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State v. Chauncey

Supreme Court of Nebraska

January 6, 2017

State of Nebraska, appellee,
Dustin Chauncey, appellant.

         1. Rules of Evidence. In proceedings where the Nebraska Evidence Rules apply, the admissibility of evidence is controlled by such rules; judicial discretion is involved only when the rules make discretion a factor in determining admissibility.

         2. Rules of Evidence: Appeal and Error. Where the Nebraska Evidence Rules commit the evidentiary question at issue to the discretion of the trial court, an appellate court reviews the admissibility of evidence for an abuse of discretion.

         3. Trial: Rules of Evidence. A trial court exercises its discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant and whether its prejudicial effect substantially outweighs its probative value.

         4. Judgments: Words and Phrases. An abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court's decision is based upon reasons that are untenable or unreasonable or if its action is clearly against justice or conscience, reason, and evidence.

         5. Motions for Mistrial: Appeal and Error. The decision whether to grant a motion for mistrial will not be disturbed on appeal in the absence of an abuse of discretion.

         6. Motions to Dismiss: Appeal and Error. Any error in a ruling on a motion to dismiss under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-1418(3) (Reissue 2016) based on the sufficiency of evidence before a grand jury is cured by a subsequent finding at trial of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt which is supported by sufficient evidence.

         7. Prosecuting Attorneys: Appeal and Error. The decision to appoint a special prosecutor is addressed to the discretion of the trial court, and absent an abuse of discretion, such ruling will not be disturbed on appeal.

         [295 Neb. 454] 8. Evidence: Words and Phrases. Evidence is relevant if it tends in any degree to alter the probability of a material fact.

         9. Rules of Evidence. Under Neb. Evid. R. 403, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 27-403 (Reissue 2016), relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

         10. Evidence: Words and Phrases. Unfair prejudice means an undue tendency to suggest a decision based on an improper basis.

         11. __:__. Unfair prejudice speaks to the capacity of some concededly relevant evidence to lure the fact finder into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged, commonly on an emotional basis.

         12. Criminal Law: Motions for Mistrial: Proof: Appeal and Error. A mistrial is properly granted in a criminal case where an event occurs during the course of a trial that is of such a nature that its damaging effect cannot be removed by proper admonition or instruction to the jury and thus prevents a fair trial. The defendant must prove that the alleged error actually prejudiced him or her, rather than creating only the possibility of prejudice.

         13. Motions for Mistrial: Motions to Strike: Appeal and Error. Error cannot ordinarily be predicated on the failure to grant a mistrial if an objection or motion to strike the improper material is sustained and the jury is admonished to disregard such material.

         Appeal from the District Court for Scotts Bluff County: Leo Dobrovolny, Judge. Affirmed.

          Todd W. Lancaster, of Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, for appellant.

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and Stacy M. Foust for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Wright, Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

          Miller-Lerman, J.

         I. NATURE OF CASE

         Following a grand jury investigation into the death of the 2-year-old daughter of Dustin Chauncey's girlfriend, a special prosecutor filed charges against Chauncey. Chauncey appeals [295 Neb. 455] his conviction and sentence in the district court for Scotts Bluff County for intentional child abuse resulting in death. Chauncey assigns numerous errors addressed to the grand jury process and trial rulings. We affirm.


         1. Background and Evidence at Trial

         On July 11, 2008, police officers responding to a call to a house in Gering, Nebraska, found the body of 2-year-old Juliette Geurts. Juliette had lived in the house with her twin sister, Jaelyn Geurts; their mother, Charyse Geurts; and Chauncey, who was Charyse's boyfriend. Charyse's ex-boyfriend, Brandon Townsend, also lived in the house. When the first police officer entered the house, she saw Charyse on the floor next to Juliette's body, Chauncey pacing back and forth, and Townsend standing in a doorway holding Jaelyn.

         Another officer who arrived at the house observed discoloration on Juliette's abdomen and a laceration on the left side of her head. An autopsy later revealed that Juliette's death had been caused by blunt force trauma and that the manner of death was homicide. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy testified that Juliette had been beaten to death and that she had sustained several injuries-including a subarach-noid hemorrhage in the brain, a lacerated liver, and bleeding into the mesentery-any one of which might have caused her death.

         The first officer who had arrived at the house was unable to immediately communicate with Charyse and Chauncey because both were too emotional. Chauncey had identified himself to the officer using the first name "Roy, " but the officer later learned that his first name was actually "Dustin." The officer was able to communicate with Townsend.

         As part of the investigation of Juliette's death, the clothing she was wearing was sent to the state crime laboratory for testing. A stain on Juliette's shirt, which was found to include a sperm fraction and a nonsperm fraction, was tested [295 Neb. 456] for DNA. It was determined that Chauncey was included as a major contributor to the DNA of the sperm fraction and a contributor to the DNA of the nonsperm fraction.

         Townsend testified as follows at the trial in this case. Townsend had briefly dated Charyse before she began dating Chauncey, and he lived at the house with them in order to care for Juliette and Jaelyn. On the evening of July 10. 2008, Townsend, Charyse, Chauncey, and the girls had all attended a carnival. Juliette did not feel well at the carnival, and after they all returned home, Townsend put the girls to bed. Charyse went to check on the girls around 2 a.m. and discovered that Juliette was having a seizure. Charyse and Townsend decided that Juliette should be taken to the hospital. Chauncey at first resisted the idea of taking her to the hospital, but eventually Charyse and Chauncey took her to the hospital while Townsend stayed at home with Jaelyn. After they left, Townsend put Jaelyn back to bed and he went to the couch where he "end[ed] up laying down and passing out."

         Townsend testified that the next thing he remembered was waking up around 11 a.m. the next day. Shortly after waking, he went to check on the girls and found Jaelyn already awake. He turned to wake up Juliette, and saw that her "bed had almost been crushed down to the ground . . . almost as if something really heavy had been on the bed." He saw Juliette "kind of like in the bed folding into it [a]nd, she was very purple and very stiff." Townsend went and picked up Juliette, while attempting to prevent Jaelyn from seeing Juliette's condition. Townsend carried Juliette to the room in which Charyse and Chauncey were sleeping. When Townsend entered the room, Chauncey jumped up and asked Townsend what was going on. Townsend told them that there was something wrong with Juliette. Chauncey grabbed Juliette from Townsend's arms and held her at arm's length from himself. Townsend heard Chauncey say, '"Oh, my fucking God, she is fucking dead. I need to fucking leave.'" Chauncey handed Juliette [295 Neb. 457] back to Townsend, who took her to the living room and set her on the floor. Townsend tried to find a telephone, but Charyse was "very hysterical, " and Chauncey said he could not find one. Townsend ran to a neighbor's house and asked them to call the police because he thought Juliette was dead. He returned to the house and saw that Charyse was crying and screaming Juliette's name, while Chauncey was getting dressed. Townsend testified that "[t]here was a discussion if anybody asked [Chauncey's] name, his name is not Dustin, his name is Roy."

         In addition to Townsend's testimony described above and other evidence presented at trial, the State called Paul Cardwell as a witness. In 2014, Cardwell had been housed in the same unit as Chauncey at the Scotts Bluff County jail. Prior to questioning Cardwell, the State read the parties' stipulation to the jury to the effect that Cardwell had been convicted in federal court of three felony offenses involving fraud and that he had the potential of having his sentence reduced if the federal court determined that he had "provided substantial assistance to the government." Cardwell testified that in August 2014, Chauncey had discussed his case with Cardwell and another prisoner. Chauncey told them about the charges for which he was in jail and described the events of July 11, 2008, to them.

         Cardwell's testimony regarding Chauncey's jailhouse statements was as follows: After Charyse and Chauncey had returned from taking Juliette to the hospital, they were having sex in the bedroom when Juliette came to the door of the bedroom asking for Charyse because she did not feel well. Chauncey was angry that Juliette had interrupted them, so he got out of bed and kicked her in the stomach. While he was still naked, he picked up Juliette to return her to her room, and he speculated that his sperm got on her shirt when he picked her up. Juliette was crying because of the kick to the stomach; because Chauncey wanted "her to shut up, " he punched her in the upper chest area. Chauncey returned to [295 Neb. 458] finish having sex with Charyse, and then he went to sleep. He was awoken around 11 a.m. by shouts that Juliette was not breathing. As they waited for police to arrive, Charyse and Chauncey decided that they would lie about his name because he was wanted on outstanding warrants.

         2. Grand Jury Proceedings

         Although an autopsy was conducted on Juliette's body on July 12, 2008, and the pathologist concluded that the manner of death was homicide, the State had not filed charges against anyone in connection with Juliette's death as of mid-2012. On July 11, 2012, certain community petitioners filed a petition in the district court for Scotts Bluff County for a grand jury investigation into Juliette's death. On August 8, the court appointed James L. Zimmerman as a special prosecutor. In the appointment order, the court found that this was "an appropriate case to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute this matter."

         Zimmerman presented the case to a grand jury. On January 14, 2013, Zimmerman filed an indictment, signed by the foreperson of the grand jury, in the district court. The indictment charged Chauncey with three counts: count I, intentional child abuse resulting in death; count II, manslaughter; and count III, providing false information to a peace officer. Counts II and III were dismissed prior to trial because the statute of ...

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