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Ruibal v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 3, 2018

George J. Ruibal, Petitioner
v.
The People of the State of Colorado. Respondent

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 13CA276

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Johnson & Klein, PLLC Eric Klein Boulder, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Respondent: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Jacob R. Lofgren, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado.

          OPINION

          COATS CHIEF JUSTICE.

         ¶1 Ruibal petitioned for review of the court of appeals' judgment affirming his conviction for second degree murder. Over defense objection and without taking evidence or making any findings as to reliability, the trial court admitted expert testimony to the effect that the victim's injuries in this case demonstrated "overkill," a formal term describing multiple injuries focused on one area of the victim's body, which includes blows about the head and face that are numerous and extensive, indicating that the assailant likely had either a real or perceived emotional attachment to the victim. Relying on case law from several other jurisdictions, a treatise dealing with related kinds of injuries, and the witness's own experience with autopsies involving similar injuries, the court of appeals concluded that the expert opinion was sufficiently reliable and that the trial court had implicitly found as much by granting the prosecution's proffer.

         ¶2 Because the trial court made no specific finding that the theory of "overkill" espoused by the witness was reliable, nor was the reliability of that theory either supported by evidence in the record or already accepted in this jurisdiction, its admission amounted to an abuse of discretion. Because there was, however, overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt quite apart from the expert testimony, the error was necessarily harmless. The judgment of the court of appeals is therefore affirmed.

         I.

         ¶3 George Ruibal was charged with and convicted of second degree murder for the beating and strangulation death of the woman with whom he was living at the time. He was sentenced to forty years in the custody of the department of corrections.

         ¶4 It was undisputed at trial that the victim's body was discovered lying on a couch in the couple's apartment, on a Monday, by the defendant and a co-worker, from whom the defendant had gotten a ride home and whom he had invited in to see the couple's new apartment. The co-worker immediately called 911, and upon arrival, the responding officer could see that the victim had bruises and scratches on her face. An autopsy determined that the victim died from closed head injuries-specifically a subdural hemorrhage, a subarachnoid hemorrhage, and a brain contusion-due to blunt force associated with manual strangulation, both of which were estimated to have occurred many hours before she died. The coroner also testified that the victim was covered in contusions and abrasions: eight or nine contusions on her head and face; multiple abrasions on her face and neck; and as many as fifty contusions and another twenty abrasions on her torso, arms, and legs.

         ¶5 The prosecution presented extensive evidence tending to show that the defendant had beaten the victim in their apartment and left her unattended to die. In addition to the medical evidence of the injuries themselves, the prosecution demonstrated inconsistencies in the defendant's accounts of his and the victim's movements on the weekend preceding discovery of the body and presented evidence, including documentary and other physical evidence, making it unlikely that events could have transpired as he asserted. Among other things, the defendant's account of the victim's having been attacked by a stranger while on a shopping trip to a nearby grocery store on Saturday night and yet continuing to function doing household chores over the weekend was challenged by expert testimony as very unlikely, given the severity of her injuries. Similarly, other physical evidence like the absence of blood on the victim's hands and the defendant's DNA under her fingernails and on her collar, as well as scratches and scabs on the defendant's nose and knuckles, remained unexplained by the defendant's account. In addition, his account of rarely speaking with the victim from work as an explanation for not calling to check on her was contradicted by phone records and the testimony of co-workers, who also recounted the turbulence of the defendant's relationship with the victim, including prior incidents of domestic violence.

         ¶6 Finally, the prosecution presented the testimony of the defendant's cellmate to the effect that the defendant confessed to strangling the victim and admitted that he brought someone home with him to witness his supposed discovery of the body. The cellmate also testified that the defendant said he was angry because he had to sell his truck to pay bills while the "ungrateful" victim sat at home drinking. While it appeared that the cellmate could possibly have accessed a newspaper article reporting the crime, officer testimony also indicated that the article in question did not mention two important details in the cellmate's story-that the defendant referred to the victim as "Baby," which was corroborated by the co-worker upon discovery of the body, and the fact that the victim's family had pushed police to continue to investigate the crime.[1]

         ¶7 Although the defendant did not testify, he presented a theory of defense involving an alternate suspect through his prior statements, other witnesses, the cross-examination and arguments of his counsel, and his theory-of-the-case instruction. According to the defendant's theory, another man, J.D., had beaten the victim somewhere outside their apartment. The prosecution introduced the defendant's version of events, through his interviews with the police, to the effect that the victim left the apartment around 8:30 p.m. Saturday with a twenty dollar bill the defendant had given her to buy milk at Albertsons. When the victim returned to the apartment several hours later, she had bruises and scratches on her face. Although she initially wanted to be taken to the hospital, the defendant attempted, through phone calls, but was unable to find her a ride. On Sunday, the victim made the bed, ate breakfast, walked around, and said she no longer wanted to go to the hospital. When the defendant left for work on Monday morning, the victim was on the couch. He had no contact with the victim until he returned home with his co-worker. He explained that the victim never called him during the day, and he did not call her because it would upset her.

         ¶8 It was undisputed that a man identified as J.D. lived in the area and had been contacted by the police shortly after midnight on that Sunday morning, near Albertsons. A woman who testified that she had a prior relationship with J.D. was also permitted to testify that J.D. had a history of being violent towards her and in one instance had even strangled her. Although it appeared to be contradicted by surveillance footage and the discovery of the twenty dollar bill still in the victim's pocket, an Albertsons' manager also testified that she saw the victim buy milk that night sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m.

         ¶9 In light of the defendant's theory that the victim had been attacked by a stranger, the prosecution presented the expert testimony of a second forensic pathologist expressing, among other things, conclusions about the relationship between a killer and victim that he opined could be reliably inferred from what he referred to as "overkill." Over the objection of the defense and without taking evidence about the reliability of the theory, the trial court permitted the witness to offer an expert opinion to the effect that the victim's injuries in this case demonstrated "overkill," a formal term describing multiple injuries focused on one area of the victim's body, which ...


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