Administrative Office of the Courts
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Aug. 27, 2020
Contact: Barry Massey, public information officer
Supreme Court upholds murder, other convictions of San Juan County man
SANTA FE – The state Supreme Court today upheld the convictions of a San Juan County man who represented himself at trial for the murder of a woman during a burglary at her home.
In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected arguments by Rick Stallings that he did not receive a fair trial because a judge declined to appoint another attorney after he twice fired appointed public defenders.
In an opinion written by Justice Barbara J. Vigil, the Court concluded that Stallings’ “refusal to explicitly waive his right to counsel was of no consequence. He waived counsel by conduct when he chose to proceed pro se after adequate warning.”
Stallings was convicted of killing Karen Cugnini in 2015 after she walked in on him while he was in her Flora Vista home. Stallings was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for first-degree murder and an additional 16½ years for convictions of aggravated burglary, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, larceny of a firearm and theft of a credit card.
Stallings contended in his appeal that he did not clearly invoke his right to self-representation.
The justices determined that the district court acted within its discretion by not appointing a third attorney to represent Stallings, who repeatedly had stated he would proceed pro se if a substitute attorney was not provided. The Court noted that the public defenders fired by Stallings had “provided diligent and thorough representation to Defendant, despite the barrage of personal attacks and even threats that Defendant leveled against them.”
In its decision, the Court clarified New Mexico’s legal doctrine for when defendants waive their constitutional right to counsel and are allowed to represent themselves. The justices concluded “a defendant may knowingly and intelligently waive counsel by conduct — the waiver need not be express.”
For there to be “waiver by conduct,” the Court determined, the trial court must conduct a formal on-the-record inquiry to assess the defendant’s awareness and understanding of the requirements and risks of self-representation. That occurred in Stallings’ case.
“The district court provided him with adequate advice and forewarning and discerned that Defendant was fully aware of the potential consequences of his choice,” the Court concluded. “Thereafter, the court was obligated to respect his decision to exercise the right to self-representation. Defendant’s choice, however ill-advised, was nonetheless his own, and no remedy is available to him.”
In rejecting other arguments raised on appeal by Stallings, the Court determined there was sufficient evidence to support his convictions and he was not prejudiced by evidence that he possessed methamphetamine when arrested. The Court noted that Stallings, during his opening statement at trial, admitted he was a methamphetamine user.
To read the decision in State v. Stallings, No. S-1-SC-36843, please visit the New Mexico Compilation Commission's website using the following link: