State v. Newell – 5/1/2006

May 1, 2006

AZ Supreme Court Holds That Superior Court Did Not Commit Reversible Error Despite Capital Defendant’s Claims Of Miranda Violations, Involuntary Confession, Batson Challenge, Improper Vouching, Inadmissible Testimony During Penalty Phase, And Improper Exclusion Of Defendant’s Mental Health Expert.

According to the evidence at trial, Defendant Steven Ray Newell kidnapped an eight-year-old girl on her way to school. He then raped and killed her and left her body in an irrigation ditch.

The jury convicted Newell of first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a minor, and kidnapping.

The jury found three aggravating factors: (1) Newell’s previous conviction for a serious offense, attempted kidnapping; (2) he committed the murder “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner;” and (3) the victim was under the age of fifteen. See A.R.S. § 13-703(F). Newell presented evidence of mitigation involving his “childhood, family life, and opportunities to get help for his substance abuse.” The jury determined that Newell should be sentenced to death for the murder. The death sentence prompted an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of Arizona.

The Supreme Court affirmed Newell’s convictions and sentences, despite Newell’s numerous claims of error. First, Newell argued that the Superior Court abused its discretion by failing to suppress the statements he made during his interrogation because (1) the detectives violated Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), by failing to honor Newell’s repeated requests for counsel and (2) the circumstances of Newell’s confession rendered it involuntary. Despite the fact that Newell repeatedly asked for counsel, the Court held that Newell’s requests either were ambiguous or not heard by the officers. See Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994) (holding that requests for counsel must be clear and unambiguous). Furthermore, under the totality of the circumstances, the following conditions did not render Newell’s confession involuntary: fourteen-hour interrogation with small breaks, ambiguous requests for counsel, promises that Newell would feel better after confessing and the detectives would keep him safe in jail, appeals to Newell’s religion, and threats to tell someone whom Newell cared for that Newell was not being honest.

Second, Newell claimed that the prosecution violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), by striking a juror because she was African-American. The Court rejected Newell’s challenge because the prosecution proffered a racially neutral explanation—the juror gave contradictory responses to questions regarding whether she could vote for the death penalty—and Newell countered with no evidence of purposeful racial discrimination.

Third, Newell claimed that the prosecution committed misconduct by “vouch[ing] for the State’s evidence and impugn[ing] the integrity of defense counsel.” During closing arguments, the prosecutor suggested that “‘[n]ot every witness was called,’” and “‘[n]o matter what defense counsel tells you, we all know that DNA is . . . the most powerful investigative tool in law enforcement at this time.’” With respect to the first statement, the Court held that it was not improper because it was not meant to bolster the State’s case; it merely responded to defense counsel’s suggestion that certain witnesses were not called to testify. With respect to the second statement, however, the Court held that it constituted improper vouching. Without testimony in the record, it improperly stated the superiority of the State’s evidence (DNA). Furthermore, the statement improperly suggested that defense counsel was attempting to fool the jury by arguing against the DNA evidence. The Court nevertheless held that the statement did not produce sufficient prejudice to warrant a mistrial. The jury was instructed that closing arguments were not evidence, the trial judge sustained a partial objection to the statement, and there was overwhelming evidence of Newell’s guilt.

Fourth, Newell claimed that the Superior Court allowed inadmissible testimony of his probation officer during his penalty phase. The probation officer testified that Newell had multiple opportunities to get help for his substance abuse. Newell claimed that, because he did not present the fact that he could not get help for his drug problem as a mitigating factor, the State was not allowed to present this evidence in rebuttal. The Court noted, however, that Newell in fact had presented this evidence in both the guilt and penalty phases. Evidence from the guilt phase was deemed admitted for the sentencing proceedings. A.R.S. § 13-703(D). Furthermore, the jury was permitted “to consider any factors that are offered—no matter who offers them—when considering mitigation.” See A.R.S. § 13-703(G).

Fifth, Newell claimed that the Superior Court improperly excluded Newell’s mental health expert as a sanction for his refusal to submit to a “court-ordered examination by the State’s mental health expert.” Contrary to Newell’s argument that the examination would have violated his privilege against self-incrimination, the Court’s precedent had directly resolved the issue against Newell. Phillips v. Araneta, 208 Ariz. 280, 93 P.3d 480 (2004).

Finally, as required by statute, the Court independently reviewed the propriety of the death sentence. See A.R.S. § 13-703.04 (2003). The Court concluded that “in view of the compelling aggravating circumstances, the mitigation evidence simply fails to rise to a level that would call for leniency.”

Justice Ryan authored the unanimous opinion.