State v. Sosa-Hurtado

Decision Date31 October 2019
Docket NumberNo. 20180243,20180243
Citation455 P.3d 63
CourtUtah Supreme Court
Parties STATE of Utah, Respondent, v. Yelfris SOSA-HURTADO, Petitioner.

Herschel Bullen, Salt Lake City, for petitioner

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Karen A. Klucznik, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent

Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant and Justice Petersen joined.

Associate Chief Justice Lee, opinion of the Court:

¶1 A jury convicted Yelfris Sosa-Hurtado of aggravated murder. On appeal Sosa-Hurtado challenged his conviction on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the charged aggravator for his conviction—a determination under Utah Code section 76-5-202(1)(c) that he placed another person at "great risk of death" when he killed his victim. He also asserted that the district court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for a new trial. The court of appeals concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the "great risk of death" aggravator. And it affirmed the district court's decision to deny the motion for a new trial.

¶2 Sosa-Hurtado raises the same arguments on certiorari in this court. And we likewise reject them. We first affirm the aggravated murder conviction. In so doing we reaffirm and clarify the standard set forth in our case law for a determination that a murder was committed under circumstances in which the defendant caused a "great risk of death" to another person. We hold that the risk of death need not result directly from the precise act that caused the victim's death. Clarifying and extending the standard set forth in State v. Pierre , 572 P.2d 1338 (Utah 1977), and State v. Johnson , 740 P.2d 1264 (Utah 1987), we hold that Utah Code section 76-5-202(1)(c) may be satisfied if the great risk of death was created within a "brief span of time" of the act causing the murder and the acts together "formed a concatenating series of events." Pierre , 572 P.2d at 1355. We identify factors of relevance to this inquiry, including (1) the temporal relationship between the murderous act and any acts endangering a third person; (2) the spatial relationship between the third party, the murder victim, and the defendant at the time of the acts constituting the murder; and (3) whether and to what extent the third party was actually threatened by the assailant. See State v. Sosa-Hurtado , 2018 UT App 35, ¶ 31, 424 P.3d 948 (identifying these factors, which we endorse here). And we hold that there was a reasonable basis for the jury in this case to conclude that Sosa-Hurtado caused a great risk of death to another in the circumstances of the murder at issue.

¶3 We also affirm the denial of the motion for a new trial. We agree with the court of appeals that the district court acted well within its discretion in declining Sosa-Hurtado's request to submit supplemental evidence in support of his motion for a new trial after the ten-day time limit for filing such a motion under rule 24 of our rules of criminal procedure. And we likewise conclude that the district court did not err in its denial of the motion on its merits.


¶4 Stephen Chavez and his father Isabel Chavez worked at a small smoke shop in Salt Lake City.1 One day Isabel noticed a car parked outside in a manner that could endanger patrons of the shop. Isabel approached the driver of the car, Sosa-Hurtado, and twice asked him to move his car. Sosa-Hurtado refused. Stephen then went outside and asked Sosa-Hurtado to move the car. Sosa-Hurtado again refused and punched Stephen. Stephen fought back and told Sosa-Hurtado to leave. Sosa-Hurtado left.

¶5 Sosa-Hurtado then met with a friend, Vladimir Suarez-Campos, and the two of them crafted a plan to return to the smoke shop to fight Stephen. They returned to the shop and Sosa-Hurtado went inside. Suarez-Campos stayed outside.

¶6 The smoke shop consisted of a single room that was approximately fifteen feet wide and twenty-four feet long. A glass counter extended across most of the north side of the shop. Another stretched across the longer east side. The shop had one door along the west wall that faced the counter along the east.

¶7 Sosa-Hurtado entered the smoke shop and pulled an assault rifle from his jacket. According to Isabel's testimony, when Sosa-Hurtado entered the shop, Stephen and Isabel were standing three to four feet apart from each other behind the counter. A witness who was inside of the shop at the time of the shooting, however, said that Isabel and Stephen were closer—perhaps only two feet apart. Stephen stood at the cash register behind the north counter while Isabel stood behind the east counter. Sosa-Hurtado fired one shot at Isabel with his assault rifle, missing him but shattering a glass case, which hurled glass and wood into Isabel's leg, causing him to fall to the ground.

¶8 Sosa-Hurtado then turned towards Stephen. He fired a shot at Stephen, which hit Stephen's hand. Stephen fell on the floor behind the counter. Isabel began to get up and move towards Stephen. With his back to Isabel, Sosa-Hurtado leaned over the counter, positioned the rifle only inches from Stephen's chest, and shot him twice more. These shots killed Stephen. Only a few feet away, Isabel felt the air displaced by the bullets. Sosa-Hurtado exited the smoke shop and fired several shots into the air outside.

¶9 The State charged Sosa-Hurtado with aggravated murder, discharge of a firearm with injury, and eight counts of discharge of a firearm. The aggravated murder charge was based on the "great risk of death" aggravator under Utah Code section 76-5-202(1)(c).

¶10 The State also charged Suarez-Campos with murder and nine counts of discharge of a firearm. During trial, Suarez-Campos testified for the State pursuant to a plea agreement that would reduce his charges from murder and multiple counts of discharge of a firearm to manslaughter. Suarez-Campos explained that, without the plea agreement, he believed he could face twenty to twenty-five years of imprisonment.

¶11 Sosa-Hurtado's counsel asked Suarez-Campos about a pending aggravated burglary charge against him and suggested that the charge would also be dismissed as part of his plea deal. During a side bar conversation, the prosecution stated that the State's agreement to dismiss the aggravated burglary charge required that Suarez-Campos agree to testify against Sosa-Hurtado in that case as well (Sosa-Hurtado had also been charged with the aggravated burglary, among other charges, in a separate case). Sosa-Hurtado's counsel stated that Suarez-Campos's counsel had informed him that the aggravated burglary charge would be dismissed in exchange for his testimony in the aggravated murder case alone. The State reiterated that the plea deal with Suarez-Campos was predicated on his agreement to testify in the aggravated burglary case.

¶12 Sosa-Hurtado's counsel ceased questioning Suarez-Campos on the issue to prevent the State from introducing evidence that Sosa-Hurtado was charged with aggravated burglary in a separate matter. Sosa-Hurtado's counsel then apologized to the jury for his error in raising the topic, and the district court instructed the jury to disregard any reference or discussion relating to "any unrelated case being dismissed."

¶13 At the close of the State's case, Sosa-Hurtado moved for a directed verdict on the aggravated murder charge, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to allow the jury to conclude that Sosa-Hurtado knowingly placed someone other than Stephen at a great risk of death when he murdered Stephen. The district court denied the motion. The district court concluded that "there [was] an adequate basis for maintaining the aggravator as it exists under the law," because of the "small area" inside the smoke shop where Stephen and Isabel were located and "the injury that resulted to Isabel."

¶14 At trial, Sosa-Hurtado admitted that he had, on one occasion, purchased ammunition for an AK-74—the type of gun that allegedly had been used to murder Stephen.2 On cross-examination, the State sought to establish that Sosa-Hurtado had purchased AK-74 ammunition on four separate occasions, which he denied. The State then produced receipts of ammunition purchases in an attempt to impeach his testimony, claiming that the receipts were discovered in Sosa-Hurtado's home. Sosa-Hurtado's counsel objected to the admission of the receipts, asserting that they had not been found in Sosa-Hurtado's home. The district court sustained the objection. The State apologized to the jury, stating that it had been "incorrect" in asserting that the ammunition receipts had been found in Sosa-Hurtado's home and conceding that the State "[could] not tie those purchases to [the] defendant."

¶15 During the jury's deliberations, the judge met with the jury without counsel present. The judge notified the jury that because it was Election Day, she would need to recess the jury to give them time to vote. The members of the jury indicated that they were close to a verdict and that they would notify the judge if they needed to reconvene the next day. Shortly thereafter, the jury informed the judge that they had reached a verdict. When the court reconvened to receive the jury's verdict, the judge informed the parties of this meeting and confirmed with the jury that she had fairly represented their discussion.

¶16 The jury convicted Sosa-Hurtado of aggravated murder. It also convicted him of felony discharge of a firearm with bodily injury and seven counts of felony discharge of a firearm.

¶17 Sosa-Hurtado filed a timely motion for a new trial along with a supporting memorandum. In the motion, Sosa-Hurtado asserted that his right to a fair trial had been prejudiced by: (1) "The State's misrepresentation of the terms of [Suarez-Campos's] plea bargain"; (2) "Prosecutorial and police misconduct"; and (3) "The court's ex parte communication with the jury." For support, the motion for new trial cited...

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2 cases
  • State v. Carrera
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • August 18, 2022
    ...victim" is subject to conviction for aggravated murder, see id. § 76-5-202(1)(c); see also State v. Sosa-Hurtado , 2019 UT 65, ¶¶ 25–46, 455 P.3d 63. Because the statutory requirements for the sentencing enhancement in the kidnapping context require an examination of whether the injury Carr......
  • State v. Carrera
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • August 18, 2022
    ...victim" is subject to conviction for aggravated murder, see id. § 76-5-202(1)(c); see also State v. Sosa-Hurtado, 2019 UT 65, ¶¶ 25-46, 455 P.3d 63. Because the statutory requirements for the sentencing enhancement in the kidnapping context require an examination of whether the injury Carre......

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