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State v. Wyrostek

April 05, 1994

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
VANCE WYROSTEK, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



CERTIFICATION FROM THE NEW MEXICO COURT OF APPEALS. Martin G. Pearl, District Judge

Baca, Montgomery, Ransom, Franchini, Frost

Baca

BACA, Justice.

The State appeals from the district court's pretrial order finding and concluding that a sentence of death imposed upon defendant-appellee, Vance Wyrostek, would be excessive and disproportionate when compared to the penalties imposed in similar first-degree murder cases. The State sought an interlocutory appeal of the district court's order. The Court of Appeals granted the State's application for interlocutory appeal and certified this case to our Court pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 34-5-14(C) (Repl. Pamp. 1990) (granting the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction if the Court of Appeals certifies that an undecided issue before it involves: "(1) a significant question of law under the constitution of New Mexico or the United States; or (2) an issue of substantial public interest that should be determined by the supreme court"). We address a single issue on appeal: Whether the district court has the authority to determine whether the death penalty would be excessive or disproportionate in a given case.*fn1 We hold that this Court is the sole arbiter of whether a death sentence is excessive or disproportionate. Consequently, the district court erred by making a pretrial ruling on death sentence proportionality. We reverse and remand this case for trial.

I.

The following facts were alleged by the State. On the evening of February 23, 1991, Defendant was having a party at his house located near Los Lunas, New Mexico. After the party had gone on for some time, Francisco Gomez, who was heavily intoxicated, made several sexual comments about Defendant's sister. Defendant asked Gomez to leave the party. When Gomez stood up, Defendant repeatedly struck him with a beer bottle, while Defendant's brother hit Gomez with his fists. Gomez, rendered unconscious by the attack, was carried outside and lifted into the back of a pickup truck by Defendant, his brother, and Larry Lyannas. Gomez, still unconscious, was driven away from the house and was dumped into a ditch. Defendant, his brother, and Lyannas returned to the house and began cleaning up the area of the house where Gomez had been attacked.

Later, Defendant drove himself and Lyannas to a convenience store. They filled a

container with gasoline and returned to the ditch where Gomez had been abandoned. Lyannas poured some of the gasoline on Gomez as he lay unconscious. Defendant dipped a stick in the remaining gasoline, lit it, and threw the burning stick on Gomez. Gomez died as a result of thermal burns to his body.

A criminal complaint was filed against Defendant on February 25, 1991. The complaint charged Defendant with an open count of murder and with tampering with evidence. On March 7, 1991, Defendant was indicted by a grand jury for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, aggravated battery, and tampering with evidence. In order to seek the death penalty against Defendant, the indictment charged that Gomez had been "a witness to a crime or a person likely to become a witness to a crime, [and was killed] for the purpose of preventing report of the crime or testimony in any criminal proceeding."*fn2 See NMSA 1978, § 31-20A-5(G) (Repl. Pamp. 1990) (listing the murder of a witness to a crime as one aggravating circumstance to be considered during capital sentencing). Lyannas pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was given a life sentence.

Prior to trial, Defendant filed a motion for an order prohibiting the State from seeking the death penalty. Defendant argued that under NMSA 1978, Section 31-20A-4(C)(4) (Repl. Pamp. 1990) (mandating proportionality review in death penalty cases), the imposition of the death penalty would be excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar first-degree murder cases.*fn3 Defendant contended that Section 31-20A-4. while requiring the Supreme Court to review the proportionality of a death sentence, does not prohibit the district court from ruling that the death penalty would be disproportionate in a given case. Defendant asserted that under State v. Clark, 108 N.M. 288, 311, 772 P.2d 322, 345, cert. denied, 493 U.S. 923, 107 L. Ed. 2d 271, 110 S. Ct. 291 (1989), overruled on other grounds by State v. Henderson, 109 N.M. 655, 664, 789 P.2d 603, 612 (1990), the issue of proportionality must be ruled on at the district court level. Defendant claimed that a death sentence would be disproportionate in this case because Lyannas, a codefendant, was permitted to plead guilty and receive a life sentence. Finally, Defendant maintained that trying his case as a non-death penalty capital murder case would save the taxpayers' money. In response, the State argued that under Section 31-20A-4, the proportionality of a death sentence had to be decided by this Court, and that Clark did not require the district court to make the proportionality determination.

In a written order filed on June 22, 1992, the district court concluded that Section 31-20A-4 did not prohibit a district court from determining whether a sentence of death in a capital murder case would be disproportionate. The court concluded that under Clark, a district court has the discretion to decide the issue of proportionality. The district court found and concluded that a sentence of death imposed upon Defendant would be excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. The State sought interlocutory appeal of this issue with the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals certified this matter to our Court for review.

II.

We address one issue on appeal: Whether the district court has the authority to conduct proportionality review of death sentences.*fn4 The State argues that the district court is not authorized to determine

whether an eventual sentence of death in a given case would be disproportionate. Defendant and the New Mexico Public Defender Department ("Amicus"), filing an Amicus brief on Defendant's behalf, contend that the district court generally has the power to determine the proportionality of a death sentence, and can rule on proportionality prior to trial. Defendant and Amicus assert that their argument is supported by the New Mexico Constitution, the statutes governing capital sentencing, our opinion in Clark, and various policy considerations.

We agree with Defendant that the issue raised in this case, a question of first impression in New Mexico, is one of constitutional import. Under Article VI, Section 13 of the New Mexico Constitution, "the district court is one of general jurisdiction." Trujillo v. State, 79 N.M. 618, 619, 447 P.2d 279, 280 (1968). Under the Constitution's broad grant of general jurisdiction, the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction to try felony cases. State v. Garcia, 93 N.M. 51, 53, 596 P.2d 264, 266 (1979). The district court has "appellate jurisdiction of all cases originating in inferior courts and tribunals in their respective districts." N.M. Const. art. VI, § 13. In contrast, the New Mexico Constitution grants this Court exclusive appellate jurisdiction over district court judgments imposing a sentence of death or life imprisonment. See N.M. Const. art. VI, § 2. The issue is whether the district court is prohibited from making proportionality determinations in light of the constitutional provision that commits to this Court the exclusive jurisdiction over death penalty appeals. If not, the proportionality determination presumably falls within the district court's general jurisdiction, and can be decided during the trial of capital murder cases. The imposition and review of capital punishment in this State is controlled by the Capital Felony Sentencing Act, NMSA 1978, Sections 31-20A-1 to -6 (Repl. Pamp. 1990 & Cum. Supp. 1993) (the "Act"). Hence, the issue must be answered by construing the Act in accordance with the rules of statutory interpretation.

A.

In construing the Act, our primary goal is to determine and give effect to the intention of the Legislature. Arnold v. State, 94 N.M. 381, 383, 610 P.2d 1210, 1212 (1980). Legislative intent is ascertained primarily "from the language used in the Act or statute as a whole." Id. When construing a statute, we give the statute effect as written. Fort v. Neal, 79 N.M. 479, 481, 444 P.2d 990, 992 (1968).

Examination of the Act leads us to conclude that this Court alone determines whether a death sentence is disproportionate. The Act's single reference to proportionality review is found in Section 31-20A-4:

31-20A-4. Review of judgment and sentence.

A. The judgment of conviction and sentence of death shall be automatically reviewed by the supreme court of the state of New Mexico.

B. In addition to the other matters on appeal, the supreme court shall rule on the validity of the death sentence.

C. The death penalty shall not be imposed if:

(1) the evidence does not support the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance;

(2) the evidence supports a finding that the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances;

(3) the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion prejudice or any ...


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