Facts: Daniel Clay was convicted of the murder of Chelsea Bruck in case that was widely followed throughout Southeast Michigan, and particularly in Monroe County. In October of 2014, Ms. Bruck went missing and was later confirmed to have died. In 2016, police identified Mr. Clay as a possible suspect, based on a DNA match. During questioning, Mr. Clay ultimately told police that he had had a consensual sexual encounter with Ms. Bruck, during which the two engaged in erotic asphyxiation, from which Ms. Bruck died. Mr. Clay told police that he panicked and hid her body in a wooded area. After a lengthy trial, Mr. Clay was convicted of Felony Murder and Concealing the Death of an Individual. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Issues: On appeal, Mr. Clay raised five separate issues, challenging his conviction:
1. First, Mr. Clay argued that the evidence at trial was not sufficient to support his conviction. A person is guilty of Felony Murder when that person (1) kills a human being, (2) with the intent to kill, to cause great bodily harm, or to create a high risk of death or great bodily harm with knowledge of the risk, (3) while committing or attempting to certain types of felonies,
Mr. Clay argued that the evidence did not establish that he was committing any of the felonies that would provide a basis for felony murder. Spcifially, he argued that the evidence did not establish that the sexual encounter between himself and Ms. Bruck was non-consensual. He also argued that he did not have the proper mental state to have the necessary intent because he was intoxicated.
Holding: The Court of Appeals, however, held the evidence presented at trial, taken in the light most favorable to the prosecutor could be interpreted as establishing that Mr. Clay committed Third Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct and/or a felony Assault. The court also noted that voluntary intoxication is not a defense to an intentional crime.
2. Next, Mr. Clay argued that the trial court should have excluded his DNA, which had been collected when he had been charged with a crime, which was ultimately dismissed.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the DNA that was used to convict Mr. Clay was lawfully within the possession of law enforcement at the time that it was used to identify Mr. Clay as a suspect, because less than 60 days had passed since the prior charge had been dismissed. MCL 28.176. Moreover, the court noted that the prosecution would inevitably have discovered Mr. Clay’s DNA when he was charged in another about a month after his arrest in the Bruck case.
3. Third, Mr. Clay argued that the trial court should have suppressed his statements to police because he had asked for a lawyer and because he was intoxicated at the time of the interrogation.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s decision to allow the prosecutor to present Mr. Clay’s statements “was not outside the range of principled outcomes.” The Court of Appeals noted that Mr. Clay’s requests for a lawyer were not clear and unequivocal enough to justify reversal of his conviction. The Court of Appeals also noted that the trial court had found that “‘[t]here was no sign’ that [Mr. Clay] ‘was intoxicated, drugged or ill'” at the time of his interrogation.
4. Mr. Clay then challenged the trial court’s decision not grant his motion for change of venue and his trial lawyer’s decision not to push the issue at trial.
Holding: According to the Court of Appeals, Mr. Clay waived the issue “when he failed to renew his motion to change venue [at trial] and expressed satisfaction with the jury.” Therefore, the court was primarily concerned with the claim that the trial attorney was ineffective for failing to re-raise the issue at trial. However, the Court of Appeals held that the trial lawyer was not ineffective, because he asked the jury questions that “were designed to expose any potential bias” and ultimately settled on a jury that appeared to be fair.
5. Finally, Mr. Clay argued that the trial court should have granted his motion to suppress color photographs that were presented to the jury.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the photographs presented were relevant to the prosecutor’s case and were not “merely calculated to arouse the sympathies or prejudices of the jury . . . .” Therefore, according to the Court of Appeals, the judge did not abuse its discretion in allowing them to be admitted.
As a result of the Court of Appeals decision, Mr. Clay’s conviction stands for now. He may now file an Application for Leave to Appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, requesting that Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision. If the Michigan Supreme Court affirms his conviction, Mr. Clay may also be able to raise issues in Federal Court via a Petition for Habeas Corpus or he may ask the trial court to reconsider certain other issues via a Motion for Relief from Judgment (often called a 6.500 Motion).
If you or someone you love has been convicted of a crime, and you would like to know what your legal options are, please call our office today. We are experienced in felony appeals of all types of matters, including First Degree Murder.