State v. Shackelford, Docket No. 27966 (Idaho 1/20/2010)

Decision Date20 January 2010
Docket NumberDocket No. 27966.,Docket No. 31928.
PartiesSTATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Respondent-Cross Appellant, v. DALE CARTER SHACKELFORD, Defendant-Appellant-Cross Respondent.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho

Appeal from the District Court of the Second Judicial District, State of Idaho, Latah County. Hon. John R. Stegner, District Judge.

Judgment of conviction and sentence of death for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson and preparing false evidence, affirmed.

Griffard Law Offices, Boise, for appellant. Leo N. Griffard, Jr., argued.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General, Boise, for appellant. L. Lamont Anderson argued.

BURDICK, Justice.

Dale Carter Shackelford appeals from his judgment of conviction, based upon jury verdicts finding him guilty of the first-degree murders of Donna Fontaine and Fred Palahniuk, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, and preparing false evidence. He also appeals from his sentences of death for first-degree murder, as well as the partial denial of his claims for post-conviction relief. The State cross-appeals, challenging the district court's grant of post-conviction relief, which set aside Shackelford's death sentences and requires resentencing. We find that any error committed by the district court was harmless, and we therefore affirm on all issues. We affirm the district court's order for resentencing on different grounds.


Dale Shackelford was convicted of the murders of his ex-wife, Donna Fontaine, and her boyfriend, Fred Palahniuk, which occurred near the Latah County town of Kendrick, Idaho, in May 1999. The State alleged that Shackelford conspired with Martha Millar, Bernadette Lasater, Mary Abitz, Sonja Abitz, and, John Abitz.1 Millar and Lasater worked for Shackelford's trucking business, Shackelford Enterprises, in Missouri. The Abitz family lived near the residence where the bodies of Donna and Fred were found. Sonja Abitz was Shackelford's fiancée at the time of the murders, and John and Mary Abitz are Sonja's parents. The alleged conspirators eventually pled guilty to charges related to the murders.

Shackelford and Donna married in Missouri in December 1995 and the relationship ended in the summer of 1997, with the couple divorcing in November of that year. Donna accused Shackelford of raping her in July 1997, and charges were filed in 1998. In the spring of 1999, Donna developed a relationship with Fred and, on May 28, 1999, the two visited Donna's brother, Gary Fontaine, at the home Gary and Donna owned together outside of Kendrick. The morning of May 29, Donna, Fred, and Gary went to the Locust Blossom Festival in Kendrick, where they met John, Mary, and Sonja Abitz.

After leaving the festival, Gary went to the Abitz's house, but he left around dark, returned home, noticed Donna's pickup in the driveway, and smelled smoke. Gary called the Abitz's house and reported that his two-story garage was on fire. Mary, Sonja, Ted Meske (Mary's brother), and Shackelford arrived at the fire and various individuals tried to extinguish it, but were unsuccessful.

At 7:40 p.m., Latah County Sheriff Patrol Deputy Richard Skiles was called to investigate the fire at 2168 Three Bear Road. When Skiles arrived at the scene, nearly an hour later, he observed several persons—including Gary Fontaine, Mary Abitz, Sonja Abitz, Brian Abitz (Sonja's brother), Ted Meske, and Shackelford—standing near the garage that was completely engulfed in flames. Based upon information obtained from Ted and Shackelford, Deputy Skiles contacted dispatch to have an on-call detective sent "because there was a possibility there could be a suicide victim in the fire." By the time the fire department arrived, the garage had been utterly destroyed. Several hours later, after the fire had been extinguished two bodies were found in the rubble. The bodies were subsequently identified as the remains of Donna and Fred. At trial, a state fire investigator testified as to his opinion that the fire was arson.

Doctor Robert Cihak conducted autopsies of the remains, which were severely burned. Shotgun pellets were found in Donna's right chest region and a bullet was found in the back of her neck. Dr. Cihak opined that the bullet wound was fatal and was inflicted when Donna was still alive. A bullet was also found in Fred's body behind the upper breastbone, which Dr. Cihak concluded was the cause of death. Dr. Cihak offered his opinion that Donna and Fred were dead at the time of the fire.

Shackelford was indicted on February 11, 2000, and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit arson, and preparing false evidence. Trial began on October 16, 2000, and concluded December 22, 2000. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts charged in the Indictment. Sentencing commenced on August 27, 2001, and, on October 25, 2001, the district court read its Findings of the Court in Considering Death Penalty. As to Donna's murder, the court found that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt two statutory aggravating factors: I.C. § 192-515(h)(2) (2000) and I.C. § 19-2515(h)(10) (2000).2 As to Fred's murder, the court found the statutory aggravating factor under I.C. § 19-2515(h)(2) (2000).2 After weighing the mitigating factors against the individual statutory aggravating factors, the court concluded that the mitigating factors were not sufficiently compelling to render the death penalty unjust, and sentenced Shackelford to death for both first-degree murders. Shackelford was also given prison sentences for the other felony offenses. The judgment of conviction was filed November 1, 2001. Shackelford appeals from his convictions.

On April 8, 2005, the district court addressed the parties' motions for summary disposition regarding Shackelford's petitions for post-conviction relief. The court granted Shackelford sentencing relief, concluding that Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), mandated that the jury conduct the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors. The court therefore ordered that Shackelford's death sentences be set aside. The court then rejected Shackelford's other Ring claim that the jury must find any aggravating factors, concluding that the jury's verdict established that Shackelford murdered Donna and Fred at the same location and date, thereby establishing the multiple-murder aggravator pursuant to I.C. § 19-2515(h)(2) (2000). The district court concluded that three of Shackelford's other post-conviction claims were moot based upon the court's decision to provide Shackelford with sentencing relief. All of Shackelford's remaining claims were denied. Shackelford's notice of appeal and the State's notice of cross-appeal were timely filed.


Shackelford raises numerous issues in his brief, asserting errors during both the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial. Additionally, the State cross-appeals the district court's decision setting aside Shackelford's death sentences. We will first address Shackelford's claims as to the guilt phase of his trial, and will then turn to the arguments presented regarding sentencing.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Evidentiary Issues

Shackelford contends that the district court erred in admitting into evidence out-of-court statements made by Donna Fontaine, Sonja Abitz, Mary Abitz, and Robin Eckmann.

a. Standard of Review

This Court reviews questions regarding the admissibility of evidence using a mixed standard of review. State v. Stevens, 146 Idaho 139, 143, 191 P.3d 217, 221 (2008). First, whether the evidence is relevant is a matter of law that is subject to free review. State v. Field, 144 Idaho 559, 569, 165 P.3d 273, 283 (2007). Second, we review the district court's determination of whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect for an abuse of discretion. Stevens, 146 Idaho at 143, 191 P.3d at 221. We determine whether the district court abused its discretion by examining: (1) whether the court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) whether the court acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion and consistently within the applicable legal standards; and (3) whether the court reached its decision by an exercise of reason. Id. However, an abuse of discretion may be deemed harmless if a substantial right is not affected. State v. Thompson, 132 Idaho 628, 636, 977 P.2d 890, 898 (1999). "In the case of an incorrect ruling regarding evidence, this Court will grant relief on appeal only if the error affects a substantial right of one of the parties." Obendorf v. Terra Hug Spray Co., 145 Idaho 892, 897, 188 P.3d 834, 839 (2008); I.R.E. 103(a). "Any error, defect, irregularity or variance which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded." I.C.R. 52.

b. The admission of Donna Fontaine's out-of-court statements was in error, but that error was harmless.

Shackelford first argues that the district court erred in allowing multiple out-of-court statements made by Donna Fontaine to be introduced under Idaho Rule of Evidence 803(3) because (1) Shackelford did not inject the issue of the possibility of suicide into the case; (2) even if he did somehow inject suicide as an issue, the disputed statements bear marginal, if any, relevance to the issue of whether Donna may have been inclined to commit suicide; and (3) the admission of Donna's out-of-court statements expressing her fears of Shackelford was highly prejudicial and the prejudicial effect of such evidence substantially outweighed any probative value.

Conversely, the State maintains that (1) Shackelford's statements drove the initial investigation into whether there may have been a suicide victim in the fire; (2) Donna's state of...

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