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State v. Mora

Supreme Court of Nebraska

November 9, 2017

State of Nebraska, appellee,
Felipe German Mora, appellant.

          1. Rules of Evidence: Hearsay: Appeal and Error. Apart from rulings under the residual hearsay exception, an appellate court reviews for clear error the factual findings underpinning a trial court's hearsay ruling and reviews de novo the court's ultimate determination whether the court admitted evidence over a hearsay objection or excluded evidence on hearsay grounds.

         2. Convictions: Evidence: Appeal and Error. In reviewing a criminal conviction for a sufficiency of the evidence claim, whether the evidence is direct, circumstantial, or a combination thereof, the standard is the same: An appellate court does not resolve conflicts in the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses, or reweigh the evidence; such matters are for the finder of fact. The relevant question for an appellate court is 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.

         3. Sentences: Words and Phrases: Appeal and Error. An appellate court reviews criminal sentences for abuse of discretion, which 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.

         4. Effectiveness of Counsel: Appeal and Error. Whether a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel may be determined on direct appeal is a question of law.

         5. __:__. In reviewing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal, an appellate court decides only whether the undisputed facts contained within the record are sufficient to conclusively determine whether counsel did or did not provide effective assistance and whether the defendant was or was not prejudiced by counsel's alleged deficient performance.

          [298 Neb. 186] 6. Rules of Evidence: Hearsay: Physician and Patient. Statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and describing medical history, or past or present symptoms, pain, or sensations, or the inception or general character of the cause or external source thereof insofar as reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment are not excluded by the hearsay rule.

         7. Rules of Evidence: Hearsay: Proof. In order for statements to be admissible under Neb. Evid. R. 803(3), Neb. Rev. Stat. § 27-803(3) (Reissue 2016), the party seeking to introduce the evidence must demonstrate (1) that the circumstances under which the statements were made were such that the declarant's purpose in making the statements was to assist in the provision of medical diagnosis or treatment and (2) that the statements were of a nature reasonably pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment by a medical professional.

         8. Rules of Evidence: Hearsay. A statement is generally considered admissible under the medical purpose hearsay exception if gathered for dual medical and investigatory purposes.

         9. __: __ . Excited utterances are an exception to the hearsay rule, because the spontaneity of excited utterances reduces the risk of inaccuracies inasmuch as the statements are not the result of a declarant's conscious effort to make them.

         10. __:__. For a statement to be an excited utterance, the following criteria must be met: (1) There must be a startling event; (2) the statement must relate to the event; and (3) the declarant must make the statement while under the stress of the event. The true test is not when the exclamation was made, but whether, under all the circumstances, the declarant was still speaking under the stress of nervous excitement and shock caused by the event.

         11. Trial: Evidence: Appeal and Error. The improper admission of evidence is a trial error and subject to harmless error review.

         12. Criminal Law: Juries: Evidence. In a jury trial of a criminal case, an erroneous evidentiary ruling results in prejudice to a defendant unless the State demonstrates that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

         13. Trial: Convictions: Evidence. Where the evidence is cumulative and there is other competent evidence to support the conviction, the improper admission or exclusion of evidence is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

         14. Sentences. When imposing a sentence, the sentencing court should customarily consider the defendant's (1) age, (2) mentality, (3) education and experience, (4) social and cultural background, (5) past criminal record or record of law-abiding conduct, and (6) motivation for the offense, as well as (7) the nature of the offense and (8) the violence [298 Neb. 187] involved in the commission of the offense. However, the sentencing court is not limited to any mathematically applied set of factors.

         15. __ . The appropriateness of a sentence is necessarily a subjective judgment and includes the sentencing judge's observation of the defendant's demeanor and attitude and all the facts and circumstances surrounding the defendant's life.

         16. __ . It is within the discretion of the trial court to impose consecutive rather than concurrent sentences for separate crimes.

         17. Appeal and Error. Plain error may be found on appeal when an error unasserted or uncomplained of at trial, but plainly evident from the record, prejudicially affects a litigant's substantial right and, if uncorrected, would result in damage to the integrity, reputation, and fairness of the judicial process.

         18. Effectiveness of Counsel: Appeal and Error. When a defendant's trial counsel is different from his or her counsel on direct appeal, the defendant must raise on direct appeal any issue of trial counsel's ineffective performance which is known to the defendant or is apparent from the record. Otherwise, the issue will be procedurally barred.

         19. Effectiveness of Counsel: Records: Appeal and Error. On direct appeal, the resolution of ineffective assistance of counsel claims turns upon the sufficiency of the record.

         20. __: __: __ . The fact that an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is raised on direct appeal does not necessarily mean that it can be resolved. The determining factor is whether the record is sufficient to adequately review the question.

         21. __:__:__. An appellate court can determine whether the record proves or rebuts the merits of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel only if it has knowledge of the specific conduct alleged to constitute deficient performance.

         22. Effectiveness of Counsel: Postconviction: Records: Appeal and Error. An ineffective assistance of counsel claim is raised on direct appeal when allegations of deficient performance are made with enough particularity for (1) an appellate court to make a determination of whether the claim can be decided upon the trial record and (2) a district court later reviewing a petition for postconviction relief to be able to recognize whether the claim was brought before the appellate court.

         23. Claims: Effectiveness of Counsel. A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel insufficiently stated is no different than a claim not stated at all.

         Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: Jeffre Cheuvront, Judge, Retired. Affirmed.

         [298 Neb. 188] Joe Nigro, Lancaster County Public Defender, and Shawn Elliott for appellant.

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and Nathan A. Liss for appellee.

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

          Cassel, J.


         In this direct appeal from criminal convictions and sentences, Felipe German Mora (Mora) challenges the overruling of his hearsay objections, the sufficiency of the evidence, the excessiveness of his sentences, and whether his trial counsel provided effective assistance. Because we find no error and the record is insufficient to review the allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel that were sufficiently stated, we affirm the district court's judgment.


         The State charged Mora with four counts of first degree sexual assault of a child and one count of third degree sexual assault of a child. The victim in each count was B.C. Counts I through III alleged that between December 30, 2010, and September 18, 2015, Mora subjected B.C. to sexual penetration in Lincoln, Nebraska. Each count differed only as to the address of the crime: E Street, Theresa Street, and Saunders Avenue, respectively. Count IV alleged that on September 19, 2015, Mora subjected B.C. to sexual penetration. And count V alleged that between December 30, 2010, and September 19, 2015, Mora subjected B.C. to sexual contact. Because Mora was born in February 1983 and B.C. was born in December 2004, at the times of the crimes, Mora was at least 19 years old and B.C. was under the age of 12. We recite the evidence in the light most favorable to the State.

         The evidence at trial established that B.C. came to the United States when she was 6 years old. B.C. began living [298 Neb. 189] with her mother, Marcela M., and Marcela's partner, Mora, on E Street. Over time, B.C. got to know Mora and thought of him "[l]ike a dad." Because Mora was acquitted on the count pertaining to sexual penetration at the E Street address, we recite only the evidence relevant to the count for sexual contact. While living at the E Street address, Mora began touching B.C.'s vagina under her clothes with his hands.

         When B.C. was 8 years old, she moved to Theresa Street. B.C. testified that Mora "rubbed his fingers up and down" her vagina and began inserting his penis in her vagina. These acts occurred at the Theresa Street address more than 20 times.

         When B.C. was 10 years old, she moved to Saunders Avenue. At that location, Mora put his penis inside of B.C.'s vagina on more than 10 occasions. B.C. did not tell anybody what Mora was doing because she was scared.

         On the morning of September 19, 2015, Mora subjected B.C. to penile-vaginal intercourse. Defense counsel pointed out some inconsistencies in B.C.'s testimony with regard to this assault. B.C. testified in a deposition that Mora took her clothes off, but she testified at trial that Mora told her to take her clothes off and that she complied. At trial, B.C. testified that she did not see any ejaculate that day, but she told an investigator that Mora "put white stuff on [her] stomach." B.C. admitted that it was difficult to remember all the details. She explained that the events happened a number of times, with Mora's taking her clothes off at times and B.C.'s taking her own clothes off at other times.

         On the evening of September 19, 2015, Mora took B.C. to the residence of his brother, Rafael German Mora (Rafael), while Marcela and Mora went to a casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Rafael's partner, Maricela Saldivar, saw Rafael kissing B.C. and touching her vaginal area with his hand over her clothes. After Saldivar sent Rafael to the store, Saldivar asked B.C., '"What is going on? Why did this happen?'" B.C. said that nothing happened, but then began crying and said that Rafael was touching her. After Saldivar testified she told B.C. that Saldivar needed to tell Mora what had occurred, [298 Neb. 190] the prosecutor asked what happened. Defense counsel raised a hearsay objection, which the court overruled. Saldivar then testified that B.C. "said no because her dad was doing the same thing to her." Saldivar testified that when she told Mora what happened was not right, Mora did not deny touching B.C. and instead just said that Saldivar did not know what he had "gone through."

         Marcela testified that as she and Mora were returning to Lincoln from the casino, B.C.'s aunt told Marcela over a cell phone that B.C. said Mora had been sexually abusing B.C. Marcela asked Mora if it was true, but Mora denied doing anything. Once they arrived in Lincoln, Marcela went to see B.C., because B.C. was crying. The prosecutor asked what B.C. said to Marcela, and Mora's counsel objected as to hearsay. The court overruled the objection. Marcela answered: "I asked [B.C.] if it was true what . . . had been said about [Mora's] having been abusing her sexually. [B.C.] said yes."

         Marcela testified that after police were called, Mora said, "'Yes, I did it, ' but that [Marcela] was at fault because [she] would always leave [B.C.] with him when [Marcela] had to go to work." Marcela later discovered a text on her cell phone from Mora, sent September 20, 2015, at 2:07 a.m. The message was in Spanish, but the English translation was either: "' Sorry. I'll never forget you.'" or "'Forgive me. I will never forget [the] two of you.'"

         On September 20, 2015, Eileen Bonin, a sexual assault nurse examiner, examined B.C. In her experience, it was infrequent to find injuries when conducting sexual assault examinations. Bonin observed some redness on B.C.'s right labia minora, which was an unusual finding. Defense counsel raised a hearsay objection when the prosecutor asked what B.C. told Bonin about what had occurred, but the court overruled the objection. Bonin testified that B.C. said her "stepdad, [who was] not really her stepdad, " had been touching B.C. since she was 7 years old and that her uncle had been touching her for approximately 9 months. Bonin testified that B.C. told her that Mora "put his private parts in her private parts."

          [298 Neb. 191] On September 20, 2015, an investigator used cotton swabs to obtain DNA from Mora's hands and penis. The swab from Mora's penis revealed a mixture of DNA of at least two individuals. B.C. was included as a major contributor, but ...

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