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State v. Schnagl

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

December 18, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Aaron Jude Schnagl, Appellant.

         Chisago County District Court File No. 13-CR-13-1022

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Janet Reiter, Chisago County Attorney, Nicholas A. Hydukovich, Special Assistant County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Melissa Sheridan, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Considered and decided by Florey, Presiding Judge; Rodenberg, Judge; and Bratvold, Judge.


         In a trial for third-degree murder, under Minn. Stat. § 609.195(b) (2012), a district court does not abuse its discretion by refusing to give a specific joint-acquisition jury instruction based on State v. Carithers, 490 N.W.2d 620 (Minn. 1992), if the defendant and the decedent were not spouses.


          FLOREY, JUDGE

         A jury found appellant Aaron Jude Schnagl guilty of third-degree murder for giving cocaine to a woman who later died. Appellant argues that the evidence is insufficient to sustain the conviction and that the district court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the defense's theory of joint acquisition of the controlled substance. Appellant also raises a number of pro se arguments. We conclude that the evidence is sufficient to sustain the conviction, the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to give a joint-acquisition instruction, and appellant's pro se arguments are unavailing. We therefore affirm appellant's conviction.


         On the night of December 8, 2012, appellant and a 27-year-old woman, D.J., were using cocaine and drinking alcohol at appellant's house. Appellant claims that he and D.J. jointly purchased and used the cocaine, he passed out, and D.J. was gone when he awoke. D.J.'s body was found approximately five months later floating in a pond about 440 yards west of appellant's residence. She was naked except for a tank top.

         The cocaine was obtained at the home of E.T., appellant's business partner. After obtaining several grams of cocaine, appellant and D.J. went to appellant's house, where they drank alcohol and used the cocaine. At 2:38 a.m., on December 9, appellant's burglar alarm went off. A dispatcher called appellant at 2:40 a.m., and appellant gave a code that cleared the alarm. He told the dispatcher that the cause of the alarm was his girlfriend. At 3:07 a.m., the alarm went off again. Appellant called the security company and said that it was a false alarm.

         It started snowing in the early morning hours of December 9, and the snow continued throughout the day. D.J.'s family became concerned about her whereabouts. D.J.'s sister called appellant. He told her that he and D.J. went to bed, and he awoke to find she was gone, but she left her personal things, including her purse, shoes, and cellphone at his house. D.J.'s sister reported her missing.

         A deputy was dispatched to appellant's home. Upon arriving, he saw appellant's truck in the ditch. He spoke with appellant in appellant's home and observed some women's clothes on the kitchen table, D.J.'s purse and cellphone, and a pair of women's boots near the front door. He did not see signs of a struggle. He took a taped statement from appellant.

         Appellant told the deputy that, on December 8, he and D.J. got back to his house around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. They hung out, were sexually intimate, had four or five drinks, and went to bed between 1:00 and 2:30 a.m. D.J. went to bed in her clothes. Appellant awoke around 9:30 a.m., and D.J. was gone; he was worried that she wandered off into the snow because that morning he saw tracks in the snow in his yard that "stopped at the woods." He searched for her using his truck and got it stuck. The deputy asked why appellant did not contact authorities, and appellant responded variously that he did not know when D.J. woke, he was hung over, and D.J. had "done this before." Appellant said that he and D.J. did not use drugs that night, but later admitted to using marijuana. The deputy gave appellant a preliminary breath test, which indicated that appellant was intoxicated. Appellant agreed to give a formal statement and was transported to the sheriff's office.

         A warrant was obtained to search appellant's home and truck. D.J.'s wallet, license, and cellphone were recovered, as well as a purse, clothing, and women's boots. In the trunk of appellant's BMW, investigators discovered 12 pounds of marijuana. The following day, another search was executed. A paper towel and a tissue containing blood were collected from appellant's home; DNA testing showed a male DNA profile. Trace blood samples from furniture and a bed sheet matched D.J.'s DNA.

         On December 12, 2012, appellant, with his attorney present, gave a statement to law enforcement. He said that on the day in question he and D.J. shopped, picked up food, and then stopped at his house where he "grabbed some stuff . . . like a mixer." They then went to E.T.'s house for a quick visit. Appellant and D.J. returned to appellant's house where D.J. snorted "[p]robably ten" lines of cocaine. Appellant said that there were, at most, five grams of cocaine at his house that night. The next morning he may have awoken as early as 7:00 a.m., and he saw that D.J. was gone. He then went back to sleep for several hours. At some point that morning, he searched his house and outside for D.J. He saw tracks in the snow, but no sign of D.J. He texted D.J.'s friends, and he texted his neighbor to see if the neighbor had seen D.J. Then he searched for her using his truck and got it stuck, after which he panicked because he was "still intoxicated." He then drove to E.T's. home in a third vehicle. During the interview, he mentioned that his "house shoes" were missing. However, investigators found those shoes in appellant's bedroom when they executed the search warrant. When asked why he did not contact police in the morning, appellant responded, "Because I was still drunk . . . ."

         The Duffel Bag

         J.J. owned an auto-repair shop next to appellant's business. On December 9, 2012, after getting stuck and driving to E.T.'s home in a panic, appellant called J.J. and asked him to pick up a duffel bag from inside appellant's BMW. J.J. went to appellant's house that day, grabbed a duffel bag containing marijuana, and brought it to the home of C.B.

         After J.J. left the bag at C.B.'s house, E.T. called J.J. and asked him to go to appellant and E.T.'s shop because he was worried that "there may be stuff there." J.J. went to the shop, grabbed some drug-related items, placed the items in a paper bag, and placed the paper bag in the duffel bag at C.B.'s house. J.J. eventually confessed to the existence of the duffel bag, and authorities recovered it. The paper bag contained benocyclidine pills, bags of marijuana, and a digital scale. The duffel bag also contained approximately 23 grams of cocaine and a type of sugar used as a cutting agent to increase the volume of cocaine.

         Appellant told investigators that he was only aware of the marijuana in the duffel bag, and J.J. must have put the cocaine in the duffel bag. J.J. later testified that he did not see the cocaine when he briefly inspected the contents of the duffel bag, but the cocaine may have been among the items that he grabbed from appellant and E.T.'s shop.

         Indictment and Trial

         Appellant was indicted on one count of third-degree murder. The indictment alleged that appellant proximately caused D.J.'s death by providing her with cocaine. At trial, appellant testified in his defense that he did not give cocaine to D.J. in exchange for money. He and D.J. together bought about five grams of cocaine from E.T. for $80, with each pitching in $40.

         Dr. Strobl, a forensic pathologist, testified that nothing in D.J.'s external examination suggested a cause of death, and she could not say with any degree of medical certainty what caused D.J.'s death. D.J. had a significant amount of alcohol in her system, as well as cocaine, cocaine metabolites, and a small amount of an antihistamine. The doctor opined that her death could have been the result of cocaine toxicity, hypothermia, or drowning. Dr. Strobl testified that cocaine likely contributed to D.J.'s death, either through direct cocaine toxicity, or as a result of "unpredictable behavior" brought on by the use of cocaine, such as leaving the house and dying from hypothermia or drowning. Dr. Wigren, a forensic pathologist, echoed Dr. Strobl's conclusion that the cause of D.J.'s death could not be determined with any degree of medical certainty.

         E.T. testified that on December 8, 2012, he went to Minneapolis to pick up cocaine at appellant's request. Appellant gave E.T. directions to an apartment building. When E.T. pulled up, a guy came out, took a box of marijuana from E.T., and left the cocaine. The marijuana had come from appellant's home. Appellant and D.J. later showed up at E.T.'s home, and appellant cut the cocaine, increasing its volume by adding additional "stuff." Appellant created ten ounces of cut cocaine, but reserved some of the uncut cocaine. He packaged the cut cocaine and left it with E.T., but took "about 7 grams or so" of the uncut cocaine, saying, "That will probably be enough." E.T. sold some of the cut cocaine to other people that night, including a person ...

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