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Case Style: STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA v. ALFREDO L. VARGAS
Case Number: 2015 S.D. 72
Judge: Justice Glen Severson
Court: IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA
Plaintiff's Attorney: CAROLINE SRSTKA
Defendant's Attorney: JAMY PATTERSON
Description: A jury found Defendant guilty of attempted fetal homicide. During the
trial, the jury heard from Lisa Komes. Komes testified that she learned that she
was pregnant with Defendant’s child in February of 2010. She told Defendant
about her pregnancy, and he indicated that he wanted her to obtain an abortion.
Komes did not want to be pregnant at that time, but she did not want an abortion
either. Their relationship suffered as a result of “the elephant in the room.” She
explained it was not unusual for him to buy her fountain drinks, but on one occasion
after becoming pregnant she noticed that a drink he gave her tasted bitter. She
disregarded it as “watered down . . . or something,” and threw the cup and drink
away. A similar incident occurred one morning when Defendant brought her a
fountain drink with white powder on the bottom of it. When she was done with the
drink, Defendant rinsed the cup out and threw it away. Again, this drink tasted
bitter. The next time he brought her an unusual drink it smelled “minty, and it
tasted terrible.” She called law enforcement, telling officers that she believed her
boyfriend was poisoning her. Law enforcement took the drink. One more time,
Defendant brought Komes a drink at work, and again she turned it over to law
enforcement. She never felt sick from any of the drinks, and her baby was born
healthy on October 5, 2010.
[¶3.] Maggie Toavs was Defendant’s sister-in-law at the time of trial. She
testified that in April 2010, she told Defendant she wanted blue cohosh to help her
induce labor. She was over eight months pregnant at that time and had just been
released from the hospital for preterm labor. Defendant told her that he had some,
and Toavs, along with her daughter, went to his house to obtain the cohosh. While
Toavs and her daughter were at his house, he initially told them that he had the
cohosh for his friends who did not want to have a baby. At some point during the
exchange, he told them he had it for Komes and his baby. He told Toavs that he
was putting the substance in Komes’s drinks. Toavs assumed that Komes had
consented to adding the substance to her drinks. Toavs took some of the substance
from Defendant, but did not remember looking at the bottle to see what it was that
he offered her. She returned home and tried the substance in a drink but could not
drink all of it because it “tasted really bitter.” Toavs’ daughter testified similarly.
[¶4.] At the time of these incidents, Defendant was married to Melissa
Vargas. A phone call between Defendant and his wife was played at trial. At one
point in the conversation his wife asked: “Yeah, but you said when you were giving
it [referring to pennyroyal] to her at her house, she was just leaving the drink. Did
you spill ‘em out?” Defendant responded: “I only gave her two and . . . if she didn’t
drink it I would . . . spill ‘em out. I would rinse it out. She never had anything. She
had one drink that she took that she had at work, that’s it.”
[¶5.] Roger Mathison testified as an expert in chemistry; he is a chemist at
the State Health Lab in Pierre, South Dakota. He testified to the contents of the
drinks that Komes gave to law enforcement. The liquids were stored in two
different containers; one was in a large can, and the other was in a small can. The
liquid contained in the larger can contained 141 milligrams of pulegon per liter.
Pulegon is a constituent of the mint family. He did not have a way to determine
exactly what oil or plant material the pulegon may have originated from. He did
not know if it was peppermint, spearmint, or pennyroyal. According to his tests,
there was nothing unusual in the smaller can of liquid.
[¶6.] Richard Wold is a forensic examiner with the Rapid City Police
Department. He testified as an expert in forensic examination. He tested the same
liquids that Mathison tested, but he did not discover pulegon in either liquid.
Instead, Wold found terpin hydrate in the liquid in the smaller can. Terpin hydrate
is an over-the-counter cough suppressant, but it is no longer used in cough
medicine. It is not in the same family as pulegon. Wold found nothing in the
substance contained in the larger can.
[¶7.] Scott Phillips, a medical toxicologist, testified that pulegon can be
extracted from the plant pennyroyal. He also testified that pennyroyal is part of the
mint family, and that the “American variety is a little bit more bitter mint type of
taste . . . versus the European variety, which isn’t quite as bitter.” Pennyroyal is
both a food and supplement and is not regulated by the Federal Drug
Administration. He testified that it is primarily used for simple things such as
upper respiratory tract inflammation. It has also been used to bring on menstrual
periods and as an abortifacient. Ingestion of the substance can cause an irritated
stomach, nausea, and vomiting, depending on the amount ingested. In large
amounts it can cause kidney failure and liver failure, both of which can lead to
bleeding, seizures, and comas. He testified that the literature regarding its use as
an abortifacient is vague, but some literature indicates that it causes uterine
contractions as would occur in labor. Other literature suggests that the liver
damage leads to abortion or that it causes slight sloughing of the uterine lining. He
opined that it was probably a combination of all of those things that lead to an
abortion. He concluded that if taken in sufficient quantities, pennyroyal in its pure
form could lead to an abortion, but it would lead to sickness and illness in the
pregnant woman as well.
[¶8.] Phillips also testified about cohosh. He testified that black cohosh1 is
an herb in the buttercup family and has been used by herbalists over the years to
treat perimenopausal symptoms. It has a very bitter type of flavor. He testified
that “some have suggested its use as an abortifacient, but probably not as commonly
as pennyroyal oil or some of the other ones.” An adult that ingested a small
amount, such as one capsule, might not see any symptoms.
[¶9.] Defendant appeals the jury verdict asserting: (1) attempted fetal
homicide is a legal impossibility, (2) Defendant’s spousal privilege and right to
confrontation was violated by admission of the taped conversation between him and
his wife, (3) the circuit court abused its discretion by admitting 404(b) evidence, (4)
1. The terms black cohosh and blue cohosh were used interchangeably throughout the case.
the circuit court abused its discretion by admitting the State’s experts, and (5) there
was insufficient evidence to convict Defendant.
Attempted fetal homicide
[¶10.] Defendant asserts attempted fetal homicide is a legal impossibility
because it does not require a specific intent to kill. Further, that in this case the
jury was not properly instructed on that element of the offense. Defendant
proposed an instruction that would require the jury to find that Defendant intended
to cause the death of the “fetus,” therefore he has preserved this error for appeal.
[¶11.] South Dakota does not have a statute specifically defining attempted
fetal homicide. South Dakota’s attempt statute, SDCL 22-4-1, provides in part:
Unless specific provision is made by law, any person who attempts to commit a crime and, in the attempt, does any act toward the commission of the crime, but fails or is prevented or intercepted in the perpetration of that crime, is punishable for such attempt at maximum sentence of one-half of the penalty prescribed for the underlying crime.
Fetal homicide is enumerated in SDCL 22-16-1.1:
Homicide is fetal homicide if the person knew, or reasonably should have known, that a woman bearing an unborn child was pregnant and caused the death of the unborn child without lawful justification and if the person: (1) Intended to cause the death of or do serious bodily injury to the pregnant woman or the unborn child; or (2) Knew that the acts taken would cause death or serious bodily injury to the pregnant woman or her unborn child; or (3) If perpetrated without any design to effect death by a person engaged in the commission of any felony. Fetal homicide is a Class B felony.
This section does not apply to acts which cause the death of an unborn child if those acts were committed during any abortion, lawful or unlawful, to which the pregnant woman consented.
“[T]o prove an attempt, ‘the prosecution must show that defendant (1) had the
specific intent to commit the crime, (2) committed a direct act toward the
commission of the intended crime, and (3) failed or was prevented or intercepted in
the perpetration of the crime.’” State v. Reed, 2010 S.D. 66, ¶ 7, 787 N.W.2d 1, 3
(quoting State v. Disanto, 2004 S.D. 112, ¶ 15, 688 N.W.2d 201, 206).
[¶12.] At issue in this case is the first of the three elements that the State
must prove—Defendant “had the specific intent to commit the crime” of fetal
homicide. “Specific intent has been defined as meaning some intent in addition to
the intent to do the physical act which the crime requires, while general intent
means an intent to do the physical act or, perhaps, recklessly doing the physical act
which the crime requires.” State v. Rash, 294 N.W.2d 416, 417 (S.D. 1980) (quoting
People v. Lerma, 239 N.W.2d 424, 425 (Mich. App. 1976)) (emphasis added). “To
commit murder, one need not intend to take life; but to be guilty of an attempt to
murder, he must so intend. It is not sufficient that his act, had it proved fatal,
would have been murder.” State v. Lyerla, 424 N.W.2d 908, 913 (S.D. 1988)
(quoting Merritt v. Commonwealth, 180 S.E. 395, 399 (Va. 1935)).
[¶13.] Defendant was convicted under the first subsection of SDCL 22-16-1.1.
According to that subsection—assuming the woman has not consented to an
abortion—if someone has knowledge that a woman is pregnant, intends “to cause
the death of or do serious bodily injury to the pregnant woman or the unborn child,”
and “cause[s] the death of the unborn child without lawful justification” then that
person is guilty of fetal homicide. SDCL 22-16-1.1(1). However, in order to be
convicted of attempted fetal homicide, the person needs more than to intend to do
serious bodily injury; the person needs to intend the underlying crime. “Generally,
‘in the typical case of a criminal attempt, the factor distinguishing the attempt from
the completed crime is that the intended criminal result, an element of the
completed crime, was not achieved.’” State v. Charger, 2000 S.D. 70, ¶ 33, 611
N.W.2d 221, 228 (quoting Brown v. State, 550 So. 2d 142, 143 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App.
1989)) (emphasis added). Without more, intent to inflict bodily injury, where none
results, is simple assault. SDCL 22-18-1(1) (“Any person who attempts to cause
bodily injury to another and has the actual ability to cause the injury . . . is guilty of
simple assault.”). Therefore, in the context of attempted fetal homicide, intent to do
serious bodily injury is simply “the intent to do the physical act which the crime
requires” and does not meet the element of specific intent. Rash, 294 N.W.2d at
417. Instead, the State must prove Defendant intended death of the unborn child.2
2. See also State v. Coble, 527 S.E.2d 45, 48 (N.C. 2000) (“The crime of attempt requires that the actor specifically intend to commit the underlying offense. It is logically impossible, therefore, for a person to specifically intend to commit a form of murder which does not have, as an element, specific intent to kill. As the United States Supreme Court stated, ‘Although a murder may be committed without an intent to kill, attempt to commit murder requires a specific intent to kill.’” (quoting Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 351, 111 S. Ct. 1854, 1859, 114 L. Ed. 2d 385, 393 (1991))); United States v. Kwong, 14 F.3d 189, 195 (2d Cir. 1994) (recklessness will not suffice for attempted murder; there must be specific intent); State v. Taylor, 683 So. 2d 1309, 1314 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1996) (crime of attempted manslaughter requires specific intent to kill, even though such an intent is not necessary to support a manslaughter conviction).
[¶14.] Defendant cites to the case of Lyerla to assert that the crime of
attempted fetal homicide cannot exist. 424 N.W.2d at 913. In Lyerla, we decided
that the crime of attempted second-degree murder does not exist in South Dakota.
Id. However, in Lyerla we addressed the conflict between the required specific
intent for an attempt and the intent required to commit second-degree murder. Id.
at 912. We explained that attempted second-degree murder would require that “one
must intend to have a criminally reckless state of mind, i.e. perpetrating an
imminently dangerous act while evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human
life, but without a design to kill any particular person.” Id. “The words ‘attempt’
and ‘negligence’ are at war with one another; they are internally inconsistent and
cannot sensibly coexist.” Id. at 913 (quoting People v. Hernandez, 614 P.2d 900, 901
(Co. 1980)). “One may not intentionally attempt to cause the death of another by a
reckless act.” Id. (quoting People v. Perez, 437 N.Y.S.2d 46, 48 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1981)).
In this case, we are not faced with inconsistent mens rea requirements because
SDCL 22-16-1.1(1) does not require any mental state other than intent.3 Contrary
to Defendant’s assertion, attempted fetal homicide can exist under the first part of
subsection 1, which requires intent to cause death. However, the State must prove
more than stated in the second part of subsection 1, which only requires intent to do
3. SDCL 22-1-2(1)(b):
The words, “intent, intentionally,” and all derivatives thereof, import a specific design to cause a certain result or, if the material part of a charge is the violation of a prohibition against conduct of a certain nature, regardless of what the offender intends to accomplish thereby, a specific design to engage in conduct of that nature[.]
serious bodily injury. It must prove the intent to cause death of the unborn child,
because without such there is not intent to commit the crime of fetal homicide.4
[¶15.] Lastly, Defendant alleges that attempted fetal homicide is an
impossibility because the Legislature chose to include the element of death in the
statute by stating “[h]omicide is fetal homicide if the person knew . . . a woman . . .
was pregnant and caused the death of the unborn child[.]” SDCL 22-16-1.1
(emphasis added). Defendant points out that the element of death is already
included in the definition of homicide: “the killing of one human being, including an
unborn child, by another.” SDCL 22-16-1. Thus, Defendant contends that the
“caused . . . death” element in SDCL 22-16-1.1 will be rendered surplus language if
we recognize the existence of attempted fetal homicide. Defendant asserts that,
instead, the inclusion of the “caused . . . death” element in SDCL 22-16-1.1 indicates
that the Legislature did not mean for the crime of attempt to apply to the fetal
[¶16.] We do not think that the Legislature meant to render the attempt
statute inapplicable to fetal homicide by enumerating the requirements of the crime
even though the Legislature has arguably already done so in the general homicide
statute by stating that “homicide is . . . killing[.]” SDCL 22-16-1. “[I]n construing
statutes together it is presumed that the [L]egislature did not intend an absurd or
unreasonable result.” Martinmaas v. Engelmann, 2000 S.D. 85, ¶ 49, 612 N.W.2d
600, 611 (quoting Moss v. Guttormson, 1996 S.D. 76, ¶ 10, 551 N.W.2d 14, 17).
4. The issue of whether attempted fetal homicide exists under subsection (2) or (3) is not before this Court, and we do not address it.
Further, even if we agreed with Defendant, it is unclear what the result would be.
Under Defendant’s theory, the State could still charge an individual with an
attempted homicide for an unborn child; it would just have to do so under SDCL 22
16-1 rather than 22-16-1.1.
[¶17.] Because attempted fetal homicide does exist in South Dakota, we next
consider whether Defendant was properly convicted. The two relevant jury
instructions in this case are No. 21 and No. 24. Instruction No. 21 provided:
The elements of the crime of Attempted Fetal Homicide, each of which the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, are that at the time and place alleged: 1. The Defendant with knowledge wherein the Defendant should have reasonably known that Lisa Komes bearing an unborn child was pregnant; 2. The Defendant attempted to cause the death of the unborn child; 3. Without justification 4. Wherein, that Defendant intended to cause the death or do serious bodily injury to Lisa Komes or the unborn child.
Instruction No. 24 stated:
In the crime of Attempted Fetal Homicide, there must exist in the mind of the perpetrator the specific intent to cause the death or do bodily injury to the pregnant woman or the unborn child. If specific intent did not exist, this crime has not been committed.
(Emphasis added.) The instructions provided to the jury removed the required
element of specific intent to cause the death of the unborn child because the jury
could have found Defendant guilty of attempt by finding that he had the specific
intent to do serious bodily injury rather than finding that he had the intent to cause
death.5 The State argues that “[b]ecause Defendant intended to cause the death of
his unborn child, the first portion of the statute applied.” However, the jury
returned a general verdict form finding the Defendant guilty of attempted fetal
homicide. This Court cannot determine, based on the verdict form, whether the jury
found that Defendant intended to cause the death of the unborn child or whether
the jury only found that he had the intent to commit serious bodily injury.
Therefore, Defendant was improperly convicted of the crime of attempted fetal
homicide because the jury did not have to find that he had the specific intent to
cause the death of the unborn child—an element which the State has the burden to
Recorded phone call
[¶18.] Defendant also asserts that the circuit court erroneously admitted a
phone conversation between Defendant and his wife. We agree. Defendant’s wife
called Defendant with a detective in her presence to listen and record the
conversation. The circuit court admitted the phone call, finding that spousal
privilege was waived because Defendant’s wife consented to the recording by the
5. Defendant’s proposed instruction provided:
In the crime of Attempted Fetal Homicide, there must exist in the mind of the perpetrator the specific intent to cause the death or do bodily injury to the pregnant woman or the unborn child, intending to cause the death of the fetus. If specific intent did not exist, this crime has not been committed.
detective who was also listening to the conversation. Further, it found an exception
in SDCL 19-19-504(d)6 to apply.7
[¶19.] We review evidentiary rulings under an abuse of discretion standard.
State v. Talarico, 2003 S.D. 41, ¶ 35, 661 N.W.2d 11, 23. “However, ‘when we are
asked to determine whether the circuit court’s order violated a statutory privilege, it
raises a question of statutory interpretation requiring de novo review.’” Andrews v.
Ridco, 2015 S.D. 24, ¶ 14, 863 N.W.2d 540, 546 (quoting Dakota, Minn. & E. R.R.
Corp. v. Acuity, 2009 S.D. 69, ¶ 47, 771 N.W.2d 623, 636) (citation omitted). South
Dakota’s statute on spousal privilege provides: “An accused in a criminal proceeding
6. The Code Commission, with the approval of the Supreme Court, renumbered the sections in SDCL chapters 19-9 to 19-13, inclusive, and 19-14 to 19-18. The current code section is cited in this opinion unless otherwise noted. Therefore, “subdivision 19-19-504(d)” is substituted for “§ 19-13-15” to reflect the transfer of § 19-13-15 to subdivision 19-19-504(d).
7. Defendant contends that “[t]he parties had all agreed at the March 27, 2013 hearing that the spousal privilege precluded admission of the conversation at issue.” However, it is unclear what agreement there may have been between the parties. The following discussion of spousal immunity occurred at the March 27, 2013 hearing:
State: The State does not intend to bring up any statements from his – I’m not certain if they are ex-wife or soon-to-be ex-wife. We don’t plan to bring that up. Obviously in rebuttal, something comes to pass, you know, she will be here so maybe we can approach that with the State. Court: State versus Hart and State versus Witchey are two of the controlling cases on spousal immunity and a privilege. Defense counsel: Right. And there is just – yeah, there was an agreement.
After the foregoing exchange, defense counsel moved on to other matters.
has a privilege to prevent his spouse from testifying as to any confidential
communication between the accused and the spouse.” SDCL 19-19-504(b). “A
communication is confidential if it is made privately by any person to his or her
spouse during their marriage and is not intended for disclosure to any other
person.” SDCL 19-19-504(a). There is no question that the communication at issue
was made to Defendant’s spouse during marriage. Further, the State does not
contend, nor do we find evidence that Defendant knew or should have known that
his conversation “would be overheard or monitored and would not be private.” See
State v. McKercher, 332 N.W.2d 286, 288 (S.D. 1983). Likewise, there is no
indication that Defendant intended it “for disclosure to any other person.” See
SDCL 19-19-504(a). Therefore, it was “made privately by” Defendant. Id. As a
result, the communication was confidential under Rule 504(a), and Defendant
“ha[d] a privilege to prevent his spouse from testifying[,]” unless an exception
applied under Rule 504(d). SDCL 19-19-504(b). SDCL 19-19-504(d) sets forth the
statutory exceptions to the marital communication:
There is no privilege under this section in a proceeding in which one spouse is charged with a crime against the person or property of: (1) The other; (2) A child of either; (3) A person residing in the household of either; or (4) A third person committed in the course of committing a crime against any of them.
Additionally, we have recognized a “joint-participant exception to the marital
communication privilege[.]” State v. Witchey, 388 N.W.2d 893, 895 (S.D. 1986).
[¶20.] The State relies on United States v. Nash, to assert that privilege is
lost when a spouse secretly records a conversation and turns it over to law
enforcement. 910 F. Supp. 2d 1133, 1146 (S.D. Ill. 2012). In Nash, the defendant’s
wife recorded a conversation between them “without defendant’s knowledge and
prior to defendant’s wife communicating with law enforcement.” Id. at 1144. She
subsequently gave the tape to the FBI. Id. She “informed the FBI that she made
the recording following an incident where defendant had physically abused her for
refusing to be involved with defendant’s plan.” Id. The court allowed the
communication to be admitted because two exceptions to the marital
communications privilege existed. First, it found the “long recognized exception for
circumstances where the husband commits an offense against the wife applies in
this case.” Id. Second, the court found that the joint-participant exception applied.
[¶21.] The State’s reliance on Nash is misplaced as neither of the exceptions
in Nash exist in this case. The State concedes that “Defendant was not attempting
to force his wife into criminal activity during the recorded conversation[.]” Further,
we require “active participation in, or furtherance of, patently criminal activity by
the witness-spouse” before we apply the “joint-participant” exception to marital
communications. Talarico, 2003 S.D. 41, ¶ 36, 661 N.W.2d at 23. “The testifying
spouse must be more than a receptor of a statement from the spouse that committed
the crime.” Id. Lastly, Defendant was not charged with an offense against his wife
in this proceeding, and therefore the first exception of Rule 504(d) does not apply.
[¶22.] The State next asserts that the privilege was lost because Defendant is
“charged with a crime against the person or property of . . . a child of either[.]” 19
19-504(d)(2). The State contends that an unborn child falls under the scope of Rule
504(d); Defendant contends that a separate definition of unborn child in criminal
statutes and enumeration of unborn child in other statutes indicates an intent not
to include an unborn child under the definition of child. We note that we are
interpreting our own evidentiary rule rather than a legislatively adopted statute.
[¶23.] SDCL 19-19-504(d)(2) provides that there is no spousal privilege “in a
proceeding in which one spouse is charged with a crime against the person or
property of . . . [a] child of either[.]” We have previously applied statutory rules of
construction to our rules. See Discover Bank v. Stanley, 2008 S.D. 111, ¶ 15, 757
N.W.2d 756, 761. Therefore, “[w]ords and phrases in [the rule] must be given their
plain meaning and effect.” State v. Moss, 2008 S.D. 64, ¶ 15, 754 N.W.2d 626, 631
(quoting Goetz v. State, 2001 S.D. 138, ¶ 16, 636 N.W.2d 675, 681).
[¶24.] At the time the language in SDCL 19-19-504(d)(2) was adopted by this
Court in 1978, the ordinary and popular meaning of “child” included “an unborn or
recently born human being[.]” See Webster’s Third New International Dictionary
388 (4th ed. 1976). More recent dictionaries also support this meaning. See
American Heritage College Dictionary 243 (3rd ed. 1997) (“A human fetus”); Black’s
Law Dictionary 290 (10th ed. 2014) (“A baby or fetus”). Because the ordinary and
popular meaning of the word child has included unborn children at and since the
time we adopted the exception, it applies to communications involving crimes
against the unborn children of either spouse. Defendant’s paternity is not disputed
in this case. Therefore, admission of the spousal call under this exception was
[¶25.] However, Defendant also contends that admission of the spousal call
violated his right to confrontation. The United States Supreme Court has held that
the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution
“bars ‘admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial
unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had a prior opportunity for
cross-examination.’” State v. Johnson, 2009 S.D. 67, ¶ 18, 771 N.W.2d 360, 368
(quoting Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, at 53-54, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 1365, 158
L. Ed. 2d 177 (2004)). We review this “assertion of a violation of a constitutional
right under the de novo standard of review.” Id. ¶ 10, 771 N.W.2d at 365.
[¶26.] It is undisputed that Melissa was unavailable in that she failed to
appear despite a subpoena and Defendant had not previously cross-examined her.
Therefore we must determine whether the statements made by Melissa are
testimonial hearsay. We initially determine whether they are testimonial in
nature. When considering whether a statement is testimonial, the Supreme Court
has held that “the question is whether, in light of all the circumstances, viewed
objectively, the ‘primary purpose’ of the conversation was to ‘create an out-of-court
substitute for trial testimony.’” Ohio v. Clark, ___U.S.___, 135 S. Ct. 2173, 2180,
___L. Ed. 2d. ___(2015) (quoting Michigan v. Bryant, 562 U.S. 344, 358, 131 S. Ct.
1143, 1155, 179 L. Ed. 2d 93 (2011)). In this case, we must determine whether
Melissa’s phone call and “statements were made with the primary purpose of
creating evidence for [Defendant’s] prosecution.” Id. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 2181. The
detective testified that he told Melissa that he was trying to find out if Defendant
put anything in Komes’s drinks. Prior to the recording, he told her about
pennyroyal and what it was that he needed from the phone call. He also explained
that he coached her along at certain points in the conversation. In light of all of
these circumstances, there is no indication that the primary purpose of the phone
call or Melissa’s statements was anything other than to obtain incriminating
information from Defendant and gather evidence for Defendant’s prosecution. The
detective testified that it was not until after the phone call that he felt the “case was
solid;” he thought he finally had enough evidence for probable cause to obtain an
[¶27.] The State contends that Melissa’s statements are not hearsay because
they were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted but rather provided the
context for other admissible statements. See Johnson, 2009 S.D. 67, ¶ 21, 771
N.W.2d at 369. Further, the State points out that the court instructed the jurors
that they could not consider the statements by Melissa. Such an instruction was
not sufficient in this case. Melissa’s statements are too intricately woven into the
conversation to be ignored. She repeatedly prompted Defendant with numerous
details and provides all of the material substance and content necessary to make
Defendant’s statements meaningful. Therefore, we agree with Defendant that the
court erroneously admitted the call because Melissa’s statements were testimonial
hearsay subject to the Confrontation Clause in the Sixth Amendment.
[¶28.] Once a violation of the Confrontation Clause has occurred the question
“becomes whether the admission was harmless error. It is during this phase of the
analysis where a court is allowed to consider corroborating evidence.” State v.
Frazier, 2001 S.D. 19, ¶ 30, 622 N.W.2d 246, 258. The erroneous admission of this
phone call was not harmless because it allowed the jury to hear Defendant
admitting that he put pennyroyal into Komes’s drinks on two different occasions.
Although the State argues that the testimony of other witnesses and results of the
contaminated beverages established the same thing, this phone call was the only
admission by Defendant to any witness that he put pennyroyal in Komes’s drinks.
He had indicated to the other witnesses that it was cohosh that he was secretly
adding to her drinks. Therefore, we also reverse based on the circuit court’s
admission of the recorded phone call.
Evidence of other acts
[¶29.] Finally, Defendant contends that the circuit court erred by improperly
admitting other act evidence under SDCL 19-19-404(b).8 The court admitted Toavs’
and her daughter’s testimony that Defendant provided Toavs with a bitter
substance to induce labor and told her at the exchange of that substance that he
was putting it in Komes’ drinks.
[¶30.] “Evidentiary decisions of a [circuit] court are presumed correct.” State
v. Owen, 2007 S.D. 21, ¶ 9, 729 N.W.2d 356, 362. We review the circuit court’s
decision for an abuse of discretion. State v. Boe, 2014 S.D. 29, ¶ 20, 847 N.W.2d
8. Rule 404(b) provides: “Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.”
315, 320. When determining if prior acts should be admissible, the circuit court
must employ a two-part balancing on the record. Owen, 2007 S.D. 21, ¶ 14, 729
N.W.2d at 362-63. “First, the offered evidence must be relevant to a material issue
in the case. Second, the [circuit] court must determine ‘whether the probative value
of the evidence is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect.’” Id. (quoting
State v. Jones, 2002 S.D. 153, ¶ 10, 654 N.W.2d 817, 819). Other acts evidence “is
admissible when similar in nature and relevant to a material issue, and not
substantially outweighed by its prejudicial impact.” Boe, 2014 S.D. 29, ¶ 20, 847
N.W.2d at 320.
[¶31.] The State offered the evidence to show common scheme or plan,
knowledge, or lack of mistake. The court conducted the required balancing on the
record. It found that the evidence was relevant because the State’s theory was that
Defendant was poisoning or attempting to poison Komes by putting the substances
of cohosh—which has a bitter taste—and pennyroyal—which has a minty taste—in
her drinks. The court explained that the evidence was “relevant to show that
Defendant had knowledge of blue and/or black cohosh and that he had previously
used the substance to induce labor through herbal stimulation with reference to his
giving the substance to Toavs and this constitutes a common scheme or plan
evidence.” Further the court found that “the danger of unfair prejudice of the
evidence does not substantially outweigh the probative value of the evidence.”
[¶32.] Defendant’s prior encounter with Toavs and her daughter has
sufficient points in common with the alleged conduct. It demonstrates that he had
knowledge that ingestion of herbal substances affect a pregnancy, such as by
inducing labor. He recommended that the substance be placed in drinks, just as
was alleged in this case. Further, he admitted at the exchange that he was putting
the substance that he gave Toavs into Komes’s drinks. Toavs testified that the
substance Defendant gave her was bitter. Komes also testified that her drinks
tasted bitter. The circuit court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the
Outcome: Because the jury was erroneously instructed on the elements of
attempted fetal homicide and the court erroneously admitted a spousal
communication, we reverse the conviction. In light of our decision, we do not reach Defendant’s remaining issues regarding expert testimony and sufficiency of the evidence.