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State v. Aguirre

Supreme Court of Kansas

May 15, 2015

LUIS A. AGUIRRE, Appellant

Appeal from Riley District Court; MERYL D. WILSON, judge.

Reversed and remanded with directions.



1. When reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress, we bifurcate our analysis, first assessing whether the factual findings below are supported by substantial competent evidence and then applying a de novo standard to the ultimate legal conclusion to be drawn from those facts.

2. If a suspect invokes his or her Miranda rights during questioning by police, that interrogation must cease. Thereafter, the admissibility of statements obtained after the person in custody has decided to invoke his or her Miranda rights depends upon whether his or her right to cut off questioning was scrupulously honored.

3. In this state, we test the clarity of a Miranda rights invocation by determining whether a reasonable police officer under the circumstances would understand the suspect's statement as an assertion of a Miranda right. But if the interrogator simply ignores the suspect's invocation of rights and continues to ask questions, the suspect's compliance with the further questioning does not invalidate or render equivocal the prior invocation of rights.

4. If a suspect attempts to invoke his or her Miranda rights during questioning by using the same nomenclature that the interrogator used to obtain the initial Miranda waiver, it would be objectively unreasonable for the interrogator not to understand that the suspect is asserting his or her Miranda rights.

5. The Miranda rights advisory form used in this case did not require the suspect to proffer a reason for wanting to stop answering questions at any time and it did not condition the cessation of questioning upon the suspect's intention to remain silent forever.

6. Where police initiate a second interrogation of a suspect upon the same subject matter as a prior interrogation, after having refused to terminate questioning in the prior interrogation when the suspect invoked his or her Miranda rights, the suspect's Miranda waiver in the second interrogation is ineffective, his or her statements from the second interrogation must be suppressed, and those statements cannot be considered in making a harmless error review of the unconstitutional Miranda rights violation error in the first interview.

7. An erroneous admission of a defendant's inculpatory statements obtained in violation of his or her Miranda rights is subject to a harmless error analysis. Because the erroneous admission of a defendant's inculpatory statements in violation of his or her Miranda rights is a constitutional violation, the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not affect the outcome of the trial in light of the entire record, i.e., the State must prove that there is no reasonable possibility the error affected the verdict.

Debra J. Wilson, of Capital Appeals and Conflicts Office, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellant.

Natalie A. Chalmers, assistant solicitor general, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellee.

JOHNSON, J. MICHAEL J. MALONE, Senior Judge, assigned.[1] BILES, J., dissenting. NUSS, C.J., and ROSEN, J., join in the foregoing dissenting opinion.


Page 1246

[301 Kan. 951] Johnson, J.

A jury convicted Luis Aguirre of capital murder, based on his premeditated intentional killing of two persons: his ex-girlfriend and their 1-year-old son. During two separate interrogations by law enforcement officers, Aguirre made incriminating statements

Page 1247

which he later unsuccessfully moved to suppress. On appeal, Aguirre contends that his confessions should have been suppressed for two reasons: (1) The interrogating officers refused to terminate the questioning when Aguirre invoked his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 473-74, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966); and (2) the officers' interrogation techniques rendered his confessions involuntary. In addition, Aguirre complains that the prosecutor misstated the law in closing argument with regard to the manner in which the jury is to consider lesser included offenses. Because the law enforcement officers refused to allow Aguirre to terminate the questioning, as he had been advised that he could, the district court erred in denying the suppression [301 Kan. 952] of Aguirre's statements made after the Miranda violation. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

Factual and Procedural Overview

In 2007, while living in Chicago, Aguirre had a relationship with Tanya Maldonado, then age 16, with whom he fathered a child, Juan. Later, while going through National Guard training in Alabama, Aguirre began a relationship with a soldier, Dulce Mendez. By February 2009, Mendez was stationed at Fort Riley Military Reservation, and Aguirre moved in with Mendez and her son, David, in nearby Ogden, Kansas. Mendez was deployed to Iraq in August 2009, and, subsequently, Aguirre and David relocated to Austin, Texas, where Mendez' parents lived.

Notwithstanding his relationship with Mendez, Aguirre maintained email contact with Tanya after the birth of their son. By early 2009, Tanya began asking Aguirre for money and urging him to see his son and acknowledge paternity. Aguirre assured Tanya that he intended to provide for Juan, but by May, when Aguirre had not seen the child or paid any support, Tanya threatened to take legal action. Tanya's threats continued through July and August, culminating in her ultimatum that Aguirre had until September 20 to decide what he wanted to do.

Aguirre was in Chicago on September 19 and 20, 2009, for National Guard drills. Tanya and Juan had been living at a Chicago homeless shelter, but they left the shelter on September 20. Tanya had told her case manager that Juan's father, who was in the military, was coming to pick them up and take them to Texas to live as a family. She had also told the security guard that Juan's father was on his way, and the security guard said Tanya left with a young man driving a gray 4-door SUV. Mendez owned a tan Jeep Cherokee that she let Aguirre use.

The following month, on October 25, 2009, Tanya and Juan were found dead in a shallow grave in a remote area near Ogden. The pathologist would testify that he could not determine the cause of death, although both bodies displayed injuries consistent with the application of force from either a major fall or something striking the victims. An expert would testify that an analysis of the vegetation [301 Kan. 953] indicated the grave had been dug approximately 4 to 6 weeks prior to its discovery and that the stacking of leaves under the bodies indicated the grave had been open for a period of time, perhaps as much as a few days, before the bodies were deposited in it.

Because of Aguirre's relationship with the victims and his prior residency in Ogden, the Riley County investigating detectives traveled to Austin to interview Aguirre on October 30, 2009. When arranging the interview, the detectives did not reveal that they knew that Tanya and Juan were dead but rather they told Aguirre that they were trying to locate Tanya. Aguirre voluntarily met with the police.

At first, Aguirre said he had not seen Tanya in months and that she had talked of moving to California. After the detectives said they knew Tanya had been in Kansas, Aguirre said that she had been to the door of his apartment accompanied by an unknown man on or about September 17, 2009. When the detectives revealed that they knew that Tanya was dead, Aguirre admitted that he was involved. But he related various versions of what transpired, indicating that Tanya's death was either accidental or caused by Aguirre in self-defense. Likewise, he gave multiple descriptions of how Juan died accidentally. Ultimately, Aguirre wrote a statement of the events that he said had occurred on September 17, reiterating that he did not

Page 1248

mean to kill either Tanya or Juan. After taking the written statement, the detectives arrested Aguirre.

On November 3, before Aguirre was returned to Kansas, the detectives contacted Aguirre at the jail, advising him they had additional questions. They transported him to the police department, had him read his Miranda rights aloud, and began the interview by saying they knew Aguirre had been in Chicago on September 19 for a National Guard drill. Eventually, Aguirre admitted that he had picked up Tanya and Juan at the shelter on September 20 and that they had driven to Kansas, arriving in Ogden the afternoon of September 21. He said the deaths occurred that evening, again describing scenarios in which the deaths were accidental.

The State tried Aguirre for capital murder and sought the death penalty. As part of its case-in-chief, the State presented video recordings [301 Kan. 954] of the detectives' two interrogations of Aguirre. It also admitted emails sent by Aguirre to Tanya's address after the deaths, purporting to inquire about her future plans for herself and Juan. The medical examiner testified that the victims' injuries were not consistent with Aguirre's accidental death scenarios and that the chances of Tanya and Juan simultaneously dying accidentally were " vanishingly small." Aguirre did not testify or present any evidence in his defense.

The jury convicted Aguirre of capital murder but did not impose the death penalty. The court sentenced Aguirre to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and he timely appealed directly to this court. See K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 22-3601(b)(3) (direct appeal to Supreme Court where maximum sentence of life imprisonment has been imposed for murder).

Invocation of Miranda Rights

The rules governing an accused's constitutional rights during a custodial interrogation are well established: " The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right against self-incrimination, including the right to have a lawyer present during custodial interrogation and the right to remain silent." State v. Walker, 276 Kan. 939, 944, 80 P.3d 1132 (2003) (citing Miranda, 384 U.S. at 479). Moreover, in Kansas, " [n]o person shall be a witness against himself [or herself]." Kan. Const. Bill of Rights, § 10. " [A] suspect's invocation of his or her right to remain silent must be scrupulously honored and cuts off further interrogation elicited by express questioning or its functional equivalent." State v. Scott, 286 Kan. 54, 69-70, 183 P.3d 801 (2008) (citing State v. Carty, 231 Kan. 282, 286, 644 P.2d 407 [1982]).

Aguirre's first challenge to the admissibility of his interrogation statements is his contention that the detectives conducting the questioning failed and refused to honor his invocation of his Miranda rights during the first interrogation, which constitutional violation also tainted his statements during the second interview. When reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress, we bifurcate our analysis, first assessing whether the factual findings below are supported by substantial competent evidence and [301 Kan. 955] then applying ...

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