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State v. Huston

Supreme Court of Nebraska

February 8, 2019

State of Nebraska, appellee,
v.
Dallas L. Huston, appellant.

         1. Postconviction: Evidence: Witnesses: Appeal and Error.

         In an evidentiary hearing on a motion for postconviction relief, the trial judge, as the trier of fact, resolves conflicts in the evidence and questions of fact. An appellate court upholds the trial court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous.

         2. Effectiveness of Counsel.

         A claim that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance presents a mixed question of law and fact.

         3. Effectiveness of Counsel: Appeal and Error.

         When reviewing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, an appellate court reviews the factual findings of the lower court for clear error. With regard to questions of counsel's performance or prejudice to the defendant as part of the two-pronged test articulated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), an appellate court reviews such legal determinations independently of the lower court's conclusion.

         4. Effectiveness of Counsel: Proof: Words and Phrases: Appeal and Error.

         To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), the defendant must show that his or her counsel's performance was deficient and that this deficient performance actually prejudiced the defendant's defense. To show prejudice under the prejudice component of the Strickland test, the defendant must demonstrate a reasonable probability that but for his or her counsel's deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability does not require that it be more likely than not that the deficient performance altered the outcome of the case; rather, the defendant must show a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.

         [302 Neb. 203] 5. Effectiveness of Counsel: Proof.

         The two prongs of the ineffective assistance of counsel test under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), may be addressed in either order.

         6. Evidence: Words and Phrases.

         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.

         7. Rules of Evidence: Police Officers and Sheriffs.

         Statements made by law enforcement in the course of interviewing suspects may be admissible for the purpose of providing necessary context to a defendant's statements in the interview which are themselves admissible.

         8.___:___ . In order to determine whether a statement made by law enforcement is admissible to provide context, the probative value of the statements of both the defendant and the officer must be assessed.

          Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: John A. Colborn, Judge.

          Timothy S. Noerrlinger for appellant.

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

          HEAVICAN, C.J., MILLER-LERMAN, CASSEL, STACY, FUNKE, AND PAPIK, JJ.

          PAPIK, J.

         Dallas L. Huston was convicted by a jury of second degree murder and sentenced to 50 years' to life imprisonment. We affirmed his conviction and sentence on direct appeal. See State v. Huston, 285 Neb. 11, 824 N.W.2d 724 (2013) (Huston I). After Huston's motion for postconviction relief was denied without an evidentiary hearing, we affirmed in part. See State v. Huston, 291 Neb. 708, 868 N.W.2d 766 (2015) (Huston II). However, with respect to claims that Huston's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly object to the admission of certain portions of recorded interviews between Huston and police, we reversed, and remanded [302 Neb. 204] for an evidentiary hearing. The case returns to us now after the district court held an evidentiary hearing and denied Huston's motion for postconviction relief. We affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         We provided a full recitation of the facts regarding this case in Huston I. We summarize facts relevant to this appeal in the sections below.

         Investigation of Ryan Johnson s Death.

         Huston and Ryan Johnson "were living together as a couple in a nonsexual relationship" at the time of Johnson's death. Huston I, 285 Neb. at 12, 824 N.W.2d at 728. In September 2009, Huston called the 911 emergency dispatch service, claiming that he had walked into the room he and Johnson shared and found Johnson wrapped in a blanket with plastic wrap covering his face. Paramedics performed lifesaving measures but were unable to revive Johnson.

         Police later began to investigate whether Huston was responsible for Johnson's death. Police received information that Huston had told Nicholas Berghuis and Christopher Wilson, friends of Johnson and Huston, that one of Huston's "personalities" had played a role in Johnson's death by wrapping Johnson's face in plastic wrap and putting a pillow over Johnson's face as Johnson tried to breathe. Id. at 13, 824 N.W.2d at 728. While Huston purported to make statements and to have performed actions as a different personality, he later admitted that he did not have multiple personality disorder, that he made up all of the different personalities as part of a '"social experiment, '" and that "he controlled them completely." Id.

         Berghuis and Wilson agreed to cooperate with police in an attempt to conduct surveillance on Huston. On October 6 and 7, 2009, Berghuis and Wilson invited Huston to Wilson's apartment, where a camera was concealed. On the first night, Wilson wore a wire, and on the second, Berghuis did. Police [302 Neb. 205] monitored the audio and video surveillance in unmarked cars near the residence. On the second night, Huston, purporting to act as one of his personalities, admitted that on the morning of Johnson's death, he wrapped Johnson in a blanket; wrapped plastic wrap around Johnson's face; and, as Johnson broke through the plastic wrap and opened his mouth, held a pillow over his head and listened to Johnson's last heartbeats '"with enjoyment.'" Id. at 14, 824 N.W.2d at 728.

         Police questioned Huston later in the evening of October 7, 2009. Huston initially denied involvement in Johnson's death. He then began to discuss a dream he had been having in which one of his personalities sat on top of Johnson, wrapped plastic wrap around Johnson's face, and suffocated Johnson with a pillow after Johnson broke through the plastic wrap. Later in the same interview, Huston admitted that the events were not a dream and that he physically aided in Johnson's death.

         In an interview the next day, Huston first tried to retract these statements. Later, however, Huston stated that he was tired of fighting and that Johnson's death had occurred just as Huston had told Berghuis: Johnson was wrapped tightly in a blanket with his hands in his pockets, Huston wrapped Johnson's face with plastic wrap, and Huston covered Johnson's face with a pillow to make sure he died.

         In an October 10, 2009, interview, Huston made additional statements about Johnson's death. Huston said that he has a morbid fascination with death, that he has urges to kill those to whom he is sexually attracted, and that Johnson and Wilson helped him deal with those urges by role playing in mock death performances. Huston said that Johnson used Huston's urges against him to convince Huston to help him commit suicide. Huston discussed the way he felt after putting a pillow over Johnson's face as Johnson tried to breathe, explaining that it did not provide the feeling he had expected. Huston also stated that he had fought his urges for most of his life and that he feared he might hurt someone else in the future.

         [302 Neb. 206] Huston was ultimately arrested and charged with second degree murder. Huston pleaded not ...


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