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Blalock v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

September 27, 2019

YODER AUSTIN BLALOCK, Appellant/Cross-Appellee,
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Trial Court Anchorage, No. 3AN-11-12129 CR Jack W. Smith, Judge.

          Elizabeth D. Friedman, Law Office of Elizabeth D. Friedman, Redding, California, under contract with the Office of Public Advocacy, Anchorage, for the Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Ann B. Black, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

          Before: Allard, Chief Judge, and Wollenberg and Harbison, Judges.


          HARBISON Judge

         Following a jury trial, Yoder Austin Blalock was convicted of second-degree murder for killing Nathan Tanape. Blalock was sentenced to 60 years with 15 years suspended (45 years to serve) and was placed on probation for a period of 10 years.

         Prior to trial, Blalock moved to suppress the statements he made to the police, both at the scene of his arrest and later at the police station. Blalock argued that, because he had requested an attorney at the scene, any subsequent questioning by the police in the absence of an attorney violated the United States Supreme Court's decision in Edwards v. Arizona.[1] Under Edwards, the police are precluded from initiating further interrogation of a suspect who has invoked his right to counsel, until counsel has been made available.[2]

         At an evidentiary hearing, the trial court agreed with Blalock and precluded the prosecutor from introducing Blalock's statements as part of the State's case-in-chief. But the court later found that the officers' conduct was neither intentional nor egregious. Accordingly, applying Alaska Evidence Rule 412 (as interpreted by this Court in State v. Batts[3]), the trial court allowed the prosecutor to impeach Blalock's testimony with his statements to the police.

         On appeal, Blalock challenges the trial court's ruling permitting the State to use his statements to impeach him during cross-examination. The State cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in granting Blalock's motion to suppress. In particular, the State argues that Blalock was not subject to a custodial interrogation at the time he asked for a lawyer and that he was not entitled to anticipatorily invoke his Miranda rights. Because we conclude that the trial court did not err in allowing the impeachment use of Blalock's statements and because we otherwise affirm Blalock's conviction, we need not decide the issues raised in the State's cross-appeal.

         At trial, Blalock defended on the ground of self-defense, and the trial court instructed the jury on this defense. Blalock asked the trial court to instruct the jury on the "Stand Your Ground" amendment - a 2013 statutory enactment that narrowed a person's duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense. Under this amendment, there is no duty to retreat if the person is "in any... place where the person has a right to be."[4] The trial court concluded that the "Stand Your Ground" law was not retroactively applicable to Blalock's case, which was based on events occurring in 2011, and the trial court declined to instruct the jury on it.

         Blalock now challenges the trial court's decision. For the reasons explained here, we agree with the trial court that the statutory amendment did not apply retroactively to Blalock's case. We therefore uphold the trial court's decision declining to instruct the jury on the 2013 law.

         Finally, Blalock raises several challenges to his sentence. We have reviewed his claims, and we find no merit to them.

         Factual background

         One night in October 2011, Blalock drove to Tanape's apartment where Blalock's acquaintance, Charles Alexie, and several other people were partying. Outside of the apartment, Blalock encountered Tanape. When Blalock was standing about ten feet away from Tanape, Tanape yelled at him to leave.

         Blalock began walking back to his truck, saying, "Just wait right there, I got something for you." Blalock took something out of his truck and walked back toward Tanape. Blalock and Tanape faced off. Blalock sprayed Tanape with pepper spray and slashed him with a knife. Tanape went to the ground; he then grabbed Blalock by the legs, picked him up, and slammed him to the ground.

         Alexie ran toward Blalock and Tanape to intervene, but Blalock sprayed Alexie with pepper spray, causing Alexie to fall to the ground and have difficulty breathing. Tanape and Blalock struggled, and then Blalock got up, ran back to his truck, and drove away, leaving Tanape lying in the middle of the alley.

         Alexie ran back inside the apartment, covering his eyes, and yelling for someone to call 911. Tanape came inside soon after Alexie, covered in blood and unable to speak.

         Police officers responded to the apartment. When they arrived, they noticed an overwhelming smell of pepper spray and observed Tanape sitting in a chair. He had wounds on his legs and knees, a large laceration on his head, and what appeared to be a stab wound to the back of his neck.

         Shortly after the officers arrived, Tanape was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed that his death was caused by over twenty stab wounds.

         After Blalock fled the scene, he called 911 several times to report that he was involved in the incident. Officers located Blalock and arrested him. They then took him to the Anchorage Police Department where detectives read him ¶Miranda warning.[5]Blalock agreed to be interviewed by the detectives, and he made incriminating statements during the interview.

         Blalock was subsequently charged with second-degree murder for stabbing Tanape to death.[6] The case proceeded to trial, and Blalock was convicted of second-degree murder.

         Litigation of Blalock's motion to suppress and the use of his statements as impeachment evidence

         Prior to trial, Blalock moved to suppress the statements he made during his arrest and subsequent interview. Blalock asserted that he had clearly invoked his right to counsel during his arrest and that the on-scene police officers did not report the invocation to the detectives who later interrogated him. He contended that once he invoked his right to counsel, the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards v. Arizona precluded the police from initiating an interrogation with him until an attorney was present.[7] Although the detectives read him his Miranda rights prior to interrogating him at the station, Blalock asserted that his statements had to be suppressed because they were obtained in violation of the Edwards rule.

         The evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing on Blalock's motion showed that when the officers first confronted Blalock, he made statements about the incident. In response, one of the officers activated his recorder.

         The recording captured the conversations between Blalock and the officers as follows: Blalock initially made a variety of spontaneous statements, including repeatedly asking, "Is he okay?" At one point, an officer asked Blalock where his truck was located. Blalock responded, "Oh, it's safe. I want to talk to a lawyer." The officer replied, "What's that?" Blalock did not repeat his request for a lawyer.

         Instead, Blalock continued making rambling statements. For example, he said, "Well... is (indiscernible) going to be okay or not? Fuck, when I - And when I first got away, the last time I hit him, I - something happened to his eye."

         During the evidentiary hearing, the officer who made the recording testified that he did not hear Blalock state that he wanted to talk to a lawyer. The officer was aware that Blalock said something, which is why he asked Blalock to repeat himself. But the officer did not hear Blalock say anything in response.

         The officer testified that during his contact with Blalock, his radio was active, so he was hearing radio traffic as well as trying to talk to Blalock. Additionally, he reported that he had significant hearing loss in certain frequencies, likely due to his experience as a firefighter and a police officer.

         One of the other officers who initially contacted Blalock also testified at the hearing. He explained that, as the cover officer, he was responsible for making sure that the scene was safe until other officers arrived to help take Blalock into custody. His main concern was safety, and he was concentrating on watching Blalock's behavior to ensure there was no threat.

         The detective who later interviewed Blalock testified that he did not speak with the arresting officers or listen to the recordings of their contact with Blalock before the interview.

         Based on this evidence, the trial court granted Blalock's motion to suppress and excluded Blalock's statements from being used during the State's case-in-chief. The trial court found that Blalock clearly and audibly invoked his right to counsel. The trial court concluded that a reasonable officer should have heard Blalock's clear invocation because "a reasonable officer would be paying attention to statements made by the defendant, especially when he had a recording device going and was asking questions of the defendant." The trial court therefore suppressed all statements Blalock made to the on-scene officers after he invoked his right to counsel.

         The court also suppressed Blalock's later statements to the detectives at the police station. The trial court found that Blalock's waiver of his Miranda rights at the police station was invalid under Edwards because the police, not Blalock, initiated the questioning.[8]

         In its written order granting Blalock's motion to suppress, the trial court ruled that Blalock's statements could not be used for any purpose during the trial "except to impeach the Defendant's contradictory testimony at trial." Blalock did not object to this ruling at that time.

         The case proceeded to trial. After the State rested and the defense had begun to present its case, Blalock's attorney indicated that Blalock would testify. Blalock's attorney then asserted for the first time that the Miranda violation was "egregious" and "intentional" and was therefore inadmissible even for impeachment purposes under Alaska Evidence Rule 412 and this Court's decision in State v. Batts.[9]

         After reviewing its original order and the Batts decision, but without hearing any additional evidence, the trial court concluded that the violation was egregious and that Blalock's statements in response to police questioning could not be used for any purpose.

         The State petitioned for review, and this Court granted the State's petition. Because the Batts issue had not been litigated as part of the original suppression proceedings, this Court vacated the trial court's ruling that the Miranda violation in Blalock's case was egregious. We held that "the State was entitled to notice and a proper opportunity to litigate the [Batts\ issue before the [superior] court made new findings that affected the admissibility of this evidence."

         Based on this ruling, the trial court conducted a second evidentiary hearing in order to address the Batts issue.

         Some of the evidence presented at this second evidentiary hearing mirrored the evidence that had been presented to the trial court at the first evidentiary hearing. The trial court again heard that Blalock clearly announced that he wanted to talk to a lawyer. The trial court again heard officers testify that they did not hear this statement.

         But the State also presented new evidence from a clinical neuropsychologist. The neuropsychologist, Paul Craig, testified about how the brain processes auditory information, and specifically how the brain suppresses some input in order to focus on relevant stimuli. Based on his review of the recording which documented Blalock's arrest, Craig concluded that what could be heard on the recording was not necessarily the equivalent of what ended up in the listeners' minds. Craig explained that other input (such as the radio traffic) would have been competing with Blalock's voice, and this impacted the ability of at least some of the officers to hear what Blalock was saying.

         Craig also noted that when Blalock invoked his right to counsel, the officer closest to him had just asked him about the location of his vehicle and he was listening for an answer to that question. According to Craig, Blalock's response, asking for a lawyer, "conceptually didn't fit in" and therefore an officer might not process, hear, and comprehend that answer.

         The trial court also heard from a police lieutenant who had not testified at the first hearing. The lieutenant explained that during high-risk arrests, officers are experiencing sensory overload, and their attention is consistently divided. A cover officer's primary focus is generally on the suspect's actions, specifically the hands; cover officers are watching for threatening movements or attempts to reach for weapons. Arresting officers are generally focused on the arrest itself, to make sure there is no struggle during the handcuffing process and to ensure that the suspect is secured in the patrol vehicle.

         After hearing this additional evidence, the trial court issued a new ruling, this time concluding that the Miranda violation was neither intentional nor egregious.

         The trial court found that the officers were credible when they testified that they did not hear or comprehend Blalock's request for an attorney, and it accordingly found that the officers did not act intentionally when they questioned him after he asked for an attorney.

         Noting that an egregious violation is one that would be apparent to any reasonable officer, the trial court found that the violation by the officers in this case was not egregious because it was caused by natural psychological reactions and tunnel vision caused by the anxiety of a high-stress situation. The trial court also observed that this was not the type of situation where application of the exclusionary rule could have an influence on police behavior and policies.

         The trial court similarly found that the detectives' interrogation of Blalock at the police station was not an egregious violation of Miranda. In order for the detectives to have discovered that Blalock had previously invoked his right to counsel, they would have had to listen carefully to the audio and any video recording prior to conducting the interrogation. The trial court found that requiring detectives to listen carefully to audio and video recordings of the arrest ...

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