State v. Feltrop

Decision Date09 January 1991
Docket NumberNo. 70896,70896
Citation803 S.W.2d 1
PartiesSTATE of Missouri, Respondent, v. Ralph Cecil FELTROP, Appellant. Ralph Cecil FELTROP, Appellant, v. STATE of Missouri, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Janet M. Thompson, Columbia, for appellant.

William L. Webster, Atty. Gen., Breck K. Burgess, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, for respondent.


Appellant Ralph Cecil Feltrop appeals his conviction by jury of murder in the first degree, § 565.020, RSMo 1986, for which Feltrop was sentenced to death, and he appeals from the denial of his postconviction relief motion. Affirmed.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, State v. Guinan, 665 S.W.2d 325, 327 (Mo. banc), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 873, 105 S.Ct. 227, 83 L.Ed.2d 156 (1984), the facts are as follows: On or about March 9, 1987, Barbara Roam, appellant's live-in girlfriend, died from an incised wound to the right side of her neck which severed her vertebral artery, causing her to bleed to death. Appellant inflicted the wound by one forceful thrust from a sharp instrument that not only severed the vertebral artery but also penetrated the cervical spine, causing paralysis of Roam's right side. Appellant subsequently cut and hacked at Roam's body until he succeeded in severing her head, hands, and lower legs from her torso. He also severed one foot from the leg and aborted an attempt to sever her upper legs in the groin area. Appellant then stuffed the torso into a trunk and dumped the trunk near Duke Road in St. Charles County. He placed the remainder of the body parts into garbage bags and threw them into a pond near Highway MM between Highway 21 and Highway 30 in Jefferson County. The body was preserved by refrigeration for at least one week. Whether the mutilation of Barbara Roam's body occurred prior to or after refrigeration was not established. Appellant's defense at trial was self-defense.

In the penalty phase, the state offered the evidence from the guilt phase. Appellant presented testimony of six witnesses who testified regarding appellant's background and character. The jury recommended the death penalty, finding as a statutory aggravating circumstance that the murder of Barbara Roam was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind. § 565.032.2(7), RSMo 1986. The trial court sentenced Feltrop to death.

Other facts relevant to the direct appeal are developed as required throughout the opinion.

Preserved Error

Appellant contends that the trial court erred in denying his motions for change of venue and to strike for cause the entire venire. Appellant alleged that extensive pretrial publicity and the "spectacular nature of the offense charged" created a substantial likelihood that he would be denied a trial by a fair and impartial jury.

Whether to grant or deny a change of venue rests within the trial court's discretion, and its ruling will not be disturbed absent abuse of discretion. State v. Schneider, 736 S.W.2d 392, 402 (Mo. banc 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1047, 108 S.Ct. 786, 98 L.Ed.2d 871 (1988). Likewise, the trial court's ruling on challenges for cause will be rejected only if there is a clear showing of abuse of discretion and a real probability of injury to the complaining party. State v. Wheat, 775 S.W.2d 155, 158 (Mo. banc 1989), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 110 S.Ct. 744, 107 L.Ed.2d 762 (1990). An abuse of discretion exists only when the record shows that the inhabitants of the county are so prejudiced against the defendant that a fair trial cannot occur there. State v. Leisure, 749 S.W.2d 366, 376 (Mo. banc 1988). The relevant question is not whether or to what extent the community remembers the case, "but whether the jurors of ... [Feltrop's] trial had such fixed opinions that they could not judge impartially the guilt of the defendant." Patton v. Yount, 467 U.S. 1025, 1035, 104 S.Ct. 2885, 2890, 81 L.Ed.2d 847 (1984). The trial court is in a better position than the appellate court to assess the effect of publicity on the minds of the community and to determine whether the residents of the county are so prejudiced against a defendant that a fair trial would not be possible. State v. Molasky, 655 S.W.2d 663, 666 (Mo.App.1983), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1049, 104 S.Ct. 727, 79 L.Ed.2d 187 (1984).

In Patton, all but two of the one hundred sixty-three venirepersons questioned about the case had heard of it, and one hundred twenty-six admitted that they would carry an opinion into the jury box. 467 U.S. at 1029, 104 S.Ct. at 2888. "[W]hile it is true that a number of jurors and veniremen testified that at one time they held opinions, for many, time had weakened or eliminated any conviction they had had." Id. at 1033, 104 S.Ct. at 2889. Those veniremen who retained their fixed opinions were removed from the venire. Id. at 1034, 104 S.Ct. at 2890. The United States Supreme Court found that the pretrial publicity did not make a fair trial impossible in the county in which the crime occurred. Id. at 1040, 104 S.Ct. at 2893.

In support of his motions, appellant submitted numerous newspaper articles, transcripts from television and radio stations, video tapes of newscasts, and an article from Detective Cases magazine. The bulk of the media coverage occurred more than a year prior to trial; the most recent exhibit was published eight months prior to trial. Of the one hundred two venirepersons questioned, sixty-eight indicated that they had some knowledge of the case; of these the trial court struck eight. Of the fourteen venirepersons finally impaneled, eight had been exposed to some degree of pretrial publicity. All eight were asked specifically whether they could judge the case in a fair and impartial manner, and all eight indicated that they could.

The evidence presented at the hearing on appellant's motion for a change of venue did not show that the inhabitants of Jefferson County were so prejudiced against appellant that a fair trial could not occur. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying appellant's motion for a change of venue and his motion to strike the entire venire.

Appellant contends that the court erred in overruling his challenges for cause to venirepersons Courtois, Nalls and Harpole, thereby denying him the right to a full panel of qualified jurors before he was required to exercise his peremptory challenges.

The trial court possesses broad discretion in determining the qualifications of prospective jurors, and its ruling on a challenge for cause will not be disturbed on appeal unless it constitutes a clear abuse of discretion and a real probability of injury to the complaining party. State v. Wheat, 775 S.W.2d 155, 158 (Mo. banc 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1030, 110 S.Ct. 744, 107 L.Ed.2d 762 (1990).

An accused is entitled to a full panel of qualified jurors before he is required to expend peremptory challenges, and failure of the trial court to grant a legitimate challenge for cause is reversible error. Id. The critical question is whether the challenged venirepersons unequivocally indicated their ability to evaluate the evidence fairly and impartially. State v. Lingar, 726 S.W.2d 728, 734 (Mo. banc 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 872, 108 S.Ct. 206, 98 L.Ed.2d 157 (1988). The trial court did not conduct an independent examination of these venirepersons, thus a more searching review by appellate courts is justified. Id.

Venireperson Courtois initially indicated that she might have difficulty affording defendant the presumption of innocence. Upon questioning, however, she stated unequivocally that she could follow the court's instructions and could act with fairness and impartiality.

Venireperson Nalls learned of the case from a woman who worked at Lucille's Restaurant, where Barbara Roam worked prior to her death. Ms. Nalls initially expressed uncertainty as to whether she could put that information aside. Upon questioning, however, Ms. Nalls stated that she had no reason to value the opinion of the woman from Lucille's Restaurant, and further stated unequivocally that she could set aside anything she might have heard or seen and base her decision solely upon what she heard at trial.

Venireperson Harpole read newspaper articles about the case and indicated that he felt there was a reason the defendant was arrested. His ability to follow the law and instructions of the court and to be fair is reflected as follows:

Q. At that time did you form any opinions or conclusions as to the guilt or innocence of any persons in connection with that?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Do you feel that you can put aside what you saw or heard in the news and base your decision, if chosen as a juror, solely on the evidence to be presented here in the courtroom and on the instructions to be given by Judge Hess?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. Do you feel that you can be fair and impartial to both the defendant and the state?

A. Yes.

Q. Can you promise this court that you can put aside any preconception that you might have and, if chosen as a juror, make your decision based solely on the evidence presented in this court and the instructions given by the Judge?

A. Yes, I could.

Q. Do you think that you can be fair and impartial to the defendant as well as to the state?

A. Yes, I believe I could.

Venirepersons are not automatically excluded for cause because they may have formed an opinion based on publicity. State v. Walls, 744 S.W.2d 791, 795 (Mo. banc), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 871, 109 S.Ct. 181, 102 L.Ed.2d 150 (1988). Initial reservations expressed by venirepersons do not determine their qualifications; consideration of the entire voir dire examination of the venireperson is determinative. State v. Johnson, 722 S.W.2d 62, 65 (Mo. banc 1986). The question is not whether a prospective juror holds opinions about the case, but whether these opinions will yield and the juror...

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