State v. Santiesteban, 010821 NMSC, S-1-SC-37856

Docket NºS-1-SC-37856
Opinion JudgeBARBARA J. VIGIL, JUSTICE
Party NameSTATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. YOAN PENA SANTIESTEBAN, Defendant-Appellant.
AttorneyBennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Caitlin C.M. Smith, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Anne E. Minard, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Appellee
Judge PanelWE CONCUR: MICHAEL E. VIGIL, Chief Justice, C. SHANNON BACON, Justice, DAVID K. THOMSON, Justice
Case DateJanuary 08, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

YOAN PENA SANTIESTEBAN, Defendant-Appellant.

No. S-1-SC-37856

Supreme Court of New Mexico

January 8, 2021

This decision of the Supreme Court of New Mexico was not selected for publication in the New Mexico Appellate Reports. Refer to Rule 12-405 NMRA for restrictions on the citation of unpublished decisions. Electronic decisions may contain computer-generated errors or other deviations from the official version filed by the Supreme Court.

APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF BERNALILLO COUNTY Brett R. Loveless, District Judge

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Caitlin C.M. Smith, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Anne E. Minard, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Appellee

DECISION

BARBARA J. VIGIL, JUSTICE

{¶1} Mr. Severinghaus was shot and killed on the morning of May 26, 2017. Mr. Santiesteban (Defendant) was later convicted of his murder along with other crimes and sentenced to life in prison plus sixty-eight years and six months. On appeal, Defendant argues that his conviction is improper for three reasons. First, he argues that the district court should have granted a mistrial when the State's primary witness, Defendant's ex-girlfriend, improperly testified about Defendant's other murder charges. Second, Defendant argues that the district court erred in admitting polygraph evidence of the State's primary witness. Third, Defendant argues that his sentence violates double jeopardy and that a firearm enhancement was improperly added to his sentence.

{¶2} Our analysis of Defendant's first two arguments leads us to conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in either ruling. However, we agree that Defendant's sentence is improper for both of the reasons set forth by Defendant. Therefore, we affirm Defendant's conviction for the murder of Mr. Severinghaus but vacate his sentence for shooting at a motor vehicle and his one-year firearm enhancement.

I. BACKGROUND

{¶3} Defendant and his ex-girlfriend, Gloria Chavez, were charged with committing multiple murders in May of 2017. Ms. Chavez signed a plea agreement and agreed to testify against Defendant. Defendant's murder charges were severed for trial. Defendant's first murder trial ended in a hung jury. Defendant's second murder trial, for the death of Mr. Severinghaus, lasted two weeks and resulted in a guilty verdict.

{¶4} During Defendant's second trial, the evidence revealed the following. At approximately 6:00 a.m. on the morning of May 26, 2017, Mr. Severinghaus left his house for work. Just after starting his car in the driveway, he was shot and killed. Mr. Severinghaus's mother testified that from inside the house, she heard "two very loud popping sounds." She looked out the window and saw a thin Hispanic man who was "[a]bout medium height, wearing gray cargo shorts, [a] dark T-shirt, [and a] baseball cap, dark gray." She saw the man get into a small, white car and drive away. Mr. Severinghaus's mother then ran to her son, who was bleeding profusely and lying face down in the driveway. Mr. Severinghaus died at the scene shortly thereafter.

{¶5} The Severinghaus's neighbor, Ms. Fachini, also testified that while walking in the neighborhood around the same time that morning, she spotted a small, white car parked in the middle of the street. She said that she heard three gunshots before watching a man drive away in the white car. She said the man looked slender and wore a gray-brown colored t-shirt. A second neighbor, Ms. Marshall, testified similarly saying that she was awakened by three loud bangs. Ms. Marshall's home surveillance camera also captured a white car driving by the house around the same time.

{¶6} An autopsy later revealed three bullet tracks through Mr. Severinghaus's neck, chest, and back. The forensic pathologist testified that there was evidence of gunpowder stippling on his face, which indicated that he was shot at intermediate range. Ultimately, Mr. Severinghaus's cause of death was gunshot wounds to the neck and torso, which caused severe blood loss.

{¶7} Later that morning, Defendant went to Wells Fargo bank in Albuquerque claiming to be Mr. Severinghaus and asked to change the PIN on his bank card. A suspicious bank employee called the police who arrested Defendant. Defendant told police that he had found Mr. Severinghaus's wallet on the side of the road and admitted to trying to use his bank card and identification but denied any involvement in his death. Nevertheless, Defendant was indicted for the death of Mr. Severinghaus and was tried by a jury for first-degree murder.

{¶8} As was part of Ms. Chavez's plea agreement, she testified for the State during Defendant's trial. Ms. Chavez's version of events around the time of the crime went as follows. She and Defendant were together at a casino on the evening of May 25, 2017, the night before Mr. Severinghaus died. After the casino closed at 5:30 a.m. on May 26, 2017, they had sex in his car in the parking lot and then drove around town. She stated that they planned to steal something but did not specify what. She stated that Defendant drove them around a neighborhood that she did not recognize before stopping at Mr. Severinghaus's house. Ms. Chavez recalled that Defendant "got out of the car and walked straight to the driver's side door and just started shooting at [Mr. Severinghaus]." Defendant then grabbed Mr. Severinghaus's wallet and came back to the car. He then took a rag from his car and wiped down the door of Mr. Severinghaus's car. Ms. Chavez said that when they were unsuccessful at using Mr. Severinghaus's bank card at an ATM and changing his PIN over the phone, they went home, changed clothes, and then went to the bank where Defendant pretended to be Mr. Severinghaus.

{¶9} Ms. Chavez also testified that she and Defendant used methamphetamine and delivered drugs together. In response to defense counsel's questioning on cross-examination, Ms. Chavez said that her drug use affected her memory. On redirect examination, the State questioned Ms. Chavez on the clarity of her memories: State: Your testimony yesterday to defense counsel was that you lost track of time at some points around May 26th, 2017. Do you remember that testimony?

Ms. Chavez: Yes, sir.

State: Why was that?

Ms. Chavez: Just because I was high and playing at the casino. I don't really remember too much of time.

State: Are there events regarding that time frame that are clear in your memory?

Ms. Chavez: Yes, sir.

State: Why is it that some of those memories are clearer?

Ms. Chavez: Because they were so sad. I don't know what you mean. Sorry.

State: Well, let's talk about that. Because they're so sad.

The ones that stick out in your memory because they're so sad, what are you referring to exactly?

Ms. Chavez: Like, lifes were tooken [sic].

….

State: The events that stand out most to you, would it be fair to say they're the events related to the crimes that happened at this time?

Ms. Chavez: Yes, sir.

(Emphasis added.) Defendant later moved for a mistrial arguing that Ms. Chavez's testimony that "lifes were tooken [sic]," was an improper reference to the other murders that Defendant was indicted for. The district court found no basis for the mistrial as there was no information presented to the jury to suggest that Ms. Chavez was talking about the other deaths and further, the prosecutor did not intentionally elicit the statement. Therefore, the district court denied the motion for mistrial.

{¶10} To strengthen Ms. Chavez's credibility, the State introduced testimony from a polygraph examiner who stated that he performed a polygraph examination on Ms. Chavez. The polygraph examiner testified that he asked Ms. Chavez three questions regarding whether, at the time of the murder, she ever left the car or touched Mr. Severinghaus's car. She responded that she had not, and the polygraph examiner concluded that she was telling the truth. He testified that there was only a ten percent chance that she was misleading him.

{¶11} Defense counsel objected to the polygraph examiner's testimony arguing that the testimony should be excluded because polygraphy is not "generally accepted as a field of science in the courts" and is not "accepted around the country, other than in New Mexico." The judge overruled this objection and admitted the testimony.

{¶12} At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, aggravated burglary, armed robbery, shooting at a motor vehicle resulting in great bodily harm, identity theft, and conspiracy to commit burglary and fraud. Defendant was sentenced to life in prison plus sixty-eight years and six months. Defendant directly appealed his convictions to...

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