Decision: State v. Martinez

March 27th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the case of State v. Martinez (No. 99,641), an appeal of a murder conviction from Wyandotte County. In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Rosen, the court upheld Gabriel Martinez’s murder conviction for the drive-by shooting death of Jose David Contreras in 2006. Martinez is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

The Contreras family had been attending a dance in Kansas City, Kansas when they spotted a group of men, including Martinez, who Anthony Contreras had had trouble. After this, the Contreras family, including two brothers, Jose David and Nasser, left in their SUV. Martinez’ group of men followed and were spotted retrieving something from the trunk of their car. A few blocks away, when the SUV was parked in a McDonalds, the car Martinez was in opened fire, injuring Nasser and killing Jose David. Police later apprehended Martinez who confessed to having fired shots at the SUV from a 9mm which he had disposed of by tossing it over a bridge.

During the trial, concerns were expressed to the judge by one of the jurors that a second juror was acting oddly. The first juror was worried that the second juror was not mentally capable of being on the jury. The judge discussed the issue with her, and then ordered the jury to continue deliberations. The next day the judge met with the first juror, the presiding juror, Martinez and his counsel to further discuss the issue. Martinez moved for a mistrial, the judge held that the jury could continue to deliberate. Martinez was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder.

Martinez’ appeal focussed on the issue of the juror who concerns were raised over. He argued that he had been denied his right to a fair trial by the presence of an unsuitable juror who would not try the matter fairly. The Kansas Supreme Court rejected his arguments, holding that the trial judge did the right thing in leaving the juror in place. The concerns raised by the two other jurors never reached the point of showing that the juror was actually incompetent to try the case. Furthermore, the concerns  addressed the way in which he was deliberating – matters which may not be questioned. As the court puts it:

“A verdict may not be impeached by questions concerning a juror’s views or conclusions, the reasons for those views, the factors used in determining those conclusions, or what influenced those views or mental processes in reaching the juror’s conclusions.”

The Kansas Supreme Court did howeved find that the trial judge erred in his first communication with the juror who brought the matter to light. Since this conversation took place without the presence of Martinez it violated Martinez’ right to be present throughout the trial. However, based on the strength of the case and fact that there was not anything to the conversation which Martinez’ presence would have affected, the court held that this was a harmless error.

After dispensing with the now obligatory Apprendi sentencing claim, the Court rejected two other arguments from Martinez. Martinez argued that the wording of one of the jury instructions shifted the burden of proof to him. Since he had not objected to the instruction at trial, the Court would have needed to determine the instruction to be clearly erroneous in order to find for him. It did not. Martinez also argued that instructions for a lesser-included offense of second-degree reckless murder should have been given to the jury. Again Martinez had not objected at the time and therefore to find for him the Court would have had to find that there was a real possibility that the jury would have found him guilty of the lesser offense not the greater one. Since the evidence against him was strong, he had confessed and the jury had convicted him of first degree murder (while having the option instead of felony murder) this was certainly not the case.

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