State v. Lucero

Decision Date13 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20090751.,20090751.
Citation760 Utah Adv. Rep. 11,328 P.3d 841
CourtUtah Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Appellee, v. Adrianna LUCERO, Appellant.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., John J. Nielsen, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Joan C. Watt, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Chief Justice DURRANT, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Following a jury trial, Adrianna Lucero was convicted of murder and child abuse for the death of her two-year-old son Alejandro Lucero (Alex). Alex died after his back was bent backwards, which snapped his spine and pulled apart his aorta. After initially telling detectives and others that she was the only one present with Alex at the time of his injuries, Ms. Lucero subsequently claimed—and now maintains—that the injuries were caused by her boyfriend, Sergio Martinez. She appeals her convictions on several grounds: first, she claims that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of prior child abuse under Utah Rule of Evidence 404(b); second, she claims her defense counsel was ineffective in several regards, including that he failed to fully examine Battered Woman's Syndrome (BWS) as a defense; and third, she claims cumulative error. In the alternative, she requests that we remand for consideration of her rule 23B motion regarding ineffective assistance of counsel, which the court of appeals stayed due to the parties' stipulation pending the consideration of this appeal.

¶ 2 We hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of prior child abuse under rule 404(b), and we adopt the majority rule that a preponderance of the evidence is required to admit evidence of prior bad acts. We also hold that defense counsel was not ineffective because the trial strategy he selected was objectively reasonable. Next, we revisit the court of appeals' decision to grant Ms. Lucero's rule 23B motion and vacate the court's Order to remand as moot. For these reasons, there was no cumulative error, and we affirm Ms. Lucero's convictions.

BACKGROUND

¶ 3 Ms. Lucero is a young mother of three children: Alex, a twenty-three-month-old, and five-month-old twins, I.H. and I.C. Ms. Lucero's boyfriend, Mr. Martinez, is the father of the twins but not the father of Alex. Ms. Lucero and Mr. Martinez's relationship was complicated—Ms. Lucero lived with her mother, but Mr. Martinez would visit frequently, and always on the weekends. Sometimes Ms. Lucero and the children would visit Mr. Martinez in his basement room, in a home where he lived with two other women. Mr. Martinez had a wife and children in Mexico and was living in the United States illegally, and Alex's father had already been deported to Mexico. Mr. Martinez would regularly send money to his family in Mexico and call them on his cell phone, which was a frequent point of contention between Ms. Lucero and Mr. Martinez. Their relationship was further complicated by Ms. Lucero's age. She was only seventeen years old and regularly took her children to a child-care program at her high school, where she was on track to graduate.

¶ 4 The parties provide differing accounts of Mr. Martinez's relationship with Alex, but Ms. Lucero had instructed Mr. Martinez to keep his distance from Alex; accordingly, Mr. Martinez refused to discipline Alex, and he maintained that he never took care of Alex. At one point in their relationship, Ms. Lucero planned to take her children on a school field trip to the zoo. Though Mr. Martinez was supposed to take them to the bus, he arrived late and had to drive them to the zoo. After Mr. Martinez picked them up later that day, Ms. Lucero and Mr. Martinez got into a fight, which was sparked by the fact that Ms. Lucero had received text messages from a male friend. After Ms. Lucero pounded on Mr. Martinez's car, he kicked her in the leg, and she broke his windshield. Mr. Martinez was ultimately convicted of domestic assault for the altercation, but Ms. Lucero attempted to protect Mr. Martinez after he told her that he could be deported. Ms. Lucero had lost her temper on previous occasions as well when she had broken a phone and a computer screen.

¶ 5 About a week before his death, Alex began to have problems walking. Ms. Lucero took him to a clinic, but the doctor could not identify the cause. Ms. Lucero maintained that Alex was in her and her mother's care when he began to exhibit symptoms, but after Alex's death, Ms. Lucero was pressed by detectives about the prior injury and began to claim that Mr. Martinez was abusive to Alex. She also claimed that Alex's injuries arose after a fishing trip with Mr. Martinez that had taken place two or three days before Alex had trouble walking. Because Alex's difficulty with walking did not begin until several days after the fishing trip when Mr. Martinez was not present, a detective noted that her timeline of events did not make sense.

¶ 6 On August 24, 2008, Ms. Lucero brought Alex and I.C. to visit Mr. Martinez in his basement room. I.H. was in the hospital due to recurring seizures, and they had spent the day visiting with him. They ate dinner and began to watch a horror movie, as Alex slept beside them on the bed and I.C. slept in a car seat next to the bed. In the course of the evening, the two began to fight after Ms. Lucero picked up Mr. Martinez's phone and saw that Mr. Martinez had called his family in Mexico. At some point, Alex began to fuss. He was then taken into the next room to get some Jell–O where he sustained the fatal injury and began to exhibit seizure-like symptoms. Ms. Lucero and Mr. Martinez called 911 and attempted to administer CPR, but Alex was declared dead soon thereafter. Although both Ms. Lucero's and Mr. Martinez's accounts of what transpired that evening are mostly the same, they each blame the other for taking Alex out of the room to get Jell–O and for causing the fatal injury.

¶ 7 But Ms. Lucero did not always blame Mr. Martinez. In fact, in the hours following Alex's death, Ms. Lucero told eight different people, including two police officers and the 911 operator, that she was the one who took Alex to get Jell–O. And she told detectives the following day the same story—that she, and not Mr. Martinez—had taken Alex out of the room to get Jell–O and that he started experiencing seizure-like symptoms. Once the detectives informed her of the true, graphic nature of Alex's spinal injuries, and that they were not the result of a seizure, Ms. Lucero changed her story to indicate that it was instead Mr. Martinez who had taken Alex to get Jell–O. She told detectives that she had lied to keep Mr. Martinez from being questioned by officials because she feared that he might be deported. Ms. Lucero explained that she initially thought that Alex had an unexplained seizure like her other son, I.H., but now that she knew the real cause of Alex's death, she thought that Mr. Martinez must have been responsible for it. At trial, Ms. Lucero and Mr. Martinez blamed each other for inflicting Alex's fatal injury.

¶ 8 The State charged Ms. Lucero with murder and two counts of child abuse—the first for the prior spinal injury, and the second for the fatal injuries. During a preliminary hearing, the magistrate judge refused to bind Ms. Lucero over on the first child abuse count because she deemed the cause and source of the injury too speculative. Before trial, both parties filed motions under Utah Rule of Evidence 404(b) with the trial court to admit evidence of prior bad acts. The State moved to admit evidence of Alex's prior spinal injury, which the medical examiner had determined was consistent with the same backward-bending force on the spine. Ms. Lucero moved to admit evidence of the couple's altercation at the zoo to show she would lie to protect Mr. Martinez from deportation. After briefing and argument, the trial court granted both motions. But while both sides briefed the court on rule 404(b) for Ms. Lucero's motion to admit evidence of Mr. Martinez's prior assault, only the State briefed the court on rule 404(b) for the State's motion to admit evidence of the prior child abuse. Ms. Lucero did object orally to the admission of the evidence of the prior child abuse, arguing that it was not closely enough connected to her to be admissible.

¶ 9 During trial, the police interrogation video was played without any major redactions—and defense counsel did not object but rather wanted the jury to see the video in full. Before the video was played, the court read a stipulation to the jury that I.H., Ms. Lucero's son, had been hospitalized after suffering seizures, that doctors “have been unable to determine the cause,” and that [n]o affirmative signs of non-accidental trauma have been identified.” Ms. Lucero's counsel asked for this stipulation to counter an officer's insinuation in the video that Ms. Lucero had harmed I.H. as well.

¶ 10 The jury ultimately convicted Ms. Lucero of murder and child abuse, and the court sentenced her to concurrent prison terms of fifteen years to life and one to fifteen years. She then appealed to this court, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. We later recalled the case after briefing but before oral argument. Ms. Lucero subsequently filed a rule 23B motion in the court of appeals for the trial court to take evidence on her ineffective assistance of counsel claims, which are premised on BWS. The court of appeals granted the motion, but the parties stipulated to stay the remand pending resolution of this appeal. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A–3–102(3)(i).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 11 Ms. Lucero raises several issues on appeal, which we assess under different standards of review. She first challenges the trial court's admission of evidence under rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. [W]e review a trial court's decision to admit evidence under rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence under an abuse of discretion standard.” 1 “However, in the...

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