Vanisi v. State

Decision Date17 May 2001
Docket NumberNo. 35249.,35249.
Citation117 Nev. 330,22 P.3d 1164
PartiesSiaosi VANISI, Appellant, v. The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.
CourtNevada Supreme Court

Michael R. Specchio, Public Defender, and John Reese Petty, Chief Deputy Public Defender, Washoe County, for Appellant.

Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General, Carson City; Richard A. Gammick, District Attorney, and Terrence P. McCarthy, Deputy District Attorney, Washoe County, for Respondent.

Before the Court En Banc.



The State charged appellant Siaosi Vanisi with the first-degree murder of George Sullivan, a police sergeant at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), and four other felonies. Vanisi's first trial ended in a mistrial. At the second trial, the jury found Vanisi guilty of all five offenses and imposed a death sentence for the murder.

The primary issue on appeal is Vanisi's claim that the district court erred in denying his motion for self-representation. We reject this claim as well as Vanisi's other contentions and affirm the judgment of conviction and the sentence of death.


The evidence of Vanisi's guilt in this case is overwhelming. During a visit to Reno in January 1998, Vanisi told several friends and relatives that he wanted to murder and rob a police officer. Makeleta Kavapalu testified that Vanisi indicated that "he was going to kill a police officer with his ax." Sateki Taukiuvea testified that Vanisi said that he wanted to kill a police officer and take his badge, radio, gun, and belt. Maria Louis testified that Vanisi said he wanted to kill a police officer and take his radio and gun. Priscilla Endemann testified that Vanisi repeatedly told her he wanted to "kill a cop."

Mele Maveni testified that on January 9, 1998, she accompanied her cousin and Vanisi to a local Wal-Mart where Vanisi purchased a hatchet and a pair of gloves. He told Maveni and her cousin that he wanted to kill police officers.

In the early morning of January 13, 1998, UNR Police Sergeant George Sullivan was murdered and robbed on the UNR campus. At least two witnesses, including UNR Police Officer Carl Smith, observed Vanisi near the murder site shortly before the time of the killing. Officer Smith testified that sometime after 12:17 a.m. he observed Vanisi in the same area as Sullivan, who had made a traffic stop. Vanisi had dreadlocks and was wearing a dark jacket. Subsequently, Smith observed Sullivan head towards the area of a kiosk, a fairly well lit area where officers wrote reports.

A short time later, a student discovered Sullivan's body lying under his police car near the kiosk. Smith received a dispatch just before 1:00 a.m. and was the first officer at the scene. Several items that Sullivan had been carrying were missing, including his gun and gun belt.

Dr. Ellen Clark performed the autopsy on Sullivan's body. The cause of death was multiple injuries to the skull and brain due to blunt impact trauma.

Shortly after the killing, Vanisi proceeded to an apartment occupied by some of his relatives. His niece, Maria Louis, testified that Vanisi entered the apartment between 1:00 and 1:15 a.m. wearing a jacket and gloves and carrying a plastic grocery bag. Many of the injuries to Sullivan's body were consistent with a hatchet that was discovered at the apartment, apparently the hatchet purchased by Vanisi a few days before. Police also recovered other evidence at the apartment, including a pair of gloves, a jacket, and plastic bags containing items belonging to Sullivan. Vanisi's fingerprints were found on one of the bags. Stains on the hatchet and jacket contained Sullivan's DNA. The gloves contained DNA from both Sullivan and Vanisi.

After the killing, Vanisi told others that he had killed Sullivan. Vainga Kinikini testified that Vanisi provided him with the following details of the crime. Vanisi had bought a hatchet and had been looking for a white police officer to kill. He observed a police officer in the middle of a traffic stop. He waited for the officer to complete the stop and then crept up on the officer. He knocked on the window of the officer's patrol car, and the officer asked if he could help Vanisi. Vanisi attacked the officer and knocked him out. Vanisi then kicked the officer over and over, "stomping" on his head. Vanisi stated that it was "fun" or "great." He had worn a disguise at the time of the killing, a beanie with fake dreadlocks to make him look Jamaican. He threw the wig and beanie into a canal nearby. (A wig and baseball cap were later discovered in a ditch near the UNR campus.) Vanisi also showed Kinikini a gun that he claimed was a police officer's.

The State presented evidence that Vanisi committed three other crimes on the evening after the killing: the theft of a car in Reno, which was later recovered in Salt Lake City outside a residence where Vanisi was apprehended; and two store robberies. Witnesses to both robberies identified Vanisi as the perpetrator, and a surveillance videotape and a surveillance photograph supported their testimony.

On January 14, 1998, police apprehended Vanisi at a residence in Salt Lake City. Vanisi did not comply with police orders to exit the residence, and a SWAT team entered after Vanisi set a fire in the garage. Vanisi confronted one officer with a handgun, and the officer fired several shots, hitting Vanisi in the arm. Police partially withdrew and attempted to persuade Vanisi to surrender. Vanisi eventually emerged but refused to obey officers' commands, so he was subdued with a "bean-bag" round. Police discovered Sergeant Sullivan's gun in the residence. Boots and pants that Vanisi had worn tested positive for Sullivan's DNA.

The jury found Vanisi guilty of first-degree murder and three counts of robbery, all with the use of a deadly weapon, and one count of grand larceny.

At the penalty phase, the State presented testimony about Vanisi's disciplinary problems during his pretrial incarceration. Vainga Kinikini again testified about Vanisi's statements concerning the killing. Vanisi said that once he had killed, he had to kill some more to keep his "high" or "rush." Kinikini indicated that Vanisi was "smart" but "insane, crazy" and that Vanisi himself said he was insane and did not care anymore. The State presented victim impact testimony from several individuals, including Sullivan's sister, wife, and daughter.

The defense called a number of witnesses, including Vanisi's relatives. Some of the witnesses indicated that Vanisi had changed in the last few years. For example, Vanisi's wife testified that Vanisi had been friendly, outgoing, and kind but began to change in late 1995 and 1996. At times Vanisi became violent and abusive, he exhibited poor hygiene and bizarre behavior, he would ramble, and he lacked a sense of reality. Vanisi would sometimes pose in front of a mirror pretending to be different people and would dress as a superhero. Eventually, Vanisi's wife left him. Testimony at the penalty phase indicated that drug use by Vanisi might have been a factor in his changed behavior.

The defense also called a psychiatrist, Dr. Ole Thienhaus, who treated patients at the county jail, including Vanisi. Thienhaus testified that his initial diagnosis of Vanisi indicated possible bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, or cyclothymia, a similar condition. Thienhaus stated that a colleague who had seen Vanisi independently had the same impressions of his condition. During his pretrial incarceration, Vanisi had been prescribed various medications, including Depakote (a mood stabilizer, discontinued after Vanisi complained of side effects), lithium (for bipolar disorder), and Risperdal (an antipsychotic medication). Thienhaus indicated, however, that Vanisi's bipolar disorder did not appear to be an extreme case. Thienhaus explained that bipolar disorder could be characterized by psychotic episodes, i.e., a loss of touch with reality, and that violent behavior might occur in the manic phase. However, Thienhaus testified that this kind of "out-of-control" behavior was impulsive and inconsistent with planning for a crime. He acknowledged that it was possible that Vanisi was "malingering," i.e., fabricating symptoms, but he thought it was more likely that Vanisi did in fact suffer from bipolar disorder.

On cross-examination, the State referenced reports from other professionals who had evaluated Vanisi. Although there was some additional support for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, some professionals indicated that Vanisi exhibited signs of malingering.

Vanisi did not testify at the penalty phase but made a statement in allocution. He apologized to Sullivan's family and his own. He said that if he had known he was ill he would have gone to a doctor. He referred to his use of speed and marijuana and lack of sleep before the crime. "This is not an excuse, but a reason. I fell away from my church and my values." If given the opportunity, he hoped "to try to help others avoid the nightmare of drugs and despair."

The jury imposed a death sentence for the murder, finding three aggravating circumstances: the murder occurred in the commission of or an attempt to commit robbery; the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his official duties, and the defendant knew or reasonably should have known the victim was a peace officer; and the murder involved mutilation. The jury did not find a fourth alleged aggravating circumstance: the murder was committed because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. The district court sentenced Vanisi to consecutive prison terms for the other offenses.

I. Appellant's motion for self-representation

Vanisi asserts that the district court improperly denied a motion for self-representation that he made before the second trial.

A criminal defendant has the right to self-representation under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Nevada...

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