State v. Croix, 122220 MESC, Pen-20-48

Docket NºPen-20-48
Opinion JudgeGORMAN, J.
Party NameSTATE OF MAINE v. JOHN DE ST. CROIX
AttorneyJeremy Pratt, Esq. (orally), and Ellen Simmons, Esq., Camden, for Appellant John De St. Croix Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Lara Nomani, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine
Judge PanelPanel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.
Case DateDecember 22, 2020
CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine

2020 ME 142

STATE OF MAINE

v.

JOHN DE ST. CROIX

No. Pen-20-48

Supreme Court of Maine

December 22, 2020

Argued: November 18, 2020

Jeremy Pratt, Esq. (orally), and Ellen Simmons, Esq., Camden, for Appellant John De St. Croix

Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Lara Nomani, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine

Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.

GORMAN, J.

[¶1] In March of 2018, John De St. Croix locked two people into the cargo area of a box truck and then set the truck on fire. Both of the people locked inside the truck died. In March of 2019, a jury found De St. Croix guilty of one count of intentional, knowing, or depraved indifference murder, 17-A M.R.S. §201(1)(A), (B) (2020); one count of depraved indifference murder, 17-AM.R.S. § 2Ol(1)(B); and one count of arson (Class A), 17-A M.R.S. §802(1)(A) (2020), for those actions. Almost a year later, the trial court (Penobscot County, A Murray, J.) sentenced De St. Croix to two life terms for the murders and a concurrent thirty-year sentence for the arson. De St. Croix appeals from the judgment and the sentences, and we affirm both.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the jury rationally could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Gatto, 2020 ME 61, ¶ 16, 232 A.3d 228. On March 28, 2018, De St. Croix locked Michael Bridges and Desiree York in the cargo area of a box truck, gathered camping fuel and cardboard, and started a fire under the truck. For twelve minutes, as the fire engulfed the truck, De St. Croix stood watching, listening to Bridges and York screaming for help and banging on the inside of the truck walls; only then did De St. Croix call 9-1-1. Bridges and York died as a result of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries from the fire.

[¶3] De St. Croix was indicted for intentional or knowing murder or depraved indifference murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A), (B), for the killing of Bridges; depraved indifference murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(B), for the killing of York; and arson (Class A), 17-A M.R.S. § 802(1) (A).1 He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

[¶4] After a four-day trial, a jury found De St. Croix guilty of all three counts. The court sentenced De St. Croix to life in prison for each of the murders and to a concurrent thirty years in prison for arson. The court also ordered De St. Croix to pay $2, 294.46 in restitution. De St. Croix's timely appeal from his conviction is based solely on his contention that the court erred by refusing to excuse for cause a potential juror. See 15 M.R.S. § 2115 (2020); M.R. App. P. 2B(b)(1). We are not persuaded by that argument, and we do not address it further. See State v. Carey, 2019 ME 131, ¶¶ 14-15, 214 A.3d 488; State v. Diana, 2014 ME 45, ¶ 22, 89 A.3d 132; State v. Rollins, 2008 ME 189, ¶¶ 11-13, 961 A.2d 546; M.R.U. Crim. P. 24(b). The Sentence Review Panel granted De St. Croix's application for review of his sentence, see 15 M.R.S. §§ 2151-2153 (2020); M.R. App. P. 20, and we address his challenge to his sentence below. State v. De St. Croix, No. SRP-20-49 (Me. Sent. Rev. Panel Mar. 13, 2020).

II. DISCUSSION

[¶5] A court crafting a murder sentence must complete two steps. 17-AM.R.S. § 1252-C (2018);2 State v. Sweeney, 2019 ME 164, ¶ 17 & n.5, 221 A.3d 130. "First, the court determines the basic term of imprisonment based on an objective consideration of the particular nature and seriousness of the crime." Sweeney, 2019 ME 164, ¶ 17, 221 A.3d 130 (quotation marks omitted); see 17-A M.R.S. § 1252-C(1). Second, the court determines the maximum period of incarceration based on "all other relevant sentencing factors, both aggravating and mitigating, appropriate to that case, [including] the character of the offender and the offender's criminal history, the effect of the offense on the victim and the protection of the public interest." 17-A M.R.S. § 1252-C(2); see Sweeney, 2019 ME 164, ¶ 17, 221 A.3d 130. We review the court's basic sentence de novo for a misapplication of legal principles, and we review its final maximum sentence for an abuse of discretion. Sweeney, 2019 ME 164, ¶ 17, 221 A.3d 130.

[¶6] "A person convicted of the crime of murder must be sentenced to imprisonment for life or for any term of years that is not less than 25." 17-A M.R.S. § 1251(1) (2018).3 As we held more than thirty years ago, however, "[t]he imposition of a life sentence has such a serious impact on the offender so different from the impact of a sentence for a term of years that a life sentence is never justified unless the murder is accompanied by aggravating circumstances." State v. Shortsleeves, 580 A.2d 145, 149 (Me. 1990) (alteration omitted) (quotation marks omitted). Those aggravating circumstances include, but are not limited to, matters involving premeditation-in-fact; multiple deaths; murder by a person who has already been convicted of a homicide or any other crime involving the use of deadly force against a person; murder accompanied by torture, sexual abuse, or extreme cruelty; murder committed by an inmate in a penal institution; murder of a law enforcement officer who is performing his or her duties; and murder of a hostage. Id. at 149-50; State v. Waterman, 2010 ME 45, ¶44 & n.5, 995 A.2d 243 ("The Shortsleeves list is neither exhaustive nor all-inclusive."); State v. Koehler, 2012 ME 93, ¶ 34, 46 A.3d 1134. The factors set out in Shortsleeves provide "guidelines to assist [trial courts] in placing murderous behavior along a continuum." State v. Wilson, 669 A.2d 766, 768 (Me. 1996).

[¶7] Here, the court set De St. Croix's basic sentence for both murders at life imprisonment based on the application of two of the aggravating circumstances named in Shortsleeves: premeditation-in-fact and extreme cruelty. De St. Croix challenges both.[4]

A. Premeditation-in-Fact

[¶8] De St. Croix argues that the court erred by applying the premeditation-in-fact aggravating circumstance because (1) premeditation requires more time and planning than occurred here and (2) premeditation cannot be applied as to depraved indifference murder because that crime has no state-of-mind element. Neither argument is persuasive.

[¶9] When a court determines that a murder was a "planned, deliberate killing," that court's use of premeditation as an aggravating circumstance is appropriate. Shortsleeves, 580 A.2d at 149 (quotation marks omitted) (naming a "killing for hire" as one example of a premeditated killing (quotation marks omitted)); accord State v. Cookson, 2003 ME 136, ¶ 40, 837 A.2d 101. Contrary to De St. Croix's suggestion, we have never stated that premeditation-in-fact is satisfied only by a particular type or duration of planning. Rather, application of the premeditation aggravating circumstance to justify a life sentence has been upheld in a variety of situations. See, e.g., Waterman, 2010 ME 45, ¶¶ 11, 25, 45, 995 A.2d 243 (the defendant's angry phone conversation concerning one of the victims a few hours before he killed them); State v. Nichols, 2013 ME 71, ¶¶ 4, 28, 32, 72 A.3d 503 (a reference to killing the victim in the days leading up to the murder); Koehler, 2012 ME 93, ¶¶ 4-5, 26, 36, 38, 46 A.3d 1134 (a stabbing motion and comments the defendant made regarding the victim the night before he stabbed her to death); State v. Dwyer, 2009 ME 127, ¶¶ 2-4, 38, 985 A.2d 469 (the steps the defendant took to set up a meeting with the victim on the day of the murder); State v. Holland, 2012 ME 2, ¶¶ 5, 39, 43, 34 A.3d 1130 (the defendant's actions, on numerous occasions in the month before the murder, of walking past the victim's home and patting his side to suggest that he was armed); State v. Hayden, 2014 ME 31, ¶¶ 9, 11, 19, 86 A.3d 1221 (statements the defendant made the day before the murders that he was going to kill the victims and the defendant's efforts to obtain ammunition on that same day); Cookson, 2003 ME 136, ¶¶ 39-40, 44, 837 A.2d 101 (the defendant's efforts in the few days before the murders to arrange for use of another...

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