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State v. Sanchez-Diaz

July 29, 2004



There was sufficient evidence to prove that appellant committed a domestic abuse murder as defined by Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(6) (2002).

The jury instruction defining a "past pattern of domestic abuse" was proper because it stated that multiple prior acts of domestic abuse were required to find appellant guilty of domestic abuse murder.

The district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting pre-trial statements of defendant that contained interpretation errors.

A 306-month consecutive sentence for second-degree murder of an unborn child does not unfairly exaggerate appellant's criminality.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, Justice.

Dissenting, Anderson, Paul H., and Page, JJ.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


In this appeal from a conviction for first-degree murder while committing domestic abuse and second-degree murder of an unborn child, appellant Sergio Sanchez-Diaz asks us to consider four issues. The first is whether the state introduced sufficient evidence to prove the elements of domestic abuse murder; namely, that appellant committed the murder while engaging in domestic abuse and that appellant engaged in a past pattern of domestic abuse. The second is whether the jury instruction defining a past pattern of domestic abuse was erroneous. The third is whether the district court erred in admitting appellant's statements to police, which contained numerous interpretation errors. The final issue is whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing a consecutive sentence for the second-degree murder of an unborn child conviction.

Because of the nature of appellant's arguments, it is necessary to review the relevant facts in detail. On the night of December 29, 2001, appellant allegedly stabbed Laura Vazquez Ruelas 13 times, killing her and her unborn child. At the time, appellant was 23 years old and was living with the victim who was 26 years old. They had a 9-month-old son who was born in March of 2001. The victim was also 6 months pregnant with their second child.

The appellant and victim's intimate relationship began in 1999. They were both recent immigrants from Mexico. They lived together in a mobile home park in Lester Prairie. The victim's family occupied six mobile homes in the park. In December of 2001, the appellant and victim moved out of their mobile home, which lacked heat, and into lot 15 with one of the victim's sisters and her family.

On the night of the murder, the victim was at her parent's trailer with her son playing dominos with family members. Appellant was feeling sick and came to the trailer at around 8:30 p.m. to take their son home so he could go to sleep. Family members testified that appellant appeared angry when he arrived at the trailer and that he slammed the door on his way out. Appellant returned to the trailer about a half hour later, stuck his head in the door, and asked the victim to return home because the child was "crabby." The victim returned home shortly thereafter.

The victim's mother was concerned for her daughter's well being because appellant appeared upset when he arrived at the trailer. She asked two adult male relatives to check on her daughter and appellant. They refused, and she then asked her 13-year-old daughter (the victim's sister) to go to lot 15. About 5 to 10 minutes elapsed between the time the victim left the trailer and her 13-year-old sister left to check on her. Upon arriving at lot 15, the victim's sister heard the child crying and ran into the trailer. In the trailer, she observed the victim on the ground unconscious with her child who was physically unharmed next to her. She also saw appellant with a knife in his chest. Appellant told her not to say anything. She ran home, alerted her mother, and someone called 911.

Family members ran to lot 15 and at least five of them entered the trailer before the police arrived. Lester Prairie police officers arrived at the scene at about 9:30 p.m. The officers saw the victim and appellant lying on the floor covered in blood. The victim had a steak knife blade lodged in her upper right shoulder. One of the officers checked the victim's pulse and did not find a pulse. He then checked appellant's pulse, eventually felt a faint pulse and called for medical assistance. The officers recovered a wooden knife handle between two couches that matched the blade lodged in the victim. The blood on the knife blade lodged in the victim matched her DNA profile but not appellant's. The officers found a second bloody knife behind the faucet in the kitchen sink. The blade of that knife contained a mixture of DNA from two people, with the predominant DNA profile matching appellant, and the other profile could not be identified.

The victim was stabbed 13 times in her chest, face, and lower back. The most serious wound pierced her aorta. Her 6-month-old female fetus died as the result of a lack of oxygen circulation. The autopsy revealed that the fetus had no apparent congenital or developmental defects or any direct injuries from the stabbing.

Appellant was taken to the emergency room at Waconia Ridgeview Medical Center. He had five stab wounds, three to his upper chest on the left side and two to the middle of his left upper abdomen. One of the stab wounds collapsed a lung. The doctor who treated appellant in the emergency room and a forensic pathologist testified that they could not tell whether any of the wounds were self-inflicted.

The police took a brief statement from appellant in the emergency room at approximately 11:15 p.m. the night of the murder. An interpreter was called to the emergency room. At the time, the interpreter was not a state certified interpreter.*fn1 In that brief statement, appellant told police that he and the victim were arguing, he pushed her on to the bed; she stabbed him and then he took the knife from her and stabbed her.

A BCA agent and a detective took a second more detailed statement from appellant in the hospital two days later on December 31. Investigators utilized the same interpreter. In that statement, appellant said that he and the victim were arguing in the bathroom about the victim's desire to leave him. During that argument he slapped the victim in her face, took their son to the living room and began putting his jacket on in an attempt to leave. Appellant stated that the victim then stabbed him in the chest; he removed the knife from his chest, stabbed the victim, and then stabbed himself. In that statement, appellant also admitted to grabbing the victim by the neck on a prior occasion and to slapping the victim two or three times in the past. Appellant also stated that the victim was afraid of him. Additionally, when questioned about what the victim's family members would tell investigators about the way appellant had treated the victim in the past, appellant said that members of the victim's family knew that he had abused the victim and that "[e]verybody knew how we lived."

On January 3, 2002, the state charged appellant with second-degree intentional murder and second-degree murder of an unborn child. On February 21, 2002, a grand jury indicted appellant for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and second-degree murder of an unborn child. The trial was scheduled to begin on January 14, 2003. However, on that day, the two court-appointed interpreters who had reviewed the tapes and transcripts of the interviews indicated to the judge that "significant errors" were made in the translations from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English during the interviews. The court appointed an expert translator to listen to the tapes of the interviews and provide a new transcript. The translator spent a substantial amount of time listening to the tapes of the interviews and she prepared a new transcript detailing the original translation in one column and the corrected translation in the second column.

That transcript identified numerous translation errors from both interviews. Because of the nature of appellant's arguments, it is necessary to review some of the errors in detail. First, the interpreter made a number of relatively minor interpretation errors throughout both interviews. She consistently translated "stabbed" as "cut" and "argument" as "discussion." The interpreter also translated "crime scene team" as "team of felonies," "physical" as "palpable," and "scared" as "shocked."

The interpreter also made errors that are more significant. During the December 29 interview, investigators asked appellant how long he had lived in lot 22 before moving into lot 15. He answered "two months" and the response was translated as "two years." When asked how far along the victim was in her pregnancy, appellant responded that he did not know. That response was translated as "six months."*fn2 At another point in the interview, the investigator asked appellant where he stabbed the victim. The interpreter translated the question as "[w]here did you hit her." In the December 31 interview, after describing how the victim had stabbed him, appellant described what he did with the knife. He stated: "And I * * * removed it from myself. Because she got scared and jumped back." That response was translated as "[a]nd I took it away from her, because she got scared and she pushed-pulled back." Similarly, at another time in the interview appellant stated: "When she-when I took the knife out of myself in the living room." That response was translated as "[w]hen I pulled the knife out in the living room." When appellant was describing how he took their son and was about to leave the trailer he stated: "And when I was changing the baby, I was putting on his jacket so I could leave." That response was translated into English as "[a]nd I was putting a sweater on [the] baby." When appellant was explaining a previous incident where he had choked the victim, he admitted choking her and stated: "But it was a very serious fight." That response was translated as "[i]t was a fight that wasn't very serious." In explaining why the bloody knife recovered by the sink did not work when he attempted to commit suicide, appellant said, "[b]ecause it wasn't very big I think." That response was translated as, "I think it's too big." When appellant explained why he had stabbed the victim, he stated: "I was mad that she had cut me. At the time I felt the cut, I-I didn't feel anything, I thought she'd hit me with her hand because I didn't turn." That response was translated as "I was angry that she had stabbed me. From the moment I stabbed her, at first, I thought that she had just hit me with her hand." (Emphasis added). Additionally, several times during the December 31 interview, the translator declined to translate expletives used by appellant.

Appellant moved to suppress the December 29 and 31 statements because of the numerous interpretation errors and because the Miranda warnings were not given verbatim. In a written order and accompanying memorandum, the court denied the motion as it related to the Miranda warnings because the warnings, while not verbatim, were sufficient. The court also denied the suppression motion with regard to the interpretation errors stating:

This [c]court has carefully reviewed the transcripts and report made by the [c]court appointed expert interpreter. It is evident that at times errors in interpretation were made. However, examining the two statements in their entirety, this [c]court is satisfied that the live interpretation done when the statements were taken, sufficiently allowed the law enforcement officers and the defendant to understand what was being communicated back and forth. The quality and quantity of the errors in interpretation, as found by the [c]court appointed interpreter, do not rise to a level where admission of the statements would be unjust.

However, credible evidence of specific errors in the interpretation made during the statements of the defendant, if offered by either party should be admitted and considered by the jury in determining the weight to give the statements or any particular answer of the defendant. Before such evidence is offered, this [c]court will confer further with counsel in regards to the form such evidence should take and the manner in which it should be presented to the jury.

The interpretation errors were still very much at issue during the trial. The state played the tapes of both interviews to the jury. Before the tapes were played, the court considered several motions from appellant. The motions included a motion to exclude some portions of the statements because of confusion and vagueness caused by the interpretation errors and a motion to redact portions of the tapes and transcripts. The court denied the motion to exclude portions of the statements because the court was satisfied that the jury would "hear plenty of interpretation evidence concerning this" and at some point see the transcript detailing the errors. The court further stated that it would let the jury decide "where there are discrepancies and what they believe should be considered to be accurate." The court agreed to redact portions of the tapes and transcripts. The court redacted the Miranda warnings, an admission appellant had used drugs in the past, and statements that appellant had prior traffic and alcohol-related arrests, and had been previously married.

The judge gave the jury only the original transcript that contained the errors when it listened to the tape of the December 29 interview. Appellant did not object to the admission of that transcript. Before listening to the tape of the December 29 interview, the judge instructed the jury on the purpose of the transcript. He stated:

An audio tape of a statement has been received into evidence. This tape is going to be played so that you can listen to it. You are also going to be provided with a written transcript of the statement to assist you as you listen to the tape. The evidence you are to consider is what you hear on the tape. If what you hear on the audio tape differs from what you read in the written transcript, then you should disregard that portion of the transcript and rely solely on what you hear on the tape.

The jury heard the tape of the December 31 interview the next day. At appellant's request, the jury was not given a cautionary instruction like the one it had been given when it heard the December 29 statement. Once again, without objection by appellant, the jury only received the original transcript of this interview.

The same day the jury heard the December 29 statement, the expert who listened to and identified the interpretation errors testified. The transcripts she produced were also admitted into evidence. She testified that she generally spent approximately an hour to an hour and one-half translating each minute of a recorded statement. She also testified that she had significant resources available to her to ensure that the translation was accurate. She testified that she has approximately 40 dictionaries and often consults colleagues who are experts in the field if necessary. Appellant's counsel also elicited testimony from her highlighting a number of the errors made during the original interpretation.

The interpretation errors were also very much at issue at closing arguments. Over the state's objection, the court allowed the jurors to have copies of the corrected transcript during closing arguments. The jurors also had both sets of transcripts when they deliberated. As part of its closing argument, the state maintained that despite the errors in translation, the statements of appellant were credible and matched the physical evidence in the case. In its closing argument, the defense individually detailed over 40 perceived inaccuracies and omissions in the translation.

In addition to the interpretation errors, the other primary issue at trial was whether there was sufficient evidence to prove a past pattern of domestic abuse. The state proceeded on the theory that appellant had abused the victim in the past and committed this murder as a part of that pattern of abuse. The defense argued that the facts did not constitute first-degree domestic abuse murder because the victim verbally provoked appellant during the argument and physically provoked him by stabbing him.

To prove the past pattern of domestic abuse, the state introduced appellant's statements, the testimony of witnesses who observed appellant choking the victim, and testimony that appellant admitted to some of the victim's family members that he had abused her. The state also presented testimony concerning bruising around the victim's eye. The relevant statements of appellant that the state introduced to prove the past pattern of domestic abuse included appellant's admissions that he had choked the victim once and that he had slapped her two or three times before the night of murder. The state also relied on the fact that appellant had slapped the victim in the face the night of the murder, and his statement that "everybody knew how we lived." With regard to the choking incident, three young family members of the victim testified that they observed appellant choking the victim sometime after March of 2001. One of the family members who witnessed the choking incident also testified that after that incident she observed bruises on the victim's neck. The victim's aunt testified that appellant told her he had choked the victim during an argument. Similarly, her husband testified that sometime after March of 2001, appellant admitted to him that he had hit the victim. A number of the victim's family members also testified that sometime after March of 2001, they observed bruising under the victim's eye. None of these family members, however, knew whether appellant caused the bruising.

Ultimately, the jury found appellant guilty on all counts. The district court imposed a life sentence for the first-degree murder conviction and a consecutive sentence of 306 months for the second-degree ...

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