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State v. O'Hara

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 9, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Mandy Lee O'Hara, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Hampshire County 15-F-76

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Mandy Lee O'Hara, by counsel Jonathan G. Brill, appeals the Circuit Court of Hampshire County's December 21, 2015, amended sentencing order following petitioner's convictions for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, concealment of a deceased human body, conspiracy to conceal a deceased human body, burglary, and conspiracy to commit burglary. Based on the jury's recommendation that petitioner not receive mercy, the circuit court sentenced petitioner to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder, and consecutive indeterminate prison terms for the remaining convictions. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Benjamin F. Yancey, III, filed a response.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In this appeal, petitioner challenges her convictions for first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, concealment of a deceased human body, conspiracy to conceal a deceased human body, burglary, and conspiracy to commit burglary. Petitioner was accused of conspiring with her boyfriend's adult son[1] to break into to the home of her estranged husband while he slept; stabbing the victim in the neck; killing him; placing the victim's body in a tarp; attaching the body in the tarp to their vehicle; and rolling the body into a river.

         Petitioner was indicted in May of 2015, and the case proceeded to a jury trial over the course of four days in August of 2015. The evidence at the trial revealed the following: While she was married to the victim, petitioner began having an affair with another man, John Shoemaker II (hereinafter, "Mr. Shoemaker"). After the victim discovered the affair in March of 2013, petitioner moved out of her and the victim's residence and moved in with Mr. Shoemaker in Capon Bridge, West Virginia. At some point thereafter, Mr. Shoemaker's son, John Shoemaker III, (hereinafter, "co-defendant"), moved in with petitioner and his father.

         In April of 2013, the victim filed for divorce from petitioner and sought custody of his and petitioner's biological sons. The family court ultimately awarded the victim primary custody of the boys and possession of the house that he previously shared with petitioner. The family court awarded petitioner limited visitation. The evidence revealed that the custody arrangement angered petitioner to the point that she talked about killing the victim with Mr. Shoemaker and the co-defendant.

         Around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of September 26, 2013, petitioner woke the co-defendant and asked "if [he] was ready." Petitioner and the co-defendant drove to the victim's residence in the co-defendant's silver Chrysler PT Cruiser. During the ride, petitioner stated that she wanted custody of her kids and wanted the victim dead. Once at the victim's house, petitioner removed a screen from a window, opened the window, and entered the house. She then went to the front door and let the co-defendant into the house. Petitioner, armed with a knife, went to the victim's bedroom where he was sleeping, rolled him over, and a fight ensued. The victim grabbed petitioner's wrist and petitioner yelled for the co-defendant's assistance, at which point the co-defendant struck the victim in the face. The knife was thrown to the floor. After taking punches from the co-defendant and petitioner, the victim fell to the floor. At that point, the co-defendant pinned the victim to the floor and petitioner choked the victim until he passed out. Petitioner then told the co-defendant to go into the kitchen to retrieve another knife, which he did; however, petitioner located the original knife that was thrown to the floor and stabbed the victim twice in the neck, killing him.

         At petitioner's direction, the co-defendant retrieved a tarp from the car. Petitioner and the co-defendant rolled the victim's body in the tarp and dragged the body out of the residence. Petitioner and the co-defendant then re-entered the house and attempted to clean the blood out of the hallway and bedroom. However, there was too much blood to clean, so petitioner retrieved a can of white paint, dumped the paint onto the remaining blood, and went back outside.

         Once outside, petitioner and the co-defendant attached the victim's body in the tarp to the back of the PT Cruiser with a cable. The pair originally attempted to put the victim's body in his own car, but the victim's body was too heavy to lift and the co-defendant could not get the victim's car to start. Therefore, petitioner and the co-defendant drove away in the PT Cruiser toward the North River with the victim's body dragging behind them.

         Around 5:00 a.m., Terry Swope and his wife were traveling in their vehicle when they came upon petitioner and the co-defendant in the PT Cruiser sitting in the road. After seeing Mr. Swope, petitioner backed her vehicle over the victim's body. Mr. Swope pulled over and saw the victim's body lying on the road behind the PT Cruiser. Mr. Swope and petitioner exited their respective vehicles and petitioner told Mr. Swope that she had accidentally run over a person who had been lying on the road. Mr. Swope asked petitioner to call 911; however, petitioner claimed she did not have a cell phone. Mr. Swope returned to his vehicle to call 911, and petitioner went back to her vehicle. At that point, petitioner yelled for Mr. Swope to approach, claiming that the victim was still alive. Mr. Swope refused; instead, he got back into his vehicle and advised his wife to lock the doors. Petitioner and the co-defendant drove off, leaving the victim's body behind.

         Shortly thereafter, petitioner and the co-defendant returned to where they left the body, but Mr. Swope was still there, so the pair sped off again. Mr. Swope followed them for about a mile before he stopped and again called 911. While waiting for the police, Mr. Swope saw petitioner and the co-defendant traveling past him in the direction of the victim's body. Petitioner and the co-defendant returned to the body a third time, reattached it to their vehicle, and drove to the North River. Petitioner pushed the victim's body into the river and then pulled it through the water to its final location underneath a tree. Petitioner and the co-defendant returned to their residence where they removed their blood and paint-stained clothes and placed them in petitioner's backpack.

         Based on Mr. Swope's 911 calls, law enforcement went to the victim's residence and began their investigation. The officers also notified the victim's sister that the victim was missing. In response, the victim's sister informed the officers about the victim's divorce and custody dispute. The officers then went to petitioner's residence, where they arrested petitioner and the co-defendant. Law enforcement was also able to locate the victim's body by following blood and other markings caused by petitioner and the co-defendant's dragging of the victim's body.

         Following a trial, the jury convicted petitioner of all six charges in the indictment. The jury did not recommend that petitioner receive mercy on the first degree murder conviction. The circuit court entered an amended sentencing order on December 21, 2015, in which the court sentenced petitioner to life in prison without the possibility for parole for first degree murder; one to five years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder; one to five years for concealment of a deceased human body; one to five years for conspiracy to conceal a deceased human body; one to fifteen years for burglary; and one to five years for conspiracy to commit burglary. The circuit court ordered the sentences to run consecutively. Petitioner now appeals to this Court.

         Discussion

         On appeal, petitioner raises the following four assignments of error: (1) the circuit court abused its discretion in giving a flight instruction to the jury because the State failed to present sufficient evidence that petitioner had taken flight; (2) the circuit court abused its discretion in failing to declare a mistrial when the State elicited prejudicial testimony regarding graphic, sexual content of letters located at the crime scene; (3) the circuit court abused its discretion in admitting prejudicial, irrelevant, and cumulative photographs; and (4) the circuit court abused its discretion in admitting incriminating letters purportedly written by petitioner without proper authentication by the State. We address petitioner's arguments in turn.

         I. Jury ...


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