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United States v. John

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 24, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Willard John, Defendant.


JAMES A. TEILBORG, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendant Willard John's two Motions to Dismiss the Indictment (Docs. 149, 151) and one Motion to Suppress various Statements made by Defendant (Doc. 150). The Government filed Responses (Docs. 158-60), but Defendant has not replied. The Court held oral arguments and a two-day evidentiary hearing on these three motions over June 18 and 19, 2014. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's three motions are denied.


On the morning of March 19, 2013, Larson Williams ("Williams") discovered Willard John ("Defendant") and NJH ("Victim") lying on the bed in their bedroom in a pool of blood. First responders arrived and found Victim deceased from multiple stab and slash wounds. Defendant was found alive, but suffering from a still bleeding neck wound. Defendant was transported to hospital, underwent surgery, and survived. Later that morning, FBI Special Agent Stephen Hale ("SA Hale") arrived at the scene, interviewed various people present, and collected evidence, including two samples of the bloody mattress Defendant and Victim were found lying upon. Later that day, SA Hale allowed Defendant's family to remove and destroy the bloody mattress.

Also on March 19, 2014, BIA Special Agent Auggie Belvado ("SA Belvado") travelled to the hospital, collected evidence from Defendant, and photographed Defendant's injuries. On March 21 and 32, 2012, SA Hale travelled to the hospital and interviewed Defendant. Defendant was later arrested on suspicion of murder and, on April 11, 2012, indicted on a single count of first degree murder. In preparation for trial, Defendant has moved to dismiss the indictment on two grounds and moved to suppress both of Defendant's statements to SA Hale.


Defendant's first Motion to Dismiss the Indictment (Doc. 149) alleges that the Government investigators destroyed material exculpatory evidence from the crime scene-a bloody mattress-by "giving the bed away to be burned" without first recovering trace evidence from it for future DNA testing ( id. at 1-3). Defendant further asserts ( id. at 7-15) that this failure to preserve potential DNA evidence constitutes a due process violation and merits either dismissal of the indictment or, alternatively, a lesser sanction. In its Response, the Government argues (Doc. 159 at 8-14) that a due process violation has not occurred because the destruction of the bloody mattress does not prejudice Defendant.

A. Legal Standard

In United States v. Sivilla, 714 F.3d 1168 (9th Cir. 2013), the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit articulated the applicable legal standard:

In order for destruction of evidence to rise to the level of a constitutional violation, a party must make two showings. First, that the government acted in bad faith the presence or absence of which "turns on the government's knowledge of the apparent exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed." United States v. Cooper, 983 F.2d 928, 931 (9th Cir. 1993) (citing Arizona v. Youngblood, 489 U.S. 51, 56-57 (1988)). Second, that the missing evidence is "of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means." California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 489 (1984); Cooper, 993 F.2d at 931. Another configuration of this test requires the showing of bad faith where the evidence is only potentially useful and not materially exculpatory. [ United States v. ] Del Toro-Barboza, 673 F.3d [1136, 1149 (9th Cir. 2012)]. For evidence to be materially exculpatory, its exculpatory nature must be apparent. Id. Under either configuration of the test, the inquiry turns on whether any exculpatory value in the [mattress] was apparent to the government agents.

Sivilla, 714 F.3d at 1172. Generally, evidence is material and exculpatory if it is clearly favorable to the accused, and considered in the context of the entire record, may affect the outcome of the case. See United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 113-14 (1976). In contrast, "[p]otentially useful evidence" is evidence "of which no more can be said than that it could have been subjected to tests, the results of which might have exonerated the defendant, " such as Breathalyzer samples or seized cocaine. Illinois v. Fisher, 540 U.S. 544, 547-48 (2004); Youngblood, 488 U.S. at 57.

B. Analysis

In this case, the Court held a hearing in order to fully establish and examine the relevant facts:[1]

• On the morning of March 19, 2012, Larson Williams ("Williams") (who lived in the same house as Defendant and Victim) discovered Defendant and Victim covered in blood and lying on top of a mattress in their bedroom.
• Williams called the local fire department, EMTs arrived, and they found the Victim cold and stiff. At 8:45 a.m., Victim was pronounced deceased.
• The EMTs found Defendant alive, but with a slashed throat. EMTs contained the bleeding and transported Defendant to Indian Health Services ("IHS") in Whiteriver and, later, to Summit Regional Medical Center ("SRMC") in Show Low.
• At 11:30 a.m., FBI Special Agent Stephen Hale ("SA Hale") arrived at the scene and observed that a crowd of onlookers had gathered, but were contained some distance from the residence by White Mountain Apache tribal police officers.

• SA Hale interviewed the first responders at the scene and was told, among other things, that upon arrival at the scene, a first responder witnessed a neighbor exit the residence.

• SA Hale interviewed Williams (a former police officer). Williams explained that the night before, March 18, 2012, at approximately 8:00 p.m., Williams returned home and observed the Victim and Defendant sitting quietly on a couch in a common room. Williams left the home for about one hour, returned, did not observe Victim or Defendant, left again, and did not return that night. Williams further explained that he did not hear any yelling or loud noises, and that there was fresh snow falling that night.
• Williams also told SA Hale that Williams returned at approximately 8:30 a.m., yelled a greeting, received no answer, and noticed that Victim and Defendant's bedroom door was partially ajar, despite normally being closed. Williams peered inside and discovered Victim and Defendant lying on the bed covered in blood.
• Williams continued to explain to SA Hale that he then rushed to his neighboring relatives' home and then returned to the scene with three relatives. Upon entering the bedroom, Williams and the others noticed the extensive blood on the bed and floor. William's aunt spoke to and poked Victim, but Victim did not respond. They observed Defendant lying face-up on the mattress continuing to bleed from the neck. Williams observed Defendant's ...

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