State ex rel. Smith v. Olejasz

Decision Date08 November 2021
Docket Number20-1028
CourtVirginia Supreme Court
PartiesState of West Virginia ex rel. Scott R. Smith, Prosecuting Attorney for Ohio County, Petitioner v. The Honorable Michael J. Olejasz, Judge of the Circuit Court of Ohio County, and Danny Ivan Mendoza, Respondents

Petitioner Scott R. Smith, Prosecuting Attorney for Ohio County ("the State"), by counsel Patrick Morrisey, Andrea Nease Proper, Karen C. Villanueva-Matkovich and Gordon L Mowen, II, filed a petition for writ of prohibition seeking to vacate the circuit court's December 23, 2020, order which denied the State's motion to continue the criminal trial of respondent Danny Ivan Mendoza and excluded from evidence at trial any information from or about the victim's autopsy report provided by the State Medical Examiner's Office ("Medical Examiner's Office"). Respondent The Honorable Michael J. Olejasz ("respondent judge") filed a letter response. Respondent Mendoza, by counsel Kevin L. Neiswonger and Michael B. Baum, filed a summary response in which he took no position in this matter. The State argues that the circuit court erred in denying the State's motion to continue in order to protect respondent Mendoza's speedy trial rights and prohibiting the State from introducing into evidence "any photos and/or testimony" from the Medical Examiner's Office in regard to the murder victim's autopsy due to the State's failure to disclose said evidence within the deadlines set in the court's scheduling order.

Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, the record presented, and oral argument, the Court finds that this case satisfies the "limited circumstances" requirement of Rule 21(d) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure and is appropriate for a memorandum decision rather than an opinion. For the reasons set forth below, we grant the State's petition for writ of prohibition.

Respondent Mendoza was indicted on July 8, 2020, for the first-degree murder of Joseph Harrison.[1] He was arraigned on July 23, 2020 during the same term of court as his indictment. At the arraignment, the State produced its discovery to respondent Mendoza, which included the disclosure that it would call a physician from the Medical Examiner's Office to testify at trial and that it would supplement this disclosure as information became available. No trial date was set at the arraignment because respondent Mendoza's counsel indicated that a continuance would likely be necessary and the State indicated it would not object. Subsequently, respondent Mendoza's counsel requested a continuance. On August 31, 2020, the circuit court held a hearing on the motion, during which respondent Mendoza stated on the record that he waived both his "speedy trial and term rights." The circuit court conducted a colloquy with respondent Mendoza and found that he "made a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver to his right to trial within the current term of Court." The court found that good cause existed to continue the matter beyond the "current Term of Court[, ]" and granted the continuance.

Pursuant to the terms of a new scheduling order, which was entered on September 24, 2020, the State's discovery disclosures were due on October 8, 2020; a pretrial hearing was set for December 22, 2020; and trial was scheduled to begin on January 4, 2021 - all within a single term of court. See W.Va. T. Ct. R. 2.01 (setting forth the terms of court for the Circuit Court of Ohio County).

On December 18, 2020, the State filed a motion to continue the trial on the ground that it had not yet received the autopsy report from the Medical Examiner's Office and did not know the specific identity of the pathologist who would be called to testify regarding the autopsy. The State explained that the autopsy report and related testimony were important for the case because respondent Mendoza was charged with first-degree murder, and the evidence was material to the cause of death and also to the jury's consideration of whether to recommend mercy. Respondent Mendoza did not object to this continuance sought by the State.

At the December 22, 2020, pretrial hearing, the circuit court considered the State's motion to continue and denied the same. By order entered the next day, the court found that the "State Medical Examiner . . . [had] neglect[ed] to produce an autopsy report by the time of trial." In addition, the court found that the State failed to establish "good cause" for the continuance. The court noted that respondent Mendoza was indicted in the previous term of court but remained in jail awaiting trial, and that it was "not the fault of this Defendant that the State Medical Examiner was derelict in its duties, resulting in a violation" of the court's scheduling order. The court reasoned that it was "bound by the policy of the law of West Virginia which requires that, without good cause, Defendant's right to a speedy trial be held above all else." (Emphasis added). The court further ruled that "due to the lack of disclosure of evidence resulting from the autopsy or the identification of an expert witness to substantiate the same, any photos and/or testimony from the State Medical Examiner's Office will be EXCLUDED from trial. Hence the subject Motion is DENIED."[2] The State filed a petition for writ of prohibition on December 28, 2020, and a motion for expedited relief seeking an immediate stay of the underlying circuit court proceedings. On December 30, 2020, the Court granted the motion to stay and issued a Rule to Show cause on June 14, 2021.

This Court has previously found that there are limited circumstances in which the State may request a writ of prohibition in a criminal matter. We held in syllabus point five of State v. Lewis, 188 W.Va. 85, 422 S.E.2d 807 (1992), superseded by statute on other grounds as recognized by State v. Butler, 239 W.Va. 168, 799 S.E.2d 718 (2017), that

[t]he State may seek a writ of prohibition in this Court in a criminal case where the trial court has exceeded or acted outside of its jurisdiction. Where the State claims that the trial court abused its legitimate powers, the State must demonstrate that the court's action was so flagrant that it was deprived of its right to prosecute the case or deprived of a valid conviction. In any event, the prohibition proceeding must offend neither the Double Jeopardy Clause nor the defendant's right to a speedy trial. Furthermore, the application for a writ of prohibition must be promptly presented.

Accord State ex rel. State v. Sims, 239 W.Va. 764, 767, 806 S.E.2d 420, 423 (2017). Further, a writ of prohibition may be issued where

[a]lthough a court has jurisdiction of the subject matter in controversy and of the parties, if it clearly appears that in the conduct of the case it has exceeded its legitimate powers with respect to some pertinent question a writ of prohibition will lie to prevent such abuse of power.

Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. State Road Comm'n v. Taylor, 151 W.Va. 535, 153 S.E.2d 531 (1967) (determining that State was entitled to writ of prohibition where trial court exceeded its legitimate powers in refusing continuance sought by State to delay condemnation proceedings until after improvements upon condemned property had been completed). Finally, we have held that

[i]n determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.

Syl. Pt. 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W.Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996). With the foregoing in mind, we turn to the issues presented.

In support of its requested writ of prohibition, the State first argues that the circuit court erred in denying its unopposed motion to continue the trial because of the court's "alleged obligation to protect Mendoza's speedy trial rights[, ]" where respondent Mendoza had expressly waived both his right to a speedy trial and his right to a trial within the same term that he was indicted.[3] The State contends that a continuance was needed because the victim's autopsy report had not been completed by the Medical Examiner's Office and was important evidence in its first-degree murder case against respondent Mendoza. The State explains that "[t]he absence of this critically important evidence - by no fault of the Prosecutor - should have constituted 'good cause' to grant the continuance, particularly given that the request was not opposed by the Defendant and because the continuance would not have been in violation of the Defendant's speedy trial rights[.]"[4] We agree.

We have held that "[t]he right to a trial without unreasonable delay is basic in the administration of criminal justice and is guaranteed by both the state and federal constitution[s]. U.S. Const. Amend. VI; ...

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