An El Paso County jury convicted Enrique Gorostieta in 2019 of possession of a weapon by a former offender.
To determine it was the same Enrique Gorostieta who had a drug conviction in 2016, jurors were told the name, date of birth and county matched, and they were also given a physical description of the defendant of the previous case.
Last May, the state Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Gorostieta was the same defendant in both lawsuits. But the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, based on the dissenting judge’s belief that more information was needed to say beyond a reasonable doubt that the same man was involved in both crimes. .
“TThe prosecution must present the jury with a unique or separate identifier that would provide a critical link between the defendant and the prior conviction,” public defender Mackenzie Shields told the judges during closing arguments last week.
Police arrested Gorostieta in January 2019 following reports of gunfire in the 2000 block of Whitewood Drive in Colorado Springs. Officers found firearms under the seats of the SUV Gorostieta was driving, along with ammunition. Prosecutors charged him with possession of a weapon by a former offender and noted that his previous offense was a drug conviction in March 2016, also in El Paso County.
Jurors were shown court records from the drug case which included Enrique Ernesto Gorostieta’s name, a date of birth and physical characteristics of race, height, weight, hair color and eye color . The defense argued that the prosecution failed to prove he was the same Enrique Gorostieta who was convicted in 2016.
A panel of three judges from the Court of Appeal subsequently upheld his weapons conviction. The majority agreed that the prosecution might have tried harder to prove his identity, but a reasonable jury could conclude that the same man was involved in both cases.
Judge Ted C. Tow III dissented, finding that name, date of birth, and physical description did not necessarily constitute proof of identity beyond a reasonable doubt.
“No one testified that Gorostieta’s fingerprints or signature matched those in the prior court record. The jury did not receive a photograph of the prior court record,” Tow wrote. “Furthermore, the physical description was relatively indescribable, describing a black-haired Hispanic male of essentially average height and weight – literally a description that likely fit hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the county. ‘El Paso.’
During oral arguments in the Supreme Court, some justices were skeptical that Gorostieta’s jury had too little information to decide that the two crimes involved the same defendant.
“It’s not just that we have someone who is 5’4″ and 192 pounds in Colorado Springs. Or someone who is 5’4″, 192 pounds who is Latino,” Judge Richard L. Gabriel said. “We have someone named Gorostieta in Colorado Springs who committed a crime in Colorado Springs, and there is another person named Gorostieta who committed a crime three years prior who is 5’4″ and 192 pounds and is latin.”
“Damn,” he continued, “it’s a pretty good coincidence that someone named Gorostieta has all of those qualities.”
Shields argued that, at a minimum, a name and date of birth were insufficient to establish identity, and the government agreed in principle. While Shields said the geographic location of the prior conviction might be an important detail in smaller counties, El Paso County’s status as the most populous in Colorado made it less definitive that the same Enrique Gorostieta had committed both crimes.
Judge Maria E. Bekrenkotter, the former Boulder County Chief Judge, observed that clerical errors or suspects using the wrong name were both plausible explanations for a defendant’s mistaken identity.
“In fact, I’ve had cases before as a trial court judge where all of a sudden something is thrown out because the defendant is not who law enforcement thought he was. he was,” she said.
Berkenkotter said she understands why relying on physical characteristics, such as height and weight, may be insufficient evidence for defendants with seemingly generic names or average proportions. However, “someone who weighs 600 pounds and is seven feet tall, that could be part of the general physical description. That might be enough to be a unique identifier,” she added.
Assistant Attorney General Trina K. Kissel argued that juries should be allowed to determine the identity of a suspect in a prior conviction “in the usual way,” without any special evidentiary requirements. Although there were no unique identifiers for Gorostieta, such as fingerprint matches or marks such as tattoos, she believed the combination of factors correctly led the jury to conclude that he was the defendant in the 2016 drug conviction.
Gabriel alluded to the possibility that a jury that doesn’t know a defendant’s ethnicity could draw inferences about the likelihood that two people have the same name.
“I’m afraid to leave the jury to speculation. There are cross-cultural issues, aren’t there?” He asked.
“Yes, and I’m sensitive to it,” Kissel replied. “I’m not suggesting the name alone is enough. But the jury can use their common sense.”
The case is Gorostieta c. People.