affirming rejection of offered special unanimity instruction not error where general unanimity instruction adequate under charged offenses and facts at issueSummary of this case from State v. Wilkes
No. DA 06-0767.
Argued April 11, 2008.
Submitted April 23, 2008. Decided December 15, 2008.
Appeal from the District Court of Yellowstone County. Thirteenth Judicial District, Cause No. DC 05-0436. Honorable Ingrid G. Gustafson, Judge.
JUSTICE NELSON concurred in part and dissented in part.
JUSTICE RICE dissented, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE GRAY.
For Appellant: James B. Wheelis, Chief Public Defender; Shannon L. McDonald, Assistant Public Defender; Helena; Gem Koan Mercer (argued); Attorney at Law, Missoula.
For Appellee: Hon. Mike McGrath, Montana Attorney General; John A. Paulson (argued), Assistant Attorney General; Helena; Dennis Paxinos, Yellowstone County Attorney; Billings.
¶ 1 Following a jury trial in the Thirteenth Judicial District, Rusty Lee-Ray Russell ("Russell") was found guilty of deliberate homicide (under a felony homicide theory), aggravated assault, robbery by accountability, and aggravated assault by accountability. He was sentenced to eighty years (with ten suspended) for the deliberate homicide. He also received ten years for each of the remaining counts, including the aggravated assault which was the predicate felony for the felony homicide charge. Russell appeals, arguing his conviction for aggravated assault violates the double jeopardy clause of the Montana Constitution. Russell also challenges the jury instructions given in the case, and claims he was denied effective assistance of counsel. We affirm in part, and reverse in part.
¶ 2 We restate the issues as follows:
¶ 3 I. Did the District Court err by denying Russell's motion to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault, where his felony homicide conviction was predicated on the same assault?
¶ 4 II. Was the performance of Russell's trial counsel constitutionally deficient?
¶ 5 III. Was Russell's constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict violated?
¶ 6 On Monday night, April 25, 2005, Russell and his friend Brandon Spotted Wolf ("Spotted Wolf") spent the evening drinking their way across Billings. Though they were underage, they convinced two people to buy them a couple bottles of whiskey, which they drank in various back alleys and in a private residence over the course of the evening. Early the next morning, they found themselves outside the Saint Vincent De Paul Thrift Store, where they ran into Henry Rideshorse ("Rideshorse"). Rideshorse had a bottle of vodka; the boys had about half a bottle of whiskey left. They decided to share the two bottles amongst the three of them, and moved into the back alley behind the thrift store where they could drink without being seen by police.
¶ 7 Near the loading docks behind the store, several transients were sleeping. Spotted Wolf approached one of the sleeping men, Dale Wallin. Spotted Wolf demanded money or alcohol from Wallin, but Wallin did not respond. Russell drew a knife and gave it to Spotted Wolf. Spotted Wolf slashed Wallin's face, gave the knife back to Russell and said, "Show me what you're made of, man, show me what you can do." Russell took the knife and stabbed Wallin several times in the back.
¶ 8 Russell turned and walked further back into the alley, still holding the knife. There he saw another transient, John Gewanski, sleeping next to a dumpster. Both Rideshorse and Spotted Wolf testified that they saw Russell approach Gewanski, and heard Gewanski make several grunting noises, as if he were being punched or stabbed. The record contains conflicting evidence as to whether or not Spotted Wolf joined Russell in assaulting Gewanski. Blood from both victims was found on both Russell's and Spotted Wolfs clothing. Gewanski sustained numerous stab wounds and died in the makeshift shelter where he had been sleeping when he was attacked.
¶ 9 Russell and Spotted Wolf turned their attention back to Wallin, and began attacking him again. Rideshorse intervened and tried to protect Wallin. Russell punched Rideshorse, and said to Spotted Wolf, "Let's do this guy, man." Spotted Wolf testified that he convinced Russell not to kill Rideshorse, and the two fled the scene. Rideshorse helped Wallin to his feet, ran to the street, and flagged down a police car for help. In the meantime, Wallin stumbled several blocks to the Rescue Mission, where he was taken to the hospital. Wallin survived his multiple stab wounds.
¶ 10 Spotted Wolf was found the next morning, passed out with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.3, blood on his clothing, and a bloody knife in his pants. He was taken to the hospital and treated for alcohol poisoning, and later arrested. Russell was apprehended by the police the following day.
¶ 11 Spotted Wolf pled guilty to one count of deliberate homicide by accountability, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of robbery. In exchange for his plea and testimony, Spotted Wolf received a reduced sentence.
¶ 12 Russell was charged with four offenses: the deliberate homicide of Gewanski, the aggravated assault of Wallin, robbery by accountability, and aggravated assault of Gewanski by accountability. The deliberate homicide charge was brought under § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA, the felony homicide statute. The information identified the aggravated assault of Wallin as the underlying felony for the felony homicide charge.
¶ 13 Spotted Wolf testified against Russell at his trial. When asked why he and Russell attacked Wallin, Spotted Wolf replied, "I don't know, because we were drunk."
¶ 14 At the close of trial, Russell requested that the court specifically instruct the jury that, if they convicted Russell of deliberate homicide under a felony homicide theory, they must all agree on the particular act or acts he committed. The District Court refused the instruction, but issued a general unanimity instruction instead. The jury found Russell guilty on all four counts.
¶ 15 Prior to sentencing, Russell moved to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault. Russell argued that his conviction resulted in multiple punishments in violation of Article II, Section 25 of the Montana Constitution. The District Court denied Russell's motion to dismiss, and sentenced Russell to eighty years, with ten suspended, for the felony homicide. Russell also received ten years for each of the remaining counts, to run consecutively with the eighty-year sentence, but concurrently with each other.
¶ 16 1. Did the District Court err by denying Russell's motion to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault, where his felony homicide conviction was predicated on the same assault?
¶ 18 Russell argues that the District Court erred in refusing to grant his motion to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault. The felony homicide charge in Count I was predicated on the charge for aggravated assault in Count II. Thus, Russell asserts, the underlying felony in Count II should have been merged with the felony homicide charge in Count I. Russell claims that the District Court's refusal to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault placed him in double jeopardy for the same aggravated assault charge-a result prohibited by Article II, Section 25 of the Montana Constitution.
¶ 19 Although Russell frames the issue as a double jeopardy issue under Article II, Section 25 of the Montana Constitution, "we have repeatedly recognized that courts should avoid constitutional issues whenever possible." In re S.H., 2003 MT 366, ¶ 18, 319 Mont. 90, ¶ 18, 86 P.3d 1027, ¶ 18. Here, determining whether the District Court erred in failing to dismiss Count II can be resolved through application of our code of criminal procedure §§ 46-11-410(2)(a) and 46-1-202(9), MCA.
¶ 20 Section 46-11-410, MCA, states, in pertinent part, as follows:
(1) When the same transaction may establish the commission of more than one offense, a person charged with the conduct may be prosecuted for each offense. (2) A defendant may not, however, be convicted of more than one offense if:
(a) one offense is included in the other. . . .
¶ 21 Section 46-1-202(9), MCA, defines "included offense" as follows:
"Included offense" means an offense that: (a) is established by proof of the same or less than all the facts required to establish the commission of the offense charged. . . .
¶ 22 As used in § 46-1-202(9)(a), MCA, the term "facts" refers to the statutory elements of the offense, not the individual facts of the case. State v. Beavers, 1999 MT 260, ¶ 30, 296 Mont. 340, ¶ 30, 987 P.2d 371, ¶ 30.
¶ 23 Here, Russell was charged with felony homicide under § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. Felony homicide can be accomplished by multiple means under the statute.
A person commits the offense of deliberate homicide if . . . the person attempts to commit, commits, or is legally accountable for the attempt or commission of robbery, sexual intercourse without consent, arson, burglary, kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping, felonious escape, assault with a weapon, aggravated assault, or any other forcible felony and in the course of the forcible felony or flight thereafter, the person or any person legally accountable for the crime causes the death of another human being.
Section 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. The statute lists a myriad of possible predicate felonies: robbery, sexual intercourse without consent, arson, burglary, kidnapping, and so on. The State charged Russell by information with deliberate homicide under § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA, and identified aggravated assault as the predicate felony. The court defined the felony homicide charge to include aggravated assault in its instructions to the jury. Thus the charge, as applied to Russell, included aggravated assault as an element of felony homicide.
¶ 24 At oral argument, the State conceded that the same evidence was used to prove the stand-alone aggravated assault charge in Count II, and the predicate felony relied upon in the felony homicide charge in Count I. An offense is an included offense if it "is established by proof of the same or less than all the facts required to establish the commission of the offense charged. . . ." Section 46-1-202(9)(a), MCA. In the unique context of felony homicide, the predicate offense is, of necessity, an included offense, as well as an element of the felony homicide itself. As applied in this case, aggravated assault is both an included offense and an element of felony homicide.
¶ 25 Under § 46-11-410(1)-(2)(a), MCA, "A defendant may not . . . be convicted of more than one offense" arising out of "the same transaction" if "one offense is included in the other. . . ." Assuming that the assault on Wallin and the killing of Gewanski were part of the same transaction, then under § 46-11-410(2)(a), MCA, Russell's conviction of felony homicide precludes a conviction on the aggravated assault charge in Count II.
Although Justice Nelson makes an argument that the predicate offense of aggravated assault on Wallin (Count II) was not sufficiently causally related to the killing of Gerwanski to justify the felony homicide charge, that issue was not raised or briefed in this appeal.
¶ 26 In his dissent, Justice Rice relies heavily on our 1981 decision in State v. Close, 191 Mont. 229, 623 P.2d 940 (1981). The Close decision is of very limited value in the present case. The basic premise of the Close rationale is false. The Close Court engaged in a Blockburger analysis and held that "it is clear that proof of felony homicide will not necessarily require proof of either robbery or aggravated kidnapping." Close, 191 Mont. at 246, 623 P.2d at 950. One can commit felony homicide without committing robbery, or commit aggravated kidnapping without committing felony homicide. Therefore, Blockburger does not require the conclusion that felony homicide and the underlying felony merge." Close, 191 Mont. at 247, 623 P.2d at 950. Although the Court was correct that, in the abstract, one can commit felony murder without necessarily committing aggravated kidnapping or can commit aggravating kidnapping without committing felony homicide, a defendant cannot commit the offense of felony homicide without committing a predicate felony offense. Thus when the State uses an offense (such as kidnapping or robbery or, as here, assault) as a predicate offense in its charge of felony homicide, the accused cannot be found guilty of felony homicide without having committed the predicate offense of kidnapping, robbery, or assault. When the State chooses to charge the offenses in that fashion, the offenses merge. The predicate offense becomes a lesser included offense of the felony homicide charge. Sections 46-11-410, 46-1-202(9), MCA.
¶ 27 The dissent argues that where there are two victims, the State should be able to hold the defendant separately accountable for each crime. The dissent's criticism is valid but misdirected. The discretion to charge whom with what lies with the State, not this Court. Here, the State could have charged Russell with felony homicide of Gewanski using robbery as the predicate felony, and then charged Russell separately with felony assault of Wallin, in which case there would have been no merger of the assault and the homicide convictions. Alternatively, the State could have avoided merger altogether by charging Russell with all three crimes separately: first, the deliberate homicide of Gewanski under § 45-5-102(a), MCA; second, robbery by accountability under §§ 45-4-401(1)(a) and 45-2-302(3), MCA; and finally, the aggravated assault of Wallin under § 45-5-202, MCA. Contrary to the dissent's characterization, the merger of the homicide and assault convictions in this felony homicide case arises not from a "stupefying leap" by this Court, but from the State's choice in framing the charges.
¶ 28 Our decision does not, as the dissent suggests, give Russell a "free pass" for Wallin's assault. As we painstakingly outline above, the State had to prove each element of aggravated assault in order to convict Russell for felony homicide in this case. Russell was punished for both the predicate offense, Wallin's assault, and Gewanski's homicide, when he was charged and convicted under § 45-5-102, MCA.
¶ 29 Finally, under § 45-5-102, MCA, felony homicide is punishable by death, by life imprisonment, or by imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years or more than 100 years. The dissent's hyperbolic "free pass" argument ignores the fact that where the felon is sentenced to death or life in prison for felony homicide, any additional punishment for the underlying felony would have no practical effect.
¶ 30 Accordingly, we hold that the District Court erred in refusing to dismiss Russell's conviction for aggravated assault under Count II.
¶ 31 II. Was the performance of Russell's trial counsel constitutionally deficient?
¶ 32 Russell argues that his trial counsel's failure to move to exclude Henry Rideshorse's testimony constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel presents mixed questions of law and fact which we review de novo. State v. Herman, 2008 MT 187, ¶ 10, 343 Mont. 494, ¶ 10, 188 P.3d 978, ¶ 10.
¶ 33 To determine whether counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient, we apply the two-prong test adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 2064 (1984); Whitlow v. State, 2008 MT 140, ¶ 10, 343 Mont. 90, ¶ 10, 183 P.3d 861, ¶ 10. Before we apply the Strickland test, however, we must first determine whether the ineffective assistance of counsel claim is record-based or not. State v. St. Germain, 2007 MT 28, ¶ 34, 336 Mont. 17, ¶ 34, 153 P.3d 591, ¶ 34. Claims involving "omissions of trial counsel frequently are ill-suited for direct appeal." State v. Meyers, 2007 MT 230, ¶ 10, 339 Mont. 160, ¶ 10, 168 P.3d 645, ¶ 10. While the failure to object to a witness's testimony may be record-based and thus appropriate for resolution on direct appeal, commonly the record does not reflect counsel's reasons for failing to object. St. Germain, ¶ 35. We have held that "[i]f the record does not fully explain why counsel failed to object to the admission of evidence, the matter is best suited for postconviction proceedings." St. Germain, ¶ 35.
¶ 34 Here, Russell asserts that his lawyer should have moved to exclude Rideshorse's testimony. He contends that Rideshorse was not competent to be a witness because he was heavily intoxicated the night of the crime, and potentially suffered from a mental disability. Russell's counsel did not move to exclude Rideshorse as a witness. At trial, defense counsel cross-examined Rideshorse about his alcohol use and level of intoxication the night of the crime in an attempt to impeach him, but did not broach the subject of Rideshorse's alleged mental disability.
¶ 35 In order to prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the appellant must show that his counsel's performance "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness measured under prevailing professional norms and in light of the surrounding circumstances." Whitlow, ¶ 20. Here, the record does not fully explain the surrounding circumstances, including why defense counsel failed to move to exclude Rideshorse's testimony. Prior to trial, and without the court's permission or knowledge, defense counsel caused the district court clerk to issue a subpoena duces tecum to several hospitals for Rideshorse's medical records. Counsel then moved the court for an in-camera review of the records. The court denied the motion, ordered counsel to turn the records over to the court immediately, and prohibited counsel from referencing any information contained within the records at trial. Russell alleges that his counsel's "bungled attempts" to obtain Rideshorse's medical records prejudiced his defense by preventing him from moving to exclude Rideshorse's testimony and from cross-examining Rideshorse as to his alleged disabilities. The record before us does not fully explain why defense counsel took this particular course of action or why counsel failed to object to Rideshorse's testimony. This issue is best suited for review in a post-conviction proceeding which will permit further inquiry into the matter. We dismiss this issue without prejudice.
¶ 36 III. Was Russell's constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict violated?
¶ 37 At the close of the trial, Russell offered the following jury instruction, which was refused by the District Court:
The defendant is charged with the offence [sic] of Deliberate Homicide/Felony murder. The Defendant may be found guilty if the proof shows beyond a reasonable doubt the Defendant committed any one or more of such acts, but in order to find the Defendant guilty, all the jurors must agree that the Defendant committed the same act or acts. The particular act or acts committed so agreed upon be states [sic] in the verdict.
Instead, the District Court delivered a general unanimity instruction:
The law requires the jury verdict in this case to be unanimous. Thus, all twelve of you must agree in order to reach a verdict whether the verdict be guilty or not guilty.
Russell claims he was entitled to a specific unanimity instruction in this case, and that the District Court erred by refusing to give his proposed instruction.
¶ 38 We review jury instructions in criminal cases to determine "whether the instructions, as a whole, fully and fairly instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case." State v. Swann, 2007 MT 126, ¶ 32, 337 Mont. 326, ¶ 32, 160 P.3d 511, ¶ 32. A district court has broad discretion when it instructs a jury; our review of a district court's decision regarding jury instructions is confined to determining whether the court abused its discretion. Swann, ¶ 32.
¶ 39 A criminal defendant's right to a unanimous jury verdict is protected by Article II, Section 26 of the Montana Constitution. State v. Vernes, 2006 MT 32, ¶ 21, 331 Mont. 129, ¶ 21, 130 P.3d 169, ¶ 21; State v. Weaver, 1998 MT 167, ¶ 26, 290 Mont. 58, ¶ 26, 964 P.2d 713, ¶ 26. In Vernes, we explained: "Unanimity means more than an agreement that the defendant has violated the statute in question; it requires substantial agreement as to the principal factual elements underlying a specific offense." Vernes, ¶ 21.
¶ 40 Russell argues that like the defendant in Weaver, he is entitled to a specific unanimity instruction. In Weaver, the defendant was convicted of two counts of sexual assault for acts which spanned a period of five months for one count, and five years for the other count. Weaver, ¶¶ 8, 13. We reversed the convictions, and held that the district court should have specifically instructed the jury that it had to reach "a unanimous verdict as to at least one specific underlying act of sexual assault for each count." Weaver, ¶ 40. The instructions in Weaver were faulty because each count alleged more than one unlawful act, Weaver, ¶¶ 17, 38, and so there was a risk that the conviction occurred as a result of "different jurors concluding that the defendant committed different unlawful acts. . . ." Vernes, ¶ 23.
¶ 41 Russell urges us to view the events occurring the evening of April 25, 2005, as consisting of two separate attacks: first, the assault on Wallin, and second, the homicide of Gewanski. Russell implies that the felony homicide charge improperly charges him with two distinct crimes as a continuous course of conduct, and that such a result is prohibited by Weaver. The instant case, however, is distinguishable from Weaver. While Weaver's sexual attacks spanned the course of several months, Russell's unlawful acts all took place in one night. Rideshorse testified at trial that Russell assaulted Wallin, moved on to Gewanski, and then resumed his attack on Wallin. The assault and the homicide took place in the same back alley, only feet away from each other. Although a count of felony homicide necessarily involves two or more crimes-homicide and the underlying felony-we reject the implication that a felony homicide charge automatically warrants a specific unanimity instruction.
¶ 42 In the instant case, no specific unanimity instruction was necessary. To convict Russell of the felony homicide of Gewanski, the State had to prove that Russell was guilty of the underlying felony-the aggravated assault of Wallin. The court's instructions clearly established the elements of felony homicide, and clearly identified the aggravated assault of Wallin as the underlying felony.
¶ 43 The court's instructions with respect to the remaining three counts also identified each element of each respective crime, and were equally clear. We conclude that the instructions given by the District Court fully and fairly instructed the jury on the law applicable to the case. As such, we cannot say that the District Court abused its discretion by refusing Russell's proposed specific unanimity instruction.
¶ 44 We reverse the District Court's order denying Russell's motion to dismiss his conviction for aggravated assault. Aggravated assault was an included element of felony homicide under § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA, as charged and applied in this case. Article II, Section 25 of the Montana Constitution prohibits the State from convicting and punishing Russell again for the same aggravated assault. Accordingly, we vacate Russell's conviction for aggravated assault under Count II of the information. We conclude that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying Russell's proposed specific unanimity jury instruction. Finally, Russell's ineffective assistance of counsel claim is not record-based, thus we dismiss it without prejudice.
JUSTICES COTTER, WARNER and MORRIS concur.
¶ 45 While I generally agree with the Court's resolution of Issues I, II, and III, I cannot join the Court's ultimate disposition of this appeal. In my view, Russell's conviction of felony homicide (Count I) is invalid. Consequently, I would reverse his conviction under Count I, affirm his conviction and sentence under Count II (aggravated assault), and not reach the double jeopardy and unanimity claims addressed by the Court under Issues I and III, respectively.
¶ 46 It is necessary at the outset to acknowledge the Court's assertion that this issue was not raised or briefed in this appeal. Opinion, ¶ 25 n. 1. This is only partly true. Russell does assert in his argument under Issue III that the assault on Wallin and the killing of Gewanski were "two separate acts," not "a continuous course of conduct." See Opinion, ¶ 41. He fails, however, to develop this point. As a result, his argument is deficient under this Court's rules concerning appellate briefs. See M. R. App. P. 12(1)f.; see also State v. Miller, 2008 MT 106, ¶ 15, 342 Mont. 355, ¶ 15, 181 P.3d 625, ¶ 15 (Conclusory assertions are "a wholly inadequate presentation of an issue to this Court.").
¶ 47 On the other hand, Russell asserted during oral argument that a felony homicide had not occurred in this case. Furthermore, in response to a follow-up question from the Court, Russell explained: "I think the assaults on Mr. Wallin were completed and that, therefore, the assaults on the second individual who was asleep down the alley in a different place were not `in the course of those assaults." Russell emphasized that this would be his position if he were permitted to argue it. (This Court's order classifying the case for oral argument limited the parties' arguments to the double jeopardy issue.)
¶ 48 But even if Russell committed a procedural misstep in challenging the validity of his felony homicide conviction, this Court has stated that "`a serious error which appears on the face of [the] record is reviewable, although not presented by the parties' if ignoring the error would cause substantial injustice." State v. Andersen-Conway, 2007 MT 281, ¶ 14, 339 Mont. 439, ¶ 14, 171 P.3d 678, ¶ 14 (brackets in Andersen-Conway) (quoting Kudrna v. Comet Corp., 175 Mont. 29, 51, 572 P.2d 183, 195 (1977)). We concluded in Andersen-Conway that it was necessary to "raise and decide the dispositive issue sua sponte," since "incarceration of an individual pursuant to a facially invalid sentence represents a grievous wrong, and a miscarriage of justice that warrants relief even if the defendant is otherwise procedurally barred." Andersen-Conway, ¶ 14. The same can be said here: Incarceration of Russell pursuant to a conviction that is plainly contrary to the evidence and the law represents a grievous wrong, and a miscarriage of justice that warrants relief even if he is otherwise procedurally barred from raising the point.
¶ 49 Indeed, review of Russell's claim is compelled by this Court's "overriding obligation to acknowledge and protect the substantial rights of litigants." State v. Carter, 2005 MT 87, ¶ 13, 326 Mont. 427, ¶ 13, 114 P.3d 1001, ¶ 13. This obligation mandates that we not turn a blind eye to an invalid conviction simply because appellate counsel mounted an underdeveloped or procedurally bungled challenge thereto. In point of fact, this Court may consider a question which otherwise would be procedurally barred "if it relates to a substantial or fundamental right of a litigant." Wolfe v. Dept. of Labor and Industry, 255 Mont. 336, 339, 843 P.2d 338, 340 (1992); accord Carter, ¶¶ 13-14; Cottrill v. Cottrill Sodding Service, 229 Mont. 40, 42, 744 P.2d 895, 896 (1987); Eastman v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 237 Mont. 332, 337, 777 P.2d 862, 865 (1989); see also State v. Finley, 276 Mont. 126, 137, 915 P.2d 208, 215 (1996) (discussing this Court's "inherent power and paramount obligation to interpret Montana's Constitution and to protect the various rights set forth in that document"), overruled in part on other grounds, State v. Gallagher, 2001 MT 39, ¶ 21, 304 Mont. 215, ¶ 21, 19 P.3d 817, ¶ 21. Here, on the record before us, it is plain that Russell's fundamental right to due process is at issue and that it is necessary, therefore, for this Court to consider the legal validity of the felony homicide conviction.
¶ 50 In prosecuting Russell for felony homicide, the State's theory was that the death of Gewanski occurred "in the course of" the assault on Wallin. Section 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. More specifically, the prosecutor alleged that Russell committed aggravated assault against Wallin and "then in the course of the offense of Aggravated Assault or flight thereafter," he "stabbed, cut or otherwise assaulted [Gewanski], using a knife or other edged weapon, causing his death." This theory is flawed as a matter of law, as there is no factual or legal basis whatsoever supporting the proposition that the death of Gewanski was causally related to the assault on Wallin. To the contrary, the evidence suggests, as Russell contends, that these were two entirely distinct events.
¶ 51 According to the testimony at trial, Spotted Wolf slashed Wallin's face and Russell stabbed Wallin several times in the back. The two then left Wallin and proceeded east through the alley. As Spotted Wolf explained in response to questioning by the prosecutor:
A. We were pretty much just going to go around to the other side [of the building] and just leave out to the North Side. I said-well, you know, we found out it was blocked off right there (indicating).
Q. And what happened then?
A. We stopped-well, you know, we stopped by that garbage can or that dumpster thing.
. . .
Q. Okay. What happened then?
A. Well, you know, we just stopped for, you know, not too long, we just stood there and then, you know, [Russell] went over here, and I don't know what he was-you know, he was doing, he was hitting another person.
(The other person was Gewanski.) Thereafter, because their easterly route was blocked, Russell and Spotted Wolf proceeded back to where Wallin was. Upon reencountering him, they both started hitting Wallin again-apparently for no reason other than that "we were just drunk."
¶ 52 It is long-established in Montana that "for the felony-murder rule to apply a causal connection between the felonious act and the death must be present." State ex rel. Murphy v. McKinnon, 171 Mont. 120, 127, 556 P.2d 906, 910 (1976); accord State v. Lester Kills on Top, 241 Mont. 378, 387, 787 P.2d 336, 342 (1990). In Murphy, we noted "with approval" the following guidelines as to the applicability of the felony-murder rule:
"For the felony-murder rule to apply, it is necessary that the homicide be a natural and probable consequence of the commission or attempt to commit the felony; that the homicide be so closely connected with such other crime as to be within the res gestae thereof; or the natural or necessary result of the unlawful act; or that it be one of the causes. * * *
"Something more than a mere coincidence of time and place between the wrongful act and the death is necessary. It must appear that there was such actual legal relation between the killing and the crime committed or attempted that the killing can be said to have occurred as a part of the perpetration of the crime, or in furtherance of an attempt or purpose to commit it."
"The mere coincidence of homicide and felony is not enough to satisfy the requirements of the felony-murder doctrine. `It is necessary . . . to show that the conduct causing death was done in furtherance of the design to commit the felony. Death must be a consequence of the felony . . . and not merely coincidence.'"
¶ 54 Accordingly, we have said that in order to establish felony homicide, the State must prove that the death was "an outgrowth of the [predicate] felony itself and related to the [predicate felony] by an unbroken chain of causation." State v. Sunday, 187 Mont. 292, 307, 609 P.2d 1188, 1197 (1980). We have also relied on § 45-2-201, MCA, in articulating the "causal relationship" that must be shown in order to prove felony homicide. See e.g. Weinberger, 206 Mont. at 114-15, 671 P.2d at 569; State v. Turner, 265 Mont. 337, 348, 877 P.2d 978, 984-85 (1994). This statute states, in pertinent part: "Conduct is the cause of a result if . . . without the conduct the result would not have occurred." Section 45-2-201(1)(a), MCA (paragraph break omitted).
¶ 55 Given the law as stated above, the charge of felony homicide in this case is not supported by the facts established at trial. As a matter of fact, it is not even supported by the allegations set out under Count I of the Amended Information. Indeed, there is simply no causal connection at all between the aggravated assault on Wallin and the death of Gewanski. Russell and Spotted Wolf completed their assault on Wallin. They then decided "to go around to the other side [of the building] and just leave"; however, their passage through the east end of the alley was blocked. But rather than turn around and leave through the west end of the alley where they had entered, they "just stopped for, you know, not too long, [they] just stood there." Obviously, this cannot be construed as "flight" from the assault on Wallin. Section 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. At that point, Russell attacked and killed Gewanski, who had been sleeping next to a dumpster. Thereafter, he and Spotted Wolf walked back to where Wallin was and ended up assaulting him again.
¶ 56 While these events may constitute "the same transaction" for purposes of § 46-11-410(1), MCA, they do not support the proposition that a causal connection existed between the aggravated assault on Wallin and the death of Gewanski. The death of Gewanski was in no way "a natural and probable consequence" or "the natural or necessary result" of the assault on Wallin. Nor can it be said that "the conduct causing death was done in furtherance of the design to commit the [aggravated assault]" or that the killing "occurred as a part of the perpetration of the [aggravated assault], or in furtherance of an attempt or purpose to commit it."
¶ 57 "The mere coincidence of [a] homicide and [a forcible] felony is not enough to satisfy the requirements of the felony-murder doctrine." Weinberger, 206 Mont. at 115, 671 P.2d at 569 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Something more than a mere coincidence of time and place between the wrongful act and the death is necessary." Murphy, 171 Mont. at 127, 556 P.2d at 910 (internal quotation marks omitted). While it may be debated whether the assault on Wallin and the death of Gewanski were more than mere coincidence, there is absolutely no basis for concluding that they were causally related or connected.
¶ 58 For the foregoing reasons, I conclude that the prosecutor improperly charged felony homicide in this case and that Russell's conviction is invalid as a matter of law. In reaching this conclusion, it is necessary to acknowledge that "when the facts of a case support a possible charge of more than one crime, the crime to be charged is a matter of prosecutorial discretion." State ex rel. Fletcher v. District Court, 260 Mont. 410, 415, 859 P.2d 992, 995 (1993). At the same time, however, whether an offense is properly charged, given the facts, and whether a conviction is legally sustainable, given the evidence, are legal questions which this Court must decide. See e.g. State v. McWilliams, 2008 MT 59, ¶¶ 19-39, 341 Mont. 517, ¶¶ 19-39, 178 P.3d 121, ¶¶ 19-39. Here, the facts as alleged by the prosecutor and established at trial cannot, as a matter of law, support the charge of felony homicide.
¶ 59 Had this case been properly charged-deliberate homicide under § 45-5-102(1)(a), MCA, for the death of Gewanski and aggravated assault under § 45-5-202(1), MCA, for the serious bodily injury inflicted on Wallin-then the State would have two convictions for two separate acts. As it is, however, under the Court's resolution of Issue I, the State has only one conviction for the two acts.
¶ 60 In sum, §§ 46-11-410(2)(a) and 46-1-202(9)(a), MCA, would preclude Russell's conviction on the aggravated assault charge if he were lawfully convicted on the felony homicide charge. Opinion, ¶¶ 20-25. But because the felony homicide charge is not supported by the facts as alleged by the prosecutor and proved at trial, I conclude that the aggravated assault charge can stand. Thus, I would reverse Russell's conviction under Count I and affirm his conviction and sentence under Count II.
¶ 61 I concur and dissent.