State v. Worley, 082720 NMSC, S-1-SC-37526

Docket NºS-1-SC-37526
Party NameSTATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Petitioner, v. CURTIS WORLEY, Defendant-Respondent.
AttorneyHector H. Balderas, Attorney General Martha Anne Kelly, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner Duncan Earnest, LLC Theresa M. Duncan Albuquerque, NM for Respondent
Judge PanelWE CONCUR: MICHAEL E. VIGIL, BARBARA J. VIGIL, C. SHANNON BACON, Justice JUDITH K. NAKAMURA, Justice (specially concurring)
Case DateAugust 27, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Petitioner,


CURTIS WORLEY, Defendant-Respondent.

No. S-1-SC-37526

Supreme Court of New Mexico

August 27, 2020


Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Martha Anne Kelly, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner

Duncan Earnest, LLC Theresa M. Duncan Albuquerque, NM for Respondent



{¶1} The district court granted Defendant Curtis Worley's petition for a writ of habeas corpus without providing a basis for granting relief. The State appealed. See Rule 5-802(N)(1) NMRA (giving the state the right to appeal an order granting a writ of habeas corpus when a death sentence has not been imposed); see also Rule 12-102(A)(3) NMRA (requiring that "appeals from the granting of writs of habeas corpus" be taken to this Court).

{¶2} Defendant argues that the district court order granting the writ of habeas corpus was proper because (1) Defendant was actually innocent and new evidence in the form of recanted testimony, DNA evidence, and an allegedly suppressed statement undermines confidence in the verdict, and also because (2) the allegedly suppressed statement violated Defendant's due process rights pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), undermining the fundamental fairness of the trial. Based on the analysis that follows, we disagree and reverse the district court order that granted the writ and a new trial.



{¶3} Nancy Mitchell's decomposing body was discovered on January 30, 1982, near the Pecos River in Eddy County, New Mexico. See State v. Worley, 1984-NMSC-013, ¶ 4, 100 N.M. 720, 676 P.2d 247 (citing State v. Case

(Case I), 1984-NMSC-012, ¶ 4, 100 N.M. 714, 676 P.2d 241). The State charged Defendant with the murder and criminal sexual penetration of Mitchell and prosecuted Defendant based on testimony from multiple witnesses that he was one of a group of men that attacked and raped Mitchell on January 1, 1982. The jury convicted Defendant of first-degree felony murder, NMSA 1978, § 30-2-1(A) (1980), and first-degree criminal sexual penetration, NMSA 1978, § 30-9-11(A) (1975), and the district court sentenced him for both crimes to imprisonment for life plus eighteen years, see NMSA 1978, § 31-18-14(A) (1979); NMSA 1978, § 31-18-15(A)(1) (1981). This Court affirmed Defendant's convictions on direct appeal. Worley, 1984-NMSC-013, ¶¶ 1-2.

{¶4} Defendant petitioned the Eddy County District Court in 2004 for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition alleged that "two of the three purported eyewitnesses to the alleged crime . . . disclose[d] for the first time to the defense that they fabricated their testimony," and Defendant asserted that he was entitled to relief based on these "newly discovered recantations."

{¶5} Co-defendant Carl Case was convicted of the murder and criminal sexual penetration of Mitchell in a separate proceeding. Case I, 1984-NMSC-012, ¶¶ 1, 4; see Worley, 1984-NMSC-013, ¶¶ 1, 9. This Court affirmed Case's convictions on direct appeal, see Case I, 1984-NMSC-012, ¶¶ 2, 28, and Case also filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Eddy County District Court, Case v. Hatch (Case II), 2008-NMSC-024, ¶¶ 1-4, 144 N.M. 20, 183 P.3d 905. In the habeas petition, Case argued that he was entitled to relief based on "newly discovered" recanted testimony and a 1982 statement by Bobby Autry that Case asserted was not disclosed in violation of Brady.1 Case II, 2008-NMSC-024, ¶¶ 1-4, 44, 48. After holding evidentiary hearings in 2005 and 2006, the district court denied Case's habeas petition. Id. ¶ 4.

{¶6} In late 2007, before the district court held an evidentiary hearing on Defendant's habeas petition, Defendant agreed to stay the proceedings pending the outcome of Case's appeal of the denial of his habeas petition because of "the overlap of both factual and legal issues between that case and this one." In April 2008, this Court affirmed the denial of Case's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Id. Case filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court approximately two months later.

{¶7} On September 2, 2008, Defendant filed a supplemental petition and memorandum in support of his previously stayed habeas petition, adding to his own case as additional grounds both the alleged suppression of the Autry statement and the allegedly new DNA evidence that Case had asserted as grounds for relief. Ultimately, the district court did not consider the merits of Defendant's petition until after the resolution of Case's federal habeas petition. See Case v. Hatch (Case III), 773 F.Supp.2d 1070, 1071, 1149 (D.N.M. 2011) (conditionally granting habeas relief), vacated by Case v. Hatch (Case IV), 731 F.3d 1015, 1019, 1044 (10th Cir. 2013) (vacating the conditionally granted habeas relief).

{¶8} The Tenth Circuit denied Case federal habeas relief, holding that the alleged Brady evidence failed to meet "the Brady materiality standard" and therefore the federal district court did not have jurisdiction to reach the merits. Case IV, 731 F.3d at 1042-44. The Tenth Circuit described the DNA evidence as "inconclusive" and agreed with the analysis of this Court in Case II that the recanted testimony did no more than "revert to the original statements [those witnesses] gave to the police." Id. at 1043-44; see Case II, 2008-NMSC-024, ¶ 39.

{¶9} Defendant relied on transcripts from the evidentiary hearings conducted for Case II and Case III rather than calling the recanting witnesses Audrey Knight and Paul Dunlap to testify in this matter. Additional relevant testimony from the evidentiary hearings on Case's state habeas petition conducted for Case II concerned the result and effect of both the DNA evidence and the alleged failure to disclose the February 3, 1982, statement to Case's attorney. Defendant simply "incorporated the evidence presented during the Carl Case hearings [conducted for Case II] as well as the Supreme Court's [opinion] in [Case II]" and "supplemented the record with additional exhibits, including, inter alia, additional transcripts from the Carl Case federal proceedings, judicial opinions from those proceedings [Case III and Case IV], and a videotaped deposition of [Defendant]." Defendant argued, "[T]he real issue for this court is how [Defendant's] trial was different from Carl Case. If this was exactly the same trial then you'd be governed by the different opinions, but it's not, and that, from our perspective, is legally significant."

{¶10} The district court summarily granted Defendant's habeas petition, and the

State appealed.



{¶11} Defendant argues that the district court properly granted a new trial because he is actually innocent and because no reasonable juror, considering what he asserts is new evidence, would have convicted him. Alternatively, Defendant argues that the State did not provide his defense counsel with a statement Autry made to law enforcement on February 3, 1982, which Defendant asserts constitutes a Brady violation and undermines the fundamental fairness of the trial. We first review Defendant's allegation of a Brady violation based on Autry's February 3, 1982, statement and then examine Defendant's actual innocence claim.


Standard of Review

{¶12} "When reviewing the propriety of a lower court's grant or denial of a writ of habeas corpus, the trial court's findings of fact concerning the habeas petition are reviewed to determine if substantial evidence supports the [trial] court's findings." Dominguez v. State, 2015-NMSC-014, ¶ 9, 348 P.3d 183 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, "[q]uestions of law or questions of mixed fact and law . . . are reviewed de novo." Id. (omission in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

{¶13} Although this Court will give deference to the district court in its role as "fact-finder" when the district court is a "first-hand observer," this Court must nonetheless perform its "sanctioned role as arbiter of the law." Duncan v. Kerby, 1993-NMSC-011, ¶ 7, 115 N.M. 344, 851 P.2d 466. A decision that is ordinarily discretionary but is "premised on a misapprehension of law" may be categorized as an abuse of discretion. N.M. Right to Choose/NARAL v. Johnson, 1999-NMSC-028, ¶ 7, 127 N.M. 654, 986 P.2d 450 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also State v. Torres, 1999-NMSC-010, ¶ 28, 127 N.M. 20, 976 P.2d 20 (observing that the threshold question, whether the lower court applied the correct law to the facts, is reviewed de novo). This approach provides deference to the fact-finder as first-hand observer while ensuring that we perform our ultimate role, assuring proper application of the law. Duncan, 1993-NMSC-022, ¶ 7.

B. Alleged Brady Violation

{¶14} Defendant alleges that the prosecution failed to turn over an audio recording or transcript of Autry's February 3, 1982, statement to law enforcement and that the failure violated Defendant's constitutional right to due process. See Brady, 373 U.S. at 87 (holding that "the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution"); accord Case II, 2008-NMSC-024, ¶ 44.


Legal test and standard of review

{¶15} A district court's conclusion that a Brady violation occurred is a legal determination of whether the prosecution violated the requirements of due process. See Smith v. Cain, 565 U.S. 73, 75 (2012) ("Under Brady, the State violates a defendant's right to due process if it withholds evidence that is...

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