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State v. Strahl

July 1, 2009

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES ROBERT STRAHL, DEFENDANT AND APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST JUDICIAL CIRCUIT UNION COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE STEVEN R. JENSEN Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Konenkamp, Justice

ARGUED ON MAY 27, 2009

[¶1.] Defendant was convicted of first degree murder and grand theft. He moved for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence: the State's key witness was twice convicted of perjury in an unrelated criminal case. Finding that the newly discovered evidence was material and probably would produce an acquittal on the first degree murder charge, the circuit court granted a new trial. On appeal, the State argues that the new evidence, being merely impeaching, was insufficient to support the grant of a new trial. We find no abuse of discretion because the newly discovered evidence was material and so discredited the State's key witness as to probably produce an acquittal of first degree murder.

Background

[¶2.] Defendant James Robert Strahl was charged on June 28, 2006 with the 1998 killing of William O'Hare. He was indicted on alternative counts of first degree murder, second degree murder, or first degree manslaughter. He was also indicted on one count of grand theft for stealing O'Hare's car. Defendant pleaded not guilty to all charges and proceeded to trial. In August 2007, after twenty-one hours of deliberation, a jury returned guilty verdicts of first degree murder and grand theft. Defendant received a life sentence for the murder and an additional ten years for the grand theft.

[¶3.] In September 2007, defendant moved for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. He alleged that the State's witness, Aloysius Black Crow, lied at trial because he lied during his testimony about another inmate in an unrelated Yankton County criminal case. During defendant's trial, Black Crow testified about incriminating statements defendant allegedly made to him while the two were incarcerated. The court denied defendant's motion, finding the evidence to be merely impeaching and cumulative. Defendant appealed to this Court.

[¶4.] In March 2008, while the appeal was pending, defendant moved for relief from judgment and requested a new trial based on newly discovered evidence and an alleged Brady violation. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 US 83, 83 SCt 1194, 10 LEd2d 215 (1963). We remanded the matter for the circuit court's consideration. Defendant again claimed that the State's witness, Black Crow, committed perjury in his case. This time, however, defendant's motion cited Black Crow's two recent perjury convictions. While defendant's appeal was pending,Black Crow had pleaded guilty to fabricating recorded conversations he claimed to have had with David Lykken, a fellow inmate, who allegedly confessed to Black Crow the rape and murder of Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller. While wearing a "wire," Black Crow had staged a phony confession with another inmate who posed as Lykken.

[¶5.] In resisting the defendant's motion, the State argued that, although Black Crow fabricated evidence in another case, thosefalsehoods should not warrant reversal of defendant's convictions in his case. Rather, the State averred that Black Crow's perjurious actions constituted impeachment evidence, which would not have produced an acquittal for defendant. The State further argued that no Brady violation occurred because the State had no knowledge of Black Crow's previous perjury at the time of defendant's trial.

[¶6.] In September 2008, after a hearing, the circuit court granted defendant's motion for a new trial on the first degree murder conviction. According to the court, although the evidence of Black Crow's perjury was impeaching, it was not merely impeaching. The evidence, the court found, "would have totally destroyed the jurors' ability to believe a word of Black Crow's testimony. And the jury would probably have rejected Black Crow's testimony in its entirety." The court further found that the evidence was material and that without Black Crow's testimony the jury probably would not have returned a guilty verdict against defendant for first degree murder. On the other hand, the court did not believe that the newly discovered evidence would have produced a different verdict on the grand theft charge because Black Crow's testimony on that issue was minimal and DNA evidence and other circumstances solidly tied defendant to the theft. As for the alleged Brady violation, the court found it without merit.

[¶7.] The State appeals the court's decision to grant defendant a new trial on the charge of first degree murder. Neither party challenges the denial of a new trial on the grand theft charge. Defendant moved this Court to dismiss his pending direct appeal, which motion was granted.

Analysis and Decision

[¶8.] Defendant's motion for relief from final judgment and request a new trial was considered under SDCL 23A-27-4.1 and SDCL 15-6-59(a)(4).

Whether a new trial should be granted is left to the sound judicial discretion of the trial court, and this Court will not disturb the trial court's decision absent a clear showing of abuse of discretion. If the trial court finds an injustice has been done by the jury's verdict, the remedy lies in granting a new trial.

State v. Gehm, 1999 SD 82, ¶12, 600 NW2d 535, 539 (quoting Border States Paving, Inc. v. State Dept. of Transp., 1998 SD 21, ¶11, 574 NW2d 898, 901 (quoting Schuldies v. Millar, 1996 SD 120, ¶8, 555 NW2d 90, 95 (citation omitted))). To succeed on a motion for a ...


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