State v. Allen

Decision Date26 July 2022
Docket NumberCR-17-0368-AP
Parties STATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Sammantha Lucille Rebecca ALLEN, Appellant.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Jeffrey Sparks, Acting Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, W. Scott Simon (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

Treasure VanDreumel (argued), Law Office of Treasure VanDreumel, PLC, Phoenix, Phoenix, Attorney for Sammantha Lucille Rebecca Allen

JUSTICE LOPEZ authored the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL, VICE CHIEF JUSTICE TIMMER, and JUSTICES BOLICK, BEENE, KING, and PELANDER (Retired)* joined.

JUSTICE LOPEZ, opinion of the Court:

¶1 This appeal arises from Sammantha Lucille Rebecca Allen's convictions and sentences for the abuse and murder of A.D., Sammantha's ten-year-old cousin. We have jurisdiction under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. §§ 13-4031, -4033(A)(1).


¶2 Around the summer of 2010, Sammantha, her husband, John, and their four children moved into a house rented by Sammantha's mother, Cynthia. Sammantha and John were part of a large family that drifted through the residence at West Romley Street. Other residents included Judith, Sammantha's grandmother; David, Sammantha's uncle; Kassandrea, Sammantha's cousin; A.D., the ten-year-old victim; and C.J. and D.D., A.D.'s older siblings. Cynthia had legal guardianship over A.D., C.J., and D.D.

¶3 In the home, there was a thirty-one-inch-long storage box ("the box") which C.J. at one point used to store her Barbie doll collection. Beginning in the spring of 2011, Sammantha, John, Cynthia, and David began placing A.D. in the box as a form of punishment, even though A.D. barely fit inside because its length was twenty-one inches shorter than her height.

¶4 On July 11, 2011, Judith rewarded C.J. and A.D. with a popsicle for completing their chores. That evening, C.J. heard John yelling at A.D. for stealing a popsicle. As punishment, Sammantha and John forced A.D. to stand against a wall with her hands up and her head held away—a standard form of punishment the Allens called "wall stands." When C.J. came out of her room for dinner around 7:30 p.m., she saw that the Allens were still punishing A.D. by forcing her to do backbends, and that A.D. was crying and exclaiming that she was in pain. When C.J. went to bed around 9:00 p.m., A.D. was still crying and doing backbends.

¶5 As Sammantha and John continued punishing A.D. into the night, A.D. was ordered to drag the box from the patio into a room inside the house known as the classroom.1 Because the box's latch was known to be unreliable, John went to get a padlock—which only he had the key to—while Sammantha waited with A.D. and obstructed the classroom's only exit. John returned and, with Sammantha standing by, ordered A.D. into the box, closed the lid, and locked it. The Allens then went to their bedroom and fell asleep, leaving A.D. contorted inside the locked box—in a non-air-conditioned room in Phoenix during the summer—where she asphyxiated and died.

¶6 Phoenix Police Department ("PPD") Officer Albert Salaiz responded to a 911 call about an injured child and arrived at the West Romley home at approximately 8:30 a.m. on July 12, 2011. Salaiz entered a room where a woman was performing chest compressions on A.D., who was lying on the floor on a towel. Officers recorded the ambient temperature in the classroom at about 95°F and the box's interior at approximately 97°F. A.D. was lying in a curled position, her lips were discolored, and she appeared to be dead.

¶7 John told Salaiz that A.D. and the other children had been playing hide-and-seek the night before, and that he had fallen asleep and found A.D. in the box that morning. Childhelp, a nonprofit organization, later interviewed C.J., who reiterated the hide-and-seek story. At trial, however, C.J. admitted she lied about that story because her family told her to perpetuate it.

¶8 Officers first learned A.D.'s death might have been a crime when Kassandrea and her boyfriend, Travis, as well as her aunt, Deborah, contacted police to report witnessing prior abuse of A.D., including confinement in the locked box. Consequently, on July 27, 2011, Sammantha and John were arrested and questioned.

¶9 During her interview, Sammantha initially told the hide-and-seek story. Although she admitted that John had previously confined A.D. in the box, Sammantha claimed she did not know whether he had done so on the night of A.D.'s death.

¶10 After his initial interview with Sammantha, Detective Greg McKay allowed Sammantha and John to speak alone in an interview room. As they spoke, officers monitored their conversation. John told Sammantha that he had confessed and wanted to take full responsibility so she could remain with their four children. Sammantha tried to comfort John with the notion that "the only thing they're going to nail [her] with is child abuse." Both lamented that they had not "stuck with the story," but Sammantha explained that interviewing officers already knew they were lying.

¶11 McKay then resumed Sammantha's interview by confronting her about the monitored conversation with John and telling her that he knew both she and John were there when A.D. was locked in the box. During that interview, Sammantha admitted that (1) she and John forced A.D. to bring the box in from the patio; (2) while John retrieved the padlock, she stayed with A.D. and stood in the doorway, which was the only exit from the classroom; (3) after John returned with the padlock, A.D. was ordered into the box; (4) after A.D. entered the box, John closed the lid and locked it shut as Sammantha stood by; and (5) after John locked A.D. inside, the Allens laid down in their bedroom, and John rubbed Sammantha's head while she complained that A.D. was a difficult child until she fell asleep. Although Sammantha claimed she asked John to release A.D. from the box, she admitted she never attempted to release A.D. and fell asleep without ensuring A.D. was released.

¶12 The State charged Sammantha with murder and other felonies and sought the death penalty. John was also charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. This Court affirmed John's sentence on appeal. State v. Allen , 248 Ariz. 352, 357 ¶ 1, 460 P.3d 1236, 1241 (2020). A jury convicted Sammantha of first degree felony murder (Count 1), conspiracy to commit child abuse (Count 2), and three counts of child abuse (Counts 3–5). After considering the mitigating and aggravating circumstances, the jury determined that Sammantha should be sentenced to death. The court then imposed the death sentence on the murder conviction, and maximum and aggravated terms of imprisonment on the remaining counts. Sammantha appeals both the judgments and sentences.

A. Admission of Allegedly Prejudicial Evidence

¶13 Sammantha argues that her trial was fundamentally flawed because the trial court erroneously admitted statements made by her, John, and Detective McKay while she and John were in police custody. We review the admission of testimony for an abuse of discretion but apply a fundamental error standard to testimony admitted without objection. See State v. Goudeau , 239 Ariz. 421, 457 ¶ 144, 372 P.3d 945, 981 (2016). Reversal under fundamental error review requires the defendant to show that "(1) error exists, (2) the error is fundamental, and (3) the error caused [her] prejudice." State v. Riley , 248 Ariz. 154, 170 ¶ 24, 459 P.3d 66, 81 (2020). To establish fundamental error, the defendant must show: "(1) the error went to the foundation of the case, (2) the error took from the defendant a right essential to [her] defense, or (3) the error was so egregious that [she] could not possibly have received a fair trial." State v. Escalante , 245 Ariz. 135, 142 ¶ 21, 425 P.3d 1078, 1082 (2018). Errors fitting into categories one or two require a separate showing of prejudice, but errors in category three are automatically prejudicial. Id.

1. Admission of Sammantha's Statements

¶14 Sammantha argues the trial court erred in admitting her statements to McKay because they were the fruit of an illegal seizure, as neither probable cause nor a warrant existed for her arrest.

¶15 Because Sammantha failed to raise this claim at trial, she forfeited it, absent fundamental, prejudicial error. Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 16.1 requires parties to make all motions before trial and mandates preclusion "unless the basis thereof was not then known, and by the exercise of reasonable diligence could not then have been known, and the party raises it promptly upon learning of it." Ariz. R. Crim. P. 16.1(b)(c)2 ; see also State v. Bush , 244 Ariz. 575, 588 ¶¶ 49–51, 423 P.3d 370, 383 (2018) (finding defendant forfeited voluntariness challenge to an admitted confession by failing to move to suppress, request a hearing, or object to admission during trial). Sammantha acknowledges her failure to object or seek suppression of her statements to McKay and does not argue this failure resulted from evidence that "was not then known" or that "could not then have been known" with "reasonable diligence." See Ariz. R. Crim. P. 16.1(c). Thus, she forfeited any argument over the admission of her statements, and we review only for fundamental error.

¶16 Under fundamental error review, Sammantha must show her arrest was unlawful. See Riley , 248 Ariz. at 170 ¶ 24, 459 P.3d at 82. Because PPD arrested Sammantha without a warrant, the arrest must be supported by probable cause. See A.R.S. § 13-3883(A)(1).

¶17 "A police officer has probable cause when reasonably trustworthy information and circumstance would lead a person of reasonable caution to believe that a suspect has committed an offense." State v. Hoskins , 199 Ariz. 127, 137–38 ¶ 30, 14 P.3d 997, 1007–08 (2000). The probable cause standard "requires only a probability or substantial chance of criminal...

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