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State v. Carlson

Supreme Court of Arizona

June 18, 2015


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Appeal from the Superior Court in Pima County. The Honorable Richard D. Nichols, Judge. No. CR20093544-001.

Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, John R. Lopez IV, Solicitor General, Lacey Stover Gard, Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, Julie A. Done (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona.

Lori J. Lefferts, Pima County Public Defender, Rebecca A. McLean and David J. Euchner (argued), Assistant Public Defenders, Tucson, Attorneys for Michael Jonathon Carlson.



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¶1 Michael Jonathon Carlson was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and two counts of first-degree murder. This automatic appeal follows the imposition of the death penalty. Ariz. R. Crim. P. 31.2(b). We have jurisdiction under Article 6, Section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution

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and A.R.S. § 13-4031.


¶2 In the spring of 2009, Michael Carlson moved into a recreational vehicle on a rural property in Pima County.[1] Larry owned the property and lived there with his family, including his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Also living together in a trailer on the property were KR and Becky.

¶3 Carlson felt close to Larry and thought that KR and Becky " annoyed" Larry and his family by using methamphetamines, shooting a gun on the property, and stealing. Believing KR or Becky had stolen a ruby cross from Larry's trailer, Carlson decided to make KR and Becky " disappear." While holding a gun on KR, he ordered Becky to tie KR up. Carlson then tied Becky up and ordered the victims into the trunk of his car. After driving for a while, he noticed that Becky had become untied and worked her way from the trunk partially into the back seat. Carlson shot her and then KR to keep them from escaping. He took the bodies back to the property where he burned them in a pit until they were reduced to ash and small bone fragments.

¶4 Within a few days, Carlson told Larry that he had murdered KR and Becky. Nearly a month later, Larry called police and told them that Carlson was staying in a trailer on his property and had an outstanding arrest warrant from Texas. Police officers immediately came and arrested Carlson.

¶5 Ten days later, Carlson called a local television station and asked to speak to a reporter. When the reporter visited Carlson in the Pima County Jail, Carlson confessed to murdering KR and Becky, as well as eight other people. For trial, the parties stipulated that, despite the detail in Carlson's confession, the authorities in the other jurisdictions in which Carlson admitted committing murders could not find evidence that those murders had actually occurred.

¶6 The jury found Carlson guilty of two counts of felony murder and two counts of kidnapping. The jury then found three aggravating circumstances: Carlson had been convicted of a prior serious offense, A.R.S. § 13-751(F)(2); he committed the murders while on release from custody, id. § 13-751(F)(7); and he committed multiple murders during the commission of the offense, id. § 13-751(F)(8). In the penalty phase, the jury determined that Carlson should be sentenced to death for each murder. The court sentenced Carlson to consecutive twenty-one-year sentences for the two kidnappings.


A. Corpus Delicti for Kidnapping

¶7 Carlson argues that the trial court erred by admitting his television interview as evidence of the two kidnapping counts because the State never established the corpus delicti for those crimes. He argues that without his incriminating statements, the State could not establish the kidnappings. " We review a ruling on the sufficiency of the evidence of corpus delicti for abuse of discretion." State v. Morris, 215 Ariz. 324, 333 ¶ 33, 160 P.3d 203, 212 (2007). We will " affirm the trial court's ruling if the result was legally correct for any reason." State v. Perez, 141 Ariz. 459, 464, 687 P.2d 1214, 1219 (1984).

¶8 To introduce a defendant's confession, the state must present corroborating evidence from which jurors could reasonably infer that the crime charged actually occurred. See State v. Hall, 204 Ariz. 442, 453 ¶ 43, 65 P.3d 90, 101 (2003). The standard for the corroborating evidence is not high. " Only a reasonable inference of the corpus delicti need exist before a confession may be considered," and circumstantial evidence suffices to support the inference. Id. (quoting State v. Gillies, 135 Ariz. 500, 506, 662 P.2d 1007, 1013 (1983)). Nor need the showing be made before the defendant's statements are presented, " [a]s long as the State ultimately submits adequate proof of the corpus delicti before it rests." Id.

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(quoting State v. Jones ex rel. Cnty. of Maricopa, 198 Ariz. 18, 23 ¶ 14, 6 P.3d 323, 328 (App. 2000)). The rule is designed to prevent convictions based solely on uncorroborated statements. State v. Chappell, 225 Ariz. 229, 234 ¶ 9, 236 P.3d 1176, 1181 (2010).

¶9 A different corroboration rule, the " trustworthiness doctrine," has become the standard in most federal courts and has been adopted by several state courts. E.g., United States v. Shunk, 881 F.2d 917, 919-21 (10th Cir. 1989); see also State v. Parker, 315 N.C. 222, 337 S.E.2d 487, 492 (N.C. 1985) (observing that " federal courts and an increasing number of states" follow the trustworthiness approach). That doctrine requires the government " to introduce substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish the trustworthiness of the statement." Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 93, 75 S.Ct. 158, 99 L.Ed. 101 (1954). As with the traditional approach, the burden is not heavy. " It is sufficient if the corroboration supports the essential facts admitted sufficiently to justify a jury inference of their truth." Id.

¶10 Although this Court has never adopted the trustworthiness doctrine, our court of appeals addressed it in State v. Morgan, 204 Ariz. 166, 171-72 ¶ ¶ 17-21, 61 P.3d 460, 465-66 (App. 2002). The trial court in this case relied on Morgan when it admitted Carlson's incriminating statements, and in their briefs in this court, the parties have cited Morgan as though it adopted the trustworthiness rule.[2]

¶11 But Morgan addressed trustworthiness in connection with its analysis of the closely related crimes exception to the corpus delicti rule. There, a defendant charged with several sexual offenses confessed to each charge. Id. at 169 ¶ ¶ 6-7, 61 P.3d at 463. Evidence established the corpus delicti for all counts except a charge that the defendant had engaged in oral sexual contact with a minor. Id. at 172-73 ¶ 23, 61 P.3d at 466-67. After the court evaluated both the corpus delicti and trustworthiness corroboration rules, it held that the state had established the corpus delicti for all charges. Id. It reasoned that, when a defendant confesses to several related crimes, independent evidence that establishes the commission of the closely related crimes may suffice to corroborate the confession as a whole, rendering it admissible. Id.

¶12 Morgan 's analysis comports with this Court's current rule, which requires only sufficient corroborating evidence " to warrant a reasonable inference that the crime charged was actually committed." State v. Hernandez, 83 Ariz. 279, 282, 320 P.2d 467, 469 (1958); see also Hall, 204 Ariz. at 453 ¶ 43, 65 P.3d at 101; Chappell, 225 Ariz. at 234 ¶ 9, 236 P.3d at 1181; Gillies, 135 Ariz. at 506, 662 P.2d at 1013. We agree with Morgan 's reasoning that, under our corpus delicti rule, independent evidence that establishes the commission of ...

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