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People v. Bueno

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

January 22, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
v.
David Bueno, Respondent,

          Attorneys for Petitioner: George H. Brauchler, District Attorney, Eighteenth Judicial District David C. Jones, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Gilbert, Deputy District Attorney Centennial, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Karen N. Taylor, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado.

          OPINION

          BOATRIGHT JUSTICE

         ¶1 A jury found David Bueno, a state-prison inmate, guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy in a case concerning a white inmate's death. The case took more than two months to try, involved hundreds of motions, and generated tens of thousands of pages of discovery. Fifteen months after Bueno's conviction-but before he was sentenced-the prosecution disclosed, as relevant here, two reports that had been in its possession since the first days of the investigation. One report documented the discovery of a note found on the day of the murder indicating that white supremacists were planning to murder white inmates in the prison. The other evinced a detective's suspicion that the murder was linked to another homicide that had been committed in the prison a few days later. Arguing that this belated disclosure violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), Bueno moved for a new trial under Crim. P. 33(c). The trial court, which had presided over the entirety of this case, found a discovery violation and determined that a new trial was warranted. A division of the court of appeals affirmed in a split opinion.

         ¶2 This appeal requires us to address two questions. The first is whether Bueno's Rule 33(c) motion was time-barred because he filed it more than a year after his conviction, and thus arguably more than a year after "entry of judgment." The second is whether the trial court erred in concluding that the prosecution violated Brady's disclosure requirement, and specifically, whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the evidence at issue was material and that the prosecution violated Crim. P. 16.

         ¶3 As to the first issue, we hold that "entry of judgment" for purposes of Rule 33 occurs after delivery of a verdict of guilt and imposition of a sentence. Hence, because Bueno filed his Rule 33 motion before the trial court sentenced him, we conclude that he filed the motion before entry of judgment, meaning it was not time-barred. As to the second issue, we conclude that the trial court applied appropriate legal standards in ruling on Bueno's Brady claim, and we perceive no clear error in the trial court's factual findings. Accordingly, we determine that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering a new trial, and we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶4 Michael Snyder, a white inmate at the Limon Correctional Facility ("LCF"), told his wife in a recorded phone conversation that he had been ordered to stab another inmate. The next day, Jeffrey Heird, another white inmate at LCF, was found stabbed to death in his cell. Snyder would later tell investigators that Heird was the man he had been ordered to kill.

         ¶5 Immediately after the discovery of Heird's body, an inmate found a piece of paper in the showers that read, "Killers Beuno [sic] and Alehanro [sic]! 1st and 2nd teirs [sic]." That same evening, Linda Deatrich, a nurse at LCF, discovered a second note commingled with inmate requests for medical appointments. The parties call that note "the ABN Letter." The ABN Letter detailed threats by a white supremacist group to kill "men of the white race who refuse to accept their proud race, " identified two inmates to carry out the executions, and named three white inmates at LCF as targets. Neither Bueno nor Snyder was named in the ABN Letter as one of the putative executioners, and Heird's name was not among the potential victims.

         ¶6 Within approximately twenty minutes of her discovery, Deatrich wrote a report, attached a copy of the ABN Letter to it, and filed the two documents together as an incident report with LCF; the parties call this "the Deatrich Report." About an hour after Deatrich discovered the ABN Letter, a prosecutor named Robert Watson from the district attorney's office arrived at LCF to provide legal counsel for the investigation. By the time Watson left the next morning, he had collected a copy of the Deatrich Report. It is undisputed that Watson's working file contained the Deatrich Report and that the prosecutors possessed it from the day after the murder. Both this report and a copy of the note found in the shower were included in a packet that investigators at LCF received at a briefing the morning after Heird's murder.

         ¶7 Two days after Heird's murder, David Hollenbeck, one of the inmates listed as a target in the ABN Letter, suffered cardiac distress and later died. Lieutenant Tim Smelser, one of the LCF investigators working on Hollenbeck's case, explained in his incident report that the injury that killed Hollenbeck was "predominantly caused by blunt trauma to the chest, " indicating that Hollenbeck had likely been murdered. Smelser was concerned at the time that Heird's murder and Hollenbeck's suspicious death were connected because of the ABN Letter. Smelser conveyed his concerns in a report he prepared three days after Hollenbeck's death, which the parties call "the Smelser Report."[1] Smelser gave his report to the officers assigned to investigate Heird's murder.

         ¶8 The investigation of Heird's murder focused on the men named in the note found in the shower: Bueno and Alejandro Perez. Almost one year into the investigation and prior to charging Bueno, Watson left the district attorney's office. The trial court found that Watson left his working file regarding the homicide-which contained, among other documents, the Deatrich Report-at the prosecutor's office. Ultimately, the People charged Bueno, Perez, and Perez's cellmate, Michael Ramirez, [2]for Heird's death.

         ¶9 Bueno's and Perez's cases proceeded through motions and trial separately.[3] Bueno's defense team settled on an alternate-suspect theory of defense. During the three-plus years Bueno's case was litigated, Bueno's defense team repeatedly sought discovery from the prosecutors of any evidence related to four white inmates at LCF whom the defense had identified as alternative suspects, including Snyder, who, as previously noted, told his wife he had been ordered to stab a white inmate the day before Heird's murder. In response to each discovery request, the prosecution represented that it had disclosed all evidence favorable to the defense, including all evidence related to the alternative suspects. Well in advance of trial, the prosecution had informed the defense of the note found in the shower and of Snyder's statement that he had been ordered to kill a white inmate. Despite its representation of full disclosure, however, the prosecution did not turn over the Deatrich or Smelser Reports prior to trial.

         ¶10 In its search for evidence related to the alternative suspects, the defense team sought access to five years' worth of incident report files at LCF, which encompassed time periods both before and after the murder, involving the use or possession of shanks in the prison. In response to Bueno's motion requesting discovery of those incident report files, the prosecution contended that the reports were irrelevant to the case. Eventually, the defense obtained access to the files at LCF, and there it searched 9, 600 incident reports for all incidents involving the use or possession of shanks at LCF for the five-year period. Although the Deatrich and Smelser Reports were among the 9, 600 incident reports, the defense did not find them in that search.

         ¶11 The case went to trial nearly four years after Heird's murder, and the prosecution sought the death penalty. The identity of Heird's killer was the core issue at trial, with Bueno arguing that white supremacists had committed the murder. The trial lasted more than two months. After four days of deliberation and having received a special instruction from the court on how to overcome a deadlock, the jury returned guilty verdicts on the conspiracy and first-degree murder charges. The jury declined to impose the death sentence. For reasons not documented in the record provided to us, the trial court did not impose a sentence, and Bueno remains unsentenced at this time.

          ¶12 Two months after Bueno's conviction, the Perez defense team gave Bueno's defense team the Deatrich and Smelser Reports. Bueno did not have these documents prior to this time. Bueno's team did not file a Rule 33(c) motion or otherwise use the evidence in the months immediately following his conviction.[4]

         ¶13 One year after the Perez defense team gave the reports to Bueno's defense team, the judge conducting Perez's trial ordered the prosecution to produce former prosecutor Watson's working file to the trial court for in camera review.[5] After producing that file, which included copies of the Deatrich and Smelser Reports, to the judge in the Perez case, prosecutors disclosed, for the first time, copies of those two reports from Watson's working file to Bueno. The People do not dispute that the prosecution possessed both of these reports within days of Heird's murder but did not provide copies of them to Bueno until five years later.

         ¶14 A week after prosecutors provided Bueno with copies of this evidence, Bueno moved for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence under Rule 33(c). Specifically, Bueno alleged that the prosecution's failure to disclose the Deatrich and Smelser Reports violated Brady's disclosure requirements. The prosecution countered that Bueno's motion was time-barred under the plain language of Rule 33(c) because he had filed it more than fifteen months after the jury found him guilty. And even if the motion was timely, the prosecution argued, the evidence was made available to the defense because the defense team had access to the reports prior to trial. Hence, those reports could not constitute newly discovered evidence. Finally, the prosecution argued that the reports were not material for Brady purposes.

         ¶15 After conducting an evidentiary hearing on the alleged Brady violation, the trial court found that the prosecution had possessed this evidence from the inception of the investigation, that "a conscious decision was made at some point early in this case to keep the information from the Defendant by separating these documents from the balance of Watson's working file, " and that this suppression "could have significantly impacted the outcome" of Bueno's trial. Based on these findings, the trial court concluded that the prosecution had violated the disclosure requirements under Brady and Crim. P. 16(I)(a)(2). Accordingly, the trial court granted Bueno's motion and ordered that he receive a new trial.

         ¶16 The People appealed, and a division of the court of appeals affirmed in a split opinion. People v. Bueno, 2013 COA 151, ¶ 30, P.3d . As pertinent here, the majority affirmed the trial court's determination that the prosecution had committed a Brady violation, id. at ¶¶ 26-29, while the dissent concluded that the evidence was not material for Brady purposes and thus that there was no Brady violation, id. at ¶¶ 31-33. The entirety of the panel agreed that Bueno's Rule 33(c) motion was timely. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 31. The People then petitioned this court for review, and we granted certiorari.[6]¶17 Our task now is to resolve whether Bueno's motion for a new trial was time- barred and, if not, whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting that motion. To do so, we must discuss two related areas of law: Rule 33(c) motions for new trial and Brady disclosure standards.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶18 "This court has plenary authority to promulgate and interpret the rules of criminal procedure." People v. Steen, 2014 CO 9, ¶ 10, 318 P.3d 487, 490 (citing Colo. Const. art. VI, § 21). As such, we review constructions of the rules of criminal procedure de novo, employing the "same interpretive rules applicable to statutory construction." People v. Corson, 2016 CO 33, ¶ 44, 379 P.3d 288, 297 (quoting Kazadi v. People, 2012 CO 73, ¶ 11, 291 P.3d 16, 20).

         ¶19 Our review of a trial court's ruling on a motion for new trial, however, is more constrained. A trial court's decision to grant or deny a new trial is a matter entrusted to the court's discretion. People v. Wadle, 97 P.3d 932, 936 (Colo. 2004). A trial court abuses its discretion if its decision is manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary, or unfair, see People v. Lee, 18 P.3d 192, 196 (Colo. 2001), or "if it based its ruling on an erroneous view of the law or on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, " Wadle, 97 P.3d at 936.

         ¶20 "In ruling on a motion for new trial . . . trial courts are regularly called upon to resolve questions of fact and apply standards of law." Id. A Brady claim presents such a mixed question of law and fact. Smith v. Sec'y of N.M. Dep't of Corr., 50 F.3d 801, 827 (10th Cir. 1995); see also Salazar v. People, 870 P.2d 1215, 1224 (Colo. 1994) (resolving a Rule 16 claim against the backdrop of Brady). When reviewing a mixed question of law and fact, this court reviews the trial court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. People v. Arapu, 2 ...


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