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State v. Nichols

Court of Appeals of Idaho

February 24, 2014

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Respondent,
TIMOTHY NICHOLS, Defendant-Appellant

Page 1016

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1017

Editorial Note:

This decision is not final until exception of the 21 day petition for rehearing period. Pursuant to rule 118 of the Idaho Appellate Rules

2014 Opinion No. 16

Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Elmore County. Hon. Cheri C. Copsey, District Judge.

Sara B. Thomas, State Appellate Public Defender; Sarah E. Tompkins, Deputy Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for appellant.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General; Lori A. Fleming, Deputy Attorney General, Boise, for respondent.



Page 1018

GUTIERREZ, Chief Judge.

Timothy Nichols appeals from his judgment of conviction entered upon a jury verdict finding him guilty of statutory rape. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.



In August 2009, the Mountain Home Police Department received a tip that a juvenile runaway from Washington may be at Nichols' residence. Officer Humberto Fuentes was dispatched to the residence, where he found Nichols and the victim, a teenage girl, sitting under a tree in the front yard. The victim was visibly " extremely upset. After speaking with Nichols and the victim and contacting the Everett (Washington) Police Department, where the runaway report had been filed, Officer Fuentes took the victim into custody. Based on the officer's subsequent interview of her, the case was turned over to Detective Ty Larsen for further investigation. Specifically, Officer Fuentes indicated in his report to Detective Larsen " that he had located a runaway in the City of Mountain Home, and there had been possible other illegal contacts involving with [sic] her."

Detective Larsen interviewed Nichols several days later. Nichols provided identification, which indicated he was fifty-five years old. After waiving his Miranda [1] rights,

Page 1019

Nichols told Detective Larsen he met the victim in Everett, Washington, and the two moved to Idaho together approximately one month prior. Nichols admitted that he and the victim were in a " dating relationship; " that they shared a room together in their two-bedroom apartment; and that since living in Idaho, they engaged in sexual intercourse approximately two to three times a week.

Nichols was charged with statutory rape, Idaho Code § 18-6101(1).[2] At the time of trial, the victim was unavailable as a witness, as her whereabouts were unknown. The victim's adoptive mother testified as to the victim's birthdate, indicating the victim was seventeen years old at the time she was living with Nichols. At the conclusion of the State's case-in-chief, Nichols moved for a judgment of acquittal, contending the State failed to present any evidence independent of Nichols' confession to establish the corpus delicti of the crime. Specifically, Nichols contended there was no other evidence to corroborate his admission to having engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim. The district court denied the motion, and the jury found Nichols guilty as charged. Nichols timely appealed from the judgment of conviction.

Following the filing of its respondent's brief in this appeal, the State filed a motion to stay the proceedings until the issuance of a remittitur in a case then pending before the Idaho Supreme Court, State v. Suriner, 154 Idaho 81, 294 P.3d 1093 (2013), where a key issue raised was the continued viability of the corpus delicti rule in Idaho. Nichols did not oppose the motion to stay, which was granted. After the Supreme Court issued its decision in Suriner, which eliminated the corpus delicti requirement in Idaho, appellate proceedings resumed, and Nichols filed a reply brief, arguing in part that Suriner's abolition of the rule should not apply retroactively.



Nichols contends the district court erred by denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal because there was insufficient evidence to corroborate his confession pursuant to the corpus delicti rule. He also argues the district court erred by permitting the victim's adoptive mother to testify as to the victim's age and in allowing Officer Fuentes to testify that the victim was a runaway because the testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay. Nichols further contends the district court committed fundamental error by giving the jury an improper elements instruction and by failing to sua sponte instruct the jury as to the corpus delicti rule. Finally, he contends the prosecutor committed misconduct amounting to fundamental error during closing arguments by misstating testimony and referring to facts not in evidence.

A. Judgment of Acquittal

Nichols contends the district court erred by denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal following the State's evidence because, he asserts, the State presented insufficient evidence to establish the corpus delicti of the charged offense independent of Nichols' confessions and statements.[3] Specifically, he contends there was no evidence aside from his " alleged" confession that indicated any sexual intercourse occurred between Nichols and the victim.

On review of the denial of a motion for judgment of acquittal, we determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the challenged conviction. State v. Hoyle, 140 Idaho 679, 683-84, 99 P.3d 1069, 1073-74 (2004); State v. Merwin, 131 Idaho 642, 644, 962 P.2d 1026, 1028 (1998). Substantial evidence to support the challenged conviction is present when a reasonable mind could conclude that the defendant's guilt of the offense was proven beyond a reasonable

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doubt by such material evidence. Hoyle, 140 Idaho at 684, 99 P.3d at 1074; State v. Kuzmichev, 132 Idaho 536, 545, 976 P.2d 462, 471 (1999). Where there is competent although conflicting evidence to sustain the verdict, this Court cannot reweigh that evidence or disturb the verdict. Hoyle, 140 Idaho at 684, 99 P.3d at 1074; Merwin, 131 Idaho at 644-45, 962 P.2d at 1028-29. In reviewing a motion for judgment of acquittal, all reasonable inferences on appeal are taken in favor of the prosecution. Hoyle, 140 Idaho at 684, 99 P.3d at 1074; Kuzmichev, 132 Idaho at 545, 976 P.2d at 471.

The corpus delicti rule provides that the fact a crime has been committed cannot be proved by the extrajudicial confessions or statements of the prisoner, and there must be some evidence or corroborating circumstances tending to show a crime has been committed, aside from such confessions or statements. Suriner, 154 Idaho at 83, 294 P.3d at 1095 (quoting State v. Keller, 8 Idaho 699, 704, 70 P. 1051, 1052 (1902)). The purpose of corpus delicti is to prevent errors in convictions based on false confessions, to act as a safeguard against the defendant's act of confessing but being mistaken that a crime occurred, and to force the prosecution to use its best evidence. State v. Urie, 92 Idaho 71, 76, 437 P.2d 24, 29 (1968) (McFadden, J., special concurrence). See also State v. Roth, 138 Idaho 820, 822, 69 P.3d 1081, 1083 (Ct. App. 2003).

To prove a crime generally, the state must provide evidence in the context of three broad elements: (1) an injury occurred; (2) criminal agency was involved in causing the injury; and (3) the identity of the person who caused the injury. See Urie, 92 Idaho at 75, 437 P.2d at 28 (special concurrence). See also Roth, 138 Idaho at 823, 69 P.3d at 1084. Under the standard formulations of the corpus delicti principle, the state must show the " body" of a crime by establishing the first two elements of a crime-- i.e., the injury and the criminal agency--independently from a defendant's confession. Roth, 138 Idaho at 823, 69 P.3d at 1084 (citing State v. Darrah, 60 Idaho 479, 482, 92 P.2d 143, 144 (1939)). However, when the corpus delicti rule was in effect in Idaho, the State did not have to establish independently from the defendant's confession each element of the corpus delicti. Urie, 92 Idaho at 73, 437 P.2d at 26; Roth, 138 Idaho at 823, 69 P.3d at 1084. Thus, as the corpus delicti of the crime consisted of injury and criminal agency, the State needed only to independently corroborate one of those elements to meet its burden. Roth, 138 Idaho at 823, 69 P.3d at 1084. ...

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