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State v. Rodriguez

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 8, 2018


          Heard in the Supreme Court on 10 October 2016. Following the initial oral argument, this case was reargued on 9 October 2017.

          Appeal as of right pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a judgment imposing a sentence of death entered by Judge R. Stuart Albright on 21 March 2014 in Superior Court, Forsyth County, upon a jury verdict finding defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

          Josh H. Stein, Attorney General, by Mary Carla Babb and Kimberly N. Callahan, Assistant Attorneys General, for the State.

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Barbara S. Blackman, John F. Carella, and Kathryn L. VandenBerg, Assistant Appellate Defenders, for defendant-appellant.

          ERVIN, Justice.

         Defendant Juan Carlos Rodriguez was convicted of the first-degree murder of his estranged wife, Maria Magdelana Rodriguez, and sentenced to death. After careful consideration of defendant's challenges to his convictions and sentence in light of the record and the applicable law, we find no error in the proceedings leading to defendant's conviction and the jury's rejection of his intellectual disability defense.[1]On the other hand, we conclude that the trial court erred by failing, acting ex mero motu, to submit the statutory mitigating circumstance enumerated in N.C. G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(6) ("[t]he capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was impaired") to the jury at defendant's capital sentencing hearing. As a result, we vacate defendant's death sentence and remand this case to the Superior Court, Forsyth County, for a new capital sentencing hearing.

         I. Factual Background

         A. Substantive Facts

         1. State's Evidence

         Defendant and Ms. Rodriguez became emotionally involved with each other in late 1992. The couple married when Ms. Rodriguez was thirteen years old and defendant was sixteen or seventeen years old and had their first child when Ms. Rodriguez was fourteen years old. Unfortunately, defendant became physically and emotionally abusive towards Ms. Rodriguez following their marriage. This pattern of domestic violence continued after the couple came to the United States.

         On 11 October 2010, Ms. Rodriguez entered a domestic violence shelter with her three children because she could "no longer live with [her] husband" and did not "have anywhere else to go." At the time that she entered the shelter, Ms. Rodriguez noted on an intake form that defendant had threatened to kill her, controlled most of her daily activities, and was violently jealous of her. Although Ms. Rodriguez left the shelter on 19 October 2010, she returned on 29 October to retrieve certain medications that she had left at that location. During the 29 October visit to the domestic violence shelter, Ms. Rodriguez seemed "happy" and "optimistic" and told shelter personnel that, while she was "doing well" and while Mr. Rodriguez "ha[d] not tried to move back in, " "she [wa]s struggling to find employment" and "need[ed] assistance with food." On the other hand, Ms. Rodriguez told her friend, Merlyn Rodriguez, on 17 November 2010, that she was afraid of defendant; that he had "told her that if they didn't get back together, he would kill her"; and that "he could get rid of her and just throw her in the river."

         On 18 November 2010, defendant came to the couple's former apartment, which was located at 1828 Trellis Lane in Winston-Salem and in which Ms. Rodriguez and the children had resided following the couple's separation, and asked Ms. Rodriguez to speak with him privately in the master bedroom. After a few minutes, the Rodriguez children, who were listening to music in the living room, heard Ms. Rodriguez cry for help. Santos Estela Rodriguez, one of the couple's children, attempted to open the door to the master bedroom but found that it was locked.[2] After failing to gain access to the master bedroom by using a knife, Santos Estela Rodriguez told defendant that she was going to call the police. Shortly thereafter, defendant emerged from the master bedroom with blood on his knuckles, feet, and clothes. As soon as Santos Estela Rodriguez entered the master bedroom and "saw her mother on the floor" "breathing really hard, " defendant stated that Ms. Rodriguez had hurt herself on the furniture and that he was taking Ms. Rodriguez to the hospital. After hoisting Ms. Rodriguez over his shoulder, defendant carried her to his vehicle.

         Several hours later, defendant returned to 1828 Trellis Lane without Ms. Rodriguez. Upon arriving at the apartment, defendant asked the children and the son of a neighbor to help him clean the blood stained carpeting in the master bedroom. Although Santos Estela Rodriguez called all of the nearby hospitals, she was never able to locate her mother. On the following morning, 19 November 2010, defendant took the children to the home of his boss, Henry Ramirez, who lived in Eden. During the trip to Eden, Santos Estela Rodriguez observed the presence of blood in defendant's vehicle. A subsequent examination of defendant's vehicle by investigating officers revealed the presence of vomitus on the rear floorboard on the driver's side and blood on the interior of the rear driver's side door jamb, the back portion of the rear seat, a tan shirt located upon the upper portion of the rear seat, the rear floor mat on the driver's side, and the spare tire cover in the trunk.

         At the time that investigating officers searched the apartment at 1828 Trellis Lane, they noticed that the premises were in disarray and that cleaning products could be found throughout the residence. "[A] large pool of blood or a large stain of what appeared to be blood [could be seen] on [the] carpet." According to another investigating officer, the carpet in the master bedroom "was discolored a pinkish color" and "frayed as though it had been scrubbed." Additional blood spatter patterns could be observed in the master bedroom as well.

         At about 11:30 p.m. on 18 November 2010, Merlyn Rodriguez 's sister, Zoila Rodriguez, began receiving messages from Ms. Rodriguez's phone. The messages received from Ms. Rodriguez 's phone stated that:

Soyla, I went with my secret boyfriend to Spain. Carlos does not know. If he calls, tell him the truth and take care of the children. I met him three months ago. Cut the phone off because it doesn't work in the airport. Good-bye. I will call you from Spain. . . . I don't have a charge anymore. Good-bye. Cut the telephone off. Later, I will fix it. I will call you from there.

         Although Ms. Rodriguez knew how to spell Zoila Rodriguez's name, defendant later spelled Zoila's name as "Soyla" while conversing with investigating officers.

On 19 November 2010, Merlyn Rodriguez attempted to telephone Ms. Rodriguez on several occasions. However, each of Merlyn Rodriguez's calls went unanswered. After ascertaining that Ms. Rodriguez was not in her apartment, Merlyn Rodriguez called defendant, who initially told Merlyn Rodriguez that he did not know where Ms. Rodriguez was before stating that Ms. Rodriguez had "[s]tepped out of the house that night" and "never came back" and finally telling Merlyn

         Rodriguez that Ms. Rodriguez had "had an accident that night" and "was at the hospital."

         Following her conversation with defendant, Merlyn Rodriguez called the police. Officer L.N. Williams of the Winston-Salem Police Department responded to Merlyn Rodriguez's missing person report, entered Ms. Rodriguez's apartment, and determined that she was not there. At that point, Officer Williams obtained defendant's phone number from Merlyn Rodriguez and called defendant for the purpose of inquiring into Ms. Rodriguez's whereabouts. Defendant told Officer Williams that Ms. Rodriguez had gone for a walk and did not return. After ascertaining that Ms. Rodriguez was not at work or at a local shelter and that the Rodriguez children were not in school, investigating officers began treating this matter as a high-risk missing person's case.

         Defendant spent the night of 19 November 2010 with his pastor, David Agueda, in Martinsville, Virginia. On the following morning, while leading Saturday services, Pastor Agueda learned that investigating officers were looking for defendant and Ms. Rodriguez. Upon obtaining this information, Pastor Agueda advised defendant to turn himself in.

         At approximately 7:00 p.m. on 19 November 2010, Lieutenant Steven Tollie of the Winston-Salem Police Department reclassified the case as a homicide and assigned it to Detective Stanley Nieves. After investigating officers located defendant on 21 November 2010, he was taken to Eden to be interviewed by Detective Nieves. In response to Detective Nieves's request that he describe the events that had occurred on 18 November 2010 at the 1828 Trellis Lane apartment, defendant stated that Ms. Rodriguez had told him that she was a lesbian and no longer wanted to be with him, that Ms. Rodriguez had hit her head against the dresser while lunging at him, and that Ms. Rodriguez had called for help after falling to the floor. At that point, defendant assisted Ms. Rodriguez in her efforts to get up, carried her to his car, and began to drive her to the hospital. As he did so, Ms. Rodriguez told defendant to stop, left the vehicle, and walked out of defendant's sight. Although Detective Nieves repeatedly accused defendant of having killed Ms. Rodriguez and having knowledge of the location at which Ms. Rodriguez's body could be found, defendant repeatedly denied Detective Nieves's accusations.

         On the afternoon of 12 December 2010, which was a "very cold, damp" day featuring light snow and misty rain, investigating officers received a report that a decapitated body had been discovered in an area near 5020 Williamsburg Road in Winston-Salem that was "overgrown with small bushy pines" about "40 to 50 feet to the west of the asphalt area." Fingerprint information obtained from the body established that it was that of Ms. Rodriguez. On 29 May 2013, a human skull, later determined to be that of Ms. Rodriguez through the use of DNA analysis, was found in a wooded area near Belews Lake in rural Forsyth County.

         According to Patrick Lantz, M.D., who autopsied the body, Ms. Rodriguez was in the early stages of decomposition at the time that her body was discovered. Dr. Lantz observed "maggot activity around the incision on the skin, " incision marks around her clavicle, and a number of bruises all over her body characteristic of defensive wounds." Dr. Lantz opined that "the cause of death was manual strangulation, " that Ms. Rodriguez had been decapitated after her death, and that, while there was "not exactly" "a scientific way to determine a postmortem interval, " he believed, based upon information that he had received from investigating officers concerning the date upon which Ms. Rodriguez had last been seen alive and the observations that he had made during the autopsy and at the location at which the body had been discovered, that Ms. Rodriguez had died on 18 November 2010 and that the postmortem interval "was consistent with her being out there for three and a half weeks, or 24 days."

         2. Defendant's Evidence

         Although she acknowledged that a forensic pathologist would be better qualified than she was to make such a determination, Dr. Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist, concluded that Ms. Rodriguez 's abdominal area showed no signs of greening, which appears early in the putrefaction process. In addition, Dr. Ross believed that the crime scene and autopsy photographs suggested that Ms. Rodriguez "was still in the fresh state" of decomposition at the time that her body was found given the absence of significant marbling or maggot masses. According to Dr. Ross, "the remains of the decedent were in a fresh state" and had "not been out in the environmental conditions before December 1." Similarly, Thomas L. Bennett, M.D., a forensic pathologist, was of the opinion that "the most probable time frame" "is that [Ms.] Rodriguez was dead between three and seven days or so prior to her body being found on December 12th."

         B. Intellectual Disability

         1. Defendant's Life History

         Defendant was born on 11 November 1974 in the Usulutan Department of El Salvador. Defendant and his family left the Usulutan Department "somewhere between 1979 and 1982" "because of the guerillas, who were the leftist fighters in the civil war in El Salvador." Defendant's family ultimately settled in Anchila, a location that was believed to be safe, when defendant was a child. However, the guerillas "began to occupy the area across the river from Anchila" after the Rodriguez family arrived at that location.

         The Rodriguez home in Anchila was a "one-room hut[ ] with dirt floors. The walls were made out of sticks and mud." Although the roof was made out of "grass or tin, " "there[ was] no solid wall" or "security to speak of." "[D]uring the rainy season, the floods would flood through the house, " exposing the family "to all kinds of bacteria, viruses, decaying animals, [and] human waste" from a nearby outhouse.

         While in Anchila, defendant "didn't have access to medical care, " did not "attend school of any kind, " and experienced "[c]hronic hunger [as] a way of life." Upon reaching the age of nine, defendant was sent to live with an aunt in San Salvador, which was considered to be safer and to have less fighting than Anchila. While in San Salvador, defendant began to receive medical care and entered the first grade. After successfully completing the first grade while failing the second grade, defendant returned to Anchila to help his family and repeat the second grade when he was eleven or twelve years old.

         At the time that defendant returned to Anchila, "the civil war was very much raging around the family." Defendant heard "shooting at night and [remembered] the family being on the floor in terror." "It was not uncommon for [the family] to see dead bodies along the way when they were walking to school" and to "hear bomb[s] blasting[ ] and shooting." When defendant was sixteen years old, his older brother, Jose Fermin, was killed by guerillas after joining the army. Defendant was responsible for retrieving his brother's body and bringing it to the family home. While he was still sixteen and in the seventh grade, defendant dropped out of school.

         After Jose Fermin's death and defendant's marriage to Ms. Rodriguez, defendant relocated to the United States. Upon arriving in this country, defendant was granted asylum on the grounds that he had been "threatened by the guerillas" and was "[l]iving in constant fear" and received authorization to work. Although defendant's son, Fermin, remained in El Salvador with defendant's father, Ms. Rodriguez joined defendant in the United States, where the couple had three more children, Santos Estela, Juan Carlos, Jr., and Jonathan.

         2. Expert Testimony

         a. Defendant's Evidence

         Dr. Selena Sermeno, an expert in the field of clinical psychology who specializes in issues involving El Salvadoran young people, testified that the "protective and risk factors" present in a child's life, coupled with "the presence of chronic violence and trauma and adversity" and "[f]actors such as poverty, malnutrition, poor health, falls, exposure to trauma, any form of traumatic event, [and] the presence of fear, " affect the child's intellectual capabilities. According to Dr. Sermeno, the civil war that occurred in El Salvador during defendant's adolescence had a significant negative effect upon his cognitive development. Among other things, Dr. Sermeno observed that defendant's memory and communication skills were impaired, which is "a very classic symptom in children who are traumatized to that degree." Defendant struggled "to recall information in any kind of chronological sequential or linear format, " was confused by numerical concepts, and answered questions in a very literal manner. In addition, defendant's exposure to dangerous pesticides and contaminated water caused him to suffer from frequent illnesses, for which he never received proper medical care. Dr. Sermeno believed that the existence of these adverse environmental conditions had a significant effect upon defendant's intellectual development as well.

         According to Dr. Sermeno, defendant suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a mild intellectual disability. In support of the second of these two diagnoses, Dr. Sermeno pointed to the fact that defendant scored 61 on the third edition of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III). In Dr. Sermeno's view, defendant had particular difficulties with functional academic learning and communication skills, with these deficiencies having manifested themselves before defendant reached the age of eighteen. In addition, Dr. Sermeno's intellectual disability diagnosis also rested upon defendant's exposure to extreme poverty, severe malnutrition, constant violence, pesticides, educational obstacles, and inadequate health care. Finally, Dr. Sermeno believed that defendant's post-traumatic stress disorder made it difficult for him to express strong emotions through verbal communication and body language.

         Moira Artigues, M.D., a general and forensic psychiatrist, testified that she had evaluated defendant's "developmental history and the impact that that may have had on him, as well as . . . his affect and demeanor, his face and his manner, and to form opinions about that as well." Dr. Artigues analyzes whether a person has an intellectual disability by examining that person's "background information, in terms of poverty, malnutrition, deprivation, education resources, and medical resources, " "[b]ecause lack in any of those can affect intellectual development in children." According to Dr. Artigues, severe trauma, like that associated with "growing up in a civil war, very poor, and malnourished, causes the brain to wire in a way that's not optimal, and it can certainly affect your IQ as a result of the faulty wiring." As a child in El Salvador, defendant lacked access to medical care, experienced nutritional deprivation, and had no educational stimulation until he reached the age of ten, all of which can affect an individual's brain development and contribute to the development of a low intelligence quotient. Moreover, the experience of growing up during a civil war can result in accumulated trauma over time which can, in turn, lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Dr. Artigues's view, a child's attempts to cope "with this chronic trauma and extreme stress" can affect the child's brain development and intelligence quotient.

         In Dr. Artigues's opinion, defendant was mildly intellectually disabled. In support of this assertion, Dr. Artigues considered the fact that defendant had to make six different attempts to pass his driver's license test after reaching the United States. In addition, Dr. Artiques noted that, while interviewing defendant, he failed to grasp abstract concepts and had difficulty relaying information in chronological order, both of which conditions, in Dr. Artigues's opinion, reflect the existence of an intellectual disability. Dr. Artigues testified that defendant learned how to be a brick mason by being shown measurements marked permanently on a yardstick rather than by utilizing mathematics, with this type of learning limitation being typical of persons suffering from a mild intellectual disability. According to Dr. Artigues, intellectually disabled individuals have the ability to drive motor vehicles, work, marry, and have children. Dr. Artigues believed that defendant's intellectual disability manifested itself before he turned eighteen years of age in light of defendant's school records, intelligence quotient test scores, the results achieved during defendant's psychological evaluations, and defendant's exposure to malnutrition, severe trauma, and poverty. In Dr. Artigues's view, defendant was significantly deficient in functional academics and communication skills. Finally, Dr. Artigues determined that defendant suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder given that he had been exposed to significant trauma during his life, reported having had intrusive thoughts about the traumatic events that he had experienced, and experienced certain specific triggering events.

         Dr. Antonio Puente, a clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, conducted a neuropsychological evaluation of defendant. Dr. Puente testified that the fact that defendant had a full scale score of 61 on the Central American, Spanish language version of the WAIS-III placed defendant in the bottom one percentile of the population. In addition, Dr. Puente administered the Beta Test, Third Edition; the Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence, Second Edition; and the Bateria Test, Third Edition, to defendant. According to Dr. Puente, the Beta test was developed to measure the intellectual abilities of individuals who lack a formal education. Defendant had a score of 65 on the Beta Test, a result that placed him in the bottom one percent of the population. Similarly, Dr. Puente testified that defendant's full-scale score of 53 on the Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence placed him in the bottom percentile. Although the Bateria test does not produce an intelligence quotient score, it does generate an intellectual abilities number. Defendant's intellectual abilities score placed him in the second percentile from the bottom. According to Dr. Puente, mild intellectual disability involves an intelligence quotient of between 50 and 70.

         Another sign of mild intellectual disability, in Dr. Puente's view, is the presence of only some of the skills that allow an individual to function in society. Dr. Puente undertook this portion of his analysis by examining defendant's school records, driving tests, and the opinions of knowledgeable persons concerning defendant's functional capabilities. In addition, Dr. Puente administered sixteen additional neuropsychological tests to defendant, three of which were used to assess the reliability of defendant's responses and the adequacy of defendant's efforts during the testing process. According to Dr. Puente, defendant's test results did not reflect malingering and accurately demonstrated the extent of defendant's abilities. As a result, Dr. Puente testified that defendant has significant sub-average intellectual functioning; has deficient cognitive, social, and practical skills; and is significantly impaired in the areas of functional academics and communication skills, with all of these diagnostic criteria having manifested themselves before defendant attained the age of eighteen.

         b. State's Evidence

         Stephen Kramer, M.D., a forensic neuropsychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, testified on behalf of the State that the El Salvadoran school system, which is much less rigorous than the United States school system, grades students on a scale from one to ten, with five being the lowest passing score. According to Dr. Kramer, most of defendant's grades were in the six to seven range, a set of results that is inconsistent with the presence of mild intellectual disability. In addition, Dr. Kramer noted that defendant could perform the chores expected of similarly aged children, another fact that suggests that defendant did not suffer from mild intellectual disability. In a similar vein, Dr. Kramer noted that defendant had been able to find employment in the United States that paid more than the minimum wage and that he had been known to "motivate" his co-workers, with these facts also being inconsistent with a contention that defendant suffers from a mild intellectual disability. According to Dr. Kramer, other activities in which defendant engaged, including the payment of taxes, the maintenance of his immigration status, and his ability to obtain a driver's license, "show[ed that defendant had] a level of adaptive functioning beyond that [expected] for the deficits requisite for a diagnosis of" intellectual disability.

         Dr. Kramer testified that Detective Nieves had described defendant's Spanish as grammatically correct and that defendant had used an appropriate volume when speaking with the detective. Dr. Kramer noted that defendant had received a number of visitors since the date of his incarceration, a fact that tends to suggest that defendant has a social network and demonstrates his adaptive abilities. Dr. Kramer considered defendant's request for a Spanish-to-English dictionary, a Bible, and a Spanish textbook while in pretrial detention to indicate that defendant has the apparent ability to read and desired to engage in that activity, with those attributes further tending to show that defendant has adaptive capabilities. On the other hand, Dr. Kramer, like Dr. Artigues, believed that defendant has difficulty understanding abstract concepts like confidentiality or privacy.

         According to Dr. Kramer, Dr. Puente mischaracterized the results of defendant's Dot Counting Test, an instrument used to detect malingering, because defendant "did worse the second time he did the test and was way over the threshold for suspecting not giving full effort." Dr. Kramer noted that defendant was "overtly cooperative, " had a normal mood range, spoke Spanish in a clear and distinct manner while exhibiting a regular rate and rhythm, and had no difficulty with the comprehension portion of the exam. In addition, while defendant could not identify the year, month, day of the week, or season, he was able to perform complex commands without difficulty. The fact that defendant could not ...

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