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State v. Telles

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

March 20, 2019

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appell ee,
v.
LEONARD TELLES, Defendant-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF DONA ANA COUNTY Fernando R. Macias, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM Walter M. Hart, III, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellee

          Robert E. Tangora, L.L.C. Robert E. Tangora Santa Fe, NM for Appellant

          OPINION

          J. MILES HANISEE, Judge

         {1} A jury convicted Defendant Leonard Telles of second degree murder, kidnapping, attempted tampering with evidence, and two counts of tampering with evidence. On appeal, Defendant argues that (1) his right to a public trial was violated; (2) his convictions for kidnapping, attempted tampering with evidence, and tampering with evidence are not supported by sufficient evidence; and (3) his convictions for kidnapping and attempted tampering with evidence violate double jeopardy. Defendant also seeks reversal of his convictions based upon cumulative error. Unpersuaded, we affirm. BACKGROUND

         {2} Defendant beat Jerome Saiz (Victim) to death with a baseball bat. At trial, Defendant testified that he was at Victim's house, assisting Rebecca Gomez, Victim's ex-girlfriend, with packing so she could move out. At some point after Defendant and Ms. Gomez finished packing, Ms. Gomez's two young daughters alerted them that Victim had arrived. Defendant went into the living room where Victim and Ms. Gomez were arguing. Defendant testified that Victim was holding a baseball bat, seemed "high," and threatened Defendant. Defendant said that Victim "rushed" him, but that he fought Victim off and was able to take the bat away from Victim while Victim was making a phone call. Defendant testified that he warned Victim to stay away, but Victim came at him again, so he used the bat to defend himself.

         {3} After the altercation, and seeing Victim lying on the ground unresponsive, Defendant believed Victim to be dead. Defendant told Ms. Gomez that they needed to leave Victim's house. Defendant covered Victim with a blanket and stashed the bat behind the washing machine. He then dragged Victim to a back bedroom, rolled him up in a carpet, and shut the door. Defendant next mopped the blood from the living room floor. He testified that he took these actions, not to prevent the police from finding Victim's body or to conceal evidence, but to prevent Ms. Gomez's two daughters from seeing the body or the blood and getting upset. (4} Defendant testified that he believed Victim was dead when he dragged him to the back bedroom, but that when he heard police knocking at the door, he "panicked" and began pacing throughout the house. He went to check on Victim, heard Victim making loud snoring noises, and decided to inform the officers that Victim was "knock[ed] . . . out." Defendant also told the officers two things that he admitted at trial were false: first, that Victim had broken into the home-which Defendant misrepresented to the officers as belonging to Ms. Gomez-in the middle of the night; and second, that upon entry, Victim had attacked Ms. Gomez. (5} At trial, the State took the position that Defendant had not acted in self-defense, but instead had killed Victim willfully and deliberately by repeatedly striking him with the baseball bat. It was also the State's theory that Defendant kidnapped Victim by rolling him up in the carpet so that if Victim regained consciousness, he would not be able to move or call for help. The State argued that Defendant's efforts to mop up the blood in the living room and stash the bat behind the washing machine supported two counts of tampering with evidence. The State additionally argued that, by moving Victim to the back bedroom and rolling him up in a carpet, Defendant was trying to hide evidence of his crimes from the police, thereby attempting to tamper with evidence.

         {6} The jury convicted Defendant on all counts, [1] and Defendant was sentenced to fifteen years' incarceration for second degree murder with two years of parole; eighteen years' incarceration for kidnapping followed by two years of parole; eighteen months' incarceration for attempted tampering with evidence followed by one year of parole; and three years' incarceration followed by two years of parole for each of the tampering with evidence convictions. The district court ordered Defendant to serve the sentences for murder, kidnapping, attempted tampering, and one of the tampering charges consecutively, but ordered the second tampering with evidence charge to be served concurrent with the sentence for second degree murder. We provide additional facts as needed to address Defendant's claims on appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Defendant's Right to a Public Trial Was Not Violated

         {7} Upon completion of a three-day jury trial, defense counsel learned that the courtroom had been closed to several members of the public, including, it appears, three members of Defendant's family, for a ten to fifteen minute period during closing arguments. The closure occurred, unbeknownst to the district court and the parties, when a court security officer barred entry to the would-be spectators in response to a "Do Not Enter" sign that, for reasons unknown had been affixed to the courtroom door. Defendant filed a post-verdict motion for a new trial, arguing that the closure was of constitutional dimension, and the district court held a hearing to determine the causes and circumstances of the temporary courtroom closure. The upshot of the hearing was two-fold: the district court neither ordered nor was aware of the closure, and no one could say with certainty who posted the closure sign or why. The hearing testimony showed that the bailiff, upon learning of the situation as it unfolded, immediately directed that all members of the public be permitted entry. Despite the exclusion of a few, the courtroom was otherwise full of spectators, including members of the media, who had entered before the brief and inadvertent closure. The district court denied Defendant's motion, emphasizing the limited nature-both in time and scope-of the courtroom closure.

         {8} Defendant argues that the period of minutes during which the courtroom was closed violated his right to a public trial under the Federal and New Mexico Constitutions. We review de novo whether a defendant's constitutional rights have been violated. State v. Turrietta, 2013-NMSC-036, ¶ 14, 308 P.3d 964.

         {9} The Federal Constitution provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial[.]" U.S. Const, amend. VI. The New Mexico Constitution similarly provides that an accused shall have "a speedy public trial by an impartial jury of the county or district in which the offense is alleged to have been committed." N.M. Const, art. II, § 14. The values protected by the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial are to ensure a fair trial, remind the prosecutor and judge of their responsibility to the accused and the importance of their functions, encourage witnesses to come forward, and discourage perjury. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984). "The right to a public trial is not absolute and may give way in certain cases to other rights or interests, such as the defendant's right to a fair trial or the government's interest in inhibiting disclosure of sensitive information." Turrietta, 2013-NMSC-036, ¶ 15 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "A total courtroom closure is allowed when there is 'an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.'" Id. ¶ 17 (quoting Waller, 467 U.S. at 45). To determine whether there is an "overriding interest" sufficient to justify a courtroom closure, the district court must adhere to the following standard: "[1] the party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, [2] the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, [3] the district court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and [4] it must make findings adequate to support the closure." Id. (alterations in original) (quoting Waller, 467 U.S. at 48).

         {10} Defendant contends that because the courtroom closure at issue did not meet the "overriding interest" standard, it was unconstitutional. See id. But Defendant's application of Turrietta to the facts at hand is misplaced. In that case our Supreme Court applied the "overriding interest" standard in the specific context of a courtroom closure sought by the State and ordered over a defense objection. See id. ¶¶ 5-6. In this case, the district court had no knowledge of, much less any role in, the closure, and there was no defense objection to the closure, which came and went without notice by the district court or the parties.

         {11} New Mexico jurisprudence has yet to address this precise situation. The State urges us to follow federal case law, which has consistently declined to find a violation of a defendant's constitutional right to a public trial where, as is the case here, the closure is fairly characterized as "trivial." We ...


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