State v. Matt, DA 06-0134.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
Citation199 P.3d 244,2008 MT 444,347 Mont. 530
Docket NumberNo. DA 06-0134.,DA 06-0134.
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. William John MATT, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date30 December 2008
199 P.3d 244
2008 MT 444
347 Mont. 530
STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee,
William John MATT, Defendant and Appellant.
No. DA 06-0134.
Supreme Court of Montana.
Submitted on Briefs June 6, 2007.
Decided December 30, 2008.

[199 P.3d 246]

For Appellant: Chad Wright, Hooks & Wright, Helena, Montana.

For Appellee: Hon. Mike McGrath, Montana Attorney General, Pamela P. Collins,

[199 P.3d 247]

Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Fred Van Valkenburg, Missoula County Attorney, Andrew Paul, Deputy County Attorney, Missoula, Montana.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 William John Matt appeals from his conviction of deliberate homicide in the Fourth Judicial District Court, Missoula County. We reverse and remand for a new trial.


¶ 2 Matt raises three issues on appeal:

1. Did the District Court err in limiting Matt's cross-examination of one of the State's witnesses?

2. Did Matt's trial counsel provide constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel?

3. Was Matt's constitutional right to be present at all critical stages of his trial violated and, if so, was the violation harmless error?

¶ 3 Because we conclude that Matt's conviction must be reversed under Issue 3, we do not address Issues 1 and 2. Moreover, since this case is being remanded for a new trial, we do not provide substantial details regarding the facts underlying the charged offense.


¶ 4 The State of Montana filed an information, and subsequently an amended information, charging Matt with deliberate homicide, a felony, in violation of § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA (commonly known as "felony murder"). As alleged in the State's probable-cause affidavit, the body of Steven Rodriguez was found the morning of June 22, 2004, submerged in an irrigation canal near the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was drowning and that Rodriguez had nonlethal injuries consistent with having been in a fight. Following an investigation, the State developed the theory that Matt, Rodriguez, Andrew Greybull, and Kevin Oldhorn had been drinking together under the Madison Street Bridge and that Matt, Greybull, and Oldhorn had taken turns beating up Rodriguez, who was "too drunk to defend himself." Allegedly, Matt, Greybull, and Oldhorn threw Rodriguez in the canal several times, and Greybull and Oldhorn took turns holding Rodriguez's head underwater for ten to fifteen seconds at a time. They eventually left Rodriguez's body floating in the canal. According to the State, Greybull removed Rodriguez's boots during the course of these events and later sold them at a local pawnshop, and Matt then used the money obtained from selling the boots to purchase vodka.

¶ 5 The State charged that Matt, with the purpose to promote or facilitate the offense of robbery, aided, abetted, or attempted to aid Greybull and/or Oldhorn in the planning or commission of the robbery of Rodriguez, and that in the course of said robbery, Matt or other persons legally accountable for the robbery caused the death of Rodriguez. Matt pleaded not guilty to this offense, and the case proceeded to trial in April 2005.

¶ 6 At the close of the State's case-in-chief, the trial judge, the prosecutor, and defense counsel met in the judge's chambers. Matt was not present. At the outset, the judge inquired of defense counsel, "Do you have Mr. Matt coming?" to which defense counsel responded, "I don't mind if he's not here." A discussion took place off the record, and then, back on the record, defense counsel added, "I don't need my client here. This is legal. He doesn't get any of this anyway."

¶ 7 Four matters were addressed during the in-chambers conference. First, defense counsel renewed an objection to testimony by a police detective concerning Matt's interview with authorities. She noted that the court had reserved ruling on this objection, and she argued that the detective's testimony was cumulative of the auditory recording played to the jury and that the prejudicial effect of the testimony outweighed any probative value it might have. The prosecutor responded that he had elicited the testimony in question for the purpose of clarifying certain inconsistencies in Matt's statements. The court overruled the objection.

199 P.3d 248

¶ 8 Second, defense counsel requested permission to call Dave McCarthy, a probation officer, to testify about the reputation for truthfulness of Shaun Nimocks, one of the State's witnesses. The court ruled that McCarthy could testify about Nimocks's reputation for truthfulness but that McCarthy could not testify about any underlying offenses or underlying allegations concerning probation violations.

¶ 9 Third, defense counsel requested permission to present the testimony of a police officer who was in possession of a note which (according to counsel) Oldhorn had written to Matt while in jail and jail staff had intercepted. The prosecutor objected, arguing that the note constituted hearsay and that defense counsel could not lay a proper foundation for it. The court ruled that the note was inadmissible.

¶ 10 Fourth, defense counsel moved to dismiss the charge for insufficient evidence. She argued that the prosecutor had failed to prove the elements of the underlying felony of robbery beyond a reasonable doubt, as required to satisfy the felony-murder rule under § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. Moreover, she argued that the prosecutor had failed to establish a "causal connection" between the felonious act and Rodriguez's death. Lastly, she argued that the accomplice testimony presented by the prosecution during its case was insufficient because it was uncorroborated. The court denied the motion.

¶ 11 The jury ultimately found Matt guilty of felony homicide, and the District Court sentenced him to 100 years in the Montana State Prison without the possibility of parole. Matt now appeals his conviction.


¶ 12 Whether a criminal defendant's right to be present at a critical stage of his trial has been violated is a question of constitutional law. Price v. State, 2007 MT 307, ¶ 10, 340 Mont. 109, ¶ 10, 172 P.3d 1236, ¶ 10; see also State v. Mizenko, 2006 MT 11, ¶ 8, 330 Mont. 299, ¶ 8, 127 P.3d 458, ¶ 8. This Court's review of a question of constitutional law is plenary. State v. LaFreniere, 2008 MT 99, ¶ 7, 342 Mont. 309, ¶ 7, 180 P.3d 1161, ¶ 7; In re A.S., 2004 MT 62, ¶ 9, 320 Mont. 268, ¶ 9, 87 P.3d 408, ¶ 9.


¶ 13 Was Matt's constitutional right to be present at all critical stages of his trial violated and, if so, was the violation harmless error?

¶ 14 Matt contends that his state and federal constitutional rights were violated because he was not included at the conference held at the close of the State's case in the trial judge's chambers. Specifically, Matt relies on his rights of confrontation and due process under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and his rights to appear and defend in person and to meet the witnesses against him face to face under Article II, Section 24 of the Montana Constitution. Matt argues that the in-chambers conference was a "critical stage" of his trial and that he did not effectively waive his right to be present at this conference. Matt further argues that the violation of his constitutional right to be present cannot be deemed harmless, and he therefore concludes that his conviction must be reversed.

¶ 15 In response, the State argues that the in-chambers conference was not a "critical stage" of Matt's trial because "[n]o witnesses were questioned" and "the issues discussed were purely legal." The State also contends that a violation of a defendant's right to be present at a critical stage of the trial is not necessarily a "structural" violation. Thus, the State asserts that we must affirm Matt's conviction.

The Right to be Present

¶ 16 The federal constitutional right to be present at all criminal proceedings is one of the most basic rights contained in the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. State v. Tapson, 2001 MT 292, ¶ 14, 307 Mont. 428, ¶ 14, 41 P.3d 305, ¶ 14 (citing Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 338, 90 S.Ct. 1057, 1058, 25 L.Ed.2d 353 (1970)). Although rooted "to a large extent" in the Confrontation Clause, the right to be present is also

199 P.3d 249

protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause "in some situations where the defendant is not actually confronting witnesses or evidence against him." United States v. Gagnon, 470 U.S. 522, 526, 105 S.Ct. 1482, 1484, 84 L.Ed.2d 486 (1985) (per curiam). A defendant has "a due process right to be present in his own person whenever his presence has a relation, reasonably substantial, to the fullness of his opportunity to defend against the charge." Kentucky v. Stincer, 482 U.S. 730, 745, 107 S.Ct. 2658, 2667, 96 L.Ed.2d 631 (1987) (internal quotation marks omitted). The right to be present stems in part from the fact that by his physical presence, the defendant can hear and see the proceedings and can participate in the presentation and preservation of his rights. Bustamante v. Eyman, 456 F.2d 269, 274 (9th Cir.1972); State v. Kennedy, 2004 MT 53, ¶ 16, 320 Mont. 161, ¶ 16, 85 P.3d 1279, ¶ 16. The right is also designed to safeguard the public's interest in a fair and orderly judicial system. Bustamante, 456 F.2d at 274-75; accord Tapson, ¶ 14. Thus, the right to personal presence at all critical stages of the trial is a "fundamental right[ ] of each criminal defendant." Rushen v. Spain, 464 U.S. 114, 117, 104 S.Ct. 453, 455, 78 L.Ed.2d 267 (1983) (per curiam).

¶ 17 Separate and independent of this federal right, "the right to appear and defend in person" is contained in the Declaration of Rights of Montana's 1972 Constitution. See Mont. Const. art. II, § 24. As such, it is a fundamental right. Tapson, ¶ 15. In State v. Reed, 65 Mont. 51, 210 P....

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