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State v. Santillan

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 1, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
JONATHAN SANTILLAN

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 1 September 2015 and 12 October 2015 by Judge Paul G. Gessner in Wake County Superior Court.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 1 November 2017.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Danielle Marquis Elder, for the State.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Michele A. Goldman, for defendant.

          DIETZ, Judge.

         Defendant Jonathan Santillan appeals his convictions and sentences stemming from a gang-related home invasion in which Santillan and others murdered an innocent working couple. The victims lived in a home once occupied by a rival gang member who was the intended target. Santillan was fifteen years old at the time of the crime.

         As explained below, the trial court's order denying Santillan's motion to suppress fails to address a key underlying fact: that a law enforcement officer communicated with Santillan between the time Santillan invoked his right to counsel and the time he agreed to waive his right to counsel. Without findings acknowledging and addressing the impact of that communication, this Court cannot meaningfully review whether Santillan's waiver of his right to counsel was voluntary. We therefore remand this issue to the trial court for further proceedings. We reject the remainder of Santillan's challenges to his convictions.

         With respect to Santillan's sentence, the State concedes that the trial court failed to make sufficient findings to support the two sentences of life without parole. We therefore vacate those sentences and remand for a new sentencing hearing for those convictions, if one is necessary after the trial court resolves the issues concerning the suppression order.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On 5 January 2013, Maria Saravia Flores and Jose Mendoza Flores were shot to death in their home during a gang-related attack. The attackers kicked in the couple's front door and sprayed every room in the home with gunfire from an AK-47 rifle and a .45 caliber handgun. Mr. Flores was shot sixteen times while lying on the couch and Ms. Flores was shot seven times in the back and legs at the doorway to the kitchen.

         The couple were not the intended targets of the shooting. They lived in a home previously occupied by a gang member named "Sancho." Sancho had been the target of a previous shooting by a rival gang member named "Trigger, " who was accompanied by his brother, Moises, and two teenagers, Isrrael Vasquez and Defendant Jonathan Santillan.

         At the time of this earlier shooting, Sancho refused to provide much information to law enforcement about his attackers. But after reports of the Floreses' killings, Sancho contacted law enforcement and told them he believed he was the intended victim. He explained that he had lived at that residence a year earlier, before the Floreses moved in, and "Trigger" had visited him when he lived there. Law enforcement contacted Trigger's girlfriend, who identified Moises, Vasquez, and Santillan as Trigger's associates, and informed police that they carried a .45 caliber handgun and an AK-47 rifle.

         Police found Santillan and Vasquez in the attic of Vasquez's house and arrested them. After searching the attic, law enforcement also found an AK-47, a .45 caliber handgun, and several rounds of .45 caliber ammunition. The .45 caliber ammunition had scratch marks on the shell casings to obscure identifying information, and those scratch marks matched those found on casings at the Floreses' home and the earlier shooting involving Sancho.

         On 15 January 2013, officers interrogated Santillan in four separate interviews over an eight-hour period. At the time, Santillan was fifteen years old. Santillan initially denied his involvement in both the Sancho shooting and the Floreses' killings, but later confessed to being present at the Sancho shooting. Santillan denied any involvement in the Floreses' killings, but he gave a detailed description of the murders and made a sketch of the Floreses' home based on information he claimed to have learned from Moises. Law enforcement videotaped each of the four interviews.

         The State indicted Santillan on two counts of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, first degree burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, and possession of a firearm with altered serial number. At trial, the State sought to admit Santillan's videotaped interrogation and his sketch of the Floreses' home into evidence. Santillan moved to suppress this evidence on the ground that it was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion.

         Over Santillan's objection, the trial court also admitted rap lyrics found in a notebook in Santillan's room. The lyrics describe someone "kick[ing] in the door" and "spraying" bullets with an AK-47.

         The jury convicted Santillan on all charges. The trial court sentenced him to two consecutive sentences of life without parole and other, lesser sentences. Santillan timely appealed.

         Analysis

         I. Santillan's Motion to Suppress

         Santillan first challenges the denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that the trial court's order lacks key findings concerning law enforcement's communications with him after he invoked his right to counsel. As explained below, we agree that the trial court's order did not address key factual issues and we therefore remand for the trial court to do so.

         Our review of a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress is "strictly limited to determining whether the trial judge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal, and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's ultimate ...


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