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Mesa v. United States

May 12, 2005

JOSEPH MESA, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. No. F-1002-01. Hon. Robert I. Richter, Trial Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued March 9, 2005

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and FARRELL and REID, Associate Judges.

A jury convicted appellant Joseph Mesa of multiple crimes, including two counts of first-degree murder while armed of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner, in violation of D.C. Code §§ 22-2401, -3202 (1996), recodified at D. C. Code §§ 22-2101, -4502 (2001). He challenges the trial court's determination that he failed to establish the existence of a common law marriage with a government witness, and hence, he could not invoke the marital privilege to preclude her testimony against him, or the introduction of his letters to, and conversations with her. He also contends that the trial court erred by not granting his motion to suppress statements which he maintains were obtained in violation of (1) the Interpreters for Hearing Impaired and Non-English Speaking Persons Act of 1987 ("the Interpreter Act"), D.C. Code §§ 2-1901 et seq., and (2) his Miranda*fn1 rights. We hold that Mr. Mesa failed to sustain his burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he and the government witness had a common law marriage, and hence, he was not entitled to invoke the marital privilege with respect to her testimony and his communications with her. We further hold that the trial court properly denied Mr. Mesa's motion to suppress since neither the Interpreter Act nor his Miranda rights were violated. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

Mr. Mesa, a native of Guam and a profoundly hearing-impaired person, enrolled as a freshman student at Gallaudet University in Fall 2000. On September 28, 2000, the body of Eric Plunkett, also a Gallaudet student, was found after Mr. Mesa alerted a Resident Advisor at his dormitory that there was a "funny" smell coming from Mr. Plunket's room. Months later, on February 3, 2001, the body of another Gallaudet student, Benjamin Varner, was discovered by a Resident Advisor at the same dormitory when Mr. Varner did not respond to a fire alarm. Tragically, both Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Varner had been murdered. Mr. Plunkett died of "blunt impact trauma to the head and neck." Mr. Varner was stabbed multiple times in the head, face, neck and chest, and was kicked or hit. After physical evidence tied Mr. Mesa to the murders, he confessed that he had killed both Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Varner. Subsequently, he was tried and convicted of both murders, as well as several other crimes.*fn2 He filed a timely appeal of his judgment of conviction.

ANALYSIS

The Alleged Common Law Marriage

Mr. Mesa argues that the trial court erred in failing to recognize his relationship with Melanie de Guzman, a government witness, as a common law marriage. He complains that because of his common law marriage and the marital privilege, the trial court should have suppressed letters he wrote to and conversations he had with Ms. de Guzman, and that it should have disallowed her testimony. The government maintains that the trial court's determination that no common law marriage existed between Mr. Mesa and Ms. de Guzman was not plainly wrong or without evidence to support it.

The trial court concluded that the defense established "by more than a preponderance [of the evidence] that [Mr. Mesa and Ms. de Guzman] intended to be married . . . at some future time . . .[,] [n]ot that they are presently married." Furthermore, the trial court decided that "all the objective material" indicated that there was no actual common law marriage between Mr. Mesa and Ms. De Guzman.

"The elements of a common law marriage in this jurisdiction are cohabitation as husband and wife, following an express mutual agreement, which must be in words of the present tense." Coates v. Watts, 622 A.2d 25, 27 (D.C. 1993) (citing East v. East, 536 A.2d 1103, 1105 (D.C. 1988)). The parties may provide direct evidence of their common law marriage. See Marcus v. Director, Office of Workers' Comp. Programs v. U.S. Department of Labor, 179 U.S. App. D.C. 89, 548 F.2d 1044 (1976). Other than the testimony of the parties claiming to be in a common law marriage, direct evidence may include deeds to property and tax returns. See Coates, supra, 622 A.2d at 26. In addition, "[t]he existence of an agreement may be inferred from the character and duration of cohabitation, or from other circumstantial evidence such as testimony by relatives and acquaintances as to the general reputation regarding the parties' relationship." Marcus, supra, 179 U.S. App. D.C. at 93 n.9, 548 F.2d at 1048 n.9 (citation omitted). An inference "may nevertheless be rebutted by direct evidence that, in fact, there was no present agreement." Id. However, if an appellant proves the existence of a valid common law marriage, the marital privilege, codified in D.C. Code § 14-306 (2001), is applicable. D.C. Code § 14-306 provides:

(a) In civil and criminal proceedings, a husband or his wife is competent but not compellable to testify for or against the other.

(b) In civil and criminal proceedings, a husband or his wife is not competent to testify as to any confidential communications made by one to the other during the marriage.

Furthermore, while "[t]he District of Columbia has long recognized common law marriages," Coates, supra, 622 A.2d at 27(citing Hoage v. Murch Bros. Constr. Co., 60 App. D.C. 218, 50 F.2d 983 (1931)), such marriages are "closely scrutinized," id. (citations omitted). Here, the burden was on Mr. Mesa "to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, all of the essential elements of a common law marriage." Id. (citations omitted). Whether a common law marriage exists is largely a factual determination. Thus, we will affirm the trial court's findings regarding the existence of a common law marriage "unless appellant can persuade us that it is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." East, supra, 536 A.2d at 1106 (citing D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (1981)). And, the applicability of the marital privilege, in Mr. Mesa's case, depends upon the existence of a valid common law marriage.

Although Ms. de Guzman testified that Mr. Mesa was her husband and provided examples of how they held themselves out as man and wife, the trial judge discredited her testimony saying, "I do not believe her . . . . I think there is too much objective evidence cutting against her." The trial court also found that the "various objective indicia that [defense counsel] point[ed] to are things [Ms. de Guzman] has put together somewhat after the fact"; and that while the two "intended to be married . . . at some future time, . . . they are [not] presently married. . . ."

Ms. de Guzman testified that: she had been wearing a wedding ring since the year 2000; she and Mr. Mesa lived together at Gallaudet University; she uses the last name of Mesa and had a magazine subscription in the name of Melani Mesa; she and Mr. Mesa used the same post office box; she had a wedding book and a certificate of marriage to commemorate their agreement to marry; and Mr. Mesa gave her a Bible with the inscription "Melani de Guzman, wife." Yet, the record before the court showed that Ms. de Guzman's driver's license and financial aid application for Gallaudet bore the name Melani de Guzman, not Melani Mesa, and both documents revealed that she was single. When she spoke with one of the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") detectives, in the grand jury and at the D.C. jail, she represented that Mr. Mesa was her "boyfriend" rather than her husband. Significantly, she admitted creating the wedding book, and the computer-generated wedding certificate, after Mr. Mesa was arrested in February of 2001. Moreover, the record reflects that she and Mr. Mesa had separate dormitory rooms, and ...


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