Arroyo v. State (Published): Two key points in this murder case, and an instance of a defendant curing the State’s erroneous questions with his own overly broad efforts to respond.
Citizenship status of witness to a murder is irrelevant: The State’s key witness was a single mother illegal alien. Counsel for Arroyo wanted to cross-examine the witness on her citizenship status. The State objected and the trial court sustained the objection. Arroyo’s counsel made a bill, asking the witness if she felt pressured by the State or had been offered benefits by the State. She denied both. Absent testimony to overcome her denials, there is no presumption of pressure or benefits. In the words of the Tyler court: “We do not understand the city police or the district attorney to play a role in the enforcement of immigration laws, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that the witness was vulnerable to the police because of her immigration status.” Consequently, the citizenship status of the witness is irrelevant.
No intrinsic harm from communications behind counsel’s back: Though Arroyo was represented by counsel, the State conveyed a plea offer to him through his sister. In extraordinary circumstances, dismissal of the indictment is a remedy available for the State’s violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. But neither Arroyo nor his sister responded to the State, so there was no proof that the State got information from this approach. Of course, Arroyo might reasonably wonder why the State is going around his counsel, and the Court might wonder what Arroyo wondered. But there was no testimony from Arroyo that the State’s backchannel offer soured his relationship with counsel. The trial court found no harm had come from the “probable” Sixth Amendment violation. The Tyler court affirmed.
Attempts to repair the harm actually worsened it: The State called Arroyo’s father as a witness. The father tried to fudge things to protect his son. The State tried to undermine the father’s credibility with the usual line of “you’d do anything to protect your kid” questions. But the State brought something else to the table this time: Arroyo’s sister was wanted for murder, and the father had refused to volunteer her whereabouts. Under a Tex. R. Evid. 403 analysis, the prejudicial effect of bringing up the sister’s acts far outweighed the less-than-startling testimony that the father wouldn’t give her up. It was error for the trial court to permit questioning on this subject.
But the State had phrased its questions in terms of the sister being “wanted” for murder. In fact, she had been convicted. Arroyo’s counsel cleared that point up during his examination of Arroyo’s father. The Tyler court viewed this as a strategic choice by Arroyo’s counsel to differentiate the guilty sister from the (turns out not) innocent Arroyo. This choice went beyond addressing the State’s erroneous questions, and thus constituted a decision by Arroyo to inject his sister’s conviction into his trial, making the State’s questions about her being “wanted” harmless error.