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People v. Knobee

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Second Division

January 16, 2020

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Kyotte Kyle Knobee, a/k/a Kyotee Knobbe, Defendant-Appellant.

          Adams County District Court No. 14CR2817 Honorable Thomas R. Ensor, Judge.

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Jacob R. Lofgren, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Meghan M. Morris, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant


          TERRY JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 During voir dire in criminal trials, some judges - seemingly not trusting jurors' ability to understand and apply the standard reasonable doubt jury instruction - have imparted to prospective jurors the judges' own interpretations of the prosecution's burden of proof. That practice is fraught with problems of constitutional magnitude, potentially impairing a defendant's fundamental right to a fair trial. Our supreme court, in Johnson v. People, 2019 CO 17, and numerous divisions of this court, as noted in People v. Tibbels, 2019 COA 175, have repeatedly cautioned against the practice.

         ¶ 2 Today, we conclude that the trial court's error in giving such an interpretation to prospective jurors impermissibly lowered the burden of proof of guilt, and that we must reverse the conviction entered against defendant, Kyotte Kyle Knobee, a/k/a Kyotee Knobbe (Knobbe).

         ¶ 3 A jury found Knobbe guilty of second degree kidnapping involving sexual assault, second degree kidnapping with a deadly weapon, sexual assault of an at-risk victim, aggravated motor vehicle theft, and third degree assault of an at-risk victim. We reverse and remand with directions.

         I. Factual Background

         ¶ 4 The prosecution's evidence showed that Knobbe and the alleged victim, P.F., were in an on-again, off-again intimate relationship. One night, Knobbe and another friend (N.W.) visited P.F. at her house. The three of them - who are all deaf and communicate by sign language - visited for several hours before going to sleep in three different areas of the house. The following morning, N.W. and P.F. were standing outside when Knobbe came out and asked P.F. to follow him back into the house. When P.F. entered the kitchen, Knobbe grabbed a knife, pointed it at her, and ordered her to move into the basement, where he threw her onto a bed, choked her, and forcibly sexually assaulted her.

         ¶ 5 Around that time, P.F.'s parents arrived to drive her to her son's soccer game. P.F.'s ex-husband had custody of their son, and attending the son's soccer games was an important part of P.F.'s court-ordered parenting reintegration plan. N.W. told the parents that P.F. was inside the house. After discovering P.F.'s truck in the garage and all the doors to the house locked, the parents drove to their own home to retrieve their keys to P.F.'s house. When they were almost home, P.F.'s mother received texts from P.F. saying "Help" and "Kyle try to kill me." (P.F. later said she had sent the texts quickly while Knobbe was not looking. When asked why she did not call 911, she said that because she is deaf, she would have been required to complete a video call, which would have taken a significant amount of time.)

         ¶ 6 Meanwhile, Knobbe forced P.F. into her truck at knifepoint and drove her around in the mountains for several hours. At some point during the drive, Knobbe threw the knife out the window.

         ¶ 7 Shortly after Knobbe and P.F. left the house, P.F.'s parents returned to her house and found the garage open, the truck missing, and P.F.'s phone on her bed. They called the police. Eventually, Knobbe drove P.F. back to her neighborhood. Nearing P.F.'s house, he saw a police officer outside, dropped P.F. off at the corner, and drove away.

         ¶ 8 P.F. went to a hospital and underwent a sexual assault nurse examination, which found injuries to her arms, chest, legs, and neck, and Knobbe's semen in her vaginal area.

         ¶ 9 Knobbe's theory of defense at trial was that P.F. fabricated the allegations to cover for the fact that she had used cocaine and had left with Knobbe instead of attending her son's soccer game. Knobbe testified that after N.W. went to bed the night before the incident, Knobbe and P.F. stayed up and used cocaine before having consensual sex in the basement. The next morning, P.F. came into the basement and poked him in the back with a knife, surprising him and causing him to grab her arms and choke her to get her to drop the knife. After calming down, P.F. told him that she wanted to go into the mountains. Without his knowledge, P.F. brought the knife with her, and when she pulled out the knife during the drive, he got it away from her and threw it out a window. During the drive, P.F. told him about her son's soccer game and that she was going to tell her parents that he had raped and kidnapped her.

         ¶ 10 The jury convicted Knobbe of the offenses mentioned above; acquitted him of a crime of violence sentence enhancement count alleged in connection with the charge of sexual assault on an at-risk victim; and could not reach a verdict on an additional charge of sexual assault with a deadly weapon, which the prosecution later dismissed.

         ¶ 11 At sentencing, the trial court merged the two kidnapping offenses and sentenced Knobbe to an indeterminate term of sixteen years to life imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

         II. The Evidence Was Sufficient to Support a Kidnapping Conviction

         ¶ 12 Knobbe asserts that the prosecution's evidence was insufficient to prove that he was guilty of kidnapping under section 18-3-302(3)(a), C.R.S. 2019. We address this issue first because, if the evidence were insufficient, the guarantees against double jeopardy in the United States and Colorado Constitutions would bar the prosecution from retrying Knobbe on this charge. See People v. Marciano, 2014 COA 92M-2, ¶ 42. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the kidnapping conviction.

         ¶ 13 "When assessing the sufficiency of the evidence . . ., we review the record de novo to determine whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, was both substantial and sufficient to support the conclusion by a reasonable mind that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." People v. Griego, 2018 CO 5, ¶ 24.

         ¶ 14 According to Knobbe, the prosecution's evidence could at most be interpreted to show that he moved the victim by forcing her to be driven into the mountains after the sexual assault, and that subsection 302(3)(a) can be applied only where the kidnapped person is or will be sexually assaulted after being kidnapped. In support of his contention, Knobbe cites section 2-4-104, C.R.S. 2019, which states that statutory "[w]ords in the present tense include the future tense," and Sifton v. Stewart Title Guaranty Co., 259 P.3d 542, 544 (Colo.App. 2011) (stating that division was unaware of any Colorado authority holding that present tense language applies to past events).

         ¶ 15 Section 18-3-302(3)(a) provides, "[s]econd degree kidnapping is a class 2 felony if . . . [t]he person kidnapped is a victim of a sexual offense pursuant to part 4 of this article." Nothing in the statute indicates when the sexual offense must be committed in relation to the kidnapping.

         ¶ 16 We do not resolve this timing conundrum because, as the Attorney General argues, the prosecution presented evidence at trial that Knobbe sexually assaulted the victim after he pulled a knife from the knife block in the kitchen, pointed the knife at her, and forcefully moved her down the stairs into a basement bedroom, where he pushed her onto a bed and sexually assaulted her. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, People v. Davis, 2012 COA 56, ¶ 12, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction for kidnapping. See § 18-3-302(1), (3), (4). Therefore, the prosecution is not barred from retrying Knobbe on this charge.

         III. The Court's Comments on "Reasonable Doubt" Require Reversal

         ¶ 17 Knobbe contends that during jury voir dire the trial court erred by making comments that trivialized the prosecution's burden of proof and his presumption of innocence. We agree and conclude that this error requires reversal.

         ¶ 18 During voir dire, the trial court had a discussion with potential jurors - related at greater length below - about the prosecution's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. For now, we highlight the following discussion between the court and a prospective juror - who deliberated to a verdict - about the reasonable doubt standard.

THE COURT: It is a standard that we use a lot of times, beyond a reasonable doubt, when we do important things in our lives, like buying a home, or choosing doctors, or whatever. Do you understand?
THE JUROR: Yes, I do.
THE COURT: Can you hold the People to that burden and not let them by on anything less, and not require them to prove anything more?

(Emphases added.) The juror agreed to do so. After the close of evidence, the court gave the jury a proper written instruction defining the presumption of innocence, burden of proof, and reasonable doubt, in accordance with COLJI-Crim. E:03 (2018).

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶ 19 In Johnson, our supreme court treated a district court judge's supplementary commentary to jurors about the reasonable doubt instruction as an "instruction." See Johnson, passim. The Johnson court also recognized that "[a]n instruction that lowers the prosecution's burden of proof below reasonable doubt constitutes structural error and requires automatic reversal." Id. at ¶ 8 (citing Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 281-82 (1993)).

         B. Analysis

         ¶ 20 Knobbe asserts that the trial court's description of the reasonable doubt standard trivialized the prosecution's burden of proof by comparing the decision jurors make in a criminal case to decisions they make in their everyday lives. We agree.

         1. The Reasonable Doubt Standard

         ¶ 21 The supreme court in Johnson described the reasonable doubt standard as a bedrock principle of American jurisprudence:

In criminal cases, the prosecution is required to "prove every factual element necessary to constitute the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt." Vega v. People, 893 P.2d 107, 111 (Colo. 1995). This requirement "dates at least from our early years as a Nation" and is nothing short of "indispensable." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 361, 364, (1970). The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Due Process Clause mandates the universal application of the reasonable doubt standard in criminal prosecutions. See id. at 364 ("[W]e explicitly hold that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged."). While the standard's application is universally mandated, courts retain some flexibility in defining what constitutes a reasonable doubt. Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994) ("[S]o long as the court instructs the jury on the necessity that the defendant's guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt . . . the Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used . . . .").

Id. at ¶ 10.

         ¶ 22 As Johnson recognized, "[t]he U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned that further attempts by courts or parties to define 'reasonable doubt' do not provide clarity," id. at ¶ 13. Johnson quoted the admonition from Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. at 22, that "trial courts must avoid defining reasonable doubt so as to lead the jury to convict on a lesser showing than due process requires." Johnson, ¶ 13. And it cautioned that "[a]ttempts to explain the term 'reasonable doubt' do not usually result in making it any clearer to the minds of the jury . . . ." Id. (quoting Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140 (1954), in turn quoting Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 312 (1880)).

         ¶ 23 As we discuss below, in this case, the trial court's description of the reasonable doubt standard improperly added additional commentary on what "reasonable doubt" is.

         2. The Court's Improvised Instructions Were Unlike Those in Johnson, and They Require Reversal

         ¶ 24 In Johnson, the improper instruction from the trial judge consisted only of the following words:

[Y]ou would find [a defendant] guilty only if, after hearing all of that evidence, you just can't bring yourself to do it. You just have to hesitate. It's not there. You can't find her guilty because the quality or quantity of evidence just doesn't let you. That's when you've hesitated to act.

Id. at ¶ 4.

         ¶ 25 Though the supreme court concluded that the addition by the trial court in that case to the "reasonable doubt" instruction was "problematic," id. at ΒΆ 17, it declined to reverse the conviction because the trial court's addition was "too nonsensical to be understood by the jury," was given only once during voir dire, was not referenced by either party at any time, and was "flanked by the proper instruction regarding the ...

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