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People v. Meils

Court of Appeals of Colorado, First Division

December 12, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee
v.
David Lee Meils, Defendant-Appellant.

          Jefferson County District Court No. 14CR2865 Honorable Jeffrey R. Pilkington, Judge

         JUDGMENT AFFIRMED IN PART, VACATED IN PART, AND CASE REMANDED WITH DIRECTIONS

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Grant R. Fevurly, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Jessica Sommer, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

          OPINION

          TAUBMAN, JUDGE

         ¶ 1 Defendant, David Lee Meils, appeals the judgment of conviction entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of four counts of sexual exploitation of a child. He argues that the trial court erred in excluding alternate suspect evidence, allowing the prosecutor to commit misconduct during closing arguments, and permitting improper witness testimony. He further contends that his four convictions for sexual exploitation of a child violate his right to be free from double jeopardy. We affirm in part and vacate his convictions on counts 2, 3, and 4.

         I. Background

         ¶ 2 On November 4, 2014, Meils's wife, H.M., found on Meils work phone four photos of the naked victim - her ten-year-old daughter - and two videos of her undressing. The photos showed a time stamp of November 3, 2014, at 3:58 p.m., and the video showed a time stamp of November 4. H.M. testified that, based on the victim's outfit, she knew the video was taken on November 3, despite its time stamps of November 4. Both the photos and the video appeared to have been taken from outside the master bathroom through a gap between the bathroom door and the floor.

         ¶ 3 H.M. attempted to send the photos and videos to herself or take a picture of them with her phone to gather proof, fearing that they might be deleted. When her efforts failed, she woke up Autumn Stoffel, a friend living at the house. Stoffel took a photo of one of the photos, including its time stamp, on Meils's phone. Both women then went to a hotel to call the police, leaving Meils's phone at the house.

         ¶ 4 At trial, both women testified that they initially suspected that Meils's thirteen-year-old son, D.M., had taken the pictures and videos. However, Stoffel stated that she had observed D.M. in the living room at the time shown on the time stamps. Aside from Stoffel, Meils was the only other person home at the time. Stoffel recalled hearing Meils tell the victim to "get in the shower," seeing him come downstairs with laundry, and then seeing him run back upstairs.

         ¶ 5 Meils called H.M. while she was at the hotel and again while law enforcement officers were present at the hotel. Both times, she answered with the call on speaker phone. During the course of the calls, she asked him if "there was anything that would make [her] leave the house." He responded, "About those pictures," and "I'm sorry." He then proceeded to make inculpatory statements. He explained that H.M. had told him that the victim "was coming into puberty and it had made him curious." He blamed H.M. because she mentioned that the victim's "breasts were bigger than her own." Then, he said that making the videos "was retarded and the biggest mistake of [his] life," and he did it out of "[s]heer curiosity and perversion." H.M. asked how he did it, and he responded that he "put the phone outside the door." He also threated to kill himself at one point during the call.

         ¶ 6 A short time later, law enforcement officers arrested Meils. He voluntarily surrendered his work and personal phones as well as an iPad. Though officers did not find the photos and videos when they initially looked at his phone, a forensic analyst later recovered from Meils's work phone two videos and nineteen photographs of the victim undressing and getting in the shower - all captured between 6:34 p.m. and 6:46 p.m. on October 2, 2014. (The police did not find images time stamped in November 2014.) The analysis also uncovered what appeared to be test images of the bathroom viewed from the gap between the door and the floor taken minutes before the photos and videos of the victim were taken.

         ¶ 7 The district attorney charged Meils with four counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of invasion of privacy for sexual gratification - all with a date range of October 2, 2014 to November 5, 2014.

         ¶ 8 The defense's theory of the case focused on an alternate suspect, accusing D.M. of taking the photos and videos of the victim. Support for the theory included evidence of D.M. hoarding women's underwear, including the victim's, and that on October 2 he did not have access to his cell phone or computer (thus, suggesting that he had used his father's phone). The prosecution emphasized the events of November 3, when D.M. was purportedly in the living room when the photos and videos were taken. It also highlighted Meils's immediate confession and apology when confronted by H.M.

         ¶ 9 The jury convicted Meils of all five counts, and the trial court sentenced him to a total of ten years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

         II. Alternate Suspect

         ¶ 10 Meils contends that the trial court denied him his right to present a complete defense by excluding certain evidence supporting his alternate suspect theory. We conclude that any error was harmless.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶ 11 We review a trial court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. People v. Elmarr, 2015 CO 53, ¶ 20, 351 P.3d 431, 437- 38. A trial court abuses its discretion when its decision is manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair, or based on a misapplication or misunderstanding of the law. Id. at ¶ 20, 351 P.3d at 438.

         ¶ 12 However, we do not reverse unless there exists a reasonable probability that an error influenced the verdict or affected the fairness of the trial, contributing to the defendant's conviction. Yusem v. People, 210 P.3d 458, 469 (Colo. 2009).

         B. Applicable Law

         ¶ 13 In the case of an alternate suspect theory, evidence of another person's motive or opportunity to commit the charged crime "is insufficient; a defendant must proffer something 'more' to establish the non-speculative connection." Elmarr, ¶ 34, 351 P.3d at 441 (discussing People v. Mulligan, 193 Colo. 509, 568 P.2d 449 (1977)). Thus, "the overarching relevance inquiry remains whether the evidence, taken collectively, establishes a non-speculative connection between the alternate suspect and the charged crime." Id. at ¶ 40, 351 P.3d at 441.

         C. Relevant Facts and Analysis

         ¶ 14 Before trial, the defense sought to introduce evidence of D.M.'s preoccupation with sex that, when taken together with evidence heard by the jury that he hoarded the victim's underwear and did not have his phone on October 2, suggested he was the perpetrator. The trial court, in a thorough, detailed order, denied introduction of the alternate suspect evidence because, in essence, the potential for prejudice or confusion of such evidence substantially outweighed any probative value.

         ¶ 15 Our review of the record as a whole leads us to conclude that overwhelming evidence supported Meils's conviction. H.M. found the photos and videos on his phone, and Stoffel testified that Meils was upstairs and D.M. was downstairs during the November 3 incident. Significantly, during H.M.'s two phone calls with Meils, he immediately confessed to taking the photos and videos, and he told H.M. how he had taken them, and made other inculpatory statements. Moreover, the jury heard evidence of D.M. hoarding women's underwear in his bedroom and not having access to his phone on October 2. Notably, none of the evidence excluded by the trial court related to any interaction between D.M. and the victim. Under these circumstances, we conclude that any error in denying admission of the proffered ...


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