State v. Soto, 20200272-CA

CourtCourt of Appeals of Utah
Writing for the CourtHAGEN, JUSTICE
Citation2022 UT App 107
PartiesState of Utah, Appellee, v. Xavier Soto, Appellant.
Docket Number20200272-CA
Decision Date01 September 2022

2022 UT App 107

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.

Xavier Soto, Appellant.

No. 20200272-CA

Court of Appeals of Utah

September 1, 2022


Second District Court, Ogden Department The Honorable Joseph M. Bean No. 191900401

Emily Adams and Freyja Johnson, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and Jonathan S. Bauer, Attorneys for Appellee

JUSTICE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred. [1]

OPINION

HAGEN, JUSTICE

¶1 While at the house of a mutual friend, Trevor[2] saw Xavier Soto fighting with Soto's girlfriend and decided to intervene. To break up the fight, Trevor moved between the arguing couple and

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hit Soto. Soto responded by chasing Trevor down an alley and across a street leading to a patch of grass. The events that occurred next were out of view of witnesses, but only Soto returned from the alley while Trevor was left lying in the grass with two fatal stab wounds. A jury convicted Soto of murdering Trevor. Soto now appeals, arguing that his trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to certain testimony at trial. Because Soto has not shown both deficient performance and prejudice, we affirm.

BACKGROUND[3]

The Stabbing

¶2 On the evening of February 2, 2019, between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., Soto and his then-girlfriend went to visit a friend. The friend's house was just down the street from the apartment where Trevor and his girlfriend, Sarah,[4] were staying. That night, Trevor and Sarah had walked down to the friend's house to use drugs. Trevor did not know Soto, but he had known the friend for many years.

¶3 While at the friend's house, Soto and his girlfriend got into an argument, and the friend's mother asked them to leave. Soto left, but his girlfriend stayed behind. Later, Soto returned to the house and resumed the argument. The mother attempted to separate the two by asking the girlfriend to accompany her on an errand.

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¶4 As the mother and the girlfriend attempted to leave in the mother's car, Soto kept arguing with the girlfriend. Outside the house, the argument developed into a physical fight, which was witnessed by the friend, his mother, and his uncle, as well as by Trevor and Sarah. At one point, Soto had the girlfriend on the ground and was straddling her. While Soto was on top of the girlfriend, the uncle heard the mother say, "Get that knife away from her throat." Trevor asked the friend if he should intervene. The friend told him to mind his own business and went back inside the house. Sarah agreed and told Trevor to "worry about his own relationship problems." But Trevor ignored the advice, dropped his coat and backpack, and approached the arguing couple.

¶5 Trevor put himself between Soto and the girlfriend and hit Soto. The girlfriend claimed that she did not see what happened next because she looked away. But Sarah saw Soto immediately chase Trevor down an alley. Sarah turned to the girlfriend and said, "[Trevor] did that so you could get in the car and leave now." Soto's girlfriend got into the mother's car and they both left.

¶6 Sarah waited by herself for Trevor to return. After waiting for a few minutes, she saw only Soto return to the friend's house. Thinking Trevor had "made it home," Sarah walked back to the apartment where they were staying to look for him. But upon returning to the apartment, Sarah discovered that Trevor was not there. Sarah walked back down the street toward the friend's house looking for Trevor when she saw that "the whole block was lit with police."

The Investigation

¶7 Shortly before 10:00 p.m., police responded to a report of an unconscious person near the friend's house. At the scene, the officers found Trevor with a "traumatic injury" and took him to the emergency room. Trevor died before arriving at the hospital

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from a "laceration to his back and a stab wound to his chest . . . that penetrated [his] heart."

¶8 Officers interviewed the witnesses at the house and canvassed the neighborhood, looking for security cameras that potentially could have recorded the stabbing. When Sarah spoke with a detective, she was holding a beer in her hand and admitted that she had smoked marijuana and used methamphetamine that night. Sarah also told the detective that she had been hearing voices that night, and she later admitted at trial that she had a history of schizophrenia.

¶9 Sarah told police that she saw Soto chase Trevor down the alley, but she doubted that she could identify Soto because she had not known him prior to that night. Indeed, Sarah could not correctly identify Soto in a photograph lineup. She later testified that her focus had been on Trevor after he hit Soto and that she had not focused on Soto to "be able to identify him later."

¶10 During the canvass of the area, the officers recovered video footage from a neighbor's security camera that showed some of what occurred the night of the murder. The video showed two men running down an alley, one in front of the other. The man behind could be seen making a stabbing motion toward the back of the second man as they ran past the camera and out of view. Then the video showed the man who made the stabbing motion running in the opposite direction back toward the friend's house, alone. Trevor was found just out of view of the camera in the direction in which the two men were running and from which only one man returned.

¶11 After interviewing the witnesses and reviewing the neighbor's security camera footage, the officers obtained an arrest warrant for Soto but were unable to locate him after several attempts. On February 13, Soto turned himself in. Soto was charged with murder, obstruction of justice, and possession or use of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.

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The Trial and Challenged Testimony

¶12 Before trial, Soto moved to exclude or limit the video footage from the neighbor's security camera. Defense counsel argued that the video footage's "probative value is virtually nonexistent" because it was in black and white with low resolution and of such poor quality "that any identification as to who [the two individuals] are, what they are wearing, or how their movements are demonstrative of the sequence of events would be entirely speculative." The defense also argued that "the added problem is that the State, as it did at the Preliminary Hearing[,] will have officers testify as to what they speculate the video shows," which would be highly prejudicial. The district court determined that the video was admissible and that defense counsel could raise any objections at trial to officer testimony commenting on the video.

¶13 At trial, all five of the eyewitnesses to the altercation- Soto's girlfriend, the friend, the mother, the uncle, and Sarah- testified that Soto and his girlfriend had been arguing and that the quarrel made its way outside the house. Although the girlfriend testified that Soto did not assault her, the other witnesses testified that the fight became physical. The mother testified that she saw Soto grab the girlfriend by her hair and force her to the ground. The uncle testified that he saw Soto get on top of the girlfriend, yelling as he straddled her body. The uncle also testified that, during the fight, he heard the mother shout, "Get that knife away from her throat." The mother was never asked at trial if she made this statement or whether she saw Soto with a knife that night.

¶14 Sarah was the last eyewitness to testify at trial. The State relied heavily on Sarah's testimony, given that she was the only person who saw Soto chase Trevor down the alley and was the only person who saw Soto return alone a few minutes later. Sarah testified that when Soto and his girlfriend were fighting, Trevor asked the friend if he should intervene and was told to mind his

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own business-a sentiment Sarah had agreed with. Rather than listen to Sarah and the friend, Trevor dropped his coat and backpack and walked up to Soto. Sarah did not know "if he nudged [Soto] in his chest or what happened. And then [Trevor] took off running, and [Soto] took off running after [Trevor]." Sarah explained that she waited for Trevor to return, but she saw only Soto walk back up the alley and go back into the friend's house.

¶15 While on the stand, Sarah admitted that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, that she sometimes hears voices, and that on the night of Trevor's death she had used marijuana and methamphetamine and had been drinking alcohol.

¶16 Following Sarah's testimony, the State called the detective who had interviewed Sarah the night of the murder. The detective explained to the jury the importance of Sarah's observations and how her information had been "able to connect the dots" from where Trevor was found to where the initial altercation between Trevor and Soto occurred. He recounted Sarah's statements to police that she had seen Soto chase Trevor down the alley and that only Soto had returned, and he explained how those facts, together with other witnesses' statements about the altercation between Soto and the girlfriend, helped him piece together the events of that night. He also testified that Sarah's statements- made to him prior to knowing whether video evidence was available-were consistent with the surveillance video later recovered. Defense counsel did not object to the detective repeating the statements Sarah made during her police interview, nor did he object to the detective's summation of his investigation.

¶17 During the detective's testimony, the State played the surveillance video for the jury while the detective narrated, pausing portions of the video for the detective to explain what he saw. The detective explained that two men were running up the

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street, with one man in front of the other. The detective testified: "And what you will see specifically,
...

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