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State v. Blaz

Supreme Court of Montana

July 5, 2017

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
MATTHEW JOHN BLAZ, Defendant and Appellant.

         Appeal From District Court of the Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Silver Bow, Cause No. DC 13-119 Honorable Kurt Krueger, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant Chad Wright, Chief Appellate Defender, Kristen L. Peterson, Assistant Appellate Defender (argued), Helena, Montana

          For Appellee Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Micheal S. Wellenstein, Assistant Attorney General (argued), Helena, Montana, Eileen Joyce, Silver Bow County Attorney, Samm Cox, Michael Clague, Deputy County Attorneys, Butte, Montana

          Jim Rice Justice.

         ¶1 Matthew John Blaz (Blaz) appeals the judgment entered by the Second Judicial District Court, Silver Bow County, convicting him of Deliberate Homicide. We address the following issues:

1.Did the District Court abuse its discretion by admitting evidence about the prior PFMA conviction under M. R. Evid 404(b)?
2.Did the District Court err by issuing a nonconforming written judgment that omitted credit for 318 days of time served?

         ¶2 We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for entry of an amended judgment.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 On August 16, 2013, Blaz's infant daughter, Matti, died after being in Blaz's care for the day. Matti was born in June 2013, via cesarean section, and was approximately 53 days old at the time of her death. Dr. Walter Kemp, Deputy State Medical Examiner, determined Matti's cause of death to be craniocerebral and cervical trauma. Matti's autopsy revealed: (1) blunt force trauma to her head and neck, primarily on the left side;[1](2) abrasions on the left side of her chin and on the right side of the base of her neck near her chest; and (3) evidence of an older injury on one of her ribs. At trial, Dr. Kemp testified

         Matti likely died as the result of "a very strong, forceful slam against some broad object." Under questioning of the prosecutor, Kemp testified as follows:

Q. And how about as to the manner of [Matti's] death? Do you have an opinion?
A. Yes.
Q. And what is the manner of the death?
A. Homicide.
Q. And what do you base that on?
A. I believe that the cause of [Matti's] death was an intentional and harmful act caused by another person that resulted in her death.

Continuing, Kemp opined that a fall or a drop could not have caused the injuries he found at autopsy. He stated:

Q. So just so we're clear, based upon the fracture to her skull, the tear to her brain, extensive damage to her eyes, and the tears in her neck, you believe the manner of death in this case is homicide[?]
A. Yes.
Q. And there's no way that this could have come from a simple fall[?]
A. I do not believe this came from a simple fall, no.

         ¶4 On July 10, 2013, Blaz, Matti, and Jennifer, Matti's mother, were involved in an altercation in their home. At the time, Matti was about 16 days old, and Jennifer was recovering from her cesarean section and a subsequent infection of the surgical site. Having returned home from playing softball, Blaz was intoxicated and, while holding Matti, began "dozing off." Jennifer took Matti from him, stating she was going to change and feed Matti. While Jennifer was in the kitchen preparing Matti's bottle and holding her, Blaz came up behind them, grabbed Jennifer by the hair, and threw her, while she was still holding Matti, to the floor. He then started banging Jennifer's head against the floor. By the time Jennifer was able to regain her feet, Blaz had taken Matti. During the assault, 3 Matti's older sister, K.Y., [2] and K.Y.'s friend retreated to the basement of the house. When K.Y. heard a slam to the floor, she and her friend started yelling, "stop it, " to which Blaz retorted, "tell them to shut up or I'm coming down there." K.Y. and her friend hid under a bed. Out of this incident, Blaz was charged with and pled guilty to Partner or Family Member Assault (PFMA). He received a six month suspended sentence and was ordered to have no contact with Jennifer.

         ¶5 Blaz returned to live in the home despite the No Contact Order. On the morning of August 16, 2013, Blaz stayed home from work with Matti and K.Y. Accompanied by Matti and K.Y., Blaz took Jennifer to work between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. At that point, Matti appeared to be fine and was acting normally. After returning home, Blaz watched television with Matti, while K.Y. played in the basement with a neighbor girl. At approximately 10:00 a.m., Blaz stepped out of the residence to quiet the dog and talk to the mailman. Matti was lying on a blanket on the floor in front of the television, and Blaz indicated that he could see her from his vantage point outside the house. While Blaz and the mailman were talking, a neighbor boy, brother of the girl playing inside with K.Y., entered the house to see what the girls were doing. Testimony about what occurred after this point diverged.

         ¶6 According to Blaz, he looked in the house and saw the neighbor boy holding Matti. He then heard a loud scream, entered the house, and saw Matti screaming on the blanket, while the neighbor boy hovered over her. Blaz asked what happened and the boy ran downstairs. Blaz picked up Matti and tried to calm her. He yelled downstairs and asked the kids what happened, to which the girls replied that they had not done anything. The boy was in the house for a short time, then he left.

         ¶7 According to the neighbor boy, he heard Matti crying inside when he arrived at the house. He testified that he had tickled Matti, but did not pick her up. He confirmed that, when he was downstairs, Blaz had asked the children if any of them had touched or picked up Matti. The neighbor boy testified that he went downstairs to see what the girls were doing, got bored, and left shortly thereafter.

         ¶8 At approximately 11:00 a.m., Blaz called Jennifer at work to discuss lunch plans. During the conversation, Blaz did not mention that anything had happened to Matti during the morning or any concerns about Matti's wellbeing. Around noon, Blaz took a lunch to Jennifer, leaving Matti with K.Y. and the neighbor girl. When Blaz left, Matti was sleeping, and she slept for most of the afternoon. At approximately 4:00 p.m., Blaz took Matti and K.Y. to pick Jennifer up from work, after which the group drove to Walmart. On the way, Blaz mentioned to Jennifer that the neighbor boy might have dropped Matti. Jennifer said she would check Matti when they arrived at Walmart and, at that time, she observed Matti's skin was ashen, her breathing was unusual, and she had bulging eyes. Acting urgently, Jennifer directed they take Matti to the hospital, where she died. ¶9 At trial, Blaz asserted Matti's death was the result of being dropped by the neighbor boy. The State sought admission of evidence related to the July PFMA charge against Blaz pursuant to M. R. Evid. 404(b). The State argued the PFMA was relevant and rebutted Blaz's defense because it demonstrated motive, opportunity, and the absence of accident or mistake. The District Court admitted the PFMA over Blaz's objection. Blaz appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶10 District courts have broad discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. State v. Daffin, 2017 MT 76, ¶ 12, 387 Mont. 154, 392 P.3d 150 (citing State v. Madplume, 2017 MT 40, ¶ 19, 386 Mont. 368, 390 P.3d 142). We review evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion, which occurs when a district court acts arbitrarily without conscientious judgment or exceeds the bounds of reason, resulting in substantial injustice. Daffin, ¶ 12 (citing Madplume, ΒΆ 19). To the extent an evidentiary ruling is based on ...


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