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Zornes v. State

Supreme Court of Minnesota

November 8, 2017

Tracy Alan Zornes, Appellant,
v.
State of Minnesota, Respondent.

         Clay County Office of Appellate Courts

          Tracy Alan Zornes, pro se.

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and; Brian J. Melton, Clay County Attorney, Moorhead, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         The postconviction court did not abuse its discretion when it summarily denied appellant's second petition for postconviction relief because, even if appellant proved the facts alleged in the petition at an evidentiary hearing, the petition, files, and records of the proceedings conclusively show that appellant is entitled to no relief.

         Affirmed.

         Considered and decided by the court without oral argument.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, JUSTICE

         In this case involving first-degree murder, appellant Tracy Alan Zornes appeals from the denial of his second petition for postconviction relief. At issue is whether the postconviction court abused its discretion when it denied the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. Because the court properly exercised its discretion, we affirm.

         FACTS

         In February 2010, Megan Londo and John Cadotte died after being beaten, stabbed, and left in a burning apartment. The police investigation focused on Zornes, whom officers found hiding in a remote makeshift campsite in the woods about two weeks after the murders.[1] When he was arrested and searched, officers found a folding knife in Zornes's pocket. At Zornes's campsite, police also found a hammer, a box cutter, [2] a screwdriver, and a pair of scissors.

         A grand jury indicted Zornes on two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.185, subd. (a)(1) (2016).[3] Zornes pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial. The jury found Zornes guilty of both counts of first-degree murder, and the court sentenced Zornes to consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of release.

         On direct appeal, Zornes argued that the probative value of the pocketknife, box cutter, scissors, screwdriver, and hammer was outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice because the items were not directly tied to the crime scene or murders. State v. Zornes (Zornes I), 831 N.W.2d 609');">831 N.W.2d 609, 624-26 (Minn. 2013). He contended that the district court committed reversible error by admitting these items into evidence. Id. at 624. In affirming the convictions, we concluded that the probative value of the items in question was not outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice because the items "were directly tied to Zornes and were the same type of weapon use[d] in the crime." Id. at 626. We also observed that the State did not mention the box cutter, scissors, and screwdriver during the case. Id.

         In his first petition for postconviction relief, Zornes raised claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel. These claims were based on trial counsel's failure to argue, during Zornes's pretrial motion to suppress the pocketknife, that the pocketknife could not have inflicted the victims' wounds.[4] Zornes v. State (Zornes II), 880 N.W.2d 363');">880 N.W.2d 363, 369-71 (Minn. 2016). We affirmed the postconviction court's summary denial of the first petition. Id. at 373. We concluded that even if the claims were not barred by State v. Knaffla, 243 N.W.2d 737 (Minn. 1976), the record conclusively showed that Zornes was not entitled to relief. Zornes II, 880 N.W.2d at 370.

         In January 2016, Zornes hired a private investigator to look into his case. Zornes also retained a forensic pathologist to review the crime scene information and offer her opinion on whether the tools found at the campsite could have caused the victims' wounds. In her report, the forensic pathologist opined that the victims' wounds did "not fit well to the proffered knife and hammer, " suggesting that the tools from the campsite were not the murder weapons.

         Zornes subsequently filed a second postconviction petition, asserting the following claims:

1. The prosecution failed to provide him with a number of documents that he only recently has discovered, which he believes is a Brady violation;
2. The forensic pathologist's report provided newly discovered evidence of actual innocence;
3. His investigator discovered new evidence of recantations of trial witnesses;
4. Trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to strike jurors who were biased;
5. Trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to conduct an ...

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