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Watson v. State

Supreme Court of Nevada

October 2, 2014

JOHN MATTHIAS WATSON, III, Appellant,
v.
THE STATE OF NEVADA, Respondent

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Appeal from a judgment of conviction in a death penalty case. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Kathy A. Hardcastle, Judge.

Philip J. Kohn, Public Defender, and Howard S. Brooks, Deputy Public Defender, Clark County, for Appellant.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, and Ryan J. MacDonald, Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.

GIBBONS, C.J. We concur: Pickering, J., Hardesty, J., Parraguirre, J., Douglas, J. CHERRY and SAITTA, JJ., dissenting in part.

OPINION

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BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

GIBBONS, C.J.:

A jury found appellant John Watson, III, guilty of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree murder of his wife and sentenced him to death for the murder. In this appeal from the judgment of conviction, we focus primarily on two of Watson's claims.

First, we consider whether the district court erred in concluding that Watson failed to demonstrate a prima facie case of discrimination for the purpose of a Batson [1] challenge to the State's use of peremptory challenges to remove female veniremembers. We hold that the district court did not clearly err in concluding that the State's use of six of its nine peremptory challenges to remove female veniremembers did not give rise to an inference of discrimination where the percentage of the State's peremptory strikes used against female veniremembers was not so disproportionate to the percentage of females in the venire as to give rise to an inference of purposeful discrimination and the defense offered no other circumstances supporting such an inference.

Second, we consider whether the district court plainly erred in instructing the jury that mitigating circumstances are those circumstances which " reduc[e] the degree of the Defendant's moral culpability." Although mitigating circumstances are not limited to those that reduce a defendant's moral culpability and jury instructions should not convey otherwise, we are not convinced that there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instruction in this case to limit the scope of mitigating circumstances. Because we conclude that these and Watson's other claims of error do not warrant relief, we affirm the judgment of conviction.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Watson told family members that his wife, Evirelda " Evey" Watson, went missing while they were on a trip to Las Vegas following her birthday in July 2006. The ensuing investigation of Evey's reported disappearance led

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to evidence that Watson planned the trip to Las Vegas for the purpose of killing Evey and that he killed her in a Las Vegas hotel room and disposed of her body. Evey's body was never found. Watson was charged with first-degree kidnapping, first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon, and robbery. The State filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Guilt phase

In June 2006, Watson told a friend that he believed that Evey was going to leave him and take half of his life savings. He said that he was mad enough to kill her and claimed to know of places he could hide her body where it would never be found.

On July 9, 2006, Watson threw a surprise birthday party for Evey's 50th birthday. He had also planned a trip to Las Vegas as a present for Evey. After the party, Watson drove to Las Vegas. He checked into three rooms at two different hotels on July 10, 2006. At the Circus Circus, he checked in under his own name, but he checked into the Tuscany Suites under the name Joe Nunez. He had booked the room at the Tuscany Suites weeks earlier. When making the reservation, he had requested a specific room--N120--but that room was not available and he was given room N114. At the time of his arrival, Watson also booked another room (N118) at the Tuscany Suites for Sal Nunez and checked into that room as well. Evey flew to Las Vegas the following day, July 11, 2006, to join Watson. The next day, Watson called his son, Michael, and said that Evey had befriended a woman from Henderson and was missing.

Watson stayed in Las Vegas for three more days. On July 13, 2006, the day after he called Michael, Watson used his credit card to purchase antifreeze at a Walmart. In a separate cash transaction, he procured bleach, an incense holder, and incense. In a nearby home improvement store, Watson paid cash for a band saw and the tools necessary to assemble it. The next day, July 14, 2006, Watson requested a move to room N120 at the Tuscany Suites--the room he had requested when he made his reservation. After he moved to that room, he declined maid service. He checked out of both hotels the next day.

Watson then contacted Eve's cousin, Mira Alvarez. During a phone call, he told her that Evey walked away from him after an argument and he did not know where she was. He said that he did not file a missing person report because he believed that the police would suspect him of foul play. He added that Evey had cut her finger in the back of his Jeep while opening a flashlight package. Watson showed up at Alvarez's home on July 16, 2006. At that time, he claimed that Evey had called and told him that she was getting a ride with a woman she had met. Watson's son, Juan, came to Alvarez's house while Watson was there. Watson told Juan that he and Evey had a fight in front of the Four Queens casino. He also showed Alvarez and Juan a letter allegedly written by Evey that he had found in his car. The letter indicated that Evey went to Guatemala because her sister, Rose, had been in an accident. Alvarez doubted the letter's authenticity. According to her, Rose had not been in an accident, and the letter did not appear to be written by Evey.

Juan reported Evey missing that day, and later in the day, Watson was taken into custody. During the arrest, police confiscated identification bearing Watson's photograph and the name " Joseph Ernest Nunez, Jr." A search of Watson's Jeep Cherokee revealed several blood spots in the vehicle and evidence that it had been cleaned with a bleach-based cleanser. Blood found on the seatbelt, rear bumper, and cardboard in the vehicle had a DNA profile that was consistent with Evey's DNA. In addition, the Jeep contained bleach, cleaners, rubber gloves, a roll of plastic tarp, paperwork from Circus Circus, a Circus Circus casino card, and a card from Tuscany Suites. A search of Watson's home revealed a box of trash bags, from which 17 bags were missing; a box cutter with blood stains matching Evey's DNA, and a plastic bag with a blood stain consistent with Evey's and Watson's DNA. Juan later found a gun in the Watson home and turned it in to the police. Blood spots on the gun barrel matched Evey's DNA.

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Evidence was also located in room N120 at the Tuscany Suites. In turning over the room, housekeeping staff had collected several kitchen utensils and a Teflon pan, which they turned over to the police. The bed sheets were also missing and the room contained trash from stores, scissors, and incense. The scissors appeared to have brown stains on them. In addition, staff noted an overwhelming odor. A housekeeper at Tuscany Suites testified that the guest in room N120 had asked her for a large trash bag on the day he left. Crime scene analysts discovered Evey's DNA in blood found in several stains recovered from the bathroom of room N120. Investigators also collected a piece of carpet from the room that was stained with blood matching Evey's DNA. The blood stain on the carpet had soaked through the carpet and padding and had stained the cement subfloor.

Watson was released from custody in late July and was placed under surveillance. Officers observed Watson drive around the mountain roads in the area of Kern County, California. Near Lake Isabella, Watson was observed turning onto a dirt road, stopping his car, and walking away from it. Officers searched this area, commonly known as the Fairview dump, and discovered an area of the ground that appeared to have been recently disturbed with plastic protruding from it. The plastic recovered from the hole matched the type and tear pattern of a roll of plastic tarp recovered from Watson's Jeep. DNA found on the plastic matched Evey's DNA profile. Investigators who recovered the plastic bundle from the hole noted that it smelled of decomposition.

On August 10, 2006, Watson was arrested at a Denny's in Claremont, California, He was in possession of a wig, false mustache, and glue. He also had a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas, a map of El Paso, cash, traveler's checks, driver's licenses in his name and the name of Zach Watson, a cell phone, and a list of phone numbers. Michael spoke to Watson after his arrest, and Watson implied that if Michael put money in Watson's jail fund then he would tell Michael of a general area where Evey's body could be found.

After hearing this evidence, a jury found Watson guilty of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon. The jury unanimously agreed that the murder was willful, deliberate, and premeditated and occurred during the commission of the kidnapping offense. The jury acquitted Watson of robbery.

Penalty phase

The State alleged three aggravating circumstances to support a death sentence: (1) the murder occurred while Watson was engaged in the crime of first-degree kidnapping with the use of a deadly weapon, (2) the murder was committed for pecuniary value, and (3) the murder involved torture or mutilation. In addition to the evidence introduced during the guilt phase, the State introduced letters that Watson had written to his children in which he stated that Evey had shot herself in the hotel room and Watson, believing he would be held responsible for her death, attempted to conceal her death. Watson admitted in the letters that he cut up Evey's body, cooked parts of it, wrapped the pieces in plastic, and disposed of them. He could not remember exactly where he disposed of her body. The State also presented evidence of Watson's violent character, including that he had been charged with threatening President Nixon when he was 29 years old and had been charged with extortion for taking his young child from his prior wife and demanding money from her parents to return the child. In addition, the State introduced evidence that Watson, when in an argument with his prior wife, had boasted that he had raped and killed a hitchhiker but that an investigation into that statement did not yield any evidence of a murder and no charges were filed.

In mitigation, Watson introduced records from his admissions to psychiatric hospitals and his adjudication of insanity in 1958, when he was 18 years old. The records showed that Watson had been admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital on August 23, 1957. Doctors had tentatively diagnosed him with schizophrenia and later diagnosed him with ...


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