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State v. Laine

June 8, 2006


St. Louis County


1. Sufficient evidence supports the defendant's conviction of first-degree domestic abuse murder.

2. The district court's jury instruction regarding the state's burden of proof on the "past pattern of domestic abuse" element of first-degree domestic abuse murder was not erroneous.

3. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the defendant's motion to bifurcate the trial.

4. The district court's cautionary instruction concerning the limited purpose of evidence of past domestic abuse was not erroneous.

5. The district court's response to the jury's question on lesser-included offenses did not constitute plain error.

6. The jury verdicts were not legally inconsistent.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anderson, G. Barry, Justice.

St. Louis County Anderson, G. Barry, J.

Concurring, Hanson, J.


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


Brett Arnold Laine appeals from his conviction of first-degree domestic abuse murder. Laine requests a reversal of his conviction based on insufficient evidence. In the alternative, alleging error on several grounds, Laine seeks a new trial. Because sufficient evidence sustains the murder conviction and there is no error warranting a new trial, we affirm.

This direct appeal arises out of the death of Laine's girlfriend, Nancy Jaganich. Around 3:20 a.m. on October 1, 2001, Laine called 911 and reported that his girlfriend had fallen down the stairs and was not breathing. Emergency responders were unable to resuscitate Jaganich, and she was pronounced dead at approximately 4:00 a.m. Laine told responding officers that Jaganich had fallen around 1:00 a.m. and had not regained consciousness after her fall. He denied that he and Jaganich had any arguments that night. Laine told officers that after Jaganich fell he took her to the lower level of the home, undressed Jaganich and himself, and laundered both sets of clothes. He also cleaned the blood from the landing at the bottom of the stairs. He told officers that when Jaganich developed breathing difficulties he called his mother, who lived nearby, and then called for an ambulance. Officers noticed red stains, Jaganich's glasses, and what appeared to be multiple strands of human hair in the upper level of the home, but Laine told them that he had not brought Jaganich upstairs after her fall. When asked about the cause of lacerations and bruising on Jaganich's face, Laine told officers the injuries were a result of the fall. Officers noticed a cut across the bridge of Laine's nose; Laine claimed that he had received that cut the day before while riding his all-terrain vehicle.

At trial, in addition to presenting testimony regarding Laine's statements to police and the sequence of events after Jaganich's death, the state presented medical expert testimony concerning Jaganich's injuries and the cause of her death. The medical examiner testified that the pattern of injuries on Jaganich's face and the presence of injuries on more than one surface of her body were not consistent with a fall down the stairs. He found bruising on Jaganich's face, legs, neck, and arms as well as hemorrhaging in her lower back and buttock area. With few exceptions, the bruises and hemorrhages appeared to be the result of trauma sustained only three or four hours before death. He testified that certain bruises were very suggestive of someone forcefully gripping Jaganich, and other bruises appeared consistent with defensive injuries received while Jaganich attempted to protect herself from an assault.

The medical examiner testified that Jaganich died from significant hemorrhaging as a result of multiple areas of blunt trauma to the head. He observed multiple areas of blunt trauma to Jaganich's head, as well as hemorrhaging within the brain stem itself. He testified that such hemorrhaging in this area of the brain indicated the hemorrhaging was the result of a rotational injury in which Jaganich's head was moved forcefully to one side. He opined that Jaganich's fatal injuries could not have been caused by a fall down the stairs in question because there were "too many severe traumas coming from too many directions." He further testified that Jaganich's fatal injuries were the type of injuries a person could inflict with a "fist and/or forearm."

The state presented various pieces of physical evidence in an effort to undercut Laine's version of the sequence of events surrounding Jaganich's death. An agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension testified that the physical evidence at the scene indicated that trauma occurred in at least two locations of the home--the living room in the upper level of the house and the landing at the base of the stairs in question. He based this conclusion on bloodstains found in the landing area and on bloodstains and human hair found in the living room. An expert testified that the hair found in the living room matched Jaganich's DNA profile and he opined that all the hair samples he examined had been forcibly removed from Jaganich's head. The bloodstains in the landing area either matched Jaganich's DNA profile or contained a mixture of profiles from which Laine could not be eliminated as a contributor. Of the bloodstains in the living room, one matched Jaganich's DNA profile, and the others contained a mixture of profiles from which neither Laine nor Jaganich could be eliminated as a contributor. Blood containing a mixture of DNA profiles was also found under Jaganich's fingernails. Laine could not be eliminated as a contributor to these mixtures. In addition to blood and hair, Jaganich's glasses, which were bent out of alignment, and a woman's brassiere were found on the upstairs level of the home.

To establish Laine's past pattern of a domestic abuse, the state presented the testimony of both of Laine's ex-wives as well as Jaganich's friends and co-workers. Both of Laine's ex-wives testified that he had violently attacked them during their marriages. Laine's first wife testified that, on one occasion, Laine had threatened to kill her, thrown her around the living room, and pinned her head against a cement wall with his forearm. She further testified that he had physically abused her on other occasions as well. Laine's second wife testified that Laine assaulted her on many occasions during their marriage. On one occasion, he beat her with her high heel shoe. On another, Laine picked up the barstool on which she was sitting and slammed her and the barstool to the floor. As a result of this latter incident, Laine pleaded guilty to assault.

While no witness actually observed Laine assault Jaganich, her co-workers testified that they had observed bruises on Jaganich during the time Jaganich was in a relationship with Laine. When asked about the bruises, Jaganich stated that they resulted from physical fights with Laine and asked her co-workers not to tell anyone about the bruises.*fn1 Near the end of September 2001, Jaganich told one of her co-workers that she intended to break up with Laine. When the co-worker told her that she herself had been in a violent ...

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