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State v. Niskala

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

December 12, 2019

State of New Hampshire
Geneva Niskala

         The defendant, Geneva Niskala, appeals her convictions by a jury in Superior Court (Brown, J.) for felony falsifying physical evidence, see RSA 641:6 (2016), and misdemeanor reckless conduct, see RSA 631:3, I (2016). On appeal, she argues that the evidence was insufficient to convict her of either charge. We affirm.

         I. Facts

         The jury could have found the following facts. The defendant leases an apartment at 70 Main Street in Antrim. Her apartment building shares a driveway with the Antrim Town Hall. Visitors to 70 Main Street park in the parking lot behind the Town Hall. The Antrim Police Department is located directly across the street from the defendant's apartment building.

         At approximately 8:43 p.m. on September 14, 2017, a call to 911 was made from the Town Hall parking lot. The caller, the defendant's daughter, asked for an ambulance because she had found a man in his car apparently overdosing.

         Police responded to the call "for an overdose in the back parking lot behind the [Antrim] Town Hall." They arrived at the scene at approximately 8:47 p.m. Upon arriving, police found Thomas Belcher, lying flat on his back on the pavement of the parking lot, next to a vehicle, evidently in the middle of an overdose. Belcher was unconscious and nonresponsive. Periodically, he engaged in "agonal breathing," which means that he would stop breathing and then suddenly gasp for air.

         The defendant's daughter told the police that Belcher had visited her that evening at the 70 Main Street apartment and that, after he had left, she found him sitting in the driver's seat of his vehicle, in distress. The defendant's daughter said that she and the defendant had assisted Belcher out of the vehicle, laid him on the ground, knew that he was overdosing on drugs, administered CPR, and called 911.

         Paramedics arrived in an ambulance at approximately 8:53 p.m. They administered two doses of NARCAN, a drug that reverses the effect of opiate narcotics such as heroin and fentanyl, and while they were preparing a third dose, Belcher revived. Belcher gave the police permission to search his vehicle, where they found plastic baggies containing white powdery residue consistent with heroin or fentanyl as well as "burnt metal mesh" that is used when smoking crack cocaine from a glass or metal pipe. While paramedics ministered to Belcher, police saw the defendant and her boyfriend in the doorway of her apartment building, smoking cigarettes.

         The defendant's daughter eventually told police that Belcher had snorted a quarter gram of heroin that night. Police observed that the defendant's daughter also exhibited "signs of opiate use" because she was vomiting and had "pinpoint pupils." After Belcher was revived, he refused to be transported to the hospital for further medical treatment. Instead, he and the defendant's daughter returned to the 70 Main Street apartment.

         Motion-sensitive video cameras in the Town Hall parking lot captured events that occurred that evening. Video from the cameras show Belcher arriving at the parking lot at approximately 8:07 p.m. that evening, exiting his vehicle, and going into one of the nearby apartment buildings. At approximately 8:37 p.m., the video shows the defendant with a man (later identified as her boyfriend) and her daughter carrying Belcher's limp body from the apartment building to the parking lot. The defendant and her boyfriend can be seen on the video returning to the apartment building while her daughter remains with Belcher. At trial, the video was shown and the recording of the 911 call was played for the jury.

         II. Appellate Arguments

         The defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support either of her convictions. When considering a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we objectively review the record to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, considering all the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the State. State v. Norman, 171 N.H. 103, 112 (2018). When the evidence as to one or more elements of the charged offense is solely circumstantial, a defendant challenging sufficiency must establish that the evidence does not exclude all reasonable conclusions except guilt. State v. Boggs, 171 N.H. 115, 125 (2018). The proper analysis is not whether every possible conclusion consistent with innocence has been excluded, but, rather, whether all reasonable conclusions based upon the evidence have been excluded. Id.

         By contrast, when the proof involves both direct and circumstantial evidence, a sufficiency challenge will fail if the evidence, including the jury's credibility determinations, is such that a rational trier of fact could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even if the evidence would support a rational conclusion other than guilt if the jury had resolved credibility issues differently. State v. Saintil-Brown, 172 N.H. 110, 117 (2019). Regardless of whether the evidence is solely circumstantial or involves both direct and circumstantial evidence, we consider it in the light most favorable to the State, and we examine each evidentiary item in the context of all of the evidence, not in isolation. Id. Because a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence raises a claim of legal error, our standard of review is de novo. Id.

         A. Falsifying Physical Evidence

         To convict the defendant of falsifying physical evidence, the State had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that, "believing that an . . . investigation [was] pending or about to be instituted," she altered or removed Belcher's body "with a purpose to impair its verity or availability in such . . . investigation." RSA 641:6. After the State rested, the defendant moved to dismiss the charge on the ground that the ...

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