Prieto v. Commonwealth

Decision Date18 September 2009
Docket NumberRecord No. 082465,Record No. 082464
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia
PartiesALFREDO ROLANDO PRIETO v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

ALFREDO ROLANDO PRIETO
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

Record No. 082464
Record No. 082465

Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia

Dated: September 18, 2009


PRESENT: Hassell, C.J., Koontz, Kinser, Lemons, Goodwyn, an
Millette, JJ., and Carrico, S.J.

OPINION BY
JUSTICE LEROY F. MILLETTE, JR.

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY
Randy I. Bellows, Judge

In this appeal, we review two capital murder convictions and two death sentences imposed by a jury upon Alfredo Rolando Prieto, along with his convictions for rape and grand larceny and two counts of the felonious use of a firearm while committing murder. Prieto's first trial in 2007 (Prieto I) ended in a mistrial due to juror misconduct. The 2008 retrial (Prieto II) resulted in the jury finding Prieto guilty of all charges and sentencing him to death on the two capital murders. We affirm all of the convictions. However, because the verdict forms utilized by the jury in imposing death sentences on the capital murders were defective, we reverse the two sentences of death and remand the case for resentencing.

We address the circuit court's denial of Prieto's motion for mistrial in Prieto I on the grounds that the jury was unable to reach a verdict during the sentencing phase of the trial, and refusal to direct a verdict of life imprisonment.

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We also address the circuit court's granting of a mistrial for manifest necessity due to juror misconduct.

We address all of the convictions and sentences which were imposed following Prieto's retrial in Prieto II. We address the denial of Prieto's objection to the retrial, the denial of a separate proceeding regarding mental retardation, evidence lost during the almost 17 year gap between the murders and the identification of Prieto as a suspect, and the sufficiency of the evidence to prove Prieto was the immediate perpetrator and thus eligible for the death penalty. We additionally address issues that have been previously decided or waived. Finally, we consider Prieto's objections to the sentencing verdict forms and issues that may resurface in the remanded resentencing proceeding.

I. PROCEEDINGS

Prieto was indicted for capital murder based on the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of Rachael A. Raver in the commission of or subsequent to rape. Prieto also was indicted for capital murder based on the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, as part of the same act or transaction. In addition, Prieto was indicted for the rape of Raver, the felonious use of a firearm while committing the murder of

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Raver, the felonious use of a firearm while committing the murder of Fulton, and grand larceny of Raver's automobile.

A. First Trial (Prieto I)

In 2007, a jury in the Fairfax County Circuit Court found Prieto guilty of the capital murder of Raver, the capital murder of Fulton, rape, two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of murder, and grand larceny, as charged in the indictments. The circuit court ordered that the jury would make a determination of Prieto's alleged mental retardation prior to receiving evidence on sentencing. The court, in essence, trifurcated the trial into three phases: guilt or innocence, mental retardation, and sentencing. The court recognized that by separating mental retardation from sentencing, some of the evidence might be duplicative. However, in the mental retardation phase, the court intended to limit evidence relating to "victim impact" and "future dangerousness." Although evidence relating to victim impact and future dangerousness would ordinarily be presented in the sentencing phase, the court's purpose in trifurcating the trial was to focus on the issue of mental retardation. The jury would only address evidence relevant to the death penalty if it determined Prieto was not mentally retarded.

At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence on mental retardation, the jury was instructed that Prieto had

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the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he was mentally retarded. The jury was further instructed that if it returned a verdict finding Prieto mentally retarded, the jury should not fix punishment pending further evidence, but that Prieto's punishment would be limited to imprisonment for life without parole and a fine of up to $100,000.

After the jury began its deliberation on the issue of mental retardation, the court received two notes from the jury: one from the jury foreman indicating the jury's inability to come to a unanimous decision; and another from an individual juror (Juror D) stating that he was being pressured and asking to end the deliberation. Over Prieto's objection, the court gave the jury a modified "Allen charge."1 Following a lunch break and the court's receipt of a second note from Juror D along with his refusal to continue deliberations, the circuit court declared a mistrial on the grounds of manifest necessity based upon Juror D's misconduct.

The court denied Prieto's motion to declare a hung jury and sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The court ruled that it had no alternative but to

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declare a mistrial for manifest necessity and order a retrial of the entire case.

B. Second Trial (Prieto II)

In 2008, in the guilt or innocence phase of Prieto II, a jury found Prieto guilty of two counts of capital murder, two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of murder, rape, and grand larceny. In the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury found as to the two counts of capital murder that Prieto had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that he was mentally retarded. In addition, the verdict form endorsed by the jury was based upon a finding of the "future dangerousness" or "vileness" aggravating factor without differentiating which factor or both factors; and the jury unanimously fixed Prieto's sentence at death for each of the two capital murder charges, and life plus twenty-six years for the other charges. The circuit court sentenced Prieto in accordance with the jury's verdicts and entered final judgment.

We consolidated the automatic review of Prieto's death sentence with his appeal of the capital murder convictions. Code § 17.1-313(F). We also certified Prieto's appeal of his non-capital convictions from the Court of Appeals and consolidated that appeal with his capital murder appeal. Code § 17.1-409.

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II. EVIDENCE AT TRIAL

We consider the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party below. Porter v. Commonwealth, 276 Va. 203, 215-16, 661 S.E.2d 415, 419 (2008), cert. denied, _ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1999 (2009); Gray v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 290, 295, 645 S.E.2d 448, 452 (2007), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 128 S.Ct. 1111 (2008).

We initially provide a summary of the evidence at trial in order to establish an outline of the trial evidence. Additional details will be provided where relevant to specific issues of the appeal.

A. Guilt Phase Evidence

The last time Raver and Fulton were seen alive was after midnight on December 4, 1988 as they were leaving a Washington, D.C. restaurant with the intention of returning to Virginia in Raver's four door Toyota Corolla. On the morning of December 6, 1988, Raver's partially nude body was found lying in a field located at the 1800 block of Hunter Mill Road, which lies just south of the Dulles Toll Road in Fairfax County. Fulton's fully clothed body was found about 100 feet away from Raver's body. Raver's jeans, underpants, gloves, and shoes were found approximately halfway between the two

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bodies. Raver's car was not found at the scene of the murder nor at either Raver's or Fulton's residence.

Raver was killed by a single gunshot that entered her lower left back, traveled in a downward trajectory, and remained in her body. Dr. Frances P. Field, Assistant Chief Medical Examiner for the Northern Virginia District Medical Examiner's Office, who testified as to the cause of death of both Raver and Fulton, determined that Raver's wound would have been painful and death would not have been instantaneous. Raver also had scraping of the skin on her abdomen, legs, hands, and face, and a bruise on her neck. The abrasions on Raver's body were the result of pushing or pulling of her body; and the wounds were not caused by an animal, according to a medico-legal death investigator and wound identification expert at the medical examiner's office. Raver's body was found undressed from the waist down with her legs spread apart on the ground, and a glistening liquid was found on her thighs, which was collected on swabs and preserved as evidence.

In performing a physical examination of Raver's body, Dr. Field recovered evidence swabs, including from inside Raver's vagina, because Raver was a possible victim of sexual assault. Dr. Field also took pubic combings from Raver to remove any

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hair foreign to Raver that may be present. The evidence was sealed and delivered to the Fairfax County police.

Fulton was also killed by a single gunshot, which entered the middle of his back, traveled in a downward trajectory, and remained in his body.

The bullets were recovered from Raver and Fulton's bodies and transferred through a documented chain of evidence to Julien J. Mason, Jr., a forensic scientist in the field of firearms and toolmark identification. Mason examined the bullets and testified that the bullets were .38 or .357 caliber bullets fired from the same weapon, a revolver.

Although Raver's car was not located by Fairfax County police, it was next observed in New York City just prior to noon on December 5, 1988, the day before the bodies were found. A New York City patrol officer ticketed Raver's car while it was parked in Queens, New York. Months later, when Raver's mother received a past due parking ticket on the car, it was then secured in a New York City police garage and finally examined by Fairfax County police. Raver's car had been "stripped totally" and the...

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