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People v. Ahuero

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

October 2, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
Stephen J. Ahuero. Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 13CA453

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Kevin E. McReynolds, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Law Office of Lynn C. Hartfield, LLC Lynn C. Hartfield Denver, Colorado



         ¶1 This case requires us to decide whether a trial court abuses its discretion when it denies a continuance that defense counsel requested seeking more time to prepare for trial.[1] At the time defense counsel moved for the continuance, the trial court was confronted with-and considered-the following: (1) defense counsel would have three weeks to prepare for a two- or three-day trial involving eight witnesses and no physical evidence, but defense counsel refused to make specific arguments on why the additional time was needed; (2) the trial court would have had to rearrange its docket and possibly hand off the case to a different judge; (3) priority is given to cases involving the sexual assault of a child; and (4) the victim's family wanted to resolve the case promptly. We conclude that, under these circumstances, the trial court's decision to deny a continuance was not so manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair to constitute an abuse of discretion. Therefore, we reverse the court of appeals and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Defendant, Stephen J. Ahuero, was charged with two counts of sexual abuse of a child. On October 12, 2012, approximately one month before Ahuero's trial was scheduled to begin on November 13, 2012, his defense counsel moved for a continuance. In his motion, Ahuero's defense counsel stated that he had recently completed a lengthy homicide trial, was scheduled to start another homicide trial soon, and would have less than three weeks to prepare for Ahuero's trial. The motion also argued that: (1) without a continuance, defense counsel would not be properly prepared for Ahuero's trial and would not provide effective assistance of counsel; (2) the prosecution would not be prejudiced by a continuance; and (3) it was Ahuero's first continuance request. The motion sought a new trial date of February or March 2013.

         ¶3 At the October 15, 2012 motions hearing, the trial court asked if defense counsel would like to supplement his motion. Defense counsel declined to supplement the record and stood on his motion. The trial court stated that it was inclined to deny the continuance because of its own docket concerns and because the prosecution made a soft objection to the continuance based on the victim's family's desire to complete the case. The trial court then denied Ahuero's motion for a continuance and kept the trial date set for November 13, 2012. The trial court reasoned that, although defense counsel was busy, it too had a busy schedule and moving the trial could cause significant docketing issues. Further, due to the judge's upcoming change in courtrooms, changing the trial date would require a different judge to preside over the case. The trial court did agree, however, to postpone another motions hearing until October 26 due to a conflict with one of defense counsel's other trials. At the October 26 motions hearing, defense counsel appeared without objection and cross-examined the prosecution's three outcry witnesses, including the victim's mother.

         ¶4 The trial began on November 13, 2012. The trial court asked whether defense counsel was ready to proceed, and he answered, "Yes." He did not object to the beginning of trial nor state that he needed more time to prepare. Defense counsel went on to address rape shield issues, participate in jury selection, and give an opening statement. On November 14, defense counsel cross-examined three of the prosecution's seven witnesses: the victim, the victim's mother, and the forensic interviewer. He did not cross-examine two of the witnesses he had cross-examined on October 26, and he did not cross-examine the police officers that had summarized the victim's report and steps of the investigation.

         ¶5 During Ahuero's defense, Ahuero's girlfriend testified that Ahuero and the victim had never been alone and that the victim had been drinking, which affected her memory. On the final day of trial, both parties gave closing arguments, and the jury convicted Ahuero of two counts of sexual abuse of a child.

         ¶6 After the final day of trial, but before sentencing, Ahuero filed two motions, one seeking a mistrial and the other seeking a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. The motion for a mistrial alleged that his counsel had also been assigned to defend one of the prosecution's outcry witnesses in an unrelated assault case. Defense counsel, however, stated that he had been unaware of this conflict and it had not impacted his defense of Ahuero. The trial court agreed with defense counsel and denied the motion for a mistrial.

         ¶7 The motion for a new trial alleged that, several months before Ahuero's trial, the victim and her sister had told Ahuero's nephew and his friend that Ahuero had not sexually assaulted her. The nephew and his friend stated that the victim told them she had made up the allegations at the behest of one of the outcry witnesses who did not like Ahuero (the same witness that defense counsel had been assigned to represent). The trial court held an evidentiary hearing during which Ahuero's nephew and his friend testified consistent with their previous statements. When the nephew was asked why he had not come forward earlier with the information, he testified that he thought the victim would come clean, and he did not want his family knowing that he had been talking to the victim and her sister because their families had longstanding problems with each other. He also testified that no one had contacted him or tried to interview him before the trial.

         ¶8 The victim testified that she had never told Ahuero's nephew that she had made up the allegations. She also testified that she had never been pressured into making up her claims of sexual assault. The victim's sister testified that she remembered being around Ahuero's nephew and his friend several months before trial, but could not hear the contents of any conversation relating to the allegations against Ahuero. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial, finding that the victim's unchanging testimony was "far more credible" than the testimony by Ahuero's nephew and his friend.

         ¶9 A division of the court of appeals reversed Ahuero's conviction, holding that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Ahuero's motion for a continuance. People v. Ahuero, No. 13CA453, slip op. at 1 (Colo.App. Sept. 17, 2015). Specifically, the division held that, without the continuance, defense counsel's lack of time to prepare violated Ahuero's Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Id. at 3. Because the division held that the trial court violated Ahuero's rights by denying defense counsel's ...

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