A man serving 70 years to life in prison for severely disfiguring, killing, then raping his mother-in-law in front of her daughter in 2019 does not get a new trial, the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled.
Anthony Rodriguez, of Casper, punched his mother-in-law, Mary Fogle, so hard and repeatedly that her nose cartilage, upper lip, jaw and teeth dislodged from her face, then slashed her throat at least seven times before raping her. Fogle’s daughter, whom Rodriguez had punched and shoved away, watched the scene.
The Nov. 17, 2019, attack followed an argument about how to wash a mattress. Rodriguez and his wife had been living with Fogle temporarily, but the three quarreled about money and living conditions, and Fogle had resolved to ask the couple to leave, the order states.
After the murder and rape, Rodriguez reportedly covered Fogle’s body, took her wallet, checkbook, money and car, and fled Casper for Colorado Springs with his wife – the victim’s daughter – in Fogle’s car.
Two days later he turned himself in to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado Springs.
“I want to confess to murder, no bullsh***,” he told the desk attendant. “Craziest sh** I’ve done in my life.”
He was charged with first-degree murder and ultimately convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, then sentenced in Natrona County District Court to spend 70 years to life in prison.
Rodriguez appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, saying the prosecutor at his trial prejudiced him during opening statements by launching arguments against Rodriguez’s claims of self-defense.
The prosecutor had pointed to Rodriguez’s actions following the crime as contrary to normal actions following a self-defense killing: The house was locked up, the dog was gone, the victim’s purse, phone and car were all gone.
“That is not, ladies and gentlemen, the acts of a man who killed somebody –“ began the prosecutor, before being interrupted by Rodriguez’s defense attorney. The prosecutor later was allowed to finish the phrase, saying those actions don’t align “when you’re saying you killed somebody in self-defense.”
The prosecutor’s second action contested in Rodriguez’s appeal also occurred in the opening statement, when the prosecutor pointed to Rodriguez’s claim that Fogle tried to attack him with a pizza cutter.
“The pizza cutter never left he kitchen,” said the prosecutor. “It was still sitting right on the pizza pan. It still had pizza fragments all over it. And, ladies and gentlemen, a pizza cutter in the hands of a woman that’s 5 feet 5 inches tall, 160 pounds, compared to 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, isn’t something that I think you’re going to have to defend yourself with.”
The defense attorney said the statements were “argument” and could cause a mistrial. But the trial went on.
Argument in an opening statement is improper, according to the Wyoming Supreme Court ruling. But to be considered prejudicial, the argument must be severe and pervasive, significant to central issues in the case, whether the argument compensated for factual weaknesses in the state’s case, whether the jury was cautioned against taking lawyers’ arguments as facts, and the extent to which the defense invited the misconduct.
Rodriguez took issue with the prosecutor’s two arguments in the opening statements because he believed they undermined his main defense that he was mentally ill at the time of the crime and couldn’t rationalize what he was doing, the ruling states.
But even without the prosecutor’s comments, “the evidence was overwhelming that … he was not suffering a severely abnormal mental condition, and he understood the wrongfulness of his conduct,” the court wrote. “He fled the state in Ms. Fogle’s vehicle with her purse, billfold, credit cards and checkbook, and he told authorities he felt bad for killing Ms. Fogle and requested a plea deal.”
Two psychiatrists, one chosen by the state and one by Rodriguez, both ruled determined that though he has personality disorders, he was not so grossly mentally impaired at the time of his crime that he couldn’t rationalize his wrongdoing, the order states.
“Given the lack of evidence to support Mr. Rodriguez’s (mental illness) defense, it is not reasonably probable that the verdict would have been different in the absence of the State’s argument in opening,” the court wrote. “Any error in the opening statement was therefore harmless.”
Rodriguez also had taken issue with the prosecutor’s comment during the closing statement when the prosecutor said, “Ladies and gentlemen, (Rodriguez) should get an Emmy.”
The defense objected the “improper argument,” the judge overruled the objection.
But the prosecutor’s comments during the close likewise did not sway the jury more than the actual evidence, the Wyoming Supreme Court concluded.