Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Mouelle

Supreme Court of Minnesota

February 6, 2019

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Vern Jason Mouelle, Appellant.

          Office of Appellate Courts Dakota County Chutich, J.

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and James C. Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Jessica A. Bierwerth, Anna Light, Assistant Dakota County Attorneys, Hastings, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Richard Schmitz, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The district court judge did not err in continuing to preside over appellant's jury trial after appellant's counsel, during an ex parte conversation, made a comment that suggested that appellant might commit perjury.

         2. Appellant failed to establish that he was prejudiced by his counsel's disclosure of client communications during an ex parte conversation with the district court judge who presided over appellant's jury trial.

         3. Appellant failed to establish that alleged errors in the jury instructions affected his substantial rights.

         4. Appellant's sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of release for his conviction for first-degree premeditated murder of an unborn child was not authorized by Minnesota Statutes section 609.106 (2018).

         Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Vern Jason Mouelle was found guilty by a jury of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree premeditated murder of an unborn child. In this direct appeal, Mouelle asserts four claims. He first contends that structural error occurred when the district court judge presided over Mouelle's jury trial after hearing a comment by defense counsel during an ex parte conversation that suggested that Mouelle might commit perjury. Mouelle next argues that his right to effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution was violated when defense counsel disclosed client communications during the ex parte conversation with the district court judge. Mouelle further claims that the district court committed plain error in its jury instructions. Finally, he contends that the sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of release for his conviction of first-degree murder of an unborn child was not authorized by Minnesota Statutes section 609.106 (2018).

         Although the State contests the first three claims, it concedes that Mouelle's sentence for his conviction of first-degree murder of an unborn child is not authorized by Minnesota Statutes section 609.106. For the reasons explained below, we affirm Mouelle's convictions, reverse his sentence for first-degree murder of an unborn child, and remand to the district court for further sentencing proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS

         At about 3 p.m. on January 24, 2017, Senicha Lessman was found by her mother, bloody and unconscious on the floor of her bedroom. Lessman's mother immediately called 911, removed a bloody cloth that had been lodged in Lessman's throat, and attempted resuscitation. Emergency responders arrived and made additional efforts to save Lessman's life, but they were unsuccessful. Lessman, age 25, was 32 weeks pregnant. She and her unborn child were pronounced dead at the scene.

         Lessman had been stabbed in the neck. The stab severed her external carotid artery and punctured her airway. The medical examiner determined Lessman's cause of death to be "complex homicidal violence" as a result of the blood-loss from the stab wound and asphyxiation from the cloth lodged in her airway. The cause of death for the unborn child was determined to be the death of the mother, Lessman.

         The Eagan Police Department investigation immediately focused on Mouelle, the unborn child's father, because his vehicle had been seen parked in front of the Lessmans' home that same afternoon. The police searched Mouelle's vehicle that evening and found numerous items from the crime scene. These items included Lessman's mobile phone, her bloody pajama shirt and pants, Lessman's Minnesota Vikings blanket, a blood-stained towel, a green wastebasket, and a bathtub drain plug. Police also found empty packaging and a store receipt for the folding knife used to stab Lessman. The knife itself was found in a drawer in Mouelle's bedroom the next morning.

         Forensic searches of Mouelle's mobile phone revealed numerous internet searches in December 2016 related to kidnapping, missing persons, and police investigation techniques. On the day of the murder, numerous other internet searches were made, including searches for: "How long would it take to die if one of your external jugular vein[s] was slit"; "How much time does it take to knock someone out with a rear naked choke"; "Can you kill a person with a rear naked choke"; "How do police find and use fingerprints to catch criminals"; and "DNA forensic testing and use of DNA rape kits in cases of rape and sexual assault." Mouelle's fingerprints and DNA were found on items at the crime scene, and his DNA matched bodily fluids gathered from the autopsy conducted on Lessman's body.

         Mouelle's text messages during Lessman's pregnancy showed that he did not want her to keep the baby. He frequently implored Lessman to consider an abortion and questioned her readiness for motherhood. In text messages to a friend, Mouelle declared, "I ain't having a baby with no autism bitch," and "They will not get me on child support."

         Following the police investigation, a grand jury indicted Mouelle for several offenses, including first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree premeditated murder of an unborn child. See Minn. Stat. §§ 609.185(a)(1), 609.2661(1) (2018) (respectively). Pleading not guilty, Mouelle was tried by a jury in December 2017.

         Immediately before opening statements, an ex parte conversation occurred between Mouelle's trial counsel ("Counsel") and the district court judge in chambers in the presence of the court reporter.[1] During the conversation, Counsel informed the court that if Mouelle chose to testify, Counsel was "going to have to . . . do as well as [he could] under Whiteside."[2] Counsel also told the court that he and Mouelle could not agree on whether Counsel should give an opening statement before the State presented its evidence. In describing the disagreement, Counsel quoted parts of a conversation that he had with Mouelle. Based on the ongoing disagreement, Counsel explained that he would request a short recess after the prosecutor's opening statement. The judge said, "I'm not going to comment any further about your conversations with your client as they are privileged. We will take a recess after the prosecution's opening statement . . . and you can let me know if you're ready."

         The State gave its opening statement and, as promised, the court took a brief recess. Counsel then gave an opening statement. After the State rested its case, Mouelle chose to testify. Counsel presented Mouelle's testimony in the traditional question-and-answer format.

         Mouelle admitted that he was present when Lessman was killed, but testified that a secret boyfriend named "Anthony" was the culprit. He explained that Anthony and Lessman had been seeing each other, upsetting Mouelle. Mouelle admitted buying the knife and conducting the incriminating internet searches, but claimed that he was preparing to confront Anthony that day. When Anthony showed up at the Lessmans' house that afternoon, Mouelle left Anthony and Lessman inside to go to his car. Mouelle said that Anthony came out of the house to tell him that he had cut Lessman and that he ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.