State v. Kuhs

Decision Date24 February 2010
Docket NumberNo. CR-07-0301-AP.,CR-07-0301-AP.
Citation224 P.3d 192
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Ryan Wesley KUHS, Appellant.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Terry Goddard, Arizona Attorney General by Kent E. Cattani, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals/Capital Litigation Section, Susanne Bartlett Blomo, Assistant Attorney General Attorneys, Phoenix, for State of Arizona.

Michael S. Reeves, by Michael S. Reeves, Stephen M. Johnson, P.C., by Stephen M. Johnson, Phoenix, Attorneys for Ryan Wesley Kuhs.


BERCH, Chief Justice.

¶ 1 A jury convicted Ryan Wesley Kuhs of first degree burglary and first degree murder and determined that he should be sentenced to death. In this automatic appeal Kuhs raises seven issues.1 Ariz. R.Crim. P. 31.2(b). We have jurisdiction pursuant to Article 6, Section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) § 13-4031 (2001).


¶ 2 In 2005, Ryan Kuhs entered Enrique Herrera's apartment and stabbed him while he slept. Herrera awoke and attempted to defend himself. During the struggle, Kuhs stabbed Herrera twenty-one times.

¶ 3 Three residents of the apartment complex saw Kuhs leave Herrera's apartment with blood on his shirt and arms. They entered Herrera's apartment, saw Herrera lying in a pool of blood, and called 911. Herrera died later that day after being taken to the hospital.

¶ 4 Kuhs went to another apartment, cleaned himself up, changed clothes, and left the apartment complex with his bloody clothes in a bag. When he returned later that afternoon, he was arrested.

¶ 5 After being given Miranda warnings, Kuhs agreed to talk to the police and eventually confessed to the killing. Kuhs said that he went to Herrera's apartment to confront him about an argument between the two the previous night.

¶ 6 The jury convicted Kuhs of first degree burglary and first degree murder. The jury found five aggravating factors: (1) a prior conviction for a serious offense based on the first degree burglary from this prosecution, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(2) (Supp.2009); (2) a second prior conviction for a serious offense based on a second degree burglary, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(2); (3) the especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner of the murder, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(6); (4) the commission of the murder while on release from prison, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(7)(a); and (5) the commission of the murder while on probation for a prior felony, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(7)(b).

¶ 7 The jury found that the mitigation was not sufficiently substantial to call for leniency and that the death penalty should be imposed. The court sentenced Kuhs to death for the first degree murder and to a concurrent term of twenty-eight years for the burglary.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Kuhs's competency

¶ 8 Kuhs argues that the trial court erred by finding him competent to stand trial without holding an evidentiary hearing. We review the trial court's determination of whether to require an evidentiary hearing on competency for abuse of discretion. See State v. Amaya-Ruiz, 166 Ariz. 152, 162, 800 P.2d 1260, 1270 (1990).

¶ 9 In January 2006, Kuhs requested a prescreening examination pursuant to Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 11.2(c), alleging that he was experiencing hallucinations. After that preliminary examination, the court ordered a full Rule 11 evaluation. See Ariz. R.Crim. P. 11.2(d).

¶ 10 During the evaluation process, Drs. Jack Potts and Scott Sindelar independently examined Kuhs and both found him incompetent to stand trial. They noted that he claimed to experience auditory and visual hallucinations in which God spoke to him. They opined, however, that Kuhs could be restored to competency.

¶ 11 Based on the doctors' reports, the trial court found Kuhs incompetent to stand trial and ordered him committed to the Maricopa County Correctional Health Services Restoration Program. The trial court ordered a written report on Kuhs's "progress and prognosis."

¶ 12 While in the restoration program, Kuhs was evaluated by Dr. Jason Lewis, who submitted a report concluding that Kuhs had feigned his earlier reported psychosis and was competent to stand trial. Dr. Lewis's report detailed Kuhs's understanding of the charges against him as well as the trial process and its participants. The prosecutor and defense counsel stipulated that the court could assess Kuhs's competency based on Dr. Lewis's report. At a July 11, 2006 hearing, the judge found Kuhs competent to stand trial based on "a review of that [July 4] final report as well as the pleadings filed pursuant to Rule 11."

¶ 13 A defendant has a due process "right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent." Amaya-Ruiz, 166 Ariz. at 161, 800 P.2d at 1269 (quoting Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975)). Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 11.2 protects that right by providing for a prescreening examination and hearing if reasonable grounds exist to question the accused's competence. "Reasonable grounds exist when `there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the defendant is not able to understand the nature of the proceeding against him and to assist in his defense.'" Id. at 162, 95 S.Ct. 896, 800 P.2d at 1270 (quoting State v. Borbon, 146 Ariz. 392, 395, 706 P.2d 718, 721 (1985)); see also Ariz. R.Crim. P. 11.1 (prohibiting trial of a person who "is unable to understand the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense").

¶ 14 If the court has determined that an incompetent defendant is restorable to competency, the court must "order the person supervising defendant's court-ordered restoration treatment to file a report with the court." Ariz. R.Crim. P. 11.5(d). When the court receives a report that the defendant has become competent to stand trial, "[t]he court shall hold a hearing to redetermine the defendant's competency" at which the parties may "introduce other evidence regarding the defendant's mental condition" or "submit the matter on the experts' reports." Id. R. 11.6(a), 11.5(a).

¶ 15 Kuhs complains that he was denied the hearing required by Rules 11.5 and 11.6 because the court allowed "the parties [to] stipulate[] to competency," and by doing so, the court violated its duty "to conduct a competency hearing" and "to make an independent inquiry to determine [whether Kuhs] was competent to stand trial."

¶ 16 Counsel, however, did not stipulate to competency. Instead, they stipulated to the admissibility of Dr. Lewis's report and presented no other evidence regarding Kuhs's competency. In finding that Kuhs had been restored to competency, the trial court stated that it had reviewed Dr. Lewis's "final report as well as the pleadings filed pursuant to Rule 11." Because the same judge had presided over the initial Rule 11 proceeding, the court was familiar with the reports previously submitted by Drs. Potts and Sindelar. On this record, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in making its competency determination without holding an evidentiary hearing.

2. Denial of motion for mistrial

¶ 17 During the State's guilt phase closing argument, the victim's stepmother cried audibly. After the prosecutor concluded her closing argument, Kuhs moved for a mistrial, which the court denied. Kuhs now claims that the court erred in denying his motion.

¶ 18 We review the denial of a motion for mistrial for abuse of discretion. State v. Hoskins, 199 Ariz. 127, 142 ¶ 52, 14 P.3d 997, 1012 (2000). "This deferential standard of review applies because the trial judge is in the best position to evaluate `the atmosphere of the trial, the manner in which the objectionable statement was made, and the possible effect it had on the jury and the trial.'" State v. Bible, 175 Ariz. 549, 598, 858 P.2d 1152, 1201 (1993) (quoting State v. Koch, 138 Ariz. 99, 101, 673 P.2d 297, 299 (1983)).

¶ 19 Although Kuhs characterizes the disruption as a "raucous outburst," the record does not contain any direct evidence of the disruptiveness of the incident. During the State's closing argument, the court asked the prosecutor to pause, apparently in reaction to the occurrence. The only other reference to the event in the record is the discussion between the court and counsel held outside the jury's presence after the prosecutor's closing argument.3

¶ 20 On this record, we cannot conclude that the trial court inaccurately assessed the situation or abused its discretion in denying Kuhs's motion for mistrial. We previously have found that more substantial emotional outbursts in the jury's presence did not mandate a mistrial. In State v. Bible, 175 Ariz. at 597, 858 P.2d at 1200, for example, as the father of a murdered girl walked out of the courtroom, he referred to the defendant as "[t]hat f[* * *]ing asshole" within earshot of the judge and jury. The judge admonished the jury to disregard the outburst, id., and denied the defendant's motion for mistrial, explaining: "I don't think it's really the substance for a mistrial. I don't think there is any doubt in the jury's mind about how [the victim's father] feels about [the defendant]." Id. at 597-98, 858 P.2d at 1200-01 (first alteration in original). We emphasized that "the victim's father had taken no action at trial warranting reprimand or comment prior to his outburst" and "[n]o information was conveyed other than the father's animosity toward Defendant, a feeling that could hardly have surprised the jurors." Id. at 599, 858 P.2d at 1201.

¶ 21 Similarly, Herrera's stepmother's tears did not convey any new information to the jury. When she "burst into tears," she was immediately escorted from the courtroom. The court had no indication before the incident that she would respond in such a fashion. She had behaved appropriately throughout the trial, even during her own testimony. Finally, the trial court took immediate and appropriate action to prevent repetition of the incident by addressing the gallery...

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