IN SUPREME COURT
Filed: August 3, 2006
Office of Appellate Courts
S Y L L A B U S
1. The district court did not violate defendant’s right to present a defense by prohibiting the defendant from introducing evidence of his codefendants’ gang affiliation with each other and with a third person where the defendant failed to lay a proper foundation to establish that the evidence had an inherent tendency to connect the third person to the commission of the charged crime.
2. The district court erred by allowing expert police testimony on “triangulation,” but the error did not substantially influence the jury’s decision and does not warrant a new trial where the defendant’s guilt was independently supported by strong evidence.
3. The district court erred by instructing the jury that defendant’s guilty intent could be inferred if the jury determined that defendant fled, but the error had no significant impact on the verdict where the defendant’s guilt was independently supported by strong evidence and the particular evidence of flight was rebutted by other evidence.
4. The district court did not deprive the defendant of his right to confront his accusers, and the defendant’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is without merit.
Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.
O P I N I O N
On January 12, 2004, a shooting incident occurred in
On direct appeal to this court, Medal-Mendoza argues that the district court committed prejudicial error during his trial because (1) the court violated Medal-Mendoza’s right to present a defense by not allowing him to present evidence of his codefendants’ gang affiliation with each other and with a third person; (2) the court improperly allowed a police officer to testify as an expert regarding “triangulation” evidence; and (3) the court instructed the jury that it could consider Medal-Mendoza’s flight as proof of his guilty intent. In his pro se supplemental brief, Medal-Mendoza additionally claims that he was deprived of his right to confront his accusers because the state introduced evidence that was provided by a confidential informant. He also claims ineffective assistance of trial counsel. We affirm the district court.
Some time after
4:00 a.m. on January 12, 2004, the
and Costilla went to Costilla’s apartment on
Medal-Mendoza: I am robbing you, mother f*****.
Medal-Mendoza: I will shoot you.
Medal-Mendoza then shot
that one of the men returned to the apartment, kicked and nudged
In the police
The informant directed
the police to a
After receiving this information, the police
prepared a photographic lineup that contained a picture of Medal-Mendoza. When
Kinsel testified at
Medal-Mendoza’s trial. According to
Kinsel, she woke up at about 6:00 a.m. on January 12, 2004, and Green and
Valtierra were at her apartment. Later,
Kinsel’s friend, Joe Seals, arrived at the apartment. Kinsel had loaned her car to Seals the day
before the shooting incident, but Seals told Kinsel that her car had been
stolen and arrived at the apartment in a different car. Kinsel and Seals took Valtierra to the
airport so that Valtierra could leave for
In the afternoon
of January 13, 2004, the police learned that Medal-Mendoza had been arrested in
testified for the state. DeMeules
testified that he met Medal-Mendoza and Green when he was incarcerated at the
DeMeules testified that Medal-Mendoza said he and the other two men went to Costilla’s apartment to “hit [rob] them for drugs and money.” Medal-Mendoza also stated that the state would not be able to prove that he was at the murder scene because Rachel, a friend of his girlfriend, was going to testify that Medal-Mendoza was at her house taking a shower and in bed with her when the shootings occurred. Medal-Mendoza asked DeMeules to have his girlfriend call Rachel to confirm that Rachel would support his alibi, and DeMeules refused.
Medal-Mendoza’s theory at trial was that
Verdaja testified that she knew Medal-Mendoza through his girlfriend, Antoinette Molinar. Medal-Mendoza was staying in her apartment atthe time because he and Molinar were fighting. According to Verdaja, she was in her apartment sleeping in the early morning of January 12, 2004. She woke up and heard that someone was taking a shower. She went back to sleep, and after a while Medal-Mendoza came into the bedroom and got into her bed. Verdaja testified that she did not remember the exact time that this happened, but it was sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m.
On December 16, 2004, a jury found Medal-Mendoza guilty of two counts of first-degree felony murder, one count of attempted first-degree felony murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and one count of attempted second-degree murder. On March 2, 2005, the district court convicted and then sentenced Medal-Mendoza to two consecutive terms of life in prison for the first-degree murder convictions and to a consecutive term of 180 months in prison for the attempted first-degree murder conviction. This appeal followed.
Medal-Mendoza first argues that the district court deprived him of the
right to present the defense that
rulings generally rest within the district court’s discretion. State v. Palubicki, 700 N.W.2d 476,
Here, the record
shows that Medal-Mendoza filed a pretrial motion seeking to present evidence
that Green and Valtierra were both members of the Brown for Life gang. The district court did not rule on this
motion, stating it would have to “see that in context” before deciding whether
to admit the evidence. During
cross-examination of Kinsel, Medal-Mendoza’s counsel attempted to question
Kinsel about whether Green, Valtierra, and Seals belonged to the same
gang. The state objected, arguing that
the gang affiliation evidence was irrelevant.
Medal-Mendoza’s counsel responded that the fact that Seals belonged to
the same gang as Green and Valtierra and the fact that Seals was with Green and
Valtierra before the shootings occurred indicates that Medal-Mendoza was
The district court sustained the state’s objection, concluding that “at some point, the gang membership may become relevant. Right now it isn’t.” The court further explained:
[Counsel] thinks there is [relevance to the gang affiliation evidence.] She thinks there are gang experts who would come in here and testify that gang members don’t commit crimes with non-gang members. That is what she thinks. I haven’t heard it yet. It hasn’t been disclosed, etcetera. We will deal with that if she ever—if she gets to a point. What I am ruling now, it is not relevant because I don’t have any foundation for what you are talking about.
The trial then proceeded, and Medal-Mendoza did not introduce any further evidence on the subject.
We conclude that the district court correctly precluded Medal-Mendoza
from introducing Green, Valtierra, and Seals’ gang affiliation evidence because
this evidence did not have the inherent tendency to connect the alleged
alternative perpetrator, Seals, to the commission of the murders. See
Palubicki, 700 N.W.2d at 485.
Specifically, the fact that Seals belonged to the same gang as Green and
Valtierra and borrowed a car from Kinsel the day before the shooting does not,
by itself, inherently connect Seals to the murders. At trial, Medal-Mendoza produced no evidence that
gang members do not commit crimes with non-gang members or that Seals fit
Medal-Mendoza next argues that the district court committed prejudicial error when it allowed Sergeant Dunnom of the Saint Paul Police Department to testify as an expert about the violent character of the “drug community” and the phenomenon of “triangulation.” Specifically, at Medal-Mendoza’s trial Dunnom testified over Medal-Mendoza’s relevancy objection that “triangulation” occurs when a drug buyer brings additional people, who “split and go into a formation where they have now—you can’t watch all of them, the exits or entrances are now covered and you have someone to your left, to the right and in front of you.” Dunnom further testified that triangulation “is a danger signal because that can mean either robbery, at best, or a murder, at worst.”
rulings “‘rest within the sound discretion of the [district] court, and we will
not reverse such evidentiary rulings absent a clear abuse of discretion.’” State
v. Morton, 701 N.W.2d 225, 234 (
Valtierra, we considered the same
“triangulation” argument made by Medal-Mendoza’s codefendant, Valtierra, in
Valtierra’s direct appeal. Slip op. at 13. We concluded that because “triangulation” as
described by Dunnom did not in fact occur, Dunnom’s “triangulation” testimony
in Valtierra’s trial, which was substantially similar to her testimony at
Medal-Mendoza’s trial, did not help the jury in evaluating evidence or
resolving factual issues.
Similar to Valtierra, the jury’s verdict in the
instant case was also based on
next argues that the district court committed reversible error when it
instructed the jury that it could consider Medal-Mendoza’s flight as proof of
Medal-Mendoza’s guilty intent. Specifically,
Sergeant Jane Laurence of the Saint Paul Police Department testified at the
trial that the police learned from “reliable informants” that Medal-Mendoza,
Valtierra, and Green left
It is for you alone to decide whether or not the defendant fled after the alleged crimes. If you determine that he did flee, then you may take such flight into consideration as an inference of guilty intention at the time of the incident, giving rise to these charges.
Flight in itself is not conclusive evidence of a guilty intent; but if you find such flight existed, then you may consider it, along with all of the other pertinent evidence in this case in determining whether or not the State has established that the defendant possessed the requisite intent at the time and place of the alleged crimes.
a district court has considerable latitude in choosing jury instructions. State v. Baird, 654 N.W.2d 105, 113 (
We note that the district court gave the same flight jury instruction in Valtierra’s trial, and Valtierra argued on appeal that the court erred in so instructing. In Valtierra’s appeal, we concluded that giving the flight jury instruction was error because (1) it improperly focuses the jury on a particular fact; i.e., the fact of defendant’s flight, which gives the impression to the jury that the court believes that the subject of the instruction has elevated significance; (2) the relationship between a defendant’s flight and his guilty intent is a matter that should normally be left to the jury’s judgment; (3) it injects argument into and unnecessarily lengthens the judge’s charge; and (4) allows juries to avoid assessing the myriad facts that make specific cases unique. Valtierra, slip op. at 10-11. Because our rationale for rejecting the flight jury instruction in Valtierra also applies to Medal-Mendoza’s trial, we conclude that the court erred in instructing the jury that it could consider Medal-Mendoza’s flight as proof of his guilty intent.
Erroneous jury instructions merit a new trial “if it
cannot be said beyond a reasonable doubt that the error had no significant
impact on the verdict.” Olson, 482 N.W.2d at 216. Here, the erroneous flight jury instruction
did not have a significant impact on the jury’s verdict. First, the record indicates that the state’s
case against Medal-Mendoza was very strong.
As discussed above, the critical evidence in this case is
In his pro se
supplemental brief, Medal-Mendoza additionally claims that he was deprived of
his right to confront his accusers because the state introduced evidence that
was provided by a confidential informant.
According to Medal-Mendoza, Sergeant Jane Laurence should not have been allowed
to testify that an unidentified informant told the police that the three people
who committed the murders were: J.G., Danny V. and
Initially, we note
that Medal-Mendoza failed to object to this evidence at trial and, therefore,
we review the admission of the evidence under the plain error doctrine.
We have stated
that when an informant is a mere transmitter of information and not an active
participant in the crime itself, the informant’s name need not be
disclosed. State v. Villalon, 305
Here, the record indicates that Sergeant Laurence’s testimony at issue was not material to Medal-Mendoza’s guilt. Specifically, Laurence did not use the informant’s statement to prove that Medal-Mendoza had committed the murder, but rather to show the jury how the investigation process proceeded and to explain how she came to identify Medal-Mendoza as a suspect. Further, there is no evidence that would indicate the confidential informant was a material witness to the crime, that Laurence’s testimony was suspect, or that the informant’s testimony might disclose entrapment. We therefore conclude that the district court did not need to sua sponte exclude the testimony at issue.
argues that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel because his
attorney (1) failed to object to the above testimony; (2) failed to object to
For the above reasons, we affirm Medal-Mendoza’s convictions.