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State v. Huddleston

Supreme Court of Kansas

February 14, 2014

State of Kansas, Appellee,
v.
Sharon Huddleston, Appellant

Page 141

Appeal from Sedgwick District Court; Benjamin L. Burgess, judge.

SYLLABUS

BY THE COURT

1. A prosecutor misstates the law by indicating that premeditation can occur after a defendant commits an act that results in a death.

2. A prosecutor's misstatements of the law, even if gross and flagrant, do not require reversal where there is no showing of ill will on the part of the prosecutor, the prosecutor's misstatements are a small part of the prosecution's argument, the statements are tempered by other statements that correctly state the law, the jury instructions correctly state the law, and the evidence is sufficient to convince an appellate court beyond a reasonable doubt that the misstatements did not affect the outcome of the trial.

3. A jury may draw an inference of intent when a defendant's actions or words demonstrate that the defendant is conscious of his or her guilt. Evidence of a consciousness of guilt may also be relevant to show identity, plan, or other matters.

4. Under the facts of this case, reasonable people could agree with the trial judge's determination that the probative value of the defendant's letters providing circumstantial evidence of his or her intent when committing an act that caused death outweighed any prejudice caused by vague references in the letters to the defendant's incarceration.

Meryl Carver-Allmond, of Capital Appellate Defender Office, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellant.

Boyd K. Isherwood, assistant district attorney, argued the cause, and Nola Tedesco Foulston, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were with him on the brief for appellee.

OPINION

Page 142

Luckert, J.

In this direct appeal, Sharon Huddleston presents two arguments for reversing her conviction of premeditated first-degree [298 Kan. 942] murder. We reject both arguments. As to her first issue, although we agree the two prosecutors who made arguments to the jury misstated the law by suggesting premeditation could occur after a homicidal act, we conclude it is not reasonably probable that these misstatements affected the outcome of the trial given the strong evidence of premeditation, the jury instructions, and the prosecutors' correct statements of the law regarding premeditation. As to the second issue, we hold the trial judge did not err when he admitted into evidence two jailhouse letters written by Huddleston because the letters were relevant and reasonable people could agree with the trial judge's assessment that their probative value outweighed any potential prejudicial impact.

Page 143

Facts and Procedural Background

Huddleston's conviction for premeditated first-degree murder arose from the death of Todd Stover in 2000. No charges were brought in the case for over 10 years.

In May 2000, Stover's body was found in a ditch by the side of a dirt road in Greenwood County. Because of decomposition, Stover's face was unrecognizable, but forensic scientists were able to identify him by his fingerprints. At that time, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) was assigned to the case. The KBI discovered that Stover's family had last seen him approximately 13 days earlier and that Stover had been picked up from an apartment in Wichita around May 25, 2000, between 9 and 10 a.m. by three women in a tan, four-door sedan. The only name the KBI developed was " Rhonda," who was possibly living in the Park City area. These leads were insufficient to produce a suspect or suspects at that time.

The investigation became dormant and remained so for many years until, in March 2010, law enforcement officers in Carthage, Missouri, contacted the Park City Police Department and reported that a woman named Sharon Edwards had information regarding a 10-year-old murder involving Sharon Huddleston and Rhonda Pischel. Upon looking for unsolved murders in the area, a Park City police officer came across the case involving Stover in Greenwood [298 Kan. 943] County. The officer contacted the KBI for assistance, and Edwards, Huddleston, and Pischel were located and interviewed.

At the time of Stover's death in 2000, Huddleston and Edwards had been domestic partners who lived in Park City with Pischel, Huddleston's sister. The three women had been acquainted with Stover through his friendship with Pischel. In the years between Stover's death in 2000 and Edwards' report to law enforcement in 2010, the three women had moved to separate residences.

Officers first interviewed Huddleston on May 27, 2010. She acknowledged she had been in a relationship with Edwards in 2000, but she denied knowing Stover. When the officers showed her a photograph of Stover, Huddleston sad she did not recognize him. At one point in the interview, however, Huddleston said her sister, Pischel, had been " involved" with a tall, skinny man with a ponytail. These details matched the general description of Stover's body as it was discovered in 2000. According to Huddleston, Pischel's friend had spent one night at the Park City house and " they" had driven him back to an apartment in Wichita the next day.

On June 24, 2010, officers conducted a second interview with Huddleston at her residence. This time she admitted that she had known Stover and that he had promised to get her a job. Huddleston explained that she got angry because she had spent money on Stover but he did not actually have the resources to get her a job. Huddleston felt Stover was " conning her out of money," which made her feel stupid. She told Edwards that she " wanted to kill that son of a bitch." Edwards, who was diabetic, suggested that Huddleston could kill him by giving him a shot of insulin. Huddleston indicated she considered Edwards' plan for a couple of days. At another point in the interview, Huddleston also mentioned Stover's alleged mistreatment of a disabled veteran at a Wichita bar. She told officers that she felt like a " vigilante," paying Stover back for the way he treated the veteran.

According to Huddleston's statement, on a May morning in 2000, the three women--Huddleston, Edwards, and Pischel--drove Edwards' tan 2000 Mitsubishi Diamante sedan to an apartment in Wichita where Stover was staying. When they arrived, Huddleston looked into the apartment window and saw Stover [298 Kan. 944] sleeping on the floor. They roused him, and the foursome got into the car and drove back to the Park City house. When they arrived, Huddleston and the others got drunk and used cocaine.

Around 2 or 2:30 p.m., Huddleston injected insulin twice into Stover's back as he walked from the kitchen into the living room. Huddleston indicated that each injection contained half a bottle of insulin or 50 units; thus, Stover received approximately 100 units of insulin. When Huddleston first injected Stover, he turned to her and said, " [Y]ou just gave me a shot of insulin." Huddleston told him, " [N]o, it was Valium." She

Page 144

told Stover to go lie down and that he would be okay.

The insulin overdose caused a long, drawn-out death. Shortly after the injections, Stover lay down in one of the bedrooms. Around 6 p.m., Edwards left for work. By that time, Stover was having trouble breathing and was sweating, so Huddleston and Pischel decided to move him to a couch in the garage. Huddleston revealed that at some point after taking Stover to the garage, they tried to counteract his low blood sugar level by attempting to put " sugar water" into his veins, but this technique did not work. Huddleston went to rest in her bedroom while Pischel stayed with Stover for a while, holding his head and combing his hair. Eventually Pischel also left Stover and went to sleep. Around 11 p.m., Pischel woke up and, upon looking into the garage, saw that Stover was not breathing. She woke up Huddleston, and they went into the garage together.

Huddleston determined Stover was dead. She explained to the officers that she had training and experience as a nurse's aide and, therefore, was able to make the determination of death. She also indicated that because of her training and experience she knew the effects of insulin on a nondiabetic person and knew it would eventually cause the heart to stop. But at various points during her interview, Huddleston also said she " didn't mean to kill him," she " just wanted to knock his ass out," and she merely wanted to " mess him up." At other times she equivocated by stating, " I didn't think it would really kill him. In a way I did and in a way I didn't."

Recounting what happened after Huddleston determined Stover was dead, Huddleston told the officers she drove her pickup truck [298 Kan. 945] to Edwards' place of employment and traded vehicles with her. Huddleston then drove the tan Diamante back home, where she and Pischel loaded Stover's body into the trunk and covered it with a blanket, planning to dump the body into Grand Lake in Oklahoma. On their journey, the body started to have a foul odor. They decided to stop and dispose of the body in a field, but when they got the body out of the trunk, it was too heavy for them to carry. So Huddleston and Pischel left the body in a ditch near the road. They took the blanket with them on their drive back to Wichita and disposed of it in a construction-site dumpster. Huddleston also power washed the vehicle's trunk.

Huddleston admitted to law enforcement officers that she had told her daughter and another sister about the incident. Through more investigation, the officers learned that Huddleston had also told another individual, Albert Greenly, about the incident and had pointed out to him the location where she had dumped the body.

At trial, Huddleston's statements were admitted into evidence. In addition, over defense counsel's objections, the court admitted two jailhouse letters written by Huddleston to Pischel. We will discuss the contents of the letters in more detail, but both letters implicated Huddleston in the events surrounding Stover's death and attempted to shift guilt from her to Sharon Edwards. For example, in one letter Huddleston said, " I'm going to blame everything on Sharon E. thats [ sic ] who I think did it. You woke me up and we were scared thats [ sic ] why we did what we did. But Sharon Edwards gave the shot and I took the blame. Please keep to that story." In the other letter, Huddleston told her sister, " We need to make it look like Sharon E. gave the shot to him."

The State also called the chief medical examiner as a witness. She informed the jury that 100 units of insulin would cause a nondiabetic person's blood-sugar level to dip down to a low level " that's not compatible with life." She further explained that " [p]rofoundly low levels of blood sugar" will " cause your brain and other organs to shut down, especially your brain. Your brain essentially runs on sugar. And if you don't have any, then your brain is not going to work and you will go into a coma, possibly have seizures, and die."

[298 Kan. 946] Based on this evidence, a jury convicted Huddleston of the premeditated first-degree murder of Stover, in violation of K.S.A. 21-3401(a). The court sentenced Huddleston to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Huddleston filed this timely appeal, over which this court has jurisdiction

Page 145

under K.S.A. 22-3601(b)(1) (maximum sentence of life imprisonment imposed).

Prosecutorial Misconduct Not Reversible

First, Huddleston argues that the prosecution committed misconduct during closing argument by misstating the law regarding premeditation and thereby depriving her of a fair trial.

In discussing the standard of review for this issue, Huddleston indicates that " [t]his court has put forth two similar, but different, tests for when a misstatement of law by a prosecutor denies a defendant a fair trial." For the first test, Huddleston cites a 2002 decision in which this court stated: " A misstatement of the law, whether by prosecutor or by the court, denies the defendant a fair trial where the facts are such that the jury could have been confused or misled by the misstatement." State v. Henry, 273 Kan. 608, 619, 44 P.3d 466 (2002); see State v. Moncla, 262 Kan. 58, 69-70, 936 P.2d 727 (1997). Second, Huddleston refers to what she labels " the traditional prosecutorial misconduct analysis." See State v. Tosh, 278 Kan. 83, 93, 91 P.3d 1204 (2004).

Recently, we summarized the Tosh test, indicating:

" We have said that review of prosecutorial misconduct claims involves a two-step process. The court first decides whether the comments were outside the wide latitude a prosecutor is allowed, e.g., in discussing the evidence. If so, there was misconduct. Second, if misconduct is found, we have said the court must determine whether the improper comments prejudiced the jury and denied the defendant a fair trial. State v. Marshall, 294 Kan. 850, 856, 281 P.3d 1112 (2012).
" For years [since the Tosh decision in 2004] we have considered several factors in analyzing this second step: (1) whether the misconduct was gross and flagrant; (2) whether it was motivated by prosecutorial ill will; and (3) whether the evidence was of such a direct and overwhelming nature that the misconduct would likely have had little weight in the minds of jurors. None of these three factors has been individually controlling. Marshall, 294 Kan. at 857.
" Since 2004, this court has also demanded that any prosecutorial misconduct error meet the 'dual standard' of both constitutional harmlessness and statutory harmlessness to uphold a conviction. See State v. Tosh, 278 Kan. 83, 97, 91 P.3d [298 Kan. 947] 1204 (2004) (Before the third factor can ever override the first two factors, an appellate court must be able to say that the harmlessness tests of both K.S.A. 60-261 and Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705, reh. denied 386 U.S. 987, 87 S.Ct. 1283, 18 L.Ed.2d 241 [1967], have been met.).
" Under the constitutional harmless error analysis defined in Chapman, 'the error may be declared harmless where the party benefitting from the error proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of will not or did not affect the outcome of the trial in light of the entire record, i.e., where there is no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the verdict.' State v. Ward, 292 Kan. 541, Syl. ¶ 6, 256 P.3d 801 (2011), cert. denied 132 S.Ct. 1594, 182 L.Ed.2d 205 (2012).
" Under the harmless error analysis defined in K.S.A. 60-261, the test is equally clear. The court 'determine[s] if there is a reasonable probability that the error did or will affect the outcome of the trial in light of the entire record.' 292 Kan. 541, 256 P.3d 801, Syl. ¶ 6.
" Under both standards, the party benefiting from the error--here, admittedly the State--bears the burden of demonstrating harmlessness. State v. Herbel, 296 Kan. 1101, 1110, 299 P.3d 292 (2013). That burden is higher when the error is of constitutional magnitude. See Herbel, 296 Kan. at 1110 ('Clearly, the party benefiting from the constitutional error must meet a higher standard to show harmlessness than the standard required in nonconstitutional error.')." State v. Bridges, 297 Kan. 989, 1012-13, 306 P.3d 244 (2013).

Page 146

Even though we have applied this dual standard, we also have observed that as a practical matter the result of the harmless error evaluation depends on the outcome of the constitutional standard. We noted that " both the constitutional and nonconstitutional error clearly arise from the very same acts and omissions" and the constitutional standard is more rigorous, meaning the State necessarily meets the lower statutory standard under K.S.A. 60-261 if it meets the higher constitutional standard. Bridges, 297 Kan. at 1015 (citing State v. Herbel, 296 Kan. 1101, 1111, 299 P.3d 292 [2013]).

As this discussion indicates, the 2004 decision in Tosh modified our standard of review. This modification reduced the precedential value of pre-2004 decisions, including the cases cited by Huddleston-- Henry, 273 Kan. at 619, and Moncla, 262 Kan. at 69-70. The continued viability, if any, of a pre-2004 decision must be evaluated by determining whether it is consistent with the Tosh test. Making that comparison, it seems that the Henry test of whether a prosecutor's comments misled the jury would appropriately and necessarily [298 Kan. 948] be a part of the determination of whether the harmless error standard had been met, i.e., of whether the party benefitting from the error proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not affect the outcome of the trial. In fact, the full discussion in both Henry and Moncla reflects that framework. ...


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