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State v. Simpson

Court of Appeals of Utah

May 16, 2019

State of Utah, Appellee,
Joseph Michael Simpson, Appellant.

          Fourth District Court, Heber Department The Honorable Lynn W. Davis No. 131500240

          Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Aaron Murphy, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and David N. Mortensen concurred.


         ¶1 Joseph Michael Simpson was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He appeals his conviction alleging that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to move to suppress Simpson's police interviews, which were arguably taken in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and because his trial counsel failed to present any evidence in mitigation at sentencing. We affirm.


         ¶2 Early in the morning on December 16, 1995, two farmers discovered a body on the banks of the Provo River. The body was that of a seventeen-year-old female (Victim). Victim's body was naked and bloodied, with a large hole in the back of her skull. Several bloodied rocks were found around Victim's body. A deputy with the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office was among the first members of law enforcement to arrive at the crime scene.

         ¶3 The doctor who performed Victim's autopsy testified that the cause of death was "craniocerebral injuries" or "blunt force injuries" to the head. The doctor collected fingernail clippings, various fluids from Victim's body, blood swabs, and vaginal swabs. The doctor also photographed what appeared to be a bloody fingerprint on Victim's wrist.

         ¶4 An image of Victim's tattoo was released to the media, and Victim was identified by an individual alleging to be Victim's boyfriend. This individual revealed that Victim had recently relocated from out of state and was a sex worker, and that this individual also acted as Victim's "pimp." Police eventually excluded this individual as a suspect. Police identified sixteen possible suspects, but each one was eventually excluded. After extensive investigation, the case went cold.

         ¶5 In 2008, more than ten years later, advancements in DNA testing allowed the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office to reexamine cold cases. The bloodied rocks found at the crime scene were sent to a private forensics laboratory for testing. DNA from at least two males was identified-a major DNA profile and a minor DNA profile. Victim's vaginal swabs were sent to the State Crime Laboratory for DNA testing. This testing identified major and minor DNA profiles for two different males with the minor profile being insufficient for comparison. Further testing of the major profile resulted in a complete DNA profile from the semen on the vaginal swab that matched the major DNA profile found on the rocks. The DNA was run through a national database and matched a known profile for Joseph Michael Simpson. An investigation uncovered that Simpson, a Florida resident, was living in Utah at the time of the murder. It was also discovered that Simpson had previously been convicted of murder and was on parole for that crime at the time Victim was killed. Two officers from Wasatch County traveled to Florida, observed Simpson smoking a cigarette outside of his place of employment, and retrieved the cigarette butt for testing. The test revealed that the DNA on Simpson's cigarette matched Simpson's DNA on record.

         ¶6 The next month, the two officers interviewed Simpson twice in Florida, video recording both interviews. The first video shows that the officers advised Simpson of his Miranda rights, but the record is silent as to whether the officers Mirandized Simpson at the outset of the second interview. During the course of the interviews, the police learned that at the time of Victim's murder, Simpson was employed with an airport shuttle service and that he would deliver customers to Park City, Midway, and Sundance, Utah. Simpson admitted that when he lived in Utah, he would engage sex workers once or twice a week and that he would use the company shuttle to pick up those workers. And while he was adamant that he did not recognize Victim, he stated that it was possible that he could have picked Victim up as a sex worker. When asked how his DNA ended up on the rocks that were likely used to murder Victim, Simpson claimed he had no idea and could not explain it. Simpson then said, "I'm going to stop talking because I don't know what's going on here." The officers continued questioning Simpson, and again he stated, "I want to stop talking because I have no idea what's going on . . . . I want to stop talking right now." The officers persisted in their questioning and then later asked Simpson if he had any questions, to which Simpson responded, "I'm not asking anybody. I said this is stopping now because I don't know what's going on." Simpson was later arrested and charged with aggravated murder. A subsequent cheek swab of Simpson confirmed that Simpson's DNA matched the DNA found in Victim's vagina and on the bloodied rocks.

         ¶7 At trial, the jury heard testimony from three DNA experts. These experts testified about how DNA is collected from crime scenes and how the samples were processed in this case. The expert testimony included an explanation of how the results of the vaginal swabs revealed DNA from two males-a major and minor profile. The major profile matched Simpson, and the minor profile was insufficient for comparison. Twenty-one nanograms of DNA that matched Simpson's profile were found on a rock near Victim's body. Accordingly to the experts, the chances that another individual has the same profile as Simpson, who is Caucasian, are "one in 4.6 million for Caucasians, one in 58.2 million for African Americans, and one in 30.2 million for Hispanics."

         ¶8 To counter the State's DNA expert testimony, Simpson's counsel argued a DNA transfer theory: it could have been Simpson's DNA found in Victim's vagina, but Simpson's DNA was transferred from Victim's vagina to the rocks by the person who actually murdered Victim. Simpson's expert witness explained that "it would be possible for someone to put their fingers into the vaginal vault of the victim and then touch the rocks at the scene of the crime, thus depositing Mr. Simpson's DNA onto the rocks, even if he had not been present at the scene." Alternatively, it was "hypothesized that the unknown male contributor of DNA inside the victim's vagina could have inserted his penis into the victim's vagina, having Mr. Simpson's DNA transferred to his penis, and then if he touched his penis and then the rocks, transfer both of their DNA to the rocks." Simpson's expert did acknowledge that with each transfer of DNA, it would be expected that a progressively smaller amount would be transmitted with each subsequent transfer. The expert testified that finding twenty-one nanograms of DNA on the rock "is much higher than [one] ...

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