State v. Champagne

Decision Date07 August 2019
Docket NumberNo. CR-17-0425-AP,CR-17-0425-AP
Citation447 P.3d 297,247 Ariz. 116
Parties STATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Alan Matthew CHAMPAGNE, Appellant.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, O.H. Skinner, Solicitor General, Lacey Stover Gard, Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, Julie A. Done (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

Garrett W. Simpson (argued), Garrett Simpson PLLC, Glendale, Attorney for Alan Matthew Champagne

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

JUSTICE BOLICK, opinion of the Court:

¶1 Alan Matthew Champagne was convicted of the first-degree murder of Brandi Hoffner, the second-degree murder of Philmon Tapaha, kidnapping Hoffner, and two counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body. He was sentenced to death for the first-degree murder. We have jurisdiction over this direct appeal under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. § 13-4031. For the following reasons, we affirm Champagne’s convictions and sentences.


¶2 On June 23, 2011, Champagne and three friends drank alcohol and used methamphetamine at his apartment.1 One friend, Elise Garcia, spent the night. Early the next morning, she was in the bathroom when two people entered the apartment with Champagne. As she walked into the living room, Garcia heard a gunshot and then saw Tapaha on the couch with a bullet wound to his head, blood on the walls and the couch, and Champagne standing next to him holding a gun. Tapaha’s girlfriend, Hoffner, cried at the sight of her dead boyfriend, saying, "I loved him."

¶3 Champagne attempted to calm Hoffner and asked if she wanted to get high. Hoffner nodded affirmatively, and he led her into the bedroom and gave her a bong and methamphetamine for her to smoke. Garcia followed them into the bedroom and sat in the doorway.

Champagne left the room briefly, placing a gun in Garcia’s lap before he exited the room. Garcia testified that when she locked eyes with Hoffner, Hoffner understood she would not be allowed to leave. When Champagne returned, he came behind Hoffner as she was smoking and slipped an electrical cord fashioned into a noose around her neck. Hoffner struggled, clawing with both hands at the cord trying to breathe as Champagne used a wrench to tighten the cord with each turn. Garcia recalled Hoffner’s face turning purple as Champagne strangled her to death.

¶4 After Champagne killed Hoffner, he kept the bodies in his apartment for approximately one week. Eventually, Champagne placed the decomposing bodies into a large wooden box, which he buried in his mother’s backyard. About twenty months later, a landscaper discovered the box containing the bodies.

¶5 The State charged Champagne with two counts of first-degree murder for the killings of Tapaha and Hoffner, one count of kidnapping Hoffner, and two counts of abandonment or concealment of the bodies. The jury found Champagne guilty on all charges, except that it found him guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of Tapaha. The jury found three aggravating circumstances: (1) Champagne had been previously convicted of a serious offense, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(2) ; (2) he murdered Hoffner in an especially cruel manner, § 13-751(F)(6) ; and (3) he was convicted of multiple homicides during the commission of the offense, § 13-751(F)(8). The jury found that the proffered mitigation was not sufficiently substantial to call for leniency and Champagne was sentenced to death for Hoffner’s murder. This automatic appeal followed.

A. Request for Change of Counsel

¶6 Champagne contends that the trial court erred in summarily dismissing his request to change counsel and failing to adequately inquire into whether a true conflict existed, thus violating his constitutional right to conflict-free counsel. We review a trial court’s decision to deny a request for new counsel for abuse of discretion. State v. Cromwell , 211 Ariz. 181, 186 ¶ 27, 119 P.3d 448, 453 (2005).

¶7 Before trial, Champagne filed a pro per motion to change counsel, which the trial court described as a "[bare] bones hand-written motion" that cited "no particular reason" why counsel should have been changed. Defense counsel maintained that Champagne had a "good faith basis to ask for new counsel" and informed the court that there was a bona fide conflict of interest because Champagne said he was filing a complaint against her with the State Bar of Arizona. Because of that conflict, counsel asserted that she and her co-counsel needed to be "removed from representing Mr. Champagne any further." The trial court denied counsel’s oral motion to remove capital counsel, who had been working on the case for eighteen months, and instructed counsel to file a motion if she believed it was appropriate for Champagne to obtain new counsel. She did not do so.

¶8 Three-and-one-half months later, Champagne wrote a letter to the court, repeating his request for new counsel and alleging his current counsel had fallen asleep during his recent, unrelated trial, which resulted in over a 700-year sentence. But after the court reviewed his letter, Champagne informed the court that he wanted his attorney to visit him in jail to explore whether they could "reach some type of an understanding or working relationship." Despite a productive jail visit, Champagne indicated to the court that he still wanted to change his counsel.

¶9 The court treated Champagne’s letter as a motion to change counsel and addressed it at a hearing. The prosecutor noted that a delay in trial due to change in counsel would impact witness availability and the victims’ rights to a speedy trial. The court then conducted an ex parte hearing in the presence of only Champagne and his attorney on the purported conflict. Champagne told the court he wanted to change counsel because his lawyer fell asleep during his previous trial—which, according to Champagne, alone constituted adequate grounds to change counsel—and that she was not visiting him or discussing the current case with him.

¶10 In response, Champagne’s counsel explained that Champagne was extremely unhappy about the outcome of his prior trial, that he became hostile and uncooperative, and that he refused visits from counsel’s mitigation specialist. She detailed the extensive amount of time and work that she spent preparing for this case. Moreover, she told the court she was willing to assist Champagne in accurately and adequately preserving a record of the allegations surrounding her perceived behavior during his prior trial. Ultimately, Champagne’s counsel asserted that a change of counsel was not in Champagne’s best interests and that she did not believe the relationship was irretrievably broken but that they could work together and proceed to trial. The trial court denied Champagne’s request for new counsel.

¶11 The trial court did not abuse its discretion. Champagne argues that the Court should "presume the prejudice because there was a showing of actual conflict of interest." He relies considerably on counsel’s initial statement that he had a good-faith basis for requesting a change of counsel, maintaining that the court’s denial of his request resulted in structural error tainting his entire trial. But that statement came shortly after Champagne informed his attorney that he intended to pursue a bar complaint against her. And Champagne ignores counsel’s subsequent statements that the relationship was not irretrievably broken, that a change of counsel was not in his best interests, that she was dedicated to his current case, and that she was willing to help him establish a record of his allegations relating to her perceived behavior in his prior trial.

¶12 Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused the right to counsel, a "defendant is not, however, entitled to counsel of choice or to a meaningful relationship with his or her attorney." Cromwell , 211 Ariz. at 186 ¶ 28, 119 P.3d at 453. A defendant is deprived of his constitutional right to counsel "if either an irreconcilable conflict or a completely fractured relationship between counsel and the accused exists." State v. Hernandez , 232 Ariz. 313, 318 ¶ 12, 305 P.3d 378, 383 (2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). Such a "deprivation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel infect[s] the entire trial process," requiring automatic reversal. State v. Moody (Moody I ), 192 Ariz. 505, 509 ¶ 23, 968 P.2d 578, 582 (1998) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). A "[c]onflict that is less than irreconcilable, however, is only one factor for a court to consider in deciding whether to appoint substitute counsel." Cromwell , 211 Ariz. at 186 ¶ 29, 119 P.3d at 453.

¶13 Trial courts have a duty to inquire into the basis of a defendant’s request for change of counsel. State v. Torres , 208 Ariz. 340, 343 ¶ 7, 93 P.3d 1056, 1059 (2004). But the nature of that inquiry depends on the nature of the defendant’s request. Id. ¶ 8. On the one hand, if the defendant sets forth "sufficiently specific, factually based allegations in support of his request for new counsel, the ... court must conduct a hearing into his complaint." Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). On the other hand, "generalized complaints about differences in strategy may not require a formal hearing or an evidentiary proceeding." Id. A trial court’s failure to conduct an inquiry into a purported conflict can, under certain circumstances, serve as a basis for reversing a defendant’s conviction. See Holloway v. Arkansas , 435 U.S. 475, 487–91, 98 S.Ct. 1173, 55 L.Ed.2d 426 (1978).

¶14 Trial courts should examine requests for new counsel "with the rights and interest of the defendant in mind tempered by exigencies of judicial economy." State v. LaGrand , 152 Ariz. 483, 486, 733 P.2d 1066,...

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