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State v. Sterling

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 24, 2013

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Adam Lee Sterling, Appellant.

Office of Appellate Courts Hennepin County.

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda M. Freyer, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Melissa Sheridan, Assistant Appellate Public Defender, Eagan, Minnesota, for appellant.


1. The initial period of interrogation of appellant by police was noncustodial and the trial court's error, if any, in admitting certain statements made by appellant to police after the initial period of interrogation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

2. The evidence is sufficient to support appellant's conviction of first-degree premeditated murder.



PAGE, Justice.

Appellant Adam Lee Sterling was found guilty after a jury trial of one count of first-degree premeditated murder in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(1) (2012), and one count of second-degree murder in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2012). As a result of his conviction of first-degree premeditated murder, Sterling was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. In this direct appeal, Sterling raises two issues: (1) whether the trial court erred as a matter of law in denying his motion to suppress statements he made to police because he was in custody at the time the statements were made and had not received a Miranda warning; and (2) whether the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction. In his pro se brief, Sterling also makes a number of assertions that he claims are probative of his innocence. Because we conclude that any error in admitting Sterling's statements to police was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the evidence is sufficient to support Sterling's conviction, we affirm.

This case arises from the October 2010 murder of Leo Kohorst. At trial, the State's theory was that Sterling beat Kohorst to death in the early morning hours of October 17, 2010. Sterling's defense focused on the lack of direct evidence that he[1] killed Kohorst and thus that the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At trial, Sterling did not testify or present any witnesses on his behalf.

The State presented the following evidence. Kohorst, a student at the University of Minnesota, lived in a house in Minneapolis, which he owned with his parents. Kohorst rented rooms in the house to Sterling, Jason Boatwright, and Alexis Mercado. A fourth tenant, Nikki Norman, was in the process of moving out of the house on the weekend that Kohorst was killed. Sterling's room was on the main floor of the house. Boatwright and Mercado occupied two of the three rooms on the second floor. The only bathroom in the house was on the second floor. Kohorst slept in the living room on a futon because he was remodeling the basement. The front of the house had an enclosed porch with an exterior door that locked and an interior door to the house with a glass pane.

At the time of Kohorst's death, he and the tenants were having problems with Sterling. According to Boatwright, Kohorst called a tenant meeting one week before he was murdered to address Sterling's disrespectful behavior—namely, eating others' food and smoking in the house. Boatwright claimed that Sterling reacted to the accusations by saying "that where he comes from, he does what he wants to." After the meeting, Sterling's behavior briefly improved, but got worse throughout the week. Kohorst's mother, Barbara, testified that one week before the murder, Kohorst told her that he was planning to have a meeting with the tenants to address problems in the house. A text message sent from Kohorst's cell phone to Boatwright's cell phone on October 16 stated: "[I] talked to [Sterling], [I'm] giving [him] one last chance, but [he] knows any more shit and [he's] out. [I'll] need solid proof to end [his] lease, though."

Kohorst spent the afternoon of October 16 working on the basement-remodeling project with his parents. That evening, Kohorst went to a concert, returning to the house between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. Investigators later discovered that a text message was sent from Kohorst's phone to a phone belonging to M.J. at 11:26 p.m. on October 16. Kohorst also posted a message on Facebook at 12:12 a.m. on October 17 using the Internet connection in his house. Boatwright, who was at home when Kohorst returned, briefly spoke with Kohorst in the living room before Kohorst said he was ready to go to bed. At that time, the record indicates that Sterling was in his room with his door closed. Mercado was not present in the house when Kohorst returned from the concert. After Kohorst said he was ready to go to bed, Boatwright locked the front door, took a shower, and went to his room where he browsed Facebook, watched television, and talked on his phone wearing earphones with the door shut. Boatwright could not remember whether he locked the back door before going to his room.

Boatwright testified that approximately an hour to an hour and a half after he went to his room, he heard loud voices and what sounded like the interior front door slamming shut. He went downstairs and noticed that both front doors were ajar. Although the lights were off on the first floor, Boatwright could see Kohorst's silhouette on the futon and hear Kohorst making what Boatwright thought was a snoring sound, although he had never heard Kohorst make such a sound. Boatwright called Kohorst's name, but Kohorst did not respond. He then closed both front doors, locked the exterior door, and returned to his room. Twenty minutes later, Boatwright heard high heels clicking up the stairs, which was a sound he commonly associated with Sterling. The shower turned on for ten minutes before Boatwright heard high heels clicking down the stairs. Fifteen minutes later, Boatwright heard someone yelling from the first floor. Going to investigate, he reached the middle of the staircase when he saw Sterling standing approximately eight feet away from Kohorst's body and saw blood covering the living room wall. Sterling said, "Something happened to Leo! We should call the police." Boatwright retrieved his cell phone and called 911. While on the phone, Boatwright walked downstairs and shook Kohorst's foot, but Kohorst did not respond. After paramedics and police arrived, Mercado returned home.

Upon their arrival at the house, the police found Kohorst's body lying on a futon in the living room covered with a blanket. There was blood spatter on the walls, curtains, furniture, television, ceiling fan, and ceiling, as well as soft tissue on the back of the futon and around Kohorst's head. No bloodstains were found outside of the living room and no bloody footprints were found in the house. Based on the amount of blood and the pattern of blood, the police initially thought that Kohorst had been the victim of a shotgun blast, but later concluded that his injuries were the result of blunt force trauma. Police found no signs of a forced entry and initially believed that there were no items missing from the house.

As part of the police investigation, Sterling, Boatwright, and Mercado were taken in separate squad cars to the Minneapolis Police Department Homicide Unit offices for questioning. Sterling arrived at the Homicide Unit shortly before 3:30 a.m. After his arrival, Sterling was questioned off and on by Sergeants Robert Dale and DeChristopher Granger over a period of almost 11 hours. Roughly 9-1/2 hours into the questioning, the officers arrested Sterling and read the Miranda advisory to him for the first time.

Physical evidence introduced at trial included a pair of high-heeled sandals that the police recovered from Sterling's room that were covered in a mist of Kohorst's blood. A crime scene investigator with the Minneapolis Police Department testified that the size of the blood particles on the high heels suggested they were in the proximity of a forceful-impact blood-spattering event, such as a beating. A forensic scientist with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also testified that the blood spatter on the high heels was consistent with blood spatter caused by a beating and was not consistent with transfer stains. There was no blood found on the insoles of the high heels, which the State suggested was an indication that the high heels were being worn at the time the blood was deposited on them. A swab of blood from Sterling's left hand matched Kohorst's DNA. Blood on the shower curtain in the bathroom also matched Kohorst's DNA. Swabs taken from Boatwright's hands did not test positive for blood.

The State also introduced a green leopard-print nightgown and a black-and-cream-colored jacket and shawl recovered from Sterling's room. No blood was found on these items. Although it initially appeared that nothing was missing from the house, investigators were unable to locate a green skirt and black leggings, which, according to Kohorst's mother, Sterling had been wearing on October 16. Additionally, the police later learned from Boatwright that a claw hammer that Kohorst had been using during the remodeling project was missing from the house. At trial, the State introduced a claw hammer that, according to Boatwright, was an "exact replication" of the missing hammer. Investigators never found the actual murder weapon.

Kohorst's autopsy established that there were at least 19 paired puncture wounds to his left temple and the back of his head, some of which pierced his skull and punctured his brain. The wounds were consistent with having been made by the end of a claw hammer similar to the one that was introduced at trial. In addition to the puncture wounds, Kohorst's nose was fractured, there were multiple lacerations on his forehead, one of his eyes was bruised, and he had multiple defensive wounds on his left hand. According to the medical examiner, the cause of Kohorst's death was either blood loss or ...

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