Decision: State v. Riojas

March 27th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Riojas (No. 98,196), an appeal against a felony murder conviction by Mark Riojas of Wichita. In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Rosen, the court rejected all of Riojas’ complaints and affirmed his conviction and sentence.

In March 2006 Riojas stabbed and robbed Kenny Brown, who later died of his injuries, during a drug deal gone bad. Riojas had claimed to have taken Brown to a different person for the drugs who had been the one who stabbed him, but several people at the scene identified him as Brown’s assailant. Riojas had also attempted to use Brown’s ATM card. He claimed he had done this at Brown’s suggestion, after Brown had been stabbed in order to pay off the drug bill. A jury convicted him of felony murder and aggravated robbery.

On appeal Riojas made two arguments against his conviction. His first claim was that the trial court had wrongly admitted testimony of a witness who stated that Riojas had described slitting someone open with a knife (while playing with a knife which subsequently disappeared – the witness blaming Riojas for the theft). Riojas argued that this was evidence of prior bad acts which is barred from being admitted by statute, except in narrow circumstances lest it prejudice the jury. Before trial, Riojas’ counsel had sought to suppress this evidence but lost his motion to do so. At trial, his counsel did not object to the evidence once it was admitted. The Supreme Court therefore dismissed this complaint as procedurally barred – a matter can only be raised on appeal, if it was objected to in the actual trial. Motions before trial do not count to make an issue available for appeal.

Riojas’ second complaint was that the jury was prejudiced by the admission of post-mortem pictures of Brown. The court also rejected this argument – noting that in murder cases pictures proving cause of death are generally admissible and that these were not even particularly gruesome.

Riojas also challenged his sentence, on the grounds that it was in part based on his prior criminal history, which had not been submitted to the jury for consideration. These Apprendi complaints conclude most of the Court’s current crop of criminal cases, always with the same result: the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines are valid and constitutional, even after Apprendi.

Finally, Riojas challenged the imposition of a $100 fee to the Indigent Defence Services board. In State v. Robinson (2006) the Kansas Supreme Court had made a ruling requiring District courts to make certain findings when ordering payments to the IDS board at sentencing. In this case however, the $100 was for a fee which Riojas should have paid before trial but had not done so. As such, it was not covered by the ruling in Robinson.

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