This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the
Welfare of W.L.K.
Filed January 4, 2005
Brown County District Court
File No. JX-03-50391
Nicollet County District Court
File No. J6-04-50037
Linda J. Heine, Somsen, Mueller, Lowther, & Franta, PA, P.O. Box 38, New Ulm, MN 56073 (for appellant W.L.K.)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1400 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and
James R. Olson, Brown County Attorney, John L.R. Yost, Assistant County Attorney, 519 Center Street, P.O. Box 428, New Ulm, MN 56073; and
Michael K. Riley, Sr., 326 South Minnesota Avenue, P.O. Box 360, St. Peter, MN 56082 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Wright, Judge, and Crippen, Judge.
Appellant challenges a juvenile court adjudication of delinquency on two counts of terroristic threats, Minn. Stat. § 609.713, subd. 1 (2002), claiming there was insufficient evidence identifying him as the person responsible for committing the unlawful acts. Because there was adequate circumstantial evidence supporting the district court’s decision, we affirm.
Nicole Eldred was appellant W.L.K.’s secondary education teacher for economics in the 2003-2004 school year. Throughout September and October, appellant disrupted class on nine separate occasions. In response to a majority of these disruptions, Eldred sent appellant to the principal’s office for discipline. Near the end of September or beginning of October, appellant approached Eldred and asked her if she drove a blue Cutlass Supreme, a question that disturbed her because of its personal nature. Eldred had her final interaction with appellant as a student in her class on October 15, 2003, when, after another disruption, she ordered him to the principal’s office. Appellant responded by slowly gathering his belongings and repeatedly stating that Eldred had made a big mistake. His slow departure and odd statements disturbed Eldred and she worried that he was planning some action against her. After this incident, appellant chose to be placed in study hall rather than continue under Eldred’s instruction.
Despite his removal from her class, the school assigned appellant to Eldred for conferences. To schedule the conference, Eldred used her cell phone to contact appellant’s father in late October. No one answered at the number she called and she did not leave a message.
Approximately one week later, on November 6, Eldred received a threatening message on her cell phone shortly before 11:00 p.m. The speaker was unidentifiable, but sounded male and seemed to be using something to alter his voice, such as helium. Two weeks passed without any significant incidents, although a call log indicates that Eldred’s cell phone received two more calls from the same number as the first; the caller left no messages. Shortly before midnight on November 25, a night before a day without school, Eldred received another call and a message. As before, the voice was not recognizable. The caller apparently employed some sort of audio distortion technology to slow down and mask his voice. It is not disputed that terroristic messages were stated on the first and last of these calls.
Eldred contacted the police department, which recorded the messages and determined the number from which the calls were coming. The number belonged to a cell phone used predominantly by appellant but registered under his mother’s name. The record also includes the testimony of appellant’s friends, who acknowledged that the cell phone was appellant’s and that they contacted him by calling the phone number at issue. The call log shows that Eldred received four additional calls from this number over the four days after November 25. On December 1, 2003, appellant was arrested, and the state initially charged him with two counts of terroristic threats; Eldred received no further calls from his number. The charge was later amended to include two additional counts for aiding or abetting in the making of terroristic threats.
During the trial, appellant introduced evidence that he habitually loaned his phone to others, did not keep track of its location, and had lost it briefly on some unidentified occasion. He also introduced evidence that Eldred sent other students to the office. Finally, appellant showed the calls occurred on nights when school was not scheduled for the next day and that the background noise for the answered calls suggested that they came from a social gathering of students.
The district court concluded that “[t]he circumstantial evidence in this case is overwhelming and points unequivocally to the [j]uvenile being either the individual who actually dialed the Eldreds’ number and left the messages or being the prime mover behind the making of the calls and leaving of the messages.” The court cited the evidence stated here as proof that appellant had “motive, means and opportunity to threaten Mrs. Eldred in the precise fashion that she was threatened.” The court reasoned that it was “not plausible to believe the [j]uvenile lent out or misplaced his cell phone and that some other person then used the cell phone to make two (2) threatening calls to the Eldreds that were separated by almost three (3) weeks.” Nor was it “plausible to think that six (6) additional calls were made from the [j]uvenile’s cell phone to the Eldreds’ cell phone without the [j]uvenile being responsible for the series of calls.” The court therefore denied appellant’s motion for acquittal and found him delinquent for the initial two counts of terroristic threats in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.713, subd. 1.
In a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, our role is limited to “ascertaining whether the jury could reasonably find the defendant guilty given the facts in evidence and the legitimate inferences which could be drawn from those facts.” State v. Miles, 585 N.W.2d 368, 372 (Minn. 1998). We are to carefully review the record to determine whether the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the conviction, was sufficient to permit the fact-finder to reach its verdict. State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989). We are further to assume that the fact-finder believed the witnesses’ testimony that supported the verdict and disbelieved the evidence that did not. State v. Steinbuch, 514 N.W.2d 793, 799 (Minn. 1994). “The dispositive consideration, therefore, is not whether reasonable doubt existed, but whether there was sufficient evidence for a jury to reasonably conclude that no reasonable doubt existed.” State v. Walen, 563 N.W.2d 742, 750 (Minn. 1997). The same standards apply to review of a juvenile delinquency adjudication found by the district court. See In re Welfare of S.M.J., 556 N.W.2d 4, 6 (Minn. App. 1996) (stating standard in context of delinquency adjudication).
A conviction “based entirely on circumstantial evidence merits stricter scrutiny than convictions based in part on direct evidence.” State v. Jones, 516 N.W.2d 545, 549 (Minn. 1994). Circumstantial evidence is nonetheless entitled to the same weight as direct evidence. State v. Bauer, 598 N.W.2d 352, 370 (Minn. 1999). The circumstantial evidence must form a complete chain that, in view of the evidence as a whole, leads so directly to the guilt of the defendant as to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt any reasonable inference other than guilt. Jones, 516 N.W.2d at 549. We will uphold a conviction based on circumstantial evidence if “the reasonable inferences from such evidence are consistent only with the defendant’s guilt and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of his guilt.” Webb, 440 N.W.2d at 430 (quotation omitted). But the fact-finder is in the best position to evaluate circumstantial evidence, and its verdict is entitled to due deference. Id.
When considering the caller’s identity, the district court correctly attributed legal significance to the disciplinary measures used by Eldred toward appellant, appellant’s remarks to Eldred regarding her automobile, the suggested threat of bad consequences, the number of calls, and appellant’s possession and use of the phone.
Appellant contends that the circumstantial evidence is inadequate because it is rational to hypothesize that fellow students might have used his telephone to make one or more of the calls. But it was reasonable for the district court to treat this argument as mere speculation in light of the weight of the evidence as to appellant’s commission of the act and the want of evidence suggesting use of the phone by others.
To support this alternative inference of wrongdoing by others, appellant only points to evidence that the calls were made while partying with other students, that appellant regularly loaned his cell phone to others, that he lost the phone, and that Eldred had disciplined other students. We conclude that to use this evidence to determine that all eight calls were made by others is not a rational hypothesis.
Appellant further asserts that the case against him is weakened by the absence of evidence that he had knowledge of Eldred’s cell phone number. The evidence shows that Eldred placed a call to appellant’s home several days before the terroristic calls began and the district court observed that this call “very likely made her cell phone number known or available to people in [appellant’s] household via the nearly-universal caller ID feature or the like.” Although appellant argues that the record contains no evidence that any party had caller ID, this evidentiary gap does not affect the state’s case. Because there is no question that the calls were made to Eldred’s cell phone and originated from the cell phone controlled by appellant, it is unnecessary to resolve the question of when or how appellant learned Eldred’s telephone number.
Finally, appellant suggests that if reversal on the sufficiency of the evidence is not appropriate, we should reverse based on the district court’s denial of appellant’s motion for acquittal, which occurred when the state rested and before it had proven appellant regularly used his mother’s phone. The evidence that the phone belonged to appellant’s mother, taken together with all the other evidence incriminating him, was sufficient at that stage to establish a prima facie case that appellant committed the offense. Moreover, at that stage, there was even less cause for speculation of use by others, which was suggested only by evidence that one or two calls occurred when in the presence of others. The state’s circumstantial evidence was sufficient to meet its burden at the close of its case, and the district court properly denied appellant’s motion for acquittal.
Reviewing the evidence as a whole and in a light most favorable to the adjudication, we conclude the evidence was sufficient to support appellant’s adjudication for two counts of terroristic threats.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.