St. Clair v. Commonwealth

Decision Date21 August 2014
Docket NumberNo. 2011–SC–000774–MR.,2011–SC–000774–MR.
Citation451 S.W.3d 597
PartiesMichael D. ST. CLAIR, Appellant v. COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky

Susan Jackson Balliet, Samuel N. Potter, Robert Chung–Hua Yang, Assistant Public Advocates, Department of Public Advocacy, Frankfort, KY, Counsel for Appellant.

Jack Conway, Attorney General, William Robert Long, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Office of the Attorney General, Frankfort, KY, Counsel for Appellee.


Opinion of the Court by Justice NOBLE.

Michael D. St. Clair has previously been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. On remand and retrial of the penalty phase of his trial, he has again been sentenced to death. In this matter-of-right appeal, conducted concurrently with this Court's mandatory review of the death sentence, he raises 32 claims of error, some of which go to his conviction. None of those claims require reversal; this Court concludes that the death sentence was legally imposed here. St. Clair's conviction and sentence are affirmed.

I. Background

The facts of the underlying offenses have been described in detail in the opinion addressing St. Clair's first direct appeal, see St. Clair v. Commonwealth, 140 S.W.3d 510, 524–25 (Ky.2004) (St. Clair I ), but a brief summary of those facts is necessary to frame the issues in the current appeal.

In 1991, St. Clair was in prison in Oklahoma awaiting sentencing for his conviction for two murders.1 He and another inmate, Dennis Gene Reese, escaped from prison in a stolen truck. Soon after, they stole another truck from Vernon Stephens, and a .357 Magnum Ruger Black Hawk revolver and ammunition that were used in later crimes, and fled the state. After travelling to Colorado, they kidnapped Timothy Keeling and stole his truck. They drove through New Mexico and, before returning to Texas, murdered Keeling. They then travelled through several southern states before ending up in Hardin County, Kentucky in October 1991.

In Hardin County, they kidnapped Frances Brady (also known as Frank Brady) and stole his pickup truck. They transported Brady to Bullitt County, where they murdered him execution style.

Soon after, Kentucky State Trooper Herbert Bennett stopped Reese and St. Clair in Brady's truck in Hardin County. St. Clair fired shots at the trooper's vehicle, allowing Reese and St. Clair to flee the scene. They parted ways and were later arrested separately.

In February 1992, St. Clair and Reese were jointly indicted in Bullitt County for Brady's murder. Reese pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the Commonwealth. St. Clair pleaded not guilty.

The case went to trial in 1998. St. Clair testified and claimed an alibi defense. The primary factual issue at trial was whether Brady had been killed by St. Clair, Reese, or an unidentified accomplice. The jury convicted St. Clair of the murder, and the trial court sentenced St. Clair to death in accordance with the jury's recommendation.2

This Court affirmed the conviction but remanded for a new capital sentencing phase trial because the jury was not instructed on life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing alternative. St. Clair I, 140 S.W.3d at 526.

In September 2005, St. Clair was again sentenced to death. In April 2010, this Court reversed that sentence and remanded for a new sentencing phase because the jury instructions on statutory aggravators did not conform to the statutory language. See St. Clair v. Commonwealth, 319 S.W.3d 300, 306–08 (Ky.2010) (St. Clair II ).

Shortly after, in July 2010, St. Clair moved for a new trial, claiming that new evidence about comparative bullet lead analysis (CBLA) evidence, which had been used in the guilt phase of his 1998 trial, had been discovered. Specifically, the new proof was that CBLA had been found to be unreliable and thus inadmissible. This was a collateral attack on the conviction. The circuit court did not rule on the motion until January 2011, at which time it denied the motion. Initially, St. Clair sought interlocutory relief at the Court of Appeals, but he voluntarily dismissed the action when the Commonwealth argued that the order was interlocutory and could be consolidated with the appeal of the sentence, which at that time had yet to be decided. The circuit court agreed with this argument, noting that a Criminal Rule 10.02 motion, like a new trial motion under Civil Rule 59.01, becomes part of the appeal of the judgment.

In October 2011, the circuit court again held a sentencing trial lasting nine days. The jury was chosen in the first four days, and the proof occupied the next four days. The Commonwealth's proof consisted of summaries of testimony from some of the witnesses from the guilt phase of the trial and live testimony from numerous other witnesses, including Reese. On the last day, the jury deliberated for a little over two hours and returned a death-penalty verdict. St. Clair was later sentenced in accordance with that verdict.

St. Clair's appeal, encompassing both the denial of his new-trial motion and his death sentence, is now before this Court as a matter of right. See Ky. Const. §§ 110 (2)(b) & 115 ; Leonard v. Commonwealth, 279 S.W.3d 151, 155 (Ky.2009) (This Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction over death penalty matters, even when the appeal involves a collateral attack on a sentence of death.”).

II. Analysis

St. Clair's thirty-two claims to this Court fall into two broad areas. Three of his claims, the CBLA claim plus two others, are aimed at the underlying conviction, and can only be raised at this point under limited circumstances, since his conviction has previously been affirmed by this Court. The remaining claims are part of the direct appeal of his most recent death sentence, though some of them touch on our statutory review under KRS 532.075 and are discussed with that review. Because of procedural issues affecting only the first group of claims, we address them separately.

Before turning to St. Clair's claims, however, it is useful to first lay out the scope and nature of this Court's review in a death-penalty case. As noted above, appeals of cases in which a defendant has been sentenced to death proceed to this Court as a matter of right. But this Court is also statutorily charged with reviewing death sentences. See KRS 532.075. That review requires this Court to “consider the punishment as well as any errors enumerated by way of appeal.” KRS 532.075(2).

In death penalty cases, [p]reserved errors are reviewed under normal standards.” Meece v. Commonwealth, 348 S.W.3d 627, 645 (Ky.2011). Such errors are subject to harmless-error review, except in certain cases. See RCr 9.24.

In ordinary criminal cases, unpreserved errors are reviewed only under the palpable error rule, RCr 10.26, a substantially higher standard than that employed in harmless-error review. But [d]eath is unlike all other sanctions the Commonwealth is permitted to visit upon wrongdoers.” Rogers v. Commonwealth, 992 S.W.2d 183, 187 (Ky.1999) ; Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 188, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976) (“the penalty of death is different in kind from any other punishment imposed under our system of criminal justice”). “Thus, the invocation of the death penalty requires a more expansive standard of review than is normally necessary in the criminal justice process.” Meece, 348 S.W.3d at 645.

Under this more expansive review, we nonetheless review allegations of these [unpreserved] quasi errors.” Sanders v. Commonwealth, 801 S.W.2d 665, 668 (Ky.1990). That review proceeds as follows:

Assuming that the so-called error occurred, we begin by inquiring: (1) whether there is a reasonable justification or explanation for defense counsel's failure to object, e.g., whether the failure might have been a legitimate trial tactic; and (2) if there is no reasonable explanation, whether the unpreserved error was prejudicial, i.e., whether the circumstances in totality are persuasive that, minus the error, the defendant may not have been found guilty of a capital crime, or the death penalty may not have been imposed.

Id. In other words, if the failure to object was due to trial tactics, the unpreserved error will still be given only palpable error review under the manifest injustice standard. If the failure to object has no reasonable basis, then the raised error will be reviewed for prejudice as ordinary error, although unpreserved. This standard, however, is applicable only to issues properly raised in the direct appeal. As discussed below, some of St. Clair's claims are not properly raised in this appeal, having been addressed previously or procedurally defaulted because they were not raised previously, and thus they are not subject to this standard.

A. Claims about the underlying conviction for murder.

As noted above, three of St. Clair's claims are attacks on his underlying murder conviction. Those claims are that a new guilt phase is required because of changes in this Court's interpretation of KRE 404(b), an impermissibly suggestive identification affecting St. Clair's due-process rights, and new forensic evidence about comparative bullet lead analysis (the basis of the Criminal Rule 10.02 motion).

Since St. Clair's conviction for murder has previously been affirmed, see St. Clair I, 140 S.W.3d at 523, 572, directly appealable3 issues related to the guilt phase of his trial and addressed on appeal would ordinarily be barred in any subsequent appeal, direct or otherwise, by the law-of-the-case doctrine, see Bowling v. Commonwealth, 377 S.W.3d 529, 535 (Ky.2012). And those issues that had not been previously raised to the trial court, but could have been, would be treated as procedurally defaulted.See Fischer v. Fischer, 348 S.W.3d 582, 588, 594 (Ky.2011).

1. The KRE 404(b) challenge is barred by the law-of-the-case doctrine.

St. Clair admits in his brief that he “challenges here the same prior bad acts that were challenged in his...

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