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State v. Leja

May 6, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
TINA DEANN LEJA, APPELLANT.



Hennepin County District Court File No. 01061784

Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Hudson, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.*fn1

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

I. An accomplice-after-the-fact conviction and the accompanying sentence must be vacated when the person aiding the offender is also convicted as a principal to the offense.

II. The concealment of a victim's body is an aggravating factor that may be used to support an upward sentencing departure if the concealment demonstrates particular cruelty, even though disclosure of the body's location was not used to bargain with authorities.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hudson, Judge

Affirmed in part and vacated in part

OPINION

This appeal is from a conviction and sentence for aiding second-degree murder and accomplice-after-the-fact. Appellant Tina Leja was sentenced to 210 months on the first offense and to a consecutive, stayed sentence of 81 months on the second offense. We conclude that appellant was properly convicted of aiding second-degree murder and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing her for that offense; but that the conviction for accomplice-after-the-fact and the accompanying sentence cannot stand. Therefore, we affirm in part and vacate in part.

FACTS

Leja was charged with aiding second-degree murder, accomplice-after-the-fact, and other offenses, following the death of Bobby Dee Holder on July 5, 2001. The police investigation into Holder's death revealed that Holder died when he visited the residence of Leja's boyfriend, Darnell Smith. Holder's torso was discovered partially buried on a rural Wisconsin property owned by Leja's father. The rest of his dismembered body was never found. After the murder, Leja and Smith went to Mississippi, where they stayed, using fake names, until their arrest. Leja was tried separately from Smith and his brother, Chaka Smith, who was also charged in Holder's murder.

The state's theory was that Holder, who met Leja when he sold some custom tire rims to Darnell Smith, had developed a romantic interest in Leja, and had called her cell phone several times on the day of the murder. The state argued that Leja, at Darnell Smith's request, lured Holder to Darnell Smith's apartment by telling Holder that Smith was not home. When Holder arrived at the apartment, Darnell Smith and Chaka Smith jumped him, shot and stabbed him, and dismembered his body. Darnell Smith later instructed Leja and Andre Parker, another resident in Smith's apartment building, to drive Holder's body parts to Wisconsin, where Leja and Parker attempted to bury Holder's torso on the property owned by Leja's father.

The defense argued that Leja had no involvement in Holder's murder and lived in fear of Darnell Smith, who coerced her into helping dispose of Holder's body. The defense claimed that Leja left evidence where she hoped police would find it and tried in other ways to alert authorities to the crime without angering Smith. Neither party called Darnell Smith to testify.

The state's key witnesses to the events of July 5, 2001, were Ramon Smith, another brother of Darnell Smith, and Ramon Smith's girlfriend, Katrina Valley. They testified that they drove to Darnell Smith's apartment that night around 9:30 or 10:00. They entered the apartment and were present in Darnell Smith's bedroom when Leja received a call from Holder on her cell phone.

Valley testified that she saw Leja in the bedroom and saw Darnell Smith sitting on the bed cleaning a handgun. At some point, Leja received a call on her cell phone and Valley testified that Darnell Smith "scooted up behind" Leja and whispered something in her ear. Valley heard Leja tell the caller, "He's not here right now. You can come over." Valley testified that she and Ramon Smith left shortly after that.

Ramon Smith testified that when he entered the bedroom, Leja was talking on her cell phone. Ramon Smith testified that he saw Darnell Smith whispering in Leja's ear as she talked on the phone, and heard Leja telling the caller, "He's not here." After Leja finished the phone call, Ramon Smith testified that Darnell Smith asked him to stay and help him beat up Holder. According to Ramon Smith, Leja heard this request and had no reaction to it. Ramon Smith testified that he and Valley "staged an argument" in order to get out of the situation.

The state's critical witness with respect to the disposal of Holder's body parts was Andre Parker. Parker described how Darnell Smith invited him into his bedroom and showed him Holder's body parts stored in a cooler, then enlisted Parker to help dispose of them.

After an unsuccessful attempt to find a disposal site for the body in St. Paul, Smith had Parker help him put Holder's body parts into Leja's car. Smith then told Parker to drive Holder's car and follow Leja in her car, and they set off for Wisconsin, where they left Holder's car at a park-and-ride lot. Parker testified that he then got into Leja's car and she drove to her father's property, describing along the way how Smith had "forced her to manipulate Holder into coming to his residence," and how Smith had assaulted and then shot Holder. Leja told Parker that during the murder she was standing in the corner of the room trying to stay out of the way.

Leja testified that she witnessed Holder's murder and that she drove his body parts to her father's Wisconsin property. Leja testified that Darnell Smith was very controlling, and that on July 5, 2001, she talked with a girlfriend at length about the relationship and came to a decision to end it. When she drove to Smith's apartment that night, however, and described some of this conversation to Smith, he became very angry, ordering her to sit on the bed and hitting her with an alarm clock. Smith then checked Leja's cell phone for incoming calls and saw Holder's number.

Leja testified that when Holder called her later that night, Smith said to tell Holder that he was not at the apartment but that Holder could come by and pick up the tools he had left there. Leja testified that when she heard Holder's car arrive, she met him at the front door. They entered the bedroom and she showed Holder the tools, which were against the wall. Smith then came into the bedroom and grabbed Holder, and he and Chaka Smith began hitting Holder. Leja testified that Holder struggled, making it out to the front door, but then she heard two ...


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