Decision: State v. Cofield

March 27th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Cofield (No. 98,133) an out of time appeal, allowed due to ineffective assistance of counsel in the initial trial, against Carl Cofield’s conviction for two drive-by shooting murders, and an act of arson, in 2004. In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Rosen, the court rejects all of Cofield’s complaints and affirms his conviction and sentence of two consecutive 25 to life terms.

In July of 2004, Cofield and some associates left a Kansas City, Kansas drug house and went driving in a pair of cars. Along the way they encountered a pair of young men walking. The occupants of both cars, including Cofield, stopped and opened fire with a variety of weapons killing both men. Subsequently, one of the cars was burned. In his confession to police Cofield stated that he had thought the two victims were adversaries of some kind, and had he known the true identity of one of them (an apparent acquaintance) he would not have shot them.

Cofield was convicted of the murders and a charge of arson. Prior to sentencing his defense attorney filed a notice of appeal. In Kansas notices of appeal cannot be filed before sentencing. After sentencing, but outside of the allowed time period his defense attorney filed an amended notice of appeal, which was ultimately dismissed as procedurally barred. Cofield was allowed to seek a hearing from the District Court to determine that his counsel had been ineffective in failing to properly file his appeal. He won a motion to this effect in District Court, creating this case. It was Cofield’s final success in a courtroom.

In this decision the Kansas Supreme Court rejects all of Cofields arguments for a new trial. His main complaint was that his confession (which contradicted what he said at trial) should not have been admitted as evidence. He maintains that he was under the influence of drugs at the time he confessed and that he was deprived of sleep by the police. At trial he told a different story, claiming he was bribed to confess to the crimes by one of his co-killers who was dead by the time of the trial. The court found nothing to back up his claim and rejected it, finding that the District Court made no error in allowing the admission of his statement.

Cofield also made a number of claims about the jury instructions at his trial. He argued that the choices of jury instructions created the false impression among the jury that they could convict him of first-degree murder even if the state had not proved intent. The court noted that since his trial it had held that the offending jury instructions should not be used together, but that in a case as clear cut as this one the jury was not relying upon this confusion to convict. Juror instructions can only be used to reverse a trial outcome where there was a real possibility the jury would have returned a different verdict if instructed differently. Similarly Cofield argued that some of the jury instructions unfairly encouraged the jury to come to a verdict since they spoke of cases eventually coming to an end and encouraged the jury to try to come to a consensus. The court held here that these instructions did not constitute anything more than a harmless error – there is concern over their being issued while a jury is deadlocked as supplemental instructions, but not at the outset of deliberations, and not in such a clear case as this one.

Cofield’s final throw of the dice was a claim of cumulative error – that the various alleged errors were enough combined to warrant a retrial. Since the court found no actual errors, there was no cumulative error either.

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