State v. Wilson, 31,442.

Citation2011 -NMSC- 001, 149 N.M. 273, 248 P.3d 315
Case DateDecember 08, 2010
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

149 N.M. 273
248 P.3d 315
2011 -NMSC- 001

STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff–Appellee,
Michael WILSON, Defendant–Appellant.

No. 31,442.

Supreme Court of New Mexico.

Dec. 8, 2010.

[248 P.3d 317]

Law Offices of Nancy L. Simmons, P.C., Nancy L. Simmons, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellant.

[248 P.3d 318]

Gary K. King, Attorney General, Andrea Sassa, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellee.

BOSSON, Justice.

{1} Defendant Michael Wilson was convicted by a jury in the suffocation death of a two-year-old foster child living in Defendant's Farmington home. Defendant appeals his conviction of one count of first-degree abuse of a child resulting in death either knowingly, intentionally, or negligently caused, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30–6–1(D), (H) (1973) (amended 2005). We have jurisdiction to hear his direct appeal under Article VI, Section 2 of the New Mexico Constitution and Rule 12–102(A)(1) NMRA. We affirm the verdict, and find: (1) the corpus delicti of the crime was sufficiently established at trial, (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing a forensic pathologist to testify as to the cause of death, (3) admission of Defendant's confession did not violate the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and (4) there was no cumulative error.


{2} On January 24, 2007, Defendant called 911 to report that his foster son Tyler was not breathing. The 911 operator instructed Defendant how to perform CPR, but Tyler regained consciousness and began to breathe without assistance.

{3} The next day, Defendant took Tyler to a previously scheduled appointment with Dr. Gerard Holmes, a pediatric cardiologist. Tyler had been born with patent ductus arteriosus, a heart condition which commonly affects premature infants. Tyler had successful surgery to treat this condition shortly after his birth. Dr. Holmes had been consulted to determine whether Tyler's previous heart surgery might impact an unrelated ear surgery. During the examination, Defendant mentioned that Tyler had been in the emergency room the previous night because he had stopped breathing. Dr. Holmes examined Tyler's lungs, but could not find any respiratory abnormalities. Dr. Holmes also examined Tyler's cardiovascular health, and after finding no signs of patent ductus arteriosus, determined that Tyler's heart was in excellent shape. Dr. Holmes concluded that “everything looked normal.”

{4} One day after Tyler was evaluated by Dr. Holmes, Defendant again called 911, claiming Tyler was not breathing. The 911 operator walked Defendant through CPR techniques, at which point Defendant unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate Tyler. Officers from the Farmington Police Department quickly arrived on the scene and Tyler was transferred by ambulance to the San Juan Regional Medical Center. Emergency room medical personnel tried to resuscitate Tyler but were unsuccessful, and he was eventually pronounced dead approximately thirty minutes after arrival.

{5} On February 2, 2007, Defendant and his wife were separately interviewed by Detective Frank Dart of the Farmington Police Department. They were interviewed for a second time on February 7, 2007, again by Detective Dart. During the course of the second interview with police, Defendant admitted to killing Tyler. Defendant explained that, after tucking Tyler into bed, he pulled Tyler's blanket over his face holding it there for thirty seconds to one minute, knowing it might prevent Tyler from breathing. Defendant also explained how, because Tyler often slept on his back with his head turned to one side, he had pushed on Tyler's pillow for “leverage” while holding the blanket over his face. Defendant told Detective Dart that once Tyler stopped moving, he got up from the bed and proceeded to walk around the house for around five minutes “picking things up.” Defendant then returned to the bedroom where he noticed that Tyler's lips were blue, at which point Defendant called 911.

{6} When asked why he had suffocated Tyler, Defendant initially told Detective Dart that he did not mean to kill Tyler, and that he planned on reviving Tyler to make himself look like a hero. At another point in the interview, Defendant stated that he did intend to kill Tyler, but only to end his suffering, because Tyler was always sick. Using a doll and a blanket, Defendant demonstrated on videotape how he had killed Tyler. At the suggestion of Detective Dart, Defendant produced

[248 P.3d 319]

a handwritten apology letter to Tyler's biological family, along with a separate confession letter which memorialized his previous admissions.

{7} After deliberating for approximately one hour, the jury returned a guilty verdict on one count of first-degree child abuse resulting in death. Defendant was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment plus a term of four years as a habitual offender with two prior felony convictions. See NMSA 1978, § 31–18–17(B) (2003).

DISCUSSIONThe Corpus Delicti Rule

{8} “The term ‘corpus delicti,’ which literally means ‘body of the crime,’ refers to the evidence needed to establish that the charged crime was actually committed.” State v. Weisser, 2007–NMCA–015, ¶ 10, 141 N.M. 93, 150 P.3d 1043. “[T]he existence of the corpus delicti is demonstrated by the fact that a harm or injury occurred and that the harm or injury was caused by a criminal act.” Id. “ ‘In homicide cases the corpus delicti is established upon proof of the death of the person charged in the information or indictment, and that the death was caused by the criminal act or agency of another.’ ” State v. Sosa, 2000–NMSC–036, ¶ 15, 129 N.M. 767, 14 P.3d 32 (quoting State v. Armstrong, 61 N.M. 258, 259, 298 P.2d 941, 941 (1956)).

{9} In a thorough opinion written by Judge Pickard, our Court of Appeals has analyzed the evolution of the corpus delicti rule, tracing its origin from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England through its modern application in New Mexico. See generally Weisser, 2007–NMCA–015, ¶¶ 10–25, 141 N.M. 93, 150 P.3d 1043. The corpus delicti rule, which initially applied only to homicides until American courts expanded its reach, see id. ¶ 13, was meant “ ‘to prevent the conviction of those who confessed to non-existent crimes as a result of coercion or mental illness,’ ” id. ¶ 14 (quoting David A. Moran, In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule, 64 Ohio St. L.J. 817, 817 (2003)). The advent of the rule “was influenced somewhat by those widely reported cases in which the ‘victim’ returned alive after his supposed murderer had been tried and convicted, and in some instances executed.” City of Bremerton v. Corbett, 106 Wash.2d 569, 723 P.2d 1135, 1139 (1986) (en banc); see Weisser, 2007–NMCA–015, ¶ 13, 141 N.M. 93, 150 P.3d 1043.

{10} In its traditional form, the corpus delicti rule required the prosecution to introduce evidence of a criminal act separate and apart from an accused's extrajudicial confession. See Weisser, 2007–NMCA–015, ¶ 12, 141 N.M. 93, 150 P.3d 1043 (“If the state can present sufficient independent evidence, apart from a defendant's confession, to establish the corpus delicti, the defendant's confession may then be used to sustain a conviction.”). A number of legal commentators and courts have expressed concern that the corpus delicti rule was “turn[ing] into [a] doctrinal obstacle[ ] whereby the guilty can escape just punishment.” Conn. v. Harris, 215 Conn. 189, 575 A.2d 223, 227 (1990); see also Ohio v. Black, 54 Ohio St.2d 304, 376 N.E.2d 948, 951 (1978) (“Considering the revolution in criminal law of the 1960's and the vast number of procedural safeguards protecting the due-process rights of criminal defendants, the corpus delicti rule is supported by few practical or social-policy considerations.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); Wash. v. Ray, 130 Wash.2d 673, 926 P.2d 904, 909 (1996) (Talmadge, J., concurring) (“The rule of corpus delicti has been severely criticized by renowned legal commentators, numerous law review articles and case law.”). In response to such critiques, “the corpus delicti rule [in its traditional form was] abandoned in the federal courts and in a number of state courts.” Weisser, 2007–NMCA–015, ¶ 15, 141 N.M. 93, 150 P.3d 1043. Most notably, the United States Supreme Court rejected the traditional corpus delicti rule in favor of a doctrine that focuses on the “trustworthiness” of a defendant's extrajudicial confession. See Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 93, 75 S.Ct. 158, 99 L.Ed. 101 (1954); Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147, 156, 75 S.Ct. 194, 99 L.Ed. 192 (1954).

{11} The lynchpin of the federal trustworthiness doctrine is the requirement that a defendant's extrajudicial confession be sufficiently corroborated. See

[248 P.3d 320]

United States v. Shunk, 881 F.2d 917, 919 (10th Cir.1989) (“As it presently exists, the corpus delicti concept has been properly characterized as a ‘version’ of the corroboration requirement for the introduction of extrajudicial statements.”). As Weisser explains,

[u]nder the trustworthiness doctrine, “corroborative evidence need not be sufficient, independent of the [defendant's] statements, to establish the corpus delicti.” Opper, 348 U.S. at 93, 75 S.Ct. 158.... Instead, “[i]t is sufficient if the corroboration supports the essential facts admitted sufficiently to justify a jury inference of their truth.” Id. Further, “ ‘[t]here is no necessity that [the] proof [independent of the defendant's confession] touch the corpus delicti at all.’ ” [ State v. Parker, 315 N.C. 222, 337 S.E.2d 487, 492 (1985) ] (alteration in original) (quoting Opper, 348 U.S. at 92 [75 S.Ct. 158] ...). Rather, “proof of any corroborating circumstances is adequate which goes to fortify the truth of the confession or tends to prove facts embraced in the confession.” Opper 348 U.S. at 92 [75 S.Ct. 158] ...; see also United States v. Johnson, 589 F.2d 716, 718–19 (D.C.Cir.1978) (stating that under the...

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