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State v. Vasquez

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 6, 2018

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Miguel Angel Vasquez, Appellant.

          Brown County Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Karen B. McGillic, Assistant Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Chuck Hanson, Brown County Attorney, New Ulm, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Jessica Merz Godes, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Because appellant did not assert at trial that his medical privilege barred admission of medical evidence the State offered, appellant did not preserve for appeal his contention that the privilege barred the admission of this evidence.

         2. Because any error in the admission of medical evidence did not affect appellant's substantial rights, appellant is not entitled to a new trial based on the admission of this evidence.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Appellant Miguel Angel Vasquez appeals his first-degree murder conviction. Vasquez argues that the district court committed reversible error when the court admitted into evidence testimony from his treating physicians and a burn expert. Because we conclude that any error in the admission of the challenged evidence did not substantially influence the verdict, we affirm.

         FACTS

         Following a bench trial, the district court found Vasquez guilty of the premeditated murder of Amber Lechuga. Lechuga and Vasquez shared an apartment in Springfield. They had been romantically involved and have two children together. The State's theory was that Vasquez murdered Lechuga because their relationship had deteriorated, and she was seeing other men. The State contended that Vasquez was angry over Lechuga's decision to end their romantic relationship, and that he murdered Lechuga at their apartment and then attempted to hide her body and destroy evidence of his crimes.

         Police found Lechuga's body on September 25, 2014, when they responded to Vasquez's 911 call that he had been assaulted. As they were investigating the scene near where Vasquez placed his call, police found Lechuga's body in the back of a burned-out van that Vasquez had been driving, and they found Lechuga's severed head in a black garbage bag a short distance from the van.

         When officers arrived on scene in response to Vasquez's 911 call, they found Vasquez walking along the highway about two and a half miles south of Sleepy Eye. Vasquez reported that after driving south from Sleepy Eye for fifteen minutes, he was involved in a rear-end collision. He said that he got out of the van, was struck on the head and knocked out by unknown assailants, and woke up in his burning van doused in gasoline, with his clothing and the van on fire. He said he was able to call 911 because he retrieved his cellular phone from the front cup holder in the burning van.

         Officers noticed that Vasquez smelled like burnt hair, the hair on his head was singed, and he had burns and scrapes on his body. Officers did not, however, observe any signs of a head injury. An emergency medical technician examined Vasquez and found some scratches, singed hair, burns, and a blister on his abdomen, but no sign of a head injury. The technician looked for soot in his mouth, nose and ears, but found none. Police also photographed Vasquez's burns, the back of his head, singed hair, and lacerations. Vasquez was then transported to Sleepy Eye Medical Center (SEMC) for treatment, and later to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) for further treatment.

         In addition to the physical evidence at the scene of the burned van, police also gathered evidence from the couple's apartment. Police found a sheathed knife in a backpack, a .22-caliber Marlin-brand rifle, and a machete, all in a closet. Lechuga's blood was on the front sight of the rifle, the muzzle, and just inside the barrel. DNA swabs of the grip and trigger of the rifle revealed a DNA profile that matched Vasquez, but police did not find any fingerprints on the rifle.

         In the bedroom where Vasquez and Lechuga slept, police found .22-caliber ammunition with brass-plated bullets. Testimony at trial showed that the Marlin rifle was capable of firing this brass-plated ammunition. Testimony also showed that the bullet fragments recovered from Lechuga's head were brass-plated and had rifling marks consistent with a Marlin-brand rifle.

         Police also found two other firearms, a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle and a shotgun in a closet. Investigators found latent fingerprints from Vasquez on the Mossberg rifle but determined that it could not have fired the fatal shots.

         On the bed where Lechuga typically slept, investigators found a large, still-wet blood stain at the head of the bed. The blood was Lechuga's and the size of the blood stain was consistent with the amount of blood expected from a gunshot to the head.

         Investigators also found garbage bags in the apartment that were similar to the white bag found underneath Lechuga's burned torso and the black bag that contained her head. Finally, investigators found a box containing several BIC lighters.

         As part of their investigation, police also interviewed Vasquez while he was hospitalized. During these interviews, Vasquez gave different accounts of the van fire. For example, Vasquez claimed that only the gasoline in the van had been on fire and not his clothing but then also said that his clothing and the van were on fire. He also told inconsistent stories about where he was in the van when he regained consciousness. And Vasquez failed to give a consistent account of how he grabbed his phone from the van- first he said he retrieved his phone by reaching into the van, and then later he said he got his phone by jumping into the driver's seat of the van.

         Vasquez also gave differing accounts of the accident. Initially, he was unable to describe the car that hit him, but later he described the car as maroon or black. Vasquez's account of the assault also differed over time. He initially described being seated in his van when he was struck from behind. Later, he described being hit while walking back toward the other car.

         When investigators spoke to Vasquez at the hospital, they suggested that his injuries were not consistent with his story that he woke up in a van fully engulfed in flames. Vasquez maintained that the reason for his minor injuries was that he got out quickly, removed all of his clothing, and took off running. At the end of the interview, investigators told Vasquez that ...


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