State v. McLaughlin, SC 88181.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Missouri
Citation265 S.W.3d 257
Docket NumberNo. SC 88181.,SC 88181.
PartiesSTATE of Missouri, Respondent, v. Scott A. McLAUGHLIN, Appellant.
Decision Date26 August 2008
265 S.W.3d 257
STATE of Missouri, Respondent,
v.
Scott A. McLAUGHLIN, Appellant.
No. SC 88181.
Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc.
August 26, 2008.
Rehearing Denied September 30, 2008.

[265 S.W.3d 259]

Deborah B. Wafer, St. Louis, for Appellant.

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Atty. Gen., Roger W. Johnson, Shaun J. Mackelprang, Asst. Attys. Gen., Jefferson City, for Respondent.

LAURA DENVIR STITH, Judge.


Scott A. McLaughlin was tried and found guilty of first-degree murder. Because the jury deadlocked on the final step of the punishment phase, the question of punishment went to the trial judge, who imposed a sentence of death. Mr. McLaughlin argues that section 565.030.4 prohibited the judge from imposing any sentence but life imprisonment once the jury was unable to agree upon a punishment. He further argues it was error to instruct the jurors that they were required to unanimously agree that mitigating evidence outweighed that in aggravation in order to be required to recommend a life sentence in their response to the second

265 S.W.3d 260

special interrogatory submitted to them in the penalty phase.

In addition, Mr. McLaughlin argues that the trial court erred in finding there was sufficient evidence to support a submission that he forcibly raped the victim, in failing to submit a felony murder instruction, in admitting evidence of prior statements by the victim about his harassing and stalking her and about the protection provided to her by the police and certain victim impact evidence, in failing to sua sponte prohibit certain closing argument and in rejecting certain jury instructions.

For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds no reversible error in any of the above points, finds that the sentence is proportionate to the crime as required under section 565.035.3, RSMo 2000, and affirms the judgment.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The evidence at trial, considered in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, shows that Scott McLaughlin and Beverly Guenther began a tempestuous relationship shortly after they met in 2002. For several months, the two lived together, but their cohabitation was marked by break-ups that were sometimes so serious that Ms. Guenther would obtain a restraining order against Mr. McLaughlin. In the spring of 2003, they ended their amorous relationship, but continued to see each other on social occasions. Throughout their relationship, Mr. McLaughlin frequently called and visited Ms. Guenther at her place of employment.

On October 27, 2003, Mr. McLaughlin was arrested and charged with burglarizing Ms. Guenther's home. He claimed that he was reclaiming things that he left at her house after they stopped living together. He was arraigned on the burglary charge on November 18, 2003.1 Based on this incident, Ms. Guenther sought and received an order of protection against Mr. McLaughlin. On November 20, 2003, while the protective order was still in effect, he drove to Ms. Guenther's place of employment and waited for her to get off of work. When she emerged from the office, he spoke with her as she walked towards her truck.

The state presented expert testimony that the blood spatters and other physical evidence in the parking lot and truck suggested that Mr. McLaughlin at that point forced Ms. Guenther to the ground and raped her, then stabbed her repeatedly, causing a fan-shaped blood stain on the parking lot, and then dragged her body to his car and placed it in the hatchback. Mr. McLaughlin then drove to the river with the intention of disposing of her body. He tried to deposit her body in the river, but ran into some thick underbrush along the bank and left her corpse there. He then returned to sleep in his parked car because one of the tires had become flat when he stopped to dispose of the body.

The next day, Mr. McLaughlin cleaned out the inside of his car with bleach. As the day went on, he became increasingly hyperactive and nervous. Eventually, Mr. McLaughlin asked a friend to take him to a hospital in St. Charles so that he could get some medication for his mental disorder. The police were informed that Mr. McLaughlin was going to be at the hospital, and he was arrested when he arrived.

Mr. McLaughlin was charged with first-degree murder, forcible rape, and two counts of armed criminal action (one based

265 S.W.3d 261

on the murder, the other based on the rape). After admission of all the evidence in the guilt phase, Mr. McLaughlin moved for a judgment of acquittal on the forcible rape charge on the ground that there was no evidence that he had sex with Ms. Guenther while she was alive. The trial court overruled the motion, stating that even if the sexual intercourse occurred at the riverbank after Ms. Guenther was dead, "it's still a part of the continuous series of events that's part of the rape." On the basis of these rulings, Mr. McLaughlin requested that the trial court submit a felony murder instruction to the jury. The court refused, but did submit conventional second-degree murder.

The jury found Mr. McLaughlin guilty of first-degree murder, forcible rape, and armed criminal action based on the first-degree murder allegations. Mr. McLaughlin was acquitted of the armed criminal action charge related to the rape conviction.

At the sentencing phase, the jury heard testimony from Ms. Guenther's surviving relatives about her life and the impact of her murder upon their own lives. The jury also heard fairly extensive testimony regarding Mr. McLaughlin's abusive childhood. Mr. McLaughlin's mother was a prostitute and his father was an alcoholic. His early childhood was marked with abuse and neglect, and he bounced among foster homes until he was placed with his eventual adoptive parents, the McLaughlins, at the age of 5. The McLaughlins also took custody of his younger brother and sister. Mr. McLaughlin continued to suffer abuse at the hands of his adoptive parents. His adoptive father was a police officer and, in addition to paddling the children with a "board of education," would use his taser and nightstick on him. The McLaughlins would also lock the cabinets so the children could not eat. Scott and his childhood friends referred to his house as "the house of horrors."

The jury also heard testimony that Mr. McLaughlin's psychological problems began manifesting themselves when he was a young boy. When Scott was nine years old, he was subjected to extensive intelligence testing because of recurring poor performance and peculiar behavior at school. The testing showed a full scale IQ of 82, which is in the low average range, and resulted in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mild neurological brain damage, learning disabilities, and "adjustment reaction of childhood with depressive features." An elementary school counselor who evaluated Scott at the age of eight wrote, "I would evaluate Scott's psychological problems as being extremely serious. I have worked as an elementary school counselor for nine years in three different schools and had to deal with some very serious cases. Scott's is the most serious of all." During the penalty phase, Mr. McLaughlin also sought to show that his brother helped him dispose of the body, but the trial court rejected this testimony.

After hearing all the evidence, the jury found in step one of its penalty phase deliberations that the statutory aggravating factor of depravity of mind had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In step two, the jurors were unable to unanimously conclude that the factors in mitigation outweighed those in aggravation. They went on to step three, therefore, which directed them to determine whether, under all the circumstances, death was warranted. The jurors were unable to agree on punishment. Under section 545.030, if the jurors are unable to agree unanimously at this step in their deliberations, then the question of punishment goes to the trial court. The trial court considered all of the evidence, including

265 S.W.3d 262

the aggravating factor found by the jury, and sentenced Mr. McLaughlin to death. He appeals his conviction and death sentence.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The evidence is reviewed in the light most favorable to the verdict. State v. Strong, 142 S.W.3d 702, 710 (Mo. banc 2004). The trial court is vested with broad discretion in determining the admissibility of evidence offered at the guilt and penalty phases of a capital case. State v. Storey, 40 S.W.3d 898, 903 (Mo. banc 2001); State v. Middleton, 995 S.W.2d 443, 452 (Mo. banc 1999). This Court's direct appeal review is for prejudice, not mere error, and the trial court's decision will be reversed only if the error was sufficiently prejudicial that it deprived the defendant of a fair trial. Id. Any issue that was not preserved can only be reviewed for plain error, which requires a finding that manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice has resulted from the trial court error. State v. Glass, 136 S.W.3d 496, 507 (Mo. banc 2004).

In addition, in reviewing the jury's decision to impose a death sentence, section 565.035.3 requires this Court to undertake a proportionality review to determine:

(1) Whether the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor;

(2) Whether the evidence supports the jury's or judge's finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance as enumerated in subsection 2 of section 565.032 and any other circumstance found; and (3) Whether the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime, the strength of the evidence, and the defendant.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The Trial Court May Impose a Sentence of Death When the Jury Deadlocks on the Final Step of Section 565.030.4.

Mr. McLaughlin argues that section 565.030.4 is unconstitutional to the extent that it requires the judge to make the findings of fact necessary to make a defendant eligible for...

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