State Of Mont. v. Meredith

Decision Date09 February 2010
Docket NumberNo. DA 08-0366.,DA 08-0366.
Citation2010 MT 27,226 P.3d 571,355 Mont. 148
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee,v.Gene Richard MEREDITH, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

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For Appellant: Robin A. Meguire, Attorney at Law, Great Falls, Montana.

For Appellee: Hon. Steve Bullock, Montana Attorney General, Mardell Ployhar, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, John Parker, Cascade County Attorney, Susan Weber, Deputy County Attorney, Great Falls, Montana.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 This is an appeal of a judgment of conviction of the District Court for the Eighth Judicial District, Cascade County, entered after a jury trial, adjudging Gene Meredith guilty of the offense of deliberate homicide, and sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. We affirm.

¶ 2 Meredith raises three issues on appeal which we have restated as follows:

¶ 3 1. Did the District Court err in denying Meredith's motion to dismiss on the basis that two hair samples were destroyed during testing?

¶ 4 2. Did the District Court err when it allowed the jury to hear testimony about a knife that was missing from the kitchen of Meredith's landlord after the homicide?

¶ 5 3. Was Meredith denied effective assistance of counsel when his counsel did not object to the admission of statements Meredith made in the police interrogation room?

Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 6 Shortly before midnight on July 29, 2006, the Great Falls Police Department received a call that the naked body of a woman had been discovered in an alley near the Leigland Apartments in downtown Great Falls. Officers responding to the call discovered that the woman, who was later identified as Rose Torres, had been stabbed numerous times and that her throat had been cut superficially.

¶ 7 The call reporting the discovery of Torres' body had come from Lawrence Nellons, the manager of the apartment complex. He told the officers responding to the scene that two girls had been walking through the alley when they noticed the body. The girls reported their discovery to Nellons who was the landlord of one of the girls. Nellons contacted another tenant, Roger Krippner, and asked to borrow a flashlight. Nellons and Krippner then went outside together to look for the body. They discovered it in the alley next to a dumpster.

¶ 8 Nellons and Krippner later testified that while they were in the alley waiting for the police, they observed a blue van with white doors driving through the alley with its lights off. The van stopped and the male driver repeatedly asked the two men if they had seen his dog. The driver then exited the van and, instead of walking toward Nellons and Krippner, he walked towards Torres' body and the dumpster where a plastic bag with blood on it was later found. When Nellons and Krippner told the driver that he should not touch the dumpster, the driver replied that he had already touched it. Nellons and Krippner also told the driver that he should not leave because it was a crime scene, but the driver got back in the van and drove away. Thinking that the driver's actions were suspicious, Nellons and Krippner gave officers a physical description of the van and its driver. Krippner identified Meredith from a photo lineup as the driver of the van.

¶ 9 On July 30, 2006, the police received information that Meredith owned a 1986 Aerostar van similar to the one described by Nellons and Krippner. The police also learned that Meredith was renting a room from Helen Halco. Unable to locate Meredith at Halco's, two officers went to the residence of Meredith's girlfriend, Debra Bailey. Once there, the officers observed Meredith's van parked in the driveway.

¶ 10 The officers later testified that when they knocked on Bailey's door, she immediately came outside. She was shaking and appeared to be in shock. She told the officers, “Oh, thank God you're here. Don't lie to me, tell me the truth, did somebody get stabbed last night? Did a lady get killed?” When the officers asked her why she would say that, she explained that Meredith was inside her home and that he had just told her that he had killed someone the previous night. While the officers were talking to Bailey, Meredith came outside and sat down on the porch to smoke a cigarette. The officers took Meredith into custody.

¶ 11 At the police station, Meredith was placed in an interrogation room. While sitting alone in the room prior to being interviewed, Meredith stated, They got me. By what I said to Debby, they got me. How did they find my van so quickly?”

¶ 12 During the subsequent interview by Detective McDermott, Meredith admitted that he had met Torres on the night in question and that he had walked with her to a local bar while pushing his bicycle, but he denied having anything to do with her death. Meredith also admitted that he and Torres had argued, but he claimed that they had parted ways after they left the bar. According to Meredith, he went home, but later left his house and walked over to Bailey's to get his van so that he could drive to the store to get more beer. He claimed that he was driving down the alley to avoid police because the registration on his vehicle had expired and because he was intoxicated. He stated that he saw two men in the alley with a flashlight. He also stated that he did go over to the dumpster and move a bag with blood on it, but he did not have any explanation for why he did so.

¶ 13 Prior to this interview, information that the murder weapon had not been found had not been released to the media. Nevertheless, during the interview, Meredith told the officers, “You don't have no murder weapon. You don't have nothing.”

¶ 14 At some point during this interview, Detective McDermott noticed stains on the sandals Meredith was wearing, so McDermott had Meredith remove them for testing. After Detective McDermott left to place the sandals into evidence, Meredith, who once again was alone in the room, stated, “Yeah, you know what? They might find blood on those. I should have gotten rid of them. That's the second mistake I made.”

¶ 15 In a search of Meredith's residence, officers located a shirt with possible blood stains. Officers also located spots they believed to be blood on a door lock, a washing machine, and Meredith's bicycle. The plastic bag with blood on it was also retrieved from the dumpster near Torres' body. All of these items, including Meredith's sandals, were tested by the Montana State Crime Lab. The testing revealed that the spots on the bike, door lock and washing machine were not blood. However, the testing also revealed that the spots on the shirt, sandals and plastic bag were blood and that the blood was consistent with Torres' DNA profile.

¶ 16 Meredith was charged with deliberate homicide in violation of § 45-5-102, MCA. After Meredith's arrest, Dr. Virginia Hill, a psychiatrist at the Montana State Hospital, evaluated Meredith. Dr. Hill diagnosed Meredith with schizoaffective disorder. However, Dr. Hill explained at trial that a person with schizoaffective disorder can knowingly and purposely commit homicide.

¶ 17 Although Dr. Hill concluded that Meredith did have a serious mental illness, she also observed that he had a tendency to over report his symptoms. Meredith claimed to have an alternate personality, yet Dr. Hill noted that Meredith did not have a history of experiencing an alternate personality and that it was “highly unlikely” that he had suddenly developed one at the same time he was being investigated for homicide. Dr. Hill testified that Meredith appeared to get the idea of an alternate personality from the officers who had interviewed him.

¶ 18 Trial was held April 28, 2008, through May 2, 2008. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and Meredith was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Meredith now appeals from his conviction. Additional facts will be included where necessary.

Issue 1.

¶ 19 Did the District Court err in denying Meredith's motion to dismiss on the basis that two hair samples were destroyed during testing?

¶ 20 Two hairs were discovered on Torres' naked body, one on her left thigh and one in her right hand. Both hairs were sent to the FBI lab for mitochondrial DNA analysis in May 2007. In a report dated March 28, 2008, the FBI lab indicated that while Torres could not be excluded as the source of the hair located in her hand, Meredith was not the source of that hair. The report also indicated that the hair on Torres' thigh had insufficient DNA for testing. Both hairs were completely consumed during the testing process.

¶ 21 On April 18, 2008, Meredith's trial counsel filed a combined motion seeking a dismissal on the basis that the State destroyed crucial evidence and seeking a continuance because of the State's dilatory disclosure of the FBI report. A hearing on Meredith's motion was held on April 22, 2008, at the conclusion of which the court denied the motion on the grounds that Meredith had not established the materiality of the evidence or any bad faith on the part of the State.

¶ 22 On appeal, Meredith contends that his right to a fair trial was prejudiced when the District Court failed to grant his motion to dismiss because the State destroyed potentially exculpatory evidence before the defense had an opportunity to test it. Meredith maintains that, even if there was not a sufficient amount of hair for both the State and defense to test, the District Court could have: (a) permitted a defense expert to examine the hairs prior to any mitochondrial DNA testing in order to perform a microscopic analysis of the hair; (b) ordered an independent lab to perform the mitochondrial DNA testing; or (c) permitted the defense to have its own expert observe the testing process. Meredith argues that the State's failure to notify Meredith of...

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