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State v. Bocharski

    Brief Fact Summary. Following the discovery of the body of eighty-four year-old Freeda Brown (Victim), an autopsy was performed and it was concluded that Victim died of sixteen stab wounds to the head. After a trial, Phillip Alan Bocharski (Defendant) was convicted in the lower court of first-degree felony murder and first-degree burglary, sentenced to twenty-one years imprisonment on the burglary charge and to death for the first-degree murder conviction. Due to the sentence of death, this court reviews the case automatically pursuant to Arizona law.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Relevant evidence should be excluded when the probative value of the evidence is outweighed by the risk of prejudice to a defendant; testimony that constitutes an admission of a party opponent should not be admitted unless relevant; when a jury finds a defendant guilty of first-degree felony murder, which has no lesser-included offenses, no instructions need be given for manslaughter (a lesser-included offense of first or second-degree murder).

    Facts. Defendant moved to the town of Congress with a friend and settled at a campsite; shortly after Defendant’s arrival, Victim moved into a nearby campsite. When Victim arrived, Defendant’s friend sold her fuel for her truck and was witnessed Victim pull his payment from a stash of money kept in the back seat of Victim’s truck. Defendant and Victim knew each other as a result of their close proximity to each other at the campground, and also because Defendant at times aided Victim with various chores. Defendant was also aware that Victim had roughly $500 in the truck. At trial, an acquaintance of Defendant’s, Richard Towell, testified that Defendant gave him money for groceries, and that Defendant stated that the money was from, “when he killed the old lady”; Towell also testified that at one time he witnessed Defendant, “cryin’, settin’ on the side of the bed.” After the discovery of the body of Victim, Defendant was put on trial; Defendant did not testify at his trial, and
    was convicted of the aforementioned crimes.

    Issues.
    Under the Arizona equivalent of Federal Rule of Evidence 403, should relevant evidence be excluded when the risk of prejudice outweighs the probative value of the evidence, and, in the present case, should the photographs showing Victim’s stab wounds have been excluded based accordingly?

    Was it error for the trial court to admit a non-relevant admission of a party opponent, as defined under the Arizona equivalent of Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)?

    Was it an error for the trial court to give the jury instructions for first and second-degree murder, but not for manslaughter, given that the jury eventually found Defendant guilty of first-degree felony murder?

    Was it error for the lower court to forego additional mitigation proceedings, after some mitigation had already occurred, based on Defendant’s personal (not through counsel) request?

    Held.
    Yes, evidence that is relevant should nevertheless be excluded when the risk of prejudice outweighs the probative value of the evidence, and the photographs should have been excluded accordingly; however, because the viewing of the photographs by the jury did not contribute to or affect the jury’s verdict, the error was harmless.

    Yes; although the admission was non-hearsay and otherwise admissible, the evidence was not relevant, and therefore it was error for the court to have admitted it. However, this error was also harmless and no reversal is warranted.

    No; the jury necessarily rejected all lesser-included offenses by convicting Defendant of first-degree felony murder, which has no lesser-included offenses by definition.

    No; Defendant made a decision against the advice of his representation, and there is no set amount of funds or time period required to be expended for mitigation; the process need only be orderly and fair.

    Concurrence. Three Justices concur in the judgment and write separately to express disapproval with the majority’s holding that the admission of a party opponent evidence was irrelevant; the concurring opinion indicates that the evidence was relevant under the lenient relevancy standard and therefore holds that it was not error for the admission to have been admitted into evidence.

    Discussion. The focus of the case is Federal Rule of Evidence 403, and the equivalent of that rule under the Arizona Rules. Even evidence that is “relevant” under the Rules’ definition should not be admitted when the risk of unfair prejudice outweighs the probative value of the evidence. The relevancy question, however, is one that “trumps” all other inquiries; non-relevant evidence, even when otherwise admissible, must be excluded. The concurrence stresses the low threshold of the relevancy standard, and indicates that “any tendency” to prove or disprove a fact is so low a standard that the admission of a party opponent evidence at issue here was in fact relevant.


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