State v. Marsh, No. 81,135.

Decision Date17 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 81,135.
PartiesSTATE OF KANSAS, Appellee, v. MICHAEL LEE MARSH II, Appellant.
CourtKansas Supreme Court

Rebecca E. Woodman and Steven R. Zinn, capital appellate defenders, argued the cause and were on the briefs for appellant.

John K. Bork, assistant attorney general, argued the cause, and Kristafer Ailslieger, Jared Maag, and Elizabeth Reimer, assistant attorneys general, and Carla J. Stovall, attorney general, were on the brief for appellee. The opinion of the court was delivered by

ALLEGRUCCI, LUCKERT, GERNON, and BEIER, JJ.:

This is an appeal by the defendant, Michael L. Marsh II, from convictions of capital murder of Marry Elizabeth Pusch (M.P.), first-degree premeditated murder of Marry Ane Pusch (Marry), aggravated arson, and aggravated burglary. Marsh has been sentenced to death for the capital offense, life imprisonment with a mandatory minimum term of 40 years for the murder of Marry, 51 months for aggravated arson, and 34 months for aggravated burglary. The district court ordered the last three sentences to be served consecutively.

On appeal, Marsh raises 18 issues arising from the guilt phase of the trial and 16 issues from the penalty phase. We begin by observing that there is a heightened scrutiny of trial proceedings in a capital case. Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 637-38, 65 L. Ed. 2d 392, 100 S. Ct. 2382 (1980). However, because we conclude K.S.A. 21-4624(e) is unconstitutional on its face, precluding application of the death penalty, we will not apply a heightened scrutiny standard of review to the remaining issues on appeal.

We deem the following issues to be controlling: (1) Is there substantial competent evidence to support each of Marsh's convictions? (2) Was evidence improperly excluded by the district court? (3) Is K.S.A. 21-4624(e) unconstitutional on its face? (4) Is there substantial competent evidence to support imposition of a hard 40 sentence for the premeditated murder of Marry? and, (5) Is the hard 40 sentencing scheme set forth in K.S.A. 2003 Supp. 21-4635(a) unconstitutional?

FACTS

On the evening of June 17, 1996, Marry and her 19-month-old daughter, M.P., were murdered in their Wichita home. Marry died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds to her head and a knife wound to her heart. The perpetrator or perpetrators apparently did not physically harm M.P before setting the house afire and leaving the child to die in the ensuing conflagration. M.P. sustained severe burns to her body, resulting in multiple organ failure and death on June 23, 1996. Fire investigators determined the fire was intentionally started with an accelerant applied to Marry's body. An autopsy revealed Marry had been shot 3 times, stabbed in the heart, and her throat slashed. The county coroner concluded Marry had died as a result of her wounds, with her body set afire after death.

In the initial stages of investigation, detectives interviewed Marry's husband, Eric Pusch (Pusch), who mentioned having spent most of June 17 with a friend, Michael Marsh, before going to work at approximately 4:30 p.m. as a delivery man for a local Pizza Hut. This led the police to interview Marsh.

A series of interviews with Marsh resulted in his confession to shooting Marry and abandoning M.P. when he fled the residence. He told the detectives his motive was to obtain money from the Pusch family. According to Marsh, he planned to be in the home when Marry and M.P. arrived, tie them up, and wait until Pusch got home. He would then threaten Pusch with harm to his wife and child to obtain the money needed for a trip to Alaska. Marsh indicated his plan went awry when Marry and M.P. arrived at the house earlier than he had anticipated; he panicked and shot Marry. Initially, he told detectives he could not recall how many times he pulled the trigger; subsequently, he indicated firing the gun once. Marsh was equivocal regarding the fire. At one point he indicated he probably did set the fire; at another point he stated he could not remember; and, finally, he denied setting the fire. Marsh denied Pusch was in any way involved in committing the crimes.

There was substantial evidence corroborating Marsh's confession. Marsh lived with his grandparents. Keys to the Pusch home were found discarded in a yard next to the grandparents' home. Among the items recovered during execution of a search warrant at the grandparents' residence were a .25 caliber pistol with five cartridges in the magazine, Marsh's bloodstained tennis shoes, a pillow with bullet holes in it wrapped in duct tape, and a water bottle with duct tape around its neck. Expert testimony at trial established the pillow and bottle could be used as a makeshift silencer.

Both Marry's and M.P.'s clothing tested positive for medium petroleum vapors consistent with lighter fluid. However, Marsh's clothing and shoes tested negative for vapors. Marry's blood was found on one of Marsh's tennis shoes; inexplicably, so also was the blood of Pusch.

Prior to trial, the State filed a motion in limine to prevent Marsh from introducing circumstantial evidence suggesting that Pusch stabbed Marry and set the fire killing M.P. The State contended that Kansas law would prevent admission of circumstantial evidence tending to implicate Pusch in the face of direct evidence Marsh killed Marry and set the fire. Marsh's trial counsel argued there was substantial evidence linking Pusch to the crimes and proffered the evidence the defendant sought to introduce at trial. The district court granted the State's motion in limine, reasoning that the State's evidence against Marsh was direct and thus the defense could not present the proffered circumstantial evidence to implicate Pusch.

The jury found Marsh guilty of capital murder of M.P., first-degree murder of Marry, aggravated arson, and aggravated burglary. At the penalty phase of the trial, the State relied upon the following statutory aggravating factors to support a death sentence: (1) Marsh knowingly or purposely killed or created a great risk of death to more than one person; (2) he committed the crime in order to avoid or prevent a lawful arrest or prosecution; and (3) he committed the crime in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner. See K.S.A. 21-4625. The jury found all three aggravating circumstances existed and were not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances and unanimously agreed to a sentence of death.

At sentencing, the trial judge found sufficient evidence to support the sentence of death recommended by the jury. See K.S.A. 21-4624(f). The trial judge also found the same three aggravating circumstances were not outweighed by mitigating circumstances to support imposition of a hard-40 sentence. See K.S.A. 2003 Supp. 21-4638. Marsh also was sentenced to 51 months for aggravated arson and 34 months for aggravated burglary, with all sentences to be served consecutively.

SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

The issue on appeal is limited to whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's verdict finding Marsh guilty of capital murder. Marsh contends the evidence was insufficient to establish that: (1) he set the fire; (2) M.P.'s burns were the proximate cause of her death; or (3) he intentionally killed M.P. with premeditation. When a sufficiency of the evidence issue is raised, our standard of review is whether, after review of all the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the appellate court is convinced that a rational factfinder could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Zabrinas, 271 Kan. 422, 441-42, 24 P.3d 77 (2001).

Marsh confessed to the crime of aggravated burglary. He admitted hiding in the Pusch home and shooting Marry in the head when she came into the bedroom. The .25 caliber pistol used to shoot Marry was subsequently found in Marsh's backpack at his grandparents' home. He admitted to attempting to start a fire with matches to conceal his crimes but claimed this was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, we know from the uncontroverted evidence there was a fire that caused burns to more than 75 percent of M.P.'s body. Although there is no direct evidence Marsh set the fire, the circumstantial evidence is sufficient for a rational factfinder to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so and that he abandoned M.P. to die in the fire.

Marsh also argues the evidence was insufficient to establish M.P.'s burns were the proximate cause of her death. This argument must fail. Both the treating physician and the medical coroner testified M.P.'s cause of death resulted from the extensive burns to her body and the related failure of internal organs. Conversely, both doctors concluded the drugs given to M.P. at the hospital did not cause her death.

A conviction of even the gravest offense may be sustained by circumstantial evidence, State v. Penn, 271 Kan. 561, 564, 23 P.3d 889 (2001), and it is the function of a jury and not an appellate court to weigh evidence and pass on the credibility of witnesses. State v. Moore, 269 Kan. 27, 30, 4 P.3d 1141 (2000). After considering all of the evidence presented to the jury for its consideration upon this issue, we conclude Marsh's sufficiency of the evidence arguments must fail.

THE EXCLUSION OF MARSH'S EVIDENCE

Marsh contends the district court erred in excluding evidence connecting Pusch to the crimes. Marsh argues the court's pretrial order in limine excluding the evidence was erroneous for two reasons: First, the Kansas third-party evidence rule only excludes motive evidence in the absence of other relevant evidence, circumstantial or direct, to connect a third party to the crime; and second, after Pusch testified as a witness for the State, the "door was opened" and the order in limine should have been disregarded.

"`The purpose of a motion in limine is to assure all parties a fair and impartial trial by prohibiting inadmissible evidence,
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