may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
Stephen Maurice Gillen,
Ramsey County District Court
File No. K9-96-2324
Susan E. Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Mark N. Lystig, Assistant County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Blvd., Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)
John M. Stuart, Minnesota Public Defender, Evan W. Jones, Assistant State Public Defender, 2829 University Ave., S.E., Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
Appellant argues that the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction for first-degree arson because it was based on circumstantial evidence. Appellant also argues that the state failed to prove motive beyond a reasonable doubt. We affirm.
Mueller met with the District Fire Chief Gary Schmidt and the apartment complex's assistant manager Annette Seidow. Seidow informed Mueller that there had been approximately five similar dumpster fires in the past week, and, as a result, building management installed surveillance cameras in the two upstairs trash rooms and the compactor room.
The surveillance tape showed a man entering the second floor trash room, reaching into his pocket, crouching down outside the view of the camera, and then putting his trash down the chute. A puff of smoke is shown floating past the individual's head as he places the trash bag in the chute. Then, as the bag comes out of the chute, the tape shows something igniting and a flash of light. The man on the tape was identified as appellant Stephen Gillen, a tenant of the building.
Gillen was arrested in his apartment. He admitted being in the trash room, but denied setting the fire. When first interviewed by arson investigator Dennis Wilkes, Gillen again denied starting the fire. However, when Wilkes told Gillen about the tape, Gillen stated that "he might have taken a lighter from his pocket to look down the chute" to free some papers clogging the chute and a fire may have started accidentally. Gillen also stated during the interview that the lighter found in his apartment was the one he used when he was looking down the chute. Gillen was charged with first-degree arson.
Following the submission of the state's case, Gillen moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the state failed to prove intent. The court denied the motion. The jury found Gillen guilty. During sentencing, Gillen moved for an acquittal or a new trial, arguing the evidence was insufficient to convict him. The court found that the evidence was sufficient and denied the motion. The state moved for an upward departure, and Gillen moved for a downward departure. Both motions were denied, and Gillen was sentenced to imprisonment for the presumptive term of four years. This appeal follows.
When considering a claim of insufficient evidence, the reviewing court is limited to an analysis of the record to determine whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the conviction, is sufficient to sustain the verdict. State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989). In doing so, this court will review the evidence in the record and the legitimate inferences that can be drawn from the evidence and determine whether a jury could reasonably conclude the defendant was guilty of the charged offense. State v. Merrill, 274 N.W.2d 99, 111 (Minn. 1978). The reviewing court may not retry the facts but must "'assume that the jury believed the state's witnesses and disbelieved any contradictory evidence.'" State v. Sheldon, 391 N.W.2d 537, 539 (Minn. App. 1986) (quoting Merrill, 274 N.W.2d at 111).
In most arson cases, the state must rely solely on circumstantial evidence to prove its case. State v. Battin, 474 N.W.2d 427, 430 (Minn. App. 1991) (citing State v. Jacobson, 326 N.W.2d 663, 665 (Minn. 1982)), review denied (Minn. Oct. 23, 1991).
"Circumstantial evidence in a criminal case is entitled to as much weight as any other kind of evidence so long as the circumstances proved are consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except for that of guilt."
State v. Steinbuch, 514 N.W.2d 793, 799 (Minn. 1994) (quoting State v. Pilcher, 472 N.W.2d 327, 335 (Minn. 1991)).
[T]he conviction may stand only where the facts and circumstances disclosed by the circumstantial evidence form a complete chain which, in the light of the evidence as a whole, leads so directly to the guilt of the accused as to exclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, any reasonable inference other than that of guilt.
State v. Wahlberg, 296 N.W.2d 408, 411 (Minn. 1980). However, the evidence need not exclude the possibility of defendant's innocence; it need only make that theory seem unreasonable. State v. Anderson, 379 N.W.2d 70, 78 (Minn. 1985). Although stricter scrutiny applies to convictions based on circumstantial evidence, it is still recognized that "the jury is in the best position to evaluate the circumstantial evidence surrounding the crime." State v. Race, 383 N.W.2d 656, 662 (Minn. 1986).
Gillen argues that in the absence of any motive, the state's circumstantial evidence does not support his conviction. However, "[a] showing of motive is not essential." State v. McTague, 190 Minn. 449, 453, 252 N.W. 446, 447 (1934). In State v. Berndt, 392 N.W.2d 876, 879 (Minn. 1986), the supreme court iterated this point when it stated that in a prosecution for first-degree murder in an arson case based on circumstantial evidence "the state has no burden of establishing a motive for the crime." The court did comment that credibility is lent to the state's accusation that the accused committed the crime if a credible motive can be established. Id. The conviction in Berndt was reversed not because the state failed to establish a credible motive, but because there was no evidence in the record consistent with the state's hypothesis of guilt other than defendant's presence at the time of the fire. Id. at 880. Establishing a motive is helpful. But the state is not required, as a matter of law, to establish motive.
There is sufficient evidence to uphold Gillen's conviction. The state presented the surveillance tape showing how and when the fire started. The jury saw Gillen enter the second-floor trash room shortly after the caretaker at the complex unlocked the trash room, crouch down, remove an object from his pocket, crumple some newspaper, and then put his trash bag in the chute. The tape shows a brief puff of smoke float past Gillen's head as he put the bag into the chute and something igniting as the trash bag comes out of the chute into the compactor room.
In addition, the jury heard testimony from arson investigator Wilkes regarding his interview with Gillen. Wilkes stated that at first, Gillen denied starting the fire, but changed his story after being informed of the surveillance tape. According to Wilkes, Gillen stated that he may have accidentally started the fire when he took a lighter from his pocket to look down the trash chute to try and free some papers clogging the trash chute. Also during the interview, Gillen admitted that the lighter taken from his apartment was the lighter he used as he was looking down the trash chute. Likewise, the jury heard
testimony from the caretaker that the fires in the trash chute did not begin occurring until after Gillen moved into the apartment complex.
Gillen counters, claiming that another person could have started the fire. According to Gillen, the tape shows another individual open and close the door to the first-floor trash chute area shortly before he appears. Gillen claims that this individual might have started the fire and that when he dropped his trash bag down the chute, it stirred up the already existing fire.
From the tape introduced as evidence, Gillen is the only individual to actually enter the first-floor trash room. Although an unidentified woman holding keys does appear in the doorway of the third-floor trash room and looks into the room, this individual never enters the room. This is consistent with the caretaker's testimony that between 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. that morning, she unlocked the deadbolt locks to the three trash rooms. The three trash rooms were locked from approximately 9:30 p.m. the night before the fire until approximately 7:20 a.m. on the morning of the fire. Gillen's claim that another individual could have started the fire in the trash chute is unsupported by any evidence in the record. It is his theory of the case, which he has a right to argue. But the jury was not required to believe his theory of the case. The fire investigators ruled out the possibility of an accidental cause for the fire. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, as this court must, we conclude that
the evidence is consistent with the state's hypothesis of guilt and inconsistent with Gillen's hypothesis of innocence.
The arguments raised in Gillen's pro se brief are without merit.