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The People v. Jose Sauceda-Contreras

August 13, 2012


Ct.App. 4/3 G041831 Orange County Super. Ct. No. 07NF0170 Judge: Richard F. Toohey

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

Defendant Jose Sauceda-Contreras was arrested on suspicion of murdering his former girlfriend, Martha Mendoza, after he was found burning her body in a large metal trash can in his backyard. He was transported to the police station, and with the assistance of an officer interpreting for him in Spanish, was apprised that he had a right to remain silent, that anything he said could be used against him in a court of law, that he had a right to the assistance of counsel during the interview, and that if he wanted a lawyer and could not afford one, counsel would be appointed for him at no cost. (Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436 (Miranda).) Defendant clearly indicated that he understood each of those rights. When then asked, "Having in mind these rights that I just read, the detective would like to know if he can speak with you right now," defendant responded, "If you can bring me a lawyer, that way I[,] I with who . . . that way I can tell you everything that I know and everything that I need to tell you and someone to represent me."

Seeking clarification, the officer asked defendant, "Okay, perhaps you didn't understand your rights. . . . [W]hat the detective wants to know right now is if you're willing to speak to him right now without a lawyer present?" Defendant responded, "Oh, okay that's fine." The officer told defendant, "The decision is yours," to which he replied, "Yes." The officer again asked, "It's fine?" Defendant replied, "A huh, it's fine." The officer inquired a final time, "Do you want to speak to him right now?" Defendant responded, "Yes." Defendant went on to give a lengthy statement, portions of which were admitted into evidence at trial. The jury convicted him of first degree murder.

This court has recognized that " 'when a suspect under interrogation makes an ambiguous statement that could be construed as an invocation of his or her Miranda rights, "the interrogators may clarify the suspect's comprehension of, and desire to invoke or waive, the Miranda rights." ' " (People v. Williams (2010) 49 Cal.4th 405, 428, and cases cited (Williams).) The question in this case is whether defendant's response -- "If you can bring me a lawyer, that way I[,] I with who . . . that way I can tell you everything that I know and everything that I need to tell you and someone to represent me" -- was sufficiently ambiguous to justify the officer in seeking to clarify whether he was attempting to invoke his right to counsel, or whether he was desirous of waiving his Miranda rights and speaking with the detective "right now," without an attorney present.

As we shall explain, defendant's reply to the officer's inquiry was sufficiently ambiguous to justify her seeking further clarification of his intent, consistent with our holding in Williams, supra, 49 Cal.4th at page 428. The follow-up questions were not coercive, and preceded any substantive interrogation of defendant. Under the totality of the circumstances, defendant's responses made clear he was willing to speak with the detective at that time without an attorney present. The record further supports the trial court's finding that his waiver of Miranda rights was voluntary, knowing and intelligent. Because the majority of the Court of Appeal reached a contrary conclusion, its judgment will be reversed.

Factual and Procedural Background

a. The discovery of Martha Mendoza's body.

On the morning of January 10, 2007, Alondra Gutierrez and her husband Pascuel Rodriguez were in the backyard of their Anaheim residence when they smelled the odor of burning hair and flesh. Gutierrez climbed a swing set ladder, looked over the back fence, and saw smoke rising from the house directly behind hers. She and Rodriguez saw a large metal trash can on a concrete patio with what looked like a black ball protruding from it and flames and smoke shooting up from the can. A man standing next to the can was pouring liquid from a large container onto the fire, which made the flames rise higher. Gutierrez saw the man bend something that looked like an arm back down into the can. A mattress (later discovered to be a box spring) was propped against a wall on one side of the can; a large hot tub cover was on the other side. Gutierrez and her husband called 911 to report the fire on the property behind their house.

On the previous afternoon, Gutierrez had overheard a man and woman at the same house arguing with one another. She heard the woman say something to the effect that if he did not have money to give her, he should let her go get the money herself. Gutierrez then heard what sounded like a person hitting a wall, followed by the sound of a woman weeping for several minutes. Rodriguez also heard the man and woman arguing and calling each other bad names. When Gutierrez was later interviewed by the police, she told them she had heard the woman, who was speaking in Spanish, say, " 'Fucker, if you don't want me to go out, if you don't want me to go out, you go and bring me that money to pay.' "

When the firetruck arrived Rodriguez directed it to the house behind his residence, then climbed the ladder in his backyard to see what was happening. As the firemen approached the neighbor's house, Rodriguez saw the man tending the fire put the "mattress" on top of the burning can.

City of Anaheim Firefighters Kevin Harris and Andy Ingram arrived at 940 North Winter Street with their firetruck lights and siren activated. They walked past a car parked on the driveway at the side of the house, through an open gate to the backyard, where they encountered defendant. Harris asked defendant if there was a fire; defendant replied no. Harris could see a trash can on the patio with smoke coming from it. When Harris asked defendant what was burning, defendant responded, "Nothing. No problem. No problem, sir."

Harris and Ingram smelled gasoline and saw a mattress or box spring leaning over the smoking trash can. When they tried to approach the can, defendant held up his arms and physically blocked them. From his location Harris could see flames still flickering inside the can. The firefighters called for police assistance and walked back towards their firetruck. Defendant followed them, and speaking in broken English, claimed he was cooking a pig in the backyard for a large party he was planning. When police arrived, Harris and Ingram returned to the backyard patio, moved the box spring off the can and found a charred towel draped over the top with a human skull and burnt body underneath it. Defendant was placed under arrest.

b. Physical evidence at the crime scene.

Anaheim police forensic specialist Terri Powers-Raulston found the badly burned body of a woman, later identified as defendant's former girlfriend, Martha Mendoza, in the trash can. The victim's head extended above the top rim of the can, and a brick was propping the body away from one side of it.

The interior of defendant's house was processed for evidence, with principal focus on a bedroom with a sliding glass door and a bathroom directly across the hall from that room. The bedroom was in disarray; the drapes covering the sliding glass door had been tied in a knot, the mattress was partially off the box spring, and all of the sheets and blankets had been stripped from the bed. The knob of the door to the bathroom directly across the hall was in the unlocked position. There was no evidence of the bathroom door having been forced or pried open. The shower curtain was extended across the bathtub. The bathtub spout was loose in its wall fitting. A red stain was visible on the bathroom floor. Swabs for DNA testing were collected from various places in the bathroom.

The clothing defendant was wearing that day was logged into evidence, including a belt from his jeans that showed visible wear near the buckle and a visible indentation or crease approximately 11 inches from the buckle. Swabs were taken from the inside of each of three equal sections of the length of the belt. Photographs of defendant as he appeared that day documented injuries to the upper left side of his head, as well as to his nose, upper lip, neck, chest, and left and right hands.

Analysis of the swab from the floor of the bathroom tested positive for blood, with Mendoza being a major contributor to the mixed sample of DNA on that swab. A possible explanation for the mixed DNA sample could be other people having walked barefoot on the floor. Five of six swabs collected from the area around the bathtub contained a mixture of DNA profiles; defendant was a contributor to one of the swabs, Mendoza was a possible contributor to another.

The swab from the inside of the first segment of defendant's belt closest to the buckle revealed Mendoza as the major DNA contributor and defendant as a minor contributor. A mixed sample of DNA from the last third of the belt (the end farthest from the buckle) revealed both defendant and Mendoza as contributors. A sample of defendant's blood drawn shortly after his arrest was negative for drugs and alcohol.

c. Autopsy results.

Dr. Anthony Juguilon, a board-certified forensic pathologist, conducted the autopsy on the body of Martha Mendoza the day after it was discovered. The body was difficult to identify as that of a female through external examination alone. Nearly all of the victim's skin had been burned away, with "thermal injuries" extending down to the muscles and bone. The bones of the right hand, as well as the "vast majority" of the scalp and skin on the head had been incinerated. While burning generally made it more difficult to pinpoint a cause of death, Dr. Juguilon concluded with "a fair degree of confidence" that Mendoza was dead before her body was burned. No stab or gunshot wounds were observed on the body, nor was there any evidence of blunt force trauma. Dr. Juguilon was unable to determine whether hanging or strangulation was the cause of death because most of the tissue relevant to the inquiry had been burned away. He could not look for petechial hemorrhages in the eyes because the eyes had also been severely damaged by the fire. Neither suicidal hanging or ligature strangulation could be ruled out as a cause of death. The hyoid bone and thyroid cartilage were undamaged; a broken hyoid bone or damage to the thyroid cartilage are commonly seen in manual strangulations, but not in ligature strangulations or hanging.

Blood samples collected from the victim's heart had sustained too much thermal damage to permit accurate testing. Tissue samples from her brain and liver tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine. While the levels of these drugs were elevated, the tissues had been sufficiently altered by the fire to alter the drug test results. Although the amount of methamphetamine detected in the brain and liver could have proved fatal, because the thermal damage dramatically altered the toxicology results, it was impossible to determine the actual level of methamphetamine in Mendoza's body prior to death.

Due to the extensive thermal damage caused by the burning of the body, Dr. Juguilon could not establish the exact manner or cause of the victim's death, which was listed as "undetermined."

d. Defendant's videotaped police interview and statement.

Anaheim Police Officer Lisa Trapp, who was fluent in English and Spanish, acted as a translator for defendant and Anaheim Police Detective Robert Blazek during an interview commenced at 1:30 p.m. on January 10, 2007, shortly following defendant's arrest. As set forth in greater detail below, defendant was read his Miranda rights, and after Officer Trapp asked a follow-up question to clarify whether he desired to waive his right to counsel at the interview, defendant implicitly waived his rights and agreed to speak with Detective Blazek at that time without an attorney present. Officer Trapp later reviewed the transcripts of the interview, which included defendant's answers to questions in Spanish as well as the English translations of his responses, and determined the transcripts accurately reflected what was said at the interview.*fn1

Defendant told the officers he had lived at 940 North Winter Street for about a year and a half. His brother, Jesus, owned the house and also lived there, as did another brother, Pedro, and Pedro's family. Defendant was off from work on the day of the murder; his brothers were at work and brother Pedro's children were at school.

Defendant related that the victim and her five children had lived with him in Long Beach about eight years earlier. Mendoza would leave the children with defendant while she visited with other men and used drugs. Sometime after he ended his relationship with Mendoza, she lost custody of her children. Defendant had not seen her for about a year and a half until she recently appeared at his house, indicating she wanted to get back together with him because he had a house and money. Defendant declined. Although he loved Mendoza, he knew she could never change her ways.

Mendoza returned to defendant's house the day before her murder. They argued that day, at which time Mendoza scratched him. Mendoza was acting nervous, like she needed drugs. Defendant refused to give her any money and told her to go to sleep. In the morning, Mendoza still seemed nervous, and defendant again told her he would not give her any money because she would only use it to buy drugs. Mendoza told defendant she had lost everything, including him and her kids. She said no one loved her and that she did not want to be on the streets anymore. Then Mendoza made defendant promise that when she died, he would burn her body and keep her ashes with him and take care of the ashes as if she was still living. Defendant told her she was crazy and began gathering his clothes and bedding to take to the laundry. When he realized he had not seen Mendoza for a while, he began looking for her, and found her lying ...

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