State v. Crutcher

Decision Date18 May 2023
Docket Number20180322-CA
PartiesState of Utah, Appellee, v. Steven Crutcher, Appellant.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Sixth District Court, Manti Department The Honorable Wallace A. Lee No. 131600150

Ann M Taliaferro, Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and David A. Simpson, Attorneys for Appellee Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judge David N. Mortensen and Senior Judge Russell W. Bench concurred. [1]

ORME Judge

¶1 Steven Crutcher entered a conditional guilty plea to first-degree aggravated murder after confessing to the racially-motivated murder of his cellmate (Cellmate). Less than a month later, Crutcher wrote to the district court retracting his confession, claiming it was not made of his own free will, and communicating his wish to withdraw his plea. Crutcher now appeals the court's denial of his pre-plea motion to suppress, his post-plea motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and his counsel's (Counsel) post-plea motion to withdraw as Crutcher's counsel. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2 In the spring of 2013, Cellmate was found dead under suspicious circumstances at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) located in Sanpete County. Following an autopsy and further investigation, Cellmate's cause of death was determined to be homicide by ligature strangulation.

The Investigation and Pre-Plea Communications

¶3 After the discovery of Cellmate's death, Crutcher was moved from their shared cell at the CUCF Hickory housing unit to a cell in the Dogwood housing unit to be housed alone.[2] The lead investigator (Investigator) accompanied by a CUCF detective (First Detective), met with Crutcher. When Crutcher invoked his Miranda rights questioning stopped, and Investigator and First Detective left.

¶4 About a month later, Investigator learned from First Detective that Crutcher wished to speak with him. Investigator and a detective from the Sanpete County Sheriff's Office (Sanpete County Detective) then met with Crutcher over the course of two days. At the beginning of the first of these meetings, Investigator advised Crutcher of his Miranda rights and provided a form for Crutcher to sign indicating that he waived those rights, which Crutcher signed.[3] Crutcher then told Investigator and Sanpete County Detective that on the day of the incident, he had simply woken up and found Cellmate dead from what he assumed to be suicide and called for officers to respond. Not fully convinced by Crutcher's recounting of the event in light of the condition in which Cellmate was found Investigator ended the interview by communicating as much to Crutcher, and he said that they would be back to talk with him.

¶5 The next day, Investigator returned, again accompanied by Sanpete County Detective, to speak with Crutcher. During this encounter, Crutcher gave Investigator a handwritten letter, telling them verbally and in writing that he had "not been honest" with them the day before and that instead of waking up to find Cellmate dead, he had watched Cellmate hang himself. Crutcher admitted that he had lied about what happened in the first place out of fear of punishment for watching Cellmate commit suicide and failing to call for help. Again, Investigator communicated to Crutcher that he was not "completely sold on even this version of the story."

¶6 Later that summer, on July 24, another CUCF detective (Second Detective) informed Investigator that Crutcher had a sealed letter that he wished to have delivered to the county attorney. Second Detective had been speaking with Crutcher regarding an unrelated matter when, at the end of the interview, Crutcher handed Second Detective an envelope, telling him "that he wanted it to go to the prosecutor" and that it was regarding "what happened in Hickory." Hearing this, Second Detective reiterated that his involvement with Crutcher was focused on the unrelated incident and not on the circumstances of Cellmate's death. But Crutcher "persisted" in his request that Second Detective "take the letter to the prosecutor." Second Detective then delivered the envelope to Investigator.

¶7 After taking possession of the envelope, Investigator attempted to deliver it to the county attorney the next day, July 25. But the envelope containing the letter was not addressed to the county attorney, having only the words "Steven Crutcher, legal material" written on it, so before accepting the letter, the county attorney requested that Investigator ensure Crutcher was aware he was prosecuting "a case in which [Crutcher was] a suspect" and that Crutcher indeed wanted the county attorney to have the letter. Investigator then returned the still-sealed envelope to Second Detective with the instruction to have Crutcher address it appropriately if he wanted it delivered to the county attorney. Second Detective spoke with Crutcher again on that same day, during which time Crutcher addressed the envelope to the county attorney, and the letter was again conveyed to the county attorney. Investigator and the county attorney then read the following in Crutcher's letter:[4]

I Steven Crutcher started planning how to kill that Cuban nigger the second day I was his cellie he is nothing but a stupid fucking nigger thats what was going through my head I am a wood[5] white pride all the way 100% white power It's time to stand up and be proud killing that nigger earned me my ᛋᛋ bolts[6] I killed that Cuban nigger and after I killed him I hung him in the back of the cell like the nigger he is . . . so yeah I choked that nigger out with some thin braided rope out of blanket entil he passed out then held the presser entil I knew that nigger was dead
The whole time while choking this nigger out I was saying in his ear white power mother fucker over and over entil he passed out then I spit on that fucking nigger after I knew he was dead I hung that nigger in the back of the cell yeah white power mother fuckers time to make a stand and be proud of taken that niggers life
my full confession:
Steven Crutcher ᛋᛋ

¶8 After reading the letter, Investigator returned to the prison that same day to speak with Crutcher regarding the letter's contents. Investigator was accompanied by the then-sheriff of Sanpete County. Investigator asked Crutcher, "Do you want to go over with me a little bit of what you wrote in that letter and why you wrote the letter?" In reply to questions posed by Investigator, Crutcher explained:

I went back to my old skinhead ways, you know. That's what I am, that's what I'm proud to be, you know.
I don't live by these laws and I don't follow these laws of the land, you know.
I do my own thing. I follow the Aryan teachings laws.
You know. I just wanted to express, you know- proud for who I am, just standing up and be proud of what I am now.
I let it be known in that letter.
It's all true, you know.

Investigator then asked whether Crutcher had been bribed or coerced into writing the letter, and Crutcher denied any outside influence.

¶9 Crutcher also detailed his planning, preparation, execution, and attempted cover-up of the murder of Cellmate. Crutcher stated he decided to carry out the act the "second the guy became my cellie." Crutcher detailed his process in making various ropes out of braided bedding material, stating, "I made a couple different things just figuring out how to strangle his ass." Crutcher also narrated how he "instigated" a scuffle between himself and Cellmate "to get an adrenaline rush," and then

I just pushed his ass against the wall and wrapped [the rope] around his neck and started choking him. He started screaming.
I just fucking pulled like that as tight as I could around his neck . . . to stop him from screaming . . . . [He was] trying to fight but I just-I kept him pushed up against the wall, and he just passed out.

¶10 Crutcher explained that after Cellmate was dead, he moved him to his bed, placed blankets over him to avoid raising suspicion with prison guards when they did their rounds, and then he "sat there watching a movie with a smile on my face" until after breakfast rounds were completed. Crutcher explained how he later proceeded to stage Cellmate's body and belongings to make it look "[l]ike he hung himself."

¶11 After this recounting of the incident, Investigator asked, "This murder . . . was just basically a racial thing, a hate thing?" Crutcher responded, "Just hate, yeah. If he would have been white, I probably would have never done it. . . . [A]ctually I guarantee I would have never done it." Finally, Investigator repeated his inquiry about whether Crutcher had been promised anything or been threatened by anyone to "come clean now," and Crutcher told him, "No. It was all on my own. . . . I murdered that dude."

¶12 Investigator visited Crutcher again, on July 26, and informed him of the county attorney's intention of entering the letter into evidence. He also conveyed the county attorney's desire to know that the letter was indeed penned by him. Crutcher confirmed that he wrote the letter, that he addressed the letter's envelope to the county attorney, and that no one forced him to write the letter or asked him to write the letter. He signed a statement of fact indicating as much. During that conversation, Crutcher stated he "killed that mother fucker because he's a fucking stupid Cuban nigger." Investigator asked, yet again, if the contents of the letter were genuine, to which Crutcher responded, "Everything in that letter is true."

¶13 That was not the end of Crutcher's unsolicited communications. Crutcher sent two more letters to the county attorney in the following months, postmarked September 6 and October 15. In the September 6 letter, Crutcher stated "I sent you my full confession last month. . . . Are you guys...

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