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State v. Hatfield

Supreme Court of Montana

September 18, 2018

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
ADAM HATFIELD, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: May 16, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Butte-Silver Bow, Cause No. DC-14-44 Honorable Kurt Krueger, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Briana E. Kottke, Stack & Kottke, PLLC, Missoula, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Mardell Ployhar, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Eileen Joyce, Butte-Silver Bow County Attorney, Samm Cox, Mike Clague, Kelli Fivey, Deputy County Attorneys, Butte, Montana


          Ingrid Gustafson Justice.

         ¶1 Adam Hatfield (Adam) appeals his conviction for deliberate homicide following a jury trial in the Second Judicial District, Butte-Silver Bow County. We affirm.

         ¶2 We restate the issues on appeal as follows:

1. Did the District Court violate Adam's right of presence and thus commit reversible error?
2. Did the District Court err by failing to make a record of critical stages of Adam's trial?
3. Did the District Court err by failing to ensure the proceedings in this matter were public?
4. Did the District Court abuse its discretion by allowing witnesses to testify multiple times on direct examination?
5. Did Adam's trial counsel commit record-based ineffective assistance of counsel?
6. Does cumulative error in this matter warrant a new trial?


         ¶3 On the evening of November 28, 2008, Matt Hatfield (Matt) dropped off a friend after a day of hunting. Later that night, he spoke with his ex-wife on the phone. There are no credible accounts of anyone seeing or speaking with Matt after that day.

         ¶4 Although it was not unusual for Matt to be out of contact for a few days, his absence stretched into weeks, and friends and family members became concerned. The Butte-Silver Bow Police Department began investigating Matt's disappearance in mid-December.

         ¶5 Investigators looked for Matt at the small cabin in which he lived on his mother's property near Butte. Matt's mother, who suffered from dementia, was unable to provide any assistance. Inside Matt's cabin, the investigators discovered blood spatter and signs that someone had attempted to clean it up. However, they did not locate Matt; searches of the property and surrounding area were fruitless.

         ¶6 Investigators also interviewed Matt's friends and family. The police learned Matt's son, Adam, had recently been seen driving Matt's pick-up truck around Butte. They questioned Adam, who claimed Matt had loaned him the truck. Adam denied knowing his father's whereabouts.

         ¶7 In late December, Adam parked Matt's truck on a street in Butte after it sustained front-end damage that made it undriveable. On December 24, 2008, the police obtained a search warrant for the truck and had it towed for the crime lab to examine it.

         ¶8 In October 2010, a hiker found a partial human skull in the Maney Lake area. In November 2013, investigators identified the partial skull as Matt's. In 2014, authorities arrested Adam and charged him with deliberate homicide. No other remains were found.

         ¶9 Adam was first tried for Matt's homicide in April 2015. After the jury failed to reach a verdict, the court declared a mistrial.

         ¶10 The State determined to retry Adam. During a pre-trial conference on January 29, 2016, Adam's counsel objected to the State's plan to call and later recall two law enforcement witnesses on direct examination, arguing this strategy would either limit his ability to effectively cross-examine the witnesses' credibility or would force him to ask the same questions multiple times. The State explained its purpose in recalling these witnesses was to allow them to testify to the progress of their investigation in chronological order, since the investigation into Matt's disappearance and death spanned several years. The State maintained these witnesses would testify to different subject matter each time they took the stand. The District Court overruled Adam's objection pursuant to M. R. Evid. 611(d).

         ¶11 The District Court also informed the parties pre-trial that its practice was to not allow "speeches" with objections during testimony. It explained, "The objection is, objection, hearsay; objection, relevancy. If you would like to discuss that further, you will ask for a sidebar with the Court. The sidebars are unrecorded. . . . [A]t the next break, if you would like to make your record as to what your objection would be, you are clearly allowed to do so."

         ¶12 The second trial began on February 8, 2016. It continued for seven days, during which time the District Court, consistent with its earlier pronouncement, disallowed "speeches" with objections, making evidentiary rulings during unrecorded sidebars. The court also conferred with the parties' respective counsel at the bench, in the courtroom but outside the presence of the jury, and in chambers on numerous occasions. Some of these conferences were on the record; most were not. The record usually does not indicate whether Adam attended these conferences.

         ¶13 Among the witnesses testifying at trial were Heather Jenner and George Paul Holland. Jenner is a forensic scientist specializing in latent print and footwear examination who works at the State of Montana Forensic Science Division. Jenner testified as to the identification of a partial shoeprint found on a board in Matt's cabin. Holland is a detective lieutenant with the Butte-Silver Bow Police Department, who testified regarding evidence, including blood spatter evidence, found in Matt's cabin and truck. Hatfield's counsel did not object to Jenner testifying as a footwear expert nor to Holland testifying as a blood spatter expert.

         ¶14 On February 18, 2016, the jury found Hatfield guilty of deliberate homicide. On September 20, 2016, the District Court sentenced Hatfield to the custody of Montana State Prison for life, crediting him for 944 days served. Hatfield appeals.


         ¶15 This Court generally does not address issues raised for the first time on appeal. State v. Taylor, 2010 MT 94, ¶ 12, 356 Mont. 167, 231 P.3d 79 (citation omitted). We may use the plain error doctrine in situations implicating a defendant's fundamental constitutional rights and where failing to review the alleged error may result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, leave unsettled the question of the fundamental fairness of the proceedings, or compromise the integrity of the judicial process. State v. Lawrence, 2016 MT 346, ¶ 9, 386 Mont. 86, 385 P.3d 968 (citations omitted). Under this test, we first ask if the alleged error implicates a fundamental right; we next ask if failure to review the alleged error would result in one of these consequences. Taylor, ¶ 14 (citation omitted).

         ¶16 We exercise plenary review over constitutional questions, including alleged violations of a criminal defendant's right to be present at critical stages of the proceedings against him. State v. Blake, 2016 MT 212, ¶ 5, 384 Mont. 407, 337 P.3d 1213 (citation omitted).

         ¶17 We review a district court's action in allowing the prosecution to re-examine its witness following its previous direct examination for abuse of discretion. State v. Long, 2005 MT 130, ¶ 12, 327 Mont. 238, 113 P.3d 290 (citation omitted); see also State v. Carns, 136 Mont. 126, 137, 345 P.2d 735, 742 (1959) ("It is within the sound discretion of the trial court whether a witness who has been examined shall be recalled for further examination.") (citing R.C.M. 1947, sec. 93-1901-10; State v. Mumford, 69 Mont. 424, 433, 222 P. 447, 450 (1924)).

         ¶18 We consider only record-based ineffective assistance of counsel claims on direct appeal. To the extent such claims are reviewable, they present mixed questions of law and fact we review do novo. State v. Chafee, 2014 MT 226, ¶ 11, 376 Mont. 267, 332 P.3d 240 (citations omitted).


         ¶19 1. Did the District Court violate Adam's right of presence and thus commit reversible error?

         ¶20 Adam alleges he was not included in several sidebars and in-chambers discussions during his trial, and claims his right of presence was thereby violated 23 times. He argues his absence curtailed his ability to fully participate in his defense, thus rendering his trial fundamentally unfair and constituting structural error, which would entitle him to a new trial. Acknowledging his trial counsel did not object to his exclusion from these conferences, Adam urges us to apply the plain error doctrine.

         ¶21 The State disagrees with Adam's position, first arguing the record does not prove Adam was excluded from 23 conferences. The State next argues that, even if this Court determines Adam's right of presence was violated, the violation does not amount to structural error. The State further argues Adam has not met his burden to prove that failing to grant plain error review may result in a manifest miscarriage of justice, may leave unsettled the question ...

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