By Daniel Bendsten
The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld an Albany County jury’s conviction of a Laramie man for strangulation of a household member, with charges stemming from a fight with his girlfriend that occurred on the Snowy Range Road Bridge. During that incident, Morones was accused of choking his girlfriend on two separate occasions, with one strangulation incident occurring at Laramie Lanes bowling alley an another occurring atop the bridge.
22-year-old Mario Morones was convicted in May 2019 of one count of strangulation and acquitted on another strangulation charge.
Attorneys for Morones appealed his conviction, arguing there wasn’t enough evidence for the jury to convict. Because the description in the jury instructions for each strangulation charge contained identical language, Morones’s attorneys also contended jurors would not have able to discern which incident of strangulation they intended to convict Morones for.
The Supreme Court ultimately upheld Morones’s conviction, noting that jurors didn’t appear to be confused about which count corresponded to which alleged strangulation incident.
However, they did warn courts about providing more specificity in jury instructions.
“The jury instructions were identical and each simply listed the elements of the crime without referring to the specific conduct allegedly committed under each count. The verdict form likewise made no distinction between the two counts,” the Supreme Court stated. “In Triplett v. State, we emphasized the importance of specificity to ensure a constitutionally-guaranteed unanimous verdict. … Because the jury instructions and verdict form were identical, some jurors may have convicted based on the bowling alley incident, while others may have convicted based on the bridge incident.”
During opening arguments at Morones’s trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys distinguished between the two strangulation charges chronologically.
“The parties consistently described the events in a sequential fashion describing the incident outside the bowling alley as first, and the incident on the bridge as second,” the Supreme Court stated. “Even so, we caution the State and district courts to be mindful of the need for specificity in cases involving multiple counts of the same crime.”
Morones was arrested Oct. 26, 2018, for the strangulation after an investigation that stemmed from Laramie Police Department officer Troy Bartel seeing a truck on the bridge “driving very slowly and going to both sides of the road.”
The driver informed Bartel that a woman, who was in the passenger’s seat, had flagged her down and gotten into her truck amid an attack from her boyfriend.
At the time, the driver and the victim were looking for the victim’s phone and purse, which had been thrown over the bridge by her boyfriend.
Separately, and around the same time, LPD officer Peter Belgarde had stopped Morones for suspicion of a DUI.
When Belgarde questioned Morones, he made a few incriminating statements when explaining he had gotten into an argument with his girlfriend.
Morones told Belgarde he may have choked his girlfriend when “he went to grab her when she shrugged her arms up so his right hand ended up going over her lower throat or chest area and his left hand was on her right shoulder,” according to Bartel’s affidavit of probable cause.
“Morones stated he may have put pressure on her neck but it was because he was trying to pull her closer,” the affidavit states.
Morones’s blood-alcohol concentration was recorded at 0.15% shortly after.
When Bartel talked to the victim on the day of the incident, she said that she and Morones had been at Laramie Lanes when he “became aggressive” and she decided to leave the bowling alley.
“The victim started to run away from Morones when he grabbed her and then choked her with both hands in front of her with his thumbs across her throat and fingers to the back of her neck,” the affidavit states.
When Morones let go of her, she ran south down Third Street and ran across the Snowy Range Road Bridge.
Morones reportedly got in his truck, drove over the bridge, parked, and grabbed her purse and threw it over the bridge.
The affidavit states that Morones began choking his girlfriend on the bridge again before she fought him off and entered the passenger’s seat of a passing truck.
When the victim was inspected, she had numerous red marks on her neck and she was bleeding from a cut on her head.
As part of the appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, Morones’s attorneys contended that Kricken improperly allow hearsay testimony from the girlfriend’s nurse to be used as evidence. That nurse testified to the victim’s account of the strangulation.
However, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that testimony was allowable under a hearsay exception in the Wyoming Rule of Evidence which states that hearsay can be admitted when it involves “(s)tatements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and describing medical history, or past or present symptoms, pain, or sensations, or the inception or general character of the cause or external source thereof insofar as reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the victim’s account of the strangulation was made “For the purpose of medical diagnosis or treatment.”
“The victim in this case gave her narrative of what occurred and, based on that description, the SANE nurse focused her assessment on the victim’s head, neck, and back. That exam identified physical injuries sufficient for the treating physician to reach his diagnosis— strangulation,” the Supreme Court rules. “Further, based on the victim’s statement, she underwent a diagnostic CT scan to ensure there was no internal damage to the structures in her neck and throat. The victim’s statement plainly meets the second prong of the test because the treating physician in this case relied on it for diagnosis and treatment.”
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By Daniel Bendsten