State v. Houston, No. 20080625

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE NEHRING, opinion of the Court
Citation2015 UT 40
Decision Date13 March 2015
Docket NumberNo. 20080625
PartiesSTATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. ROBERT CAMERON HOUSTON, Appellant.

2015 UT 40

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee,

No. 20080625


March 13, 2015


This opinion is subject to revision before publication in the Pacific Reporter

Second District, Farmington
The Honorable Glen R. Dawson
No. 0601700273


Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Christopher D. Ballard, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee

John P. Pace, Salt Lake City, for appellant

JUSTICE NEHRING authored the opinion of the Court, in which JUSTICE PARRISH joined, CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT joined except as to section II.F.2, and JUSTICE DURHAM joined in Part I.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE authored a concurring opinion.

JUSTICE DURHAM authored a dissenting opinion, in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT concurred in Part I.

JUSTICE NEHRING, opinion of the Court:1

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¶ 1 Robert Cameron Houston was seventeen and a half years old when he murdered R.E., a staff member of the residential treatment center for youth where Mr. Houston was temporarily residing. The State charged Mr. Houston with aggravated murder, aggravated sexual assault, and rape. Mr. Houston pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, and the State agreed to drop the other charges.

¶ 2 The parties agreed to a sentencing hearing where a jury would determine whether Mr. Houston would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or an indeterminate term of twenty years to life. Following the sentencing hearing, eleven of the twelve jurors voted to sentence Mr. Houston to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

¶ 3 On appeal Mr. Houston brings numerous constitutional challenges to his sentence. He also contends that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing proceeding in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After a careful review of the record, we conclude that Mr. Houston's sentence is constitutional, and his counsel was not ineffective. We therefore affirm the jury's sentence.


¶ 4 Mr. Houston had a very difficult childhood, and he became an early juvenile offender and a troubled young adult.

¶ 5 Mr. Houston was born with a deformed ear, which left him almost completely deaf on one side and made it difficult for him to learn to talk. As a child, he struggled with this physical deformity and was also ridiculed by his peers for being overweight. Mr. Houston's parents fought often and eventually divorced, and his father was physically and verbally abusive. When his father left the home, Mr. Houston struggled emotionally over the separation. At age eight, Mr. Houston attempted suicide and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. When he was twelve, he was sexually abused by his brother's friend for several months.

¶ 6 Mr. Houston committed several violent sexual offenses as a young teenager, which led to his placement in a residential treatment program for juvenile sex offenders. In 2003, at age

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fourteen, Mr. Houston attempted to rape his teenage stepsister at knifepoint. He was charged with aggravated sexual assault. Mr. Houston entered a guilty plea, though the record does not specify to what charge he pleaded. In February 2004, at age fifteen, Mr. Houston attempted to rape his aunt, also at knifepoint. Mr. Houston was charged with aggravated sexual assault and pleaded guilty, although the record again does not specify to what charge Mr. Houston pleaded. As a result of these violent sexual assaults, Mr. Houston was placed with Youth Health Associates (YHA), a residential treatment facility for juvenile sex offenders located in Clearfield, Utah.

¶ 7 The State also presented evidence that two months after Mr. Houston's arrival at YHA he allegedly attempted to sexually assault a female staff member. The staff worker fought back and was able to gain control. After the incident, Mr. Houston allegedly explained to other staff workers that he wanted to hurt and sexually assault her. Mr. Houston did not have a weapon during that incident.

¶ 8 On February 15, 2006, when Mr. Houston was seventeen years old, he committed the murder that led to this appeal. At that time, Mr. Houston resided at an independent living home associated with YHA. It was snowing that night, and Mr. Houston did not want to walk the four blocks home from YHA to the independent living home. He asked R.E., a female staff worker, for a ride. Although it was against YHA's policy to give a ride in a personal vehicle to a resident, R.E. was sympathetic and did not want Mr. Houston to have to walk home in the bad weather.

¶ 9 When they arrived at the independent living home, R.E. followed Mr. Houston inside to sign the log book. As she turned to leave, Mr. Houston grabbed her from behind, covered her mouth with his hand, and held a knife to her throat. Mr. Houston then forced R.E. into his bedroom and ordered her to remove her clothing. R.E. told Mr. Houston that she was a virgin and that she did not want to have sexual intercourse. Mr. Houston responded angrily, and raped her. R.E. screamed and begged him to stop. Mr. Houston responded by pressing a knife to her throat. When R.E. continued to scream, Mr. Houston stabbed her in the side of the neck and sliced her throat. He then stabbed her repeatedly in the chest, side, and back. When R.E. continued to struggle,

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Mr. Houston attempted to kill her by snapping her neck. R.E. continued to scream, and Mr. Houston became scared and fled.

¶ 10 Mr. Houston climbed into R.E.'s car and sped off. He drove into a house, which he later explained was an attempt to kill himself. Mr. Houston was arrested and taken to the hospital. He was interviewed by Detective Mike Valencia shortly after arrival. Mr. Houston confessed to attempting to kill R.E. and described in detail to the detective how he had tried to rip out R.E.'s trachea to stop her from screaming. The detective noted that Mr. Houston was unemotional as he described the details of the crime.

¶ 11 Mr. Houston was charged with aggravated murder, aggravated sexual assault, and rape. In exchange for the State's promise to drop the other charges, Mr. Houston pleaded guilty to aggravated murder. The parties agreed that the sentencing hearing would be held before a jury. Following a five-day hearing, eleven of the twelve jurors voted to sentence Mr. Houston to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). After he was sentenced, Mr. Houston obtained new appointed counsel and subsequently filed a timely appeal to challenge his sentence. We stayed the case in anticipation of the ruling in a United States Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama,2 and the parties provided supplemental briefing concerning the effect of Miller on Mr. Houston's case.

¶ 12 We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(i).


¶ 13 We begin our discussion of the standard of review by noting that Mr. Houston did not preserve any of the issues presented on appeal. "As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal"3 unless a plain error occurred,4 exceptional circumstances warrant our review,5 or the defendant's attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel.6

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¶ 14 The parties disagree about the standard of review that should apply to Mr. Houston's claims. Mr. Houston admits that none of his claims are preserved, and thus argues under both plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel doctrines. However, Mr. Houston also argues for two alternative, heightened standards of review. First, Mr. Houston contends that he was charged with a "capital" offense, and therefore this court should apply a "manifest prejudice" standard of review to each of his claims. Second, Mr. Houston argues that his sentence is unconstitutional and therefore he can challenge it on appeal as an "illegal" sentence under Utah Rule of Criminal Procedure 22(e), and is thereby excused from the obligation to preserve issues for appeal. In support of his rule 22(e) argument, Mr. Houston cites State v. Candedo, in which this court interpreted rule 22(e) to permit review of certain unpreserved constitutional challenges.7

¶ 15 The State disagrees with Mr. Houston. First, the State contends that "capital" review does not apply here because this is not a "capital" case.8 According to the State, a "capital" case is one where the death penalty is sought or imposed; because of his status as a juvenile, Mr. Houston was not, and could not have been, sentenced to death, and as such, "capital" appellate review is not available. Second, the State argues that even if this court can reach Mr. Houston's unpreserved claims under rule 22(e), State v. Candedo was wrongly decided and should be overruled. In support of its effort to undo Candedo, the State argues that the

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opinion lacks sufficient analysis and citation to authority, creates an unjustifiable disparity between this court's treatment of unpreserved constitutional challenges to convictions and unpreserved constitutional challenges to sentences, and is inconsistent with the rule announced in State v. Yazzie.9

¶ 16 As we describe in greater detail below, we hold that each of Mr. Houston's constitutional challenges falls within the narrow scope of rule 22(e)'s exception to the preservation of claims. We therefore decline the State's request to overrule our precedent in State v. Candedo. Under rule 22(e), we treat Mr. Houston's claims as if they had been preserved, reviewing conclusions of law for correctness and granting no deference to the district court.10 Because rule 22(e) provides a higher standard than "manifest prejudice" review, we decline to address Mr. Houston's alternative argument.

¶ 17 A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is also an exception to our preservation doctrine.11 For "ineffective assistance of counsel claims, we review a lower court's purely factual findings for clear error, but [we] review the application of the law to...

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