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State v. Fox

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 22, 2015

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Thomas James Fox, Appellant

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Washington County.

SYLLABUS

1. The district court did not err in denying appellant's motion to suppress the statements he made to police because appellant validly waived his Miranda rights under federal and state constitutional standards.

2. The district court did not err when it declined to give appellant's proposed jury instruction on circumstantial evidence.

3. The State presented sufficient evidence to support appellant's convictions.

4. The claims in appellant's pro se supplemental brief are without merit.

For Respondent: Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Peter Orput, Washington County Attorney, Robin M. Wolpert, Assistant County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota.

For Appellant: Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Rachel F. Bond, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

OPINION

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DIETZEN, Justice.

Appellant Thomas Fox was found guilty by a Washington County jury of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder arising out of the December 2011 stabbing death of Lori Baker. The district court entered judgment of conviction on both counts and sentenced Fox to life imprisonment without the possibility of release on the first-degree premeditated murder conviction. On direct appeal, Fox argues that the district court erred because (1) the court denied his motion to suppress statements he made to police; (2) the court failed to give his proposed circumstantial evidence instruction to the jury; and (3) the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder. Because we conclude that Fox's arguments lack merit, we affirm.

On the morning of December 28, 2011, Oakdale police responded to a call that the body of Lori Baker had been discovered in her apartment. Upon their arrival, police found the victim's body on the bedroom floor, covered by a comforter " soaked with blood." A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) crime scene team processed Baker's apartment. The BCA found blood spatter on the wall, what appeared to be laundry detergent throughout the bedroom, and empty containers of laundry detergent, rubbing alcohol, and a cleaning product on the bedroom floor. Baker's silver Mazda hatchback was not found in the parking lot or garage.

Police learned that Fox was dating Baker and that Fox stayed in Baker's apartment some of the time. A woman who lived in the apartment directly below Baker's unit told police that she heard stomping noises and then repetitive, loud screaming that lasted about 10 minutes coming from Baker's apartment around 11:00 p.m. on December 27.

Additionally, Baker's debit card had been used in about 48 transactions in 15 different locations between the evening of December 27 and the afternoon of December 29. Police obtained surveillance videos, which show Fox and a vehicle matching the description of Baker's vehicle involved in several of those transactions.

Fox was located and arrested on December 29, 2011, on a Department of Corrections warrant unrelated to the Baker investigation. After his arrest, Fox was interviewed by police officers. Before officers had an opportunity to give Fox his Miranda rights, Fox volunteered, " Well this about, you know what I'm sayin' my girl's car man you know you can tell her she lived with me . . . ." Officers interrupted Fox, read him his rights, and Fox affirmed that he understood those rights. Fox then discussed his use of Baker's car, made statements regarding his use of Baker's credit card, and described his whereabouts since the crime. When officers informed Fox several minutes later that Baker was dead and that they suspected Fox was involved, Fox expressed disbelief and requested a lawyer. The officers did not ask any more questions.

The next day, Fox asked to speak with the police officers. At the beginning of the interview, Fox was reminded of his Miranda rights and agreed to waive them. During the interview, Fox informed the

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officers that he had contacted the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office earlier in the day, asking for representation, and was told that a public defender could not represent him until he was formally charged. The police told Fox they could not advise him and asked him if he wanted to talk to a lawyer. Fox stated that he did not.

Unbeknownst to the police officers, two Washington County public defenders talked to Washington County jail staff and asked to meet with Fox about 2 hours before Fox's interview with police. Jail staff did not permit the public defenders to meet with Fox, but neither Fox nor the interviewing officers were aware of the public defenders' attempt to meet with Fox.

Fox was indicted April 19, 2012, on one count of first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(1) (2014), and one count of first-degree intentional murder while committing or attempting to commit aggravated robbery, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(3) (2014).

Before trial, Fox moved to suppress the statements he made to the police on December 29 and 30, on the ground that his Miranda waivers were not knowing or intelligent. The district court denied the motions to suppress.

At trial, the State presented the testimony of police officers regarding the discovery of Baker's body, the crime scene, the debit card transactions, the events leading up to Fox's arrest, and the recordings of Fox's two statements to police. BCA scientists testified that one blood sample from the comforter produced a DNA profile consistent with a mixture of DNA from two or more individuals. The predominant profile matched Fox's DNA profile. DNA profiles obtained from blood on Fox's boots, stocking cap, shirt, and jacket were consistent with a mixture of DNA from two or more individuals, but Baker was excluded as a contributor to any of these mixtures. A carpet sample taken from Baker's bedroom contained compounds consistent with laundry detergent and the white powder found in Baker's bedroom was consistent with baking soda.

The medical examiner (ME) concluded that Baker died from exsanguination caused by 48 stab wounds to multiple parts of her body. The ME observed blunt force injuries to Baker's body, including contusions around her left eye, abrasions on the back of her head, and injuries consistent with someone placing a hand over her mouth. The ME determined that the weapon used was " probably" a " kitchen type knife." The ME estimated time of death as between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m.

J.N. testified that Fox contacted her from the Hennepin County jail. During the call, J.N. heard Fox say, " it was messed up what he did--what happened to Lori." Fox told J.N. that Lori was " just a woman that he had met that he was getting money from--just getting money from, somebody like a cash cow." T.W. testified that, sometime before Christmas, Fox told him he " was having problems with Lori," and that she gave him an " ultimatum." At the time, T.W. was living with T.G.

T.G. testified that, shortly before midnight on December 27, 2011, Fox came to the house and asked for T.W. Fox asked T.G. if she was " ready for him" because " he got rid of his girlfriend." Fox also stated that " [h]e f--ed up" and that " he did her in." T.W. stated that when Fox returned to T.G.'s house around 6:00-6:30 a.m., his " behavior was weird," and that Fox was sucking on his hand and smoking crack cocaine. Fox told T.W. that he had gotten the debit card from a woman in a " lick," meaning a theft or robbery; that he

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had the PIN for the card; and that he could withdraw money to pay T.W.

The State also presented the testimony of four informants who were in jail with Fox. The first witness testified Fox told him that " he had killed someone." The second witness testified Fox told him his girlfriend was already dead when he found her and later commented, " I can't believe I gutted my platinum piece." The third witness testified Fox admitted that his girlfriend had wanted him to leave, that he killed her, and that " he didn't mean to do in his platinum piece." The fourth witness testified Fox told him " he had left his ID there and she found out his real name. She wasn't happy about it. And they argued. Things happened."

After the close of evidence, the district court rejected Fox's proposed instruction on circumstantial evidence and instead gave the pattern jury instructions on circumstantial evidence and direct evidence from the Criminal Jury Instruction Guide. See 10 Minn. Dist. Judges Ass'n, Minnesota Practice--Jury Instruction Guides, Criminal, CRIMJIG 3.05 (5th ed. 2006). The jury found Fox guilty on both counts, and the district court entered judgment of conviction on both counts. The court sentenced Fox to the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release on his first-degree premeditated murder conviction. This direct appeal followed.

I.

Fox argues that he did not knowingly or intelligently waive his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and therefore the district court erred in denying the motions to suppress his December 29 and December 30 statements to police. We review findings of fact related to an alleged Miranda waiver for clear error. State v. Anderson, 789 N.W.2d 227, 233 (Minn. 2010) (citing State v. Burrell, 697 N.W.2d 579, 591 (Minn. 2005)). But we review legal conclusions de novo. Id.

When a criminal suspect is subjected to custodial interrogation, the suspect must be informed of his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 473-74, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). A suspect may waive the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and right to counsel, but only if the waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Id. at 444. A waiver may be inferred from the totality of the circumstances. See Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 384, 130 S.Ct. 2250, 176 L.Ed.2d 1098 (2010) (" Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused's uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain silent." ); State v. Merrill, 274 N.W.2d 99, 106 (Minn. 1978) (" To determine whether a defendant's conduct implies an effective waiver, a court must look at the circumstances of the particular case." ). But the State has the burden of proving a valid waiver. Ordinarily, the State satisfies its burden of proving a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of Miranda rights if ...


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