Justia.com Opinion Summary:Download as PDF
Appellees Randall and Penny West were charged with child abuse after an infant in their foster care died from severe head trauma. During their joint trial, each moved for an acquittal at the close of the State’s case and after the close of evidence. The trial court denied those motions. The jury found both guilty on child abuse charges. After the trial, Appellees renewed their motions for acquittal which this time was granted by the trial court. The court held that there was no evidence to prove who injured the child. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision granting Appellees’ motions. The appellate court used the Supreme Court’s holding in the “Hyder” case. Upon review of this case, the Supreme Court overturned its holding in “State ex rel. Hyder v. Superior Court” (“Hyder”), which placed conditions on trial courts’ granting of post-verdict motions for acquittal. The Court held that the “Hyder” case was now inconsistent with state law. In this case, the trial judge thoroughly explained his reasons for granting defendants’ post-verdict motions. Because the appellate court reviewed the trial court’s ruling under “Hyder” conditions, it did not determine whether the trial court’s record reflected substantial evidence to warrant the convictions. The Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s decision, remanded the case for the lower court to address the sufficiency of the evidence and the merits of the trial court’s decision.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
SUPREME COURT OF ARIZONA
STATE OF ARIZONA,
RANDALL D. WEST and PENNY A.
Arizona Supreme Court
Court of Appeals
No. 2 CA-CR 2008-0342
O P I N I O N
Appeal from the Superior Court in Pima County
The Honorable John S. Leonardo, Judge
Opinion of the Court of Appeals Division Two
224 Ariz. 575, 233 P.3d 1154 (App. 2010)
VACATED AND REMANDED
BARBARA LAWALL, PIMA COUNTY ATTORNEY
Jacob R. Lines, Deputy County Attorney
Attorney for State of Arizona
ROBERT J. HIRSH, PIMA COUNTY PUBLIC DEFENDER
Frank P. Leto
Attorney for Randall D. West
LAW OFFICES OF THOMAS JACOBS
Thomas F. Jacobs
Attorney for Penny A. West
P E L A N D E R, Justice
governs a trial court’s rulings on pre-verdict and post-verdict
motions for judgment of acquittal under Arizona Rule of Criminal
disapproving of any contrary language in State ex rel. Hyder v.
Superior Court, 128 Ariz. 216, 624 P.2d 1264 (1981).
Randall and Penny West were charged with child abuse
During their joint trial, each moved for judgment of
acquittal under Rule 20(a) at the close of the State’s case and
The jury then found Randall guilty of reckless child
abuse under circumstances not likely to produce death or serious
circumstances likely to produce death or serious injury.
motions for judgment of acquittal under Rule 20(b).
court granted the motions, finding that although “a rational
trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt that the
victim’s injury was caused by an act of child abuse,” there was
“no substantial evidence proving whether it was both or only one
defendant that did so” and “no substantial evidence to establish
whether either defendant permitted the injury, and, if so, which
The court of appeals reversed.
State v. West, 224
Ariz. 575, 576 ¶ 1, 233 P.3d 1154, 1155 (App. 2010).
concluded that, in finding “insufficient evidence to support the
defendants’ convictions” but without identifying any evidentiary
or other legal error at trial, the trial court had improperly
“re-determined the quantum of evidence in violation of Hyder.”
Id. at 578 ¶ 12, 233 P.3d at 1157.
consider what standard governs a trial court’s ruling on postverdict motions for judgment of acquittal under Rule 20(b), an
issue of statewide importance that involves interpretation of
one of our rules.
See State v. Aguilar, 209 Ariz. 40, 42 ¶ 8,
97 P.3d 865, 867 (2004).
We have jurisdiction under Article 6,
Section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. § 12-120.24
Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 20(a) provides that
on a defendant’s motion or its own initiative, a trial court
“shall enter a judgment of acquittal” before the verdict “if
there is no substantial evidence to warrant a conviction,” and
that “[t]he court’s decision on a defendant’s motion shall not
be reserved, but shall be made with all possible speed.”
20(b) provides that “[a] motion for judgment of acquittal made
before verdict may be renewed by a defendant within 10 days
after the verdict was returned.”
In Hyder, this Court set aside the trial court’s post-
verdict judgment of acquittal because the judge had cited no
finding of no substantial evidence.”
P.2d at 1272-73.
128 Ariz. at 224-25, 624
Hyder also said that if the trial court has
judge may only redetermine the quantum of evidence if he is
Id. at 224, 624 P.2d at 1272.
Although this language
arguably is dictum, our appellate courts, including the court of
appeals in this case, have applied it strictly.
E.g., State v.
Villarreal, 136 Ariz. 485, 487, 666 P.2d 1094, 1096 (App. 1983).
conditions Hyder placed on a trial court’s granting of postverdict
First, they are not grounded in the language of Rule 20 and, in
fact, are inconsistent with the rule when read as a whole.
20(b) permits a defendant, after verdict, to renew a motion for
judgment of acquittal made before verdict under Rule 20(a) and
does not limit the trial judge in any way.
evidence to warrant a conviction.”
By imposing an additional
requirement for granting post-verdict motions under Rule 20(b),
prohibiting trial judges from granting such motions even if the
Under Hyder, a defendant who merely “renews” his pre-
verdict motion may not obtain relief under Rule 20(b).
the defendant can show evidentiary, legal error during trial, a
post-verdict motion is futile because the judge is confined to
construct conflicts with the language of Rule 20.
Second, Hyder’s qualifications lacked any supporting
For example, federal courts (applying Federal Rule of
Criminal Procedure 29(c), the counterpart to our Rule 20(b))
apply the same standard to both pre-verdict and post-verdict
motions for judgment of acquittal.
See United States v. Rojas,
554 F.2d 938, 943 (9th Cir. 1977) (“[T]he test for determining
whether to grant such a [Rule 29(c)] motion is whether at the
time of the motion there was relevant evidence from which the
reasonable doubt, viewing the evidence in light favorable to the
al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 465 (4th ed. 2010) (“The
standard on a motion after discharge of the jury is the same as
on a motion at the close of the government’s case or of all the
standard to pre-verdict and post-verdict motions, thus requiring
the judge to grant a post-verdict judgment of acquittal if the
1988); cf. State v. Spinale, 937 A.2d 938, 944-45 (N.H. 2007)
(stating sole question on a defendant’s post-verdict motion for
judgment notwithstanding a guilty verdict is whether evidence is
legally sufficient to support conviction).
Third, the qualifications Hyder added to Rule 20(b)
conviction stand even if it finds post-verdict no substantial
evidence to warrant the conviction.
But that potentiality is
See Tibbs v. Florida, 457 U.S. 31, 45 (1982)
legally insufficient evidence); State v. Mathers, 165 Ariz. 64,
71, 796 P.2d 866, 873 (1990); cf. State v. Fulminante, 193 Ariz.
485, 492 ¶ 19, 975 P.2d 75, 82 (1999) (“[I]f the evidence at
trial was insufficient to support the conviction, the charges
must be dismissed.”).
Fourth, Hyder’s limitation makes little sense from a
policy and systemic standpoint.
Because Hyder sharply limits
the ability to grant a post-verdict motion under Rule 20(b),
judges in close cases might err on the side of granting the
challenging that ruling on appeal.
476 U.S. 140, 145-46 (1986).
See Smalis v. Pennsylvania,
Conversely, if judges are able to
reassess the quantum of evidence after a verdict, there will be
less incentive to grant pre-verdict motions under Rule 20(a).
procedure available to the state in Hyder, 128 Ariz. at 218 &
n.3, 624 P.2d at 1266 & n.3, a statutory avenue for appellate
verdict judgment of acquittal.
A 1992 statutory amendment now
allows the state to appeal from such a ruling.
See A.R.S. § 13-
4032(7) (2010) (permitting state to appeal from orders granting
judgment of acquittal after guilty verdict).
And if that ruling
reinstated without violating double jeopardy protections.
United States v. DiFrancesco, 449 U.S. 117, 130 (1980).
For these reasons, we disavow Hyder to the extent it
provides that a trial court may grant a post-verdict judgment of
acquittal under Rule 20(b) only if the court concludes that it
“consider[ed] improper evidence” and changes its “position on
prior evidentiary rulings.”
128 Ariz. at 224, 624 P.2d at 1272.
The standards for ruling on pre- and post-verdict motions for
judgment of acquittal under Rule 20 are the same.
motion, the controlling question is solely whether the record
contains “substantial evidence to warrant a conviction.”
R. Crim. P. 20(a).
This question of sufficiency of the evidence is one of
law, subject to de novo review on appeal.
State v. Bible, 175
Ariz. 549, 595, 858 P.2d 1152, 1198 (1993) (“We conduct a de
novo review of the trial court’s decision [on a Rule 20 motion],
viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to sustaining the
The appropriate standards that trial courts should
employ in ruling on motions under Rule 20(a) or (b) are well
established but bear repeating here.
whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable
to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found
the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Mathers, 165 Ariz. at 66, 796 P.2d at 868 (quoting Jackson v.
Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)).1
In view of this objective legal standard, we disavow
statements in Hyder and other Arizona cases that a trial court’s
ruling on Rule 20 motions hinges on whether the court
subjectively “has a conscientious conviction that the elements
of the offense have not been proven.” Hyder, 128 Ariz. at 224,
persons could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a
Id. at 67, 796 P.2d at 869 (quoting State v. Jones, 125 Ariz.
whether substantial evidence supports a conviction.
v. Spears, 184 Ariz. 277, 290, 908 P.2d 1062, 1075 (1996).
As we noted in Mathers, however, “[t]he fact that a
jury convicts a defendant does not in itself negate the validity
of the earlier motion for acquittal” because “[i]f it did, a
jury finding of guilt would always cure the erroneous denial of
an acquittal motion.”
165 Ariz. at 67, 796 P.2d at 869.
properly instructed jury may occasionally convict even when it
can be said that no rational trier of fact could find guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Id. (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at
On the other hand, “[w]hen reasonable minds may differ
on inferences drawn from the facts, the case must be submitted
to the jury, and the trial judge has no discretion to enter a
judgment of acquittal.”
State v. Lee, 189 Ariz. 590, 603, 944
P.2d 1204, 1217 (1997); accord State v. Davolt, 207 Ariz. 191,
624 P.2d at 1272; see also State v. Schantz, 98 Ariz. 200, 205,
403 P.2d 521, 524 (1965).
212 ¶ 87, 84 P.3d 456, 477 (2004).
Thus, in ruling on a Rule 20
motion, unlike a motion for a new trial under Arizona Rule of
Criminal Procedure 24.1(c)(1), a trial court may not re-weigh
the facts or disregard inferences that might reasonably be drawn
from the evidence.
See State v. Neal, 143 Ariz. 93, 97, 692
motions under Rule 20 and Rule 24.1); cf. Peak v. Acuna, 203
Ariz. 83, 85 ¶ 9, 50 P.3d 833, 835 (2002) (in ruling on a motion
for new trial, judge acts as a “so-called thirteenth juror” and
resolution of conflicting facts” and “believes the conviction is
against the weight of the evidence”).
Finally, although Rule 20 does not require a trial
court to specify reasons for granting a post-verdict motion for
judgment of acquittal, we strongly encourage judges to do so.
That practice will aid the parties and appellate courts, which
(on any appeal from the ruling) will review de novo whether
there is substantial evidence to support a conviction, applying
the same standard governing trial court rulings under Rule 20.
See Bible, 175 Ariz. at 595, 858 P.2d at 1198; State v. Guerra,
161 Ariz. 289, 293, 778 P.2d 1185, 1189 (1989).
Here, the trial judge thoroughly explained his reasons
for granting defendants’ post-verdict motions under Rule 20(b).
Because the court of appeals understandably reviewed the trial
court’s ruling under Hyder’s now-discarded limitation, however,
reflects substantial evidence to warrant the convictions.
therefore remand the case to the court of appeals to address the
sufficiency of the evidence and the merits of the trial court’s
granting of judgments of acquittal under Rule 20(b).
v. Rabun, 162 Ariz. 261, 263, 782 P.2d 737, 739 (1989); Ariz. R.
Crim. P. 31.19(i)(3).
The court of appeals’ opinion is vacated and the case
is remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent
with this opinion.
A. John Pelander, Justice
Rebecca White Berch, Chief Justice
Andrew D. Hurwitz, Vice Chief Justice
W. Scott Bales, Justice
Robert M. Brutinel, Justice