AMERICAN SAMOA GOVERNMENT, Plaintiff,
SELINA ROPATI, Defendant.
Court of American Samoa
defendant’s confession will be suppressed if it was obtained after police effectuated
an illegal arrest, unless the causal connection between the arrest and the
confession had become so attenuated that the latter shall not be deemed tainted
by the former.
police questioning takes place at a police station, that fact alone does not
convert an otherwise volitional act into an arrest.
evidence that someone committed an alleged crime is the traditional minimal
means of corroboration permitting admission of a defendant’s incriminating
reviewing a motion for new trial, the court has broad power to grant
relief. It is within the court’s
discretion to weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses.
 A new trial
should be granted only if it is in the interest of justice, and when a court
finds there to have been no legal errors, there is no reason to grant such
RICHMOND, Associate Justice, TUPUIVAO, Associate Judge, and MAMEA, Associate
Counsel: For Plaintiff, Frederick J. O’Brien, Asst. Attorney
For Defendant, Bentley C. Adams III, Asst.
DENYING MOTION FOR
OR NEW TRIAL
October 10, 2002, a jury found the defendant Selina Ropati (“Ropati”) guilty of
murder in the second degree. Ropati moved
for reconsideration or new trial, arguing in essence that: (1) in order to
prove Ropati’s guilt, plaintiff American Samoa Government (“ASG”) relied
entirely on her incriminating written statements to the police that should have
been excluded from evidence as illegally obtained; (2) without the
incriminating statements, the evidence was insufficient to prove guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt; and (3) in any event, the court should exercise its
discretion to grant a retrial in a close evidentiary case.
following relevant evidence was adduced at trial. During the evening of May 8, 2002, Ropati’s
neighbor, Savea Pulu (“Savea”) heard noises outside his house. As he checked, he saw someone walking in a
darkened area and heard a baby cry for perhaps two or three minutes. He and Sani Ala`ia (“Sani”), another
neighbor, looked in the area behind their houses but did not find a baby. His wife, Sefulusene Pulu (“Sene”), looked
for a baby the next morning, May 9. Sene
did not find a baby, but she did see the bloody floor in the outside bathroom
used by Iakopo Gaisoa and Omeka Gaisoa (“the Gaisoas”), with whom Ropati had
the afternoon of May 9, Sene asked Ropati about a baby. Ropati told her that she gave birth standing
up in the outdoor bathroom, the baby fell to the concrete floor, and she buried
the baby nicely in the plantation area of the neighborhood. After Savea and Sani returned home from work
on May 9, Savea also asked Ropati about the baby, and Ropati showed him, Sani,
and Sene the location of the baby’s body; it was in a sack, partially hidden
among rocks, in the bush area behind the houses. Sani removed and cleaned the female baby’s
body, and covered the body in a clean sheet.
The baby’s umbilical was still attached and partially wrapped around the
baby’s neck. Sani cut the end of the
umbilical cord to remove it from the baby’s neck. The police were
the time of the baby’s birth until Sene asked her that day, Ropati did not say
anything to anyone about the baby’s birth or death. Police Sgt. Kilisitina A. Simanu (“Sgt.
Simanu”) was at the scene of the baby’s death during the evening of May 9. Not then suspecting any foul play, she did
not put Ropati in any form of custody, but did ask her what happened. Ropati told her the baby was born dead in the
outdoor bathroom, and pointed to the unlit area where she put the body. Sgt. Simanu did see the blood on the bathroom
Simanu took Ropati to the LBJ Tropical Medical Center for examination. They talked at the medical center while
waiting for the examining doctor. Sgt.
Simanu believed that she and Ropati were getting along with each other, and
though Ropati seemed reluctant to talk, she did answer questions. Ropati told Sgt. Simanu that she was unhappy
with her live-in companion in Samoa because he had gone to New Zealand leaving
her while she was pregnant. She came to
American Samoa to live with the Gaisoas, but was too embarrassed to tell them
her condition. Ropati also said that on
May 8, she felt birth pain during an afternoon Bible study session and returned
to the Gaisoas’ home where the pain increased until she gave birth. The doctor then came and examined Ropati in
Sgt. Simanu’s presence. After the
examination, Sgt. Simanu thought that Ropati appeared weak and arranged for
Ropati to stay overnight at the medical center.
following day, May 10, Sgt. Simanu again saw Ropati at the medical center. She asked Ropati to write a statement about
the circumstances of giving birth.
Ropati agreed and Sgt. Simanu gave her two or three police statement
forms for this purpose. She told Ropati
that she would be back later that day, but if Ropati was then released from the
medical center, she would come to Ropati’s home at a later time to pick up the
led to the situation on May 13, 2002, when Sgt. Simanu obtained Ropati’s
written statement at the main police station in Fagatogo. Ropati admitted in the statement that when
the baby was born, she choked the baby to death. Sgt. Simanu was totally unaware that
asphyxiation may have been the cause of the baby’s death. Indeed, the autopsy establishing asphyxiation
as the cause of death was not performed until May 16, 2002, three days
later. Sgt. Simanu did not have any
information indicating that Ropati may have strangled the baby or any reason to
suggest to Ropati that she had killed her baby by any particular means.
trial, Roel B. Cayari, M.D. (“Dr. Cayari”), testified. He is a pathologist and performed the autopsy
of the baby’s body on May 16, 2002.
According to him, the female baby was born alive, full-term. He did not find any significant
abnormalities, except bleeding from small ruptures in the lungs and hemorrhage
on the left scalp side of the forehead.
He testified that the scalp injury may have been caused, for
by contact with Ropati’s pelvic area during birth or a fall after birth, but it
was in no event the cause of death or a contributing factor.
Cayari established asphyxiation as the cause of death, but he could not
determine whether this was due to a natural or unnatural cause. He also added that if the baby had been
strangled, visible evidence of injury to the child’s neck would be
expected. However, this was not always
the case. He confirmed that no visible
injury was present here. In all, Dr.
Cayari’s testimony showed that death by unnatural asphyxiation was a possibility.
A. Illegally Obtained
asserts that her confession to the police was illegal because it was fruit of a
poisonous tree, to wit, an illegal arrest.
We will suppress a defendant’s confession if it was obtained after
police effectuated an illegal arrest “unless the causal connection between the
arrest and the confession had become so attenuated that the latter should not
be deemed ‘tainted’ by the former.” Am.
Samoa Gov’t v. Sefo, 21 A.S.R.2d 32, 34 n.1 (Trial Div. 1992) (citing Wong
Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963)).
In this case, however, suppression is not necessary as our factual
findings, which we do not deem to be clearly erroneous, show that Ropati was
not in fact under arrest.
The evidence at trial adduced during ASG’s case-in-chief and at the pretrial
suppression hearing showed that, contrary to Ropati’s contentions, she was
asked to go to the police station and make a statement and she voluntarily
acquiesced. She was further advised that
she was not under arrest and she was free to leave whenever she chose to do so.
While at the station, she was once again
advised that she was not in custody and was free to leave at any time. Though the police questioning took place at
the police station, that factor alone does not convert an otherwise volitional
act into an arrest. See Am. Samoa
Gov’t v. Afamasaga, 17 A.S.R.2d 145, 148-49 (Trial Div. 1990) (defendant
who voluntarily accompanied officer to station was not under arrest).
we do not find clear error with our factual findings that Ropati voluntarily
waived her Miranda rights and knowingly and intelligently gave a statement. Even after hearing the evidence at trial,
there is no merit to Ropati’s claims that she was coerced by physical and verbal
threats. Furthermore, as will be
discussed, we find that the statement itself is trustworthy. In light of this, we affirm our earlier
ruling that the statement need not have been suppressed.
B. Sufficiency of the Evidence
argues that even if the written incriminating statements are not suppressed,
ASG failed to carry its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On this point, she apparently seeks a
complete acquittal and discharge, rather than merely a new trial. Enmeshed in this argument is an additional
challenge that it was impermissible to use the incriminating statements as
substantive evidence of the crime without any corroboration. Unquestionably, ASG’s most crucial piece of
evidence was Ropati’s incriminating statements to the police. She essentially confessed to killing, by
strangulation, her newborn child.
Without Ropati’s statements, the evidence was clearly insufficient to
find Ropati guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
On the other hand, with her statements, the evidence was sufficient to
find her guilty under this standard.
for various reasons, have long been wary of a criminal justice system that
relies on confessions as the sole evidence of guilt. See generally Escobedo v. Illinois,
387 U.S. 478, 488-90 (1964); Dickerson, 163 F.3d at 641; U nited
States v. Singleterry, 29 F.3d 733, 736-37 (1st. Cir. 1994); United
States v. Lopez-Alvarez, 970 F.2d 583, 589 (9th Cir. 1992). Accordingly,
courts have adopted protective measures.
Incriminating statements of this nature are not admissible evidence “in
the absence of ‘substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish
the trustworthiness of [the] statement.’”
Singleterry, 29 F.2d at 737 (quoting Opper v. United States,
348 U.S. 84, 93 (1954)); see also Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147
(1954); United States v. Calderon, 348 U.S. 160 (1954); United States
v. Dickerson, 163 F.3d 639 (D.C.Cir. 1999). Corroborating evidence can come
in the form of either “independent proof of the commission of the charged
offense [or] ‘independent evidence to bolster the confession itself and thereby
prove the offense ‘through’ the statements of the accused.’” Singleterry,
29 F.2d at 737 (quoting Smith, 348 U.S. at 156).
evidence that someone committed an alleged crime is the traditional minimal
means of corroboration permitting admission of a defendant’s incriminating
statements. Shunk, 881 F.2d at
919. In this respect, ASG’s evidence,
other than Ropati’s incriminating statements, is equivocal. The circumstances in evidence are subject to
reasonable interpretations. In the
absence of congenital defects or signs of illness, the baby’s death appears to
have been either accidental or homicidal.
Nonetheless, the latter interpretation is plausible if coupled with
other significant indications of the trustworthiness of Ropati’s incriminating
statements, which would provide sufficient corroborative evidence for admission
of those statements to the jury.
Simanu obtained Ropati’s incriminating statements on May 13, 2002, three days
before Dr. Cayari performed the autopsy establishing asphyxiation as the cause
of the baby’s death. On May 13, Sgt.
Simanu did not have any information or reason to suggest to Ropati that she had
killed her baby by strangulation or any other particular means. The result of the autopsy—death caused by
asphyxiation, possibly by unnatural means—lends credence to Ropati’s
acknowledgement three days earlier of choking the baby to death. These facts tend to confirm the trustworthiness
of Ropati’s incriminating statements.
conclusion, we were, and still are, satisfied that the evidence presented by
ASG, outside of Ropati’s incriminating statements, sufficiently corroborated those
statements for purposes of introducing the statements into evidence for the
jury’s consideration. The jury, as the
trier of fact, had before it proper and substantial evidence to determine
whether or not Ropati was guilty of the homicidal death of her baby. The jury’s determination of Ropati’s guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt was supported by sufficient evidence.
C. Close Case Discretion
Finally, characterizing the evidence as creating a close case, Ropati asks that
we use our discretion to grant a new trial in a close case. In reviewing a motion for new trial, we have
broad power to grant relief. 3 Charles Alan Wright, Federal Practice and
Procedure: Criminal 2d § 553 (2d ed. 1982). It is within our discretion and we “may weigh
the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses.” Id.
This case may be classified as closer than many criminal prosecutions,
at least but for Ropati’s incriminating written statements. However, because we have found there to have been
no legal errors, we see no reason to grant the motion. See Am. Samoa Gov’t v. Snow, 26
A.S.R.2d 78, 80 (Trial Div. 1994) (New trial granted only if it is in the
interest of justice).
the reasons stated above, Ropati’s motion for reconsideration or new trial is
is so ordered.
 The fact that
Ropati received Miranda warnings does not change our determination that
Ropati was not under arrest. Miranda
warnings are necessary when someone is in police custody. See Am. Samoa Gov’t v. Fealofa`i, 24
A.S.R.2d 10, 11 (Trial Div. 1993).
Nevertheless, it is possible to be in custody, for purposes of Miranda,
yet not under arrest, for purposes of Am.
Samoa. Rev. Const. art. I §
5 and U.S. Const. amend. IV. See United States v. Henley, 984 F.2d
1040, 1042 (9th Cir. 1993); United States v. Corral-Franco, 848 F.2d 536
(5th Cir. 1988) (discussing the different tests for determining whether a
suspect is in custody or under arrest). Cf. United States v. Perdue, 8
F.2d 1455 (10th Cir. 1993) (discussing necessity of Miranda warnings in
context of a Terry stop).
 Ropati’s motion
as one for an acquittal based on insufficiency of the evidence is, in essence,
a motion for a judgment of acquittal pursuant to T.C.R.Cr.P. 29(c). Rule 29(c) Motions requires a judgment of
acquittal to be made, at the latest, “within 7 days after the jury is
discharged.” Ropati’s motion in this
context is therefore untimely. Id. But see infra, note 3 (discussing why
we are still addressing her argument).
complicating the matter is the confusion as to whether the corroboration
requirement is a rule of admissibility/evidence or “a rule governing the
sufficiency of the evidence.” United
States v. Dickerson, 163 F.3d 639, 642 (D.C. Cir. 1999). We think it is more meaningful to frame the
issue as one of evidence, and will treat it as such. Thus, this claim is properly before us. But, because we find that the confession was
properly corroborated, the result would be the same regardless of how we
classify her claim (and even had her motion for acquittal been timely).
 The test for
corroboration we are adopting is what seems to be the test used by the majority
of federal courts. As noted, this test
allows corroboration to be shown in either of two ways: through some evidence
that the crime occurred, often referred to as the corpus delicti rule,
or through evidence which bolsters the confession itself. See Singleterry, 29 F.3d at 737; United
States v. Jacobs, 97 F.3d 275, 283 (8th Cir. 1996) (independent proof of
injury caused by criminal act enough standing alone); United States v. Shunk,
881 F.2d 917 (10th Cir. 1989); United States v. Micieli, 594 F.2d 102,
108-09 (5th Cir. 1979) (bolstering admission with independent evidence is
sufficient corroboration); United States v. Bukowski, 435 F.2d 1094,
1106-07 (7th cir. 1970); United States v. Marcus, 401 F.2d 563, 565
(1968). But see United States
v. Lopez-Alvarez, 970 F.2d 583, 589-93 (9th Cir. 1992); see also
Singleterry, 29 F.3d at 737 n.2 (noting that many states “adhere to a more