State v. Mathers

Citation165 Ariz. 64,796 P.2d 866
Decision Date26 June 1990
Docket NumberNo. CR-88-0001-AP,CR-88-0001-AP
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Jimmy Lee MATHERS, Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Arizona

MOELLER, Justice.


Defendant Jimmy Lee Mathers, along with co-defendants Fred Lawrence Robinson and Theodore Washington, was convicted of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, two counts of aggravated assault, first degree burglary, and armed robbery. All three defendants received death sentences for the murder and terms of imprisonment for the remaining offenses. All three appeals were consolidated for oral argument. This opinion addresses only Mathers' appeal. The appeals of Robinson and Washington are the subject of a separate opinion of this court. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Ariz. Const. art. 6, § 5(3), and A.R.S. §§ 13-4031 and 13-4033.


The following issue is dispositive of this case:

Whether the trial court erred in denying Mathers' Rule 20 motion for judgment of acquittal made at the close of the prosecution's case.


The nature of the question presented requires a fact-intensive analysis of all the evidence as it relates to Mathers, which follows later in this opinion. We set forth here an overview. Additional background facts are contained in the court's consolidated opinion concerning co-defendants Robinson and Washington. See State v. Robinson, --- Ariz. ----, 796 P.2d 853 (1990).

Defendants Robinson, Washington and Mathers were friends living in Banning, California. All three were acquainted with Susan Hill (Susan), who was involved in a long, stormy relationship with Robinson.

Susan and Robinson separated in 1983. In February 1984, Robinson confronted Susan in Pacoima, California, where she lived with her sister. Susan returned with Robinson to Banning after he threatened to "dispose" of her in the desert. After a few months, Susan returned to Pacoima. Susan later moved from Pacoima to live with her sister in North Hollywood.

In June 1986, Robinson and two men unconnected with this case confronted Susan in North Hollywood. Susan returned to Banning with Robinson after the other two men had tied up her sister and her niece at gunpoint, and after Robinson told Susan that he had intended to kill her.

In November 1986, Susan again left Robinson in Banning to live in Philadelphia with an aunt and uncle. In January 1987, Robinson drove to Philadelphia from California with his two sons, Andre and Truman, his cousin Louis Charles and Mathers. Susan accompanied the group back to California. On the way, Robinson and Mathers quarreled and Robinson abandoned Mathers in Oklahoma.

In March 1987, Susan moved out again, this time to Yuma to live with her parents, the Hills, for a few weeks. In April, she returned to Pacoima to live with her grandmother but, after two days, moved to her sister's house in Pasadena.

On June 8, 1987, Robinson told his son Andre that he was going to Yuma to see if Susan was living there with her parents. Andre saw Robinson and Mathers put a duffle bag and some guns in Robinson's car. Andre stated that Mathers said "they was going to Arizona to take care of business." Robinson, Mathers and Washington were seen driving off together around 6:00 p.m.

Later that evening, LeSean Hill (Susan's brother) was watching television in his home in Yuma. A man who identified himself as "James" knocked at the door, stating that he owed LeSean's father money. When LeSean opened the door, the man forced his way into the Hills' home. LeSean escaped to a neighbor's house and called police.

Meanwhile, Ralph Hill, Sr. and his wife, Sterleen, left their bedroom to investigate the noises. Two armed men forced the Hills back into their bedroom, stating they were narcotics agents and demanding drugs and money. The Hills were forced to lie down on the floor. While lying on the floor, Ralph looked up and saw a black man with a mustache and red bandana go through his closet and drawers, but did not see the man who stood over him. A voice in the background said "we better get the kid." The Hills were then tied up. Both were shot in the back; Mrs. Hill was killed and Ralph Hill was seriously injured. A cigarette lighter holder, a watch, and a locked box containing a gold watch and coins were stolen from the home.

After hearing of the shootings, members of the Hill family left California in two cars to go to Yuma. They stopped in Banning to pick up Robinson's boys. As the group was driving near Coachella, California, they saw Mathers, walking west, toward Banning. One of the Robinson boys informed the Hill family group that Mathers had been with Robinson in Banning the day before the shootings. Susan's brother, Ralph, Jr., who was in one of the cars, testified that one member of the Hill family pulled a gun on Mathers; however, this was denied by other family members. Mathers quickly fled on foot to a nearby supermarket. At some point during the confrontation, Mathers said he had been in Arizona and that Robinson was in Yuma. Later, police questioned Mathers concerning his possible involvement in the shootings and transported him to Yuma, where he was arrested.

After denial of his motion seeking severance, Mathers was tried and convicted along with Robinson and Washington. He was sentenced to death for the murder and terms of imprisonment for the remaining offenses.

A. The Standard of Review

Rule 20(a), Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure, provides:

Before Verdict. On motion of a defendant or on its own initiative, the court shall enter a judgment of acquittal of one or more offenses charged in an indictment, information or complaint after the evidence on either side is closed, if there is no substantial evidence to warrant a conviction. The court's decision on a defendant's motion shall not be reserved, but shall be made with all possible speed.

Defendant Mathers made a Rule 20 motion for acquittal at the close of the state's case and renewed it at the close of all the evidence. 1 He also made post-verdict motions, again raising the argument that the evidence was insufficient. All motions were denied.

Where there is a complete absence of probative facts to support a conviction, we will reverse a trial court's denial of a Rule 20 motion. State v. Wiley, 144 Ariz. 525, 539, 698 P.2d 1244, 1258 (1985), overruled on other grounds, State v. Superior Ct., 157 Ariz. 541, 760 P.2d 541 (1988); cf. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 573 (1979) ("the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt"). A motion for acquittal made at the close of the prosecution's case is tested on the sufficiency of the evidence at that point. See State v. Neal, 143 Ariz. 93, 98, 692 P.2d 272, 277 (1984) (motion for judgment of acquittal is designed to test sufficiency of state's evidence). The principle that a defendant waives the motion by himself supplying the evidence missing in the state's case is not involved in this case because Mathers did not present any evidence. See State v. Savoy, 109 Ariz. 531, 532, 514 P.2d 452, 453 (1973); State v. Hanshe, 105 Ariz. 529, 530, 468 P.2d 382, 383 (1970); State v. Adrian, 24 Ariz.App. 344, 346, 538 P.2d 773, 775 (1975).

In analyzing the propriety of the jury's verdict, we must remain cognizant of the fundamental mandate of our criminal code:

A defendant in a criminal action is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved, and in case of a reasonable doubt whether his guilt is satisfactorily shown, he is entitled to be acquitted.

A.R.S. § 13-115(A). This doctrine, universal in American law, requires the factfinder to rationally apply the reasonable doubt standard to the facts in evidence. Jackson, 443 U.S. at 317, 99 S.Ct. at 2788, 61 L.Ed.2d at 572. The fact that a jury convicts a defendant does not in itself negate the validity of the earlier motion for acquittal. If it did, a jury finding of guilt would always cure the erroneous denial of an acquittal motion. This would render meaningless Rule 20 and the whole concept of judicial review of sufficiency of the evidence. The United States Supreme Court has noted, "a properly instructed jury may occasionally convict even when it can be said that no rational trier of fact could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt...." Jackson, 443 U.S. at 317, 99 S.Ct. at 2788, 61 L.Ed.2d at 572.

A judgment of acquittal is appropriate where there is "no substantial evidence to warrant a conviction." Rule 20, Ariz.R.Crim.Pro., 17 A.R.S.; State v. Clabourne, 142 Ariz. 335, 345, 690 P.2d 54, 64 (1984). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such proof that "reasonable persons could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a conclusion of defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Jones, 125 Ariz. 417, 419, 610 P.2d 51, 53 (1980); see also State v. Edwards, 136 Ariz. 177, 186, 665 P.2d 59, 68 (1983).

B. The Evidence Relied Upon by the State

The state argues that the evidence is sufficient to support Mathers' convictions. Before discussing the state's argument and our analysis, we set forth in full that portion of the state's brief which contends that Mathers' convictions are sustainable:

In order to prove that appellant Mathers was guilty of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, armed robbery, and two counts of aggravated assault, the state presented evidence that appellant Mathers, and codefendants Robinson and Washington left Banning, California, and drove to Yuma, Arizona, on the afternoon of June 8, 1987. Appellant Mathers told Andre Robinson before they left...

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