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Jeremias v. State

Supreme Court of Nevada, En Banc

March 1, 2018


         Appeal from a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict, of one count each of conspiracy to commit robbery and burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, and two counts each of robbery with the use of a deadly weapon and murder with the use of a deadly weapon. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Valerie Adair, Judge.

          David M. Schieck, Special Public Defender, and JoNell Thomas, Chief Deputy Special Public Defender, Clark County, for Appellant.

          Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, Jonathan E. VanBoskerck, Chief Deputy District Attorney, and David L. Stanton and Christopher Burton, Deputy District Attorneys, Clark County, for Respondent.


          STIGLICH, J.

         This opinion addresses matters which arose during appellant Ralph Jeremias' trial for the murders of Brian Hudson and Paul Stephens. We focus the bulk of our discussion on Jeremias' claim that the district court violated his right to a public trial by closing the courtroom to members of the public during jury selection without making sufficient findings to warrant the closure. Under Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209 (2010), such a violation constitutes structural error, which usually entitles an appellant to automatic reversal of his judgment of conviction without an inquiry into whether the error affected the verdict. But Jeremias did not object to the closure and thus did not preserve the error for appellate review. Under Nevada law, this means he must demonstrate plain error that affected his substantial rights. Following the United States Supreme Court's guidance in Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 1899 (2017), which discussed the violation of the right to a public trial during jury selection in the context of an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, we hold that Jeremias fails to satisfy plain error review. We also conclude that no relief is warranted on his other claims and that his death sentences are supported by our independent review of the record under NRS 177.055(2).


         On June 8, 2009, Brian Hudson and Paul Stephens were found murdered in the apartment they shared. They had both been shot in the head, and it appeared they had been robbed. A witness who lived in the same apartment complex told law enforcement that she saw two men, one with light skin and one with darker skin, near the scene around the time of the murders. Another witness said that, after hearing gunshots, he saw a red truck speed from the complex.

         Detectives learned that the victims' credit cards had been used at various locations after the murders. They obtained surveillance videos from those locations and identified a potential suspect and a vehicle he was driving. That vehicle model was often used as a rental car, so detectives searched rental car records. This search led them to Jeremias, who matched the person who had been seen in the surveillance footage using the victims' bank cards. Jeremias was identified by one of the witnesses as the darker-skinned man she had seen in the apartment complex. Jeremias' friend, Carlos Zapata, drove a red truck that was identified by the other witness as that which had left the complex after the shooting.

         After further investigation, law enforcement determined that Jeremias committed the murders in the course of a robbery he planned with Zapata and a third individual named Ivan Rios. They were all charged for their roles in the murders; Zapata pleaded guilty and testified on behalf of the prosecution at Jeremias' trial.[1] According to Zapata, Jeremias proposed robbing the victims because he believed there would be drugs and money in their apartment. The plan was for Jeremias, who was friendly with the victims, to gain entry to the apartment. When Jeremias texted the others that everything was ready to go, Zapata would run in and grab the property and Rios would drive them away in Zapata's truck. With the plan set, the group drove to the victims' apartment and Jeremias went inside. While waiting for the signal, Zapata heard gunshots. Jeremias returned empty-handed, and the group fled the scene. Later, Jeremias complained that "it's all for nothing" unless they went back to the apartment and took the property he had left behind. Rios apparently balked, so Jeremias and Zapata took a rental car back to the apartment and stole the property. Afterward, the entire group went out celebrating with the victims' money.

         Jeremias testified in his own defense. He admitted that he had been in the victims' apartment and that he stole their property, but he denied there was a plan to rob the victims or that he was involved in their deaths. Instead, he claimed he went to the victims' apartment to buy marijuana. When he knocked on their front door, it "popped open" and he saw them with blood on their faces. He knew they were dead, and in a state of shock and intoxication, he decided to take their property.

         The jury found Jeremias guilty of conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, two counts of robbery with the use of a deadly weapon, and two counts of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon. With respect to the murders, the jury unanimously found they were willful, deliberate, and premeditated and were committed during the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a burglary and robbery. The jury also unanimously found each of the aggravating circumstances alleged (that the murders were committed in the course of a robbery, the murders were committed to prevent a lawful arrest, and Jeremias was convicted of more than one murder), and at least one juror found several mitigating circumstances. The jury unanimously concluded that the mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances and imposed a sentence of death for each murder. This appeal followed.


         Exclusion of Jeremias' family from the courtroom during jury selection

         Jeremias contends that the district court violated his right to a public trial by excluding members of his family from the courtroom during voir dire. As explained in more detail below, we conclude that Jeremias forfeited any error by failing to object and fails to demonstrate that this court should grant relief under plain error review.

         Jeremias' claim is based on Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209 (2010). In Presley, the trial court judge noticed an observer sitting in the audience as jury selection was about to commence. Id., at 210. The judge told the observer that he had to leave the courtroom because all of the seats would be needed for prospective jurors. Id. The observer was the defendant's uncle, and the defendant objected to "the exclusion of the public from the courtroom." Id., (quotation marks omitted). The judge reiterated that there would not be enough seats and noted that it would be inappropriate for the uncle to "intermingle" with the prospective jurors. Id. When the matter was raised on appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia determined that the judge had identified a compelling interest for closing the courtroom. Id. at 211. Reversing that decision, the United States Supreme Court explained that limited space in a courtroom and concerns that the defendant's family might interact with potential jurors were inadequate reasons to exclude the public entirely, and the trial court was required to take reasonable measures to accommodate public attendance, such as "reserving one or more rows for the public; dividing the jury venire panel to reduce courtroom congestion; or instructing prospective jurors not to engage or interact with audience members." Id. at 215. Because the trial court had relied on inadequate reasons to close the proceedings and did not consider reasonable alternatives, the Court determined that it committed structural error, warranting automatic reversal and remand for a new trial. Id. at 216.

         The facts of this case are similar. Before potential jurors entered the courtroom, the prosecutor objected to having members of Jeremias' family present during the jury selection process. The prosecutor stated that he had a "number of reasons" for wanting to exclude Jeremias' family and was willing to identify them on the record, but defense counsel had already told Jeremias' family that they would be asked to leave the courtroom. Defense counsel remained silent. The judge then stated: "Okay. And just so the family knows, we use every single seat for the jurors. So we would need to kick you out, anyway. At least until we get started with the jury selection and get a few people excused, because we don't have enough chairs. We bring the maximum number we can fit with the chairs." Apparently, Jeremias' family then left the courtroom, and it is unclear when they returned.

         At first blush, the facts of this case seem to neatly align with those in Presley. But there is an important distinction in that the defendant in Presley objected to the closure whereas Jeremias did not. The failure to preserve an error, even an error that has been deemed structural, forfeits the right to assert it on appeal. United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 731 (1993) ("No procedural principle is more familiar to this Court than that a constitutional right, or a right of any other sort, may be forfeited in criminal as well as civil cases by the failure to make timely assertion of the right...." (internal quotation marks omitted)).[2] Nevada law provides a mechanism for an appellant to seek review of an error he otherwise forfeited. NRS 178.602 (explaining when an unpreserved error "may be noticed"). Before this court will correct a forfeited error, an appellant must demonstrate that: (1) there was an "error"; (2) the error is "plain, " meaning that it is clear under current law from a casual inspection of the record; and (3) the error affected the defendant's substantial rights. Green v. State, 119 Nev. 542, 545, 80 P.3d 93, 95 (2003).

         For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that Jeremias satisfies the first two prongs by demonstrating that the district court closed the courtroom to members of the public (his family) for an inadequate reason (courtroom congestion) without balancing other interests or exploring reasonable alternatives. See Presley, 558 U.S. at 216. Whether he is entitled to relief ...

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