State v. Martinez

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation2006 NMSC 007,130 P.3d 731
Docket NumberNo. 28,623.,28,623.
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Manuel MARTINEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date16 February 2006

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130 P.3d 731
2006 NMSC 007
STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Manuel MARTINEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 28,623.
Supreme Court of New Mexico.
February 16, 2006.

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John Bigelow, Chief Public Defender, Nancy M. Hewitt, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, New Mexico, for Appellant.

Patricia A. Madrid, Attorney General, Victoria M. Wilson, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, New Mexico, for Appellee.


BOSSON, Chief Justice.

{1} Defendant Manuel Martinez is charged with two counts of first degree murder and one count of kidnapping, robbery and aggravated burglary. The charges arise from the killings of Ervin and Julia Tafoya in their home. The State seeks the death penalty for both killings based on the aggravating circumstance that the victims were killed to prevent them from reporting crimes they had witnessed. See NMSA 1978, § 31-20A-5(G) (1981). The State also seeks the death penalty for the killing of Mrs. Tafoya for the aggravating circumstance that she was intentionally killed in the commission of a kidnapping. See § 31-20A-5(B).

{2} Defendant moved to dismiss all of the aggravating circumstances thereby making him ineligible for the death penalty. See State v. Ogden, 118 N.M. 234, 239, 880 P.2d 845, 850 (1994) The district court conducted

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an evidentiary hearing and determined there was sufficient evidence to establish probable cause that all the alleged aggravating circumstances were present. On interlocutory appeal, pursuant to Ogden, we find no probable cause to support the murder-of-a-witness aggravating factor for either killing. However, we affirm the district court's decision finding probable cause existed that Mrs. Tafoya was intentionally killed in the commission of a kidnapping.


{3} Ervin and Julia Tafoya operated a rock and gem store attached to their residence in Hobbs, New Mexico. The couple was elderly and in poor health. Mr. Tafoya used a cane to walk, and Mrs. Tafoya was on oxygen because of health problems. Mrs. Tafoya's mobility was extremely limited and she usually stayed in her bedroom, sitting in a chair.

{4} On July 24, 2003, Mr. and Mrs. Tafoya were robbed and attacked in their home. The Tafoyas' daughter, Rosetta Bland, discovered the couple when she came to check on them that evening. When she entered their home, Ms. Bland noticed certain things out of place. The back door was closed and one of her father's shirts was covering the window of the door. Usually, this window was never covered. Once inside, Ms. Bland noticed there were items from a chest of drawers scattered all over the floor. Mrs. Tafoya, who was still conscious, said they were robbed and instructed her daughter to check on her father in the other room because she had heard him fall. Ms. Bland went into the kitchen and found her father dead on the kitchen floor near the entrance way to the gem store. Ms. Bland returned to her mother and turned on the lights to find her covered in blood and bound to her chair by her husband's suspenders with her hands tied behind her back.

{5} Mrs. Tafoya had stab wounds to her neck and chest as well as defensive wounds to her arms and hands. She died two days later of her injuries. Mr. Tafoya had multiple stab wounds throughout his body.

{6} Subsequently, the police conducted several interviews with Defendant. Defendant changed his story many times, first denying involvement, then claiming he was only the lookout. He finally admitted to being present in the house when the murders occurred and to stealing a gun and some jewelry, but he maintained that another man actually did the killings. Defendant stated he went to the Tafoya home with the intention of stealing rocks and gems to buy drugs, but, in his words, the robbery had "gone bad."

{7} Defendant moved to dismiss all the aggravating circumstances, but after an evidentiary hearing the district court ruled there was probable cause to proceed with the death penalty. On interlocutory appeal, the State argues the district court correctly found probable cause to go forward on the murder-of-a-witness aggravating factor with respect to both killings. The State's overarching theory is that both victims were killed to prevent them from reporting the burglary and robbery of their home and gem store. The State points to the Tafoyas' elderly age and disabilities, reasoning that Defendant did not need to kill them to succeed in the robbery, and therefore, the motive must have been to silence them as witnesses. The State also relies on evidence that Defendant attempted to conceal his involvement in both crimes, thereby giving rise to an inference that Defendant's motive for murder was to conceal his identity.

{8} The State further argues for a second aggravating factor with respect to the murder of Mrs. Tafoya; that Defendant had the intent to kill her during the commission of a kidnapping. Defendant challenges the trial court's finding of probable cause regarding both the aggravating factors. We now review both determinations.


Standard of Review

{9} In Ogden, we held that a pretrial ruling is appropriate to assess aggravating death penalty factors, and thereby prevent unwarranted death penalty prosecutions and needless waste of time, expense and judicial resources. 118 N.M. at 238-39, 880 P.2d at 849-50. "Pretrial review of aggravating circumstances is intended to screen out only those cases in which the State does not have

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any significant factual or legal basis for pursuing the death penalty. . . ." Id. at 240, 880 P.2d at 851. Accordingly, we apply a probable cause standard of review. Id.

{10} The standard of review for rulings on probable cause will be affected depending on whether the question is one of fact, law or mixed fact and law. Id. at 239, 880 P.2d at 850. When the district court is presented with a question of fact or a mixed question of fact and law, as in this case, it should dismiss when there is no probable cause to believe the aggravating circumstance is present. Id. The State bears the burden of persuasion to establish probable cause. Id. at 240, 880 P.2d at 851. The district court does not weigh the evidence and, on appeal, we review questions of fact to "see whether the district court correctly evaluated probable cause to support the aggravating circumstance." Id.; accord State v. Coffin, 1999-NMSC-038, ¶ 48, 128 N.M. 192, 991 P.2d 477. Probable cause exists when there is "`that degree of evidence to bring within reasonable probabilities the fact that [an aggravating circumstance] was committed by the accused.'" State v. Young, 2004-NMSC-015, ¶ 2, 135 N.M. 458, 90 P.3d 477 (quoting State v. Garcia, 79 N.M. 367, 368-69, 443 P.2d 860, 861-62 (1968)).

Aggravating Circumstances

{11} To avoid the arbitrary imposition of capital punishment, the State must insure that aggravating factors "justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder." Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983); see also McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 305, 107 S.Ct. 1756, 95 L.Ed.2d 262 (1987); Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976). To justify the death penalty, the United States Supreme Court has mandated that states create a sentencing scheme that insures the punishment of death is only applied to "materially more `depraved'" murderers, a narrowly tailored class of the worst offenders. Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 433, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 64 L.Ed.2d 398 (1980); see also State v. Clark, 108 N.M. 288, 304, 772 P.2d 322, 338 (1989), overruled on other grounds by State v. Henderson, 109 N.M. 655, 789 P.2d 603 (1990) (citing Godfrey). To this end, the Capital Felony Sentencing Act enumerates seven aggravating circumstances that make a first degree murder eligible for the death penalty. The two at issue here are murder of a witness, and murder, with intent to kill, during the commission of a kidnapping. See § 31-20A-5(B), (G).

Murder of a Witness

{12} A first degree murder becomes death eligible if the murder is of a "witness to a crime or any person likely to become a witness to a crime, for the purpose of preventing report of the crime or testimony in any criminal proceeding." Section 31-20A-5(G); see also UJI 14-7023. To establish this aggravating factor at trial, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the victim was a witness to a crime or was likely to become a witness to a crime, and (2) the defendant murdered the victim with the motive to prevent the victim from reporting the crime or testifying in a criminal proceeding. UJI 14-7023. The crime witnessed must be separate from the murder. Id. The key is the defendant's motive or reason for killing the victim. Clark, 108 N.M. at 304, 772 P.2d at 338. At the pretrial Ogden stage, the issue is whether the State can show "probable cause to believe a jury could reasonably find that [the defendant] killed the victim as a witness." State v. Willis, 1997-NMSC-014, ¶ 18, 123 N.M. 55, 933 P.2d 854.

{13} When ruling on the existence of probable cause that murder was committed for the purpose of silencing a witness, we bear in mind the legislative policy in enumerating a limited number of narrowly tailored aggravating circumstances. In creating these limited circumstances in Section 31-20A-5(B), our Legislature determined that murderers who kill witnesses to prevent them from testifying or reporting a separate crime, represent a narrowly tailored class. Narrowing the class of murders to which the death penalty applies, in part to those murders committed to avoid detection and arrest, withstands Eighth Amendment scrutiny and

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is therefore a constitutional application of the death penalty. Clark, 108 N.M. at 304, 772 P.2d at 338.

{14} In so narrowing this class of murderers, the Legislature, lest it run afoul of the Eighth...

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