensuring that they “extend beyond the words of the accused.” Smith...

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35 practice notes
  • State v. Cardenas-Flores, NO. 93385-5.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • August 17, 2017
    ...691 P.2d 197 (1984). Thus, corpus delicti and the corroboration rule are related yet distinct concepts. See People v. LaRosa , 2013 CO 2, 293 P.3d 567, 572 ("From this corpus delicti concept, we have derived the corpus delicti rule.").¶52 Second, the history of corpus delicti reveals that i......
  • State v. Leniart, No. 36358.
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • June 14, 2016
    ...v. Sweat, 366 N.C. 79, 88, 727 S.E.2d 691 (2012) ( “corpus delicti doctrine is a legal question of admissibility”); with People v. LaRosa, 293 P.3d 567, 578–79 (Colo.2013) (en banc) (treating corpus delicti doctrine as rule affecting sufficiency of evidence); State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553,......
  • State v. Leniart, AC 36358
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • June 14, 2016
    ...v. Sweat, 366 N.C. 79, 88, 727 S.E.2d 691 (2012) ("corpus delicti doctrine is a legal question of admissibility"); with People v. LaRosa, 293 P.3d 567, 578-79 (Colo. 2013) (en banc) (treating corpus delicti doctrine as rule affecting sufficiency of evidence); State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553,......
  • State v. Bishop, No. W2010–01207–SC–R11–CD.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Tennessee
    • March 6, 2014
    ...every statutory element of the crime. See United States v. Trombley, 733 F.2d 35, 37 (6th Cir.1984); People v. LaRosa, 2013 CO 2 ¶¶ 34–35, 293 P.3d 567, 575–76 (Colo.2013), reh'g denied (Feb. 11, 2013). The State need only corroborate the existence of the core injury associated with the cri......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
35 cases
  • State v. Cardenas-Flores, NO. 93385-5.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • August 17, 2017
    ...691 P.2d 197 (1984). Thus, corpus delicti and the corroboration rule are related yet distinct concepts. See People v. LaRosa , 2013 CO 2, 293 P.3d 567, 572 ("From this corpus delicti concept, we have derived the corpus delicti rule.").¶52 Second, the history of corpus delicti reveals that i......
  • State v. Leniart, No. 36358.
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • June 14, 2016
    ...v. Sweat, 366 N.C. 79, 88, 727 S.E.2d 691 (2012) ( “corpus delicti doctrine is a legal question of admissibility”); with People v. LaRosa, 293 P.3d 567, 578–79 (Colo.2013) (en banc) (treating corpus delicti doctrine as rule affecting sufficiency of evidence); State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553,......
  • State v. Leniart, AC 36358
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • June 14, 2016
    ...v. Sweat, 366 N.C. 79, 88, 727 S.E.2d 691 (2012) ("corpus delicti doctrine is a legal question of admissibility"); with People v. LaRosa, 293 P.3d 567, 578-79 (Colo. 2013) (en banc) (treating corpus delicti doctrine as rule affecting sufficiency of evidence); State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553,......
  • State v. Bishop, No. W2010–01207–SC–R11–CD.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Tennessee
    • March 6, 2014
    ...every statutory element of the crime. See United States v. Trombley, 733 F.2d 35, 37 (6th Cir.1984); People v. LaRosa, 2013 CO 2 ¶¶ 34–35, 293 P.3d 567, 575–76 (Colo.2013), reh'g denied (Feb. 11, 2013). The State need only corroborate the existence of the core injury associated with the cri......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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