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Attorney General Van Hollen Commends Court of Appeals Opinion Affirming Conviction for First-Degree Intentional Homicide

 

MADISON - The Wisconsin Court of Appeals today affirmed the conviction of Calvin Jerome Pirtle for first-degree intentional homicide, and an order denying his motion for postconviction relief.  The court concluded that the search of Pirtle’s residence was lawful, that Pirtle waived and forfeited his right to be present in court by his disruptive actions, and waived his right to testify, and that the trial court properly did not allow Pirtle to fire his attorney on the first day of trial, properly denied Pirtle’s motion for a mistrial, and was not biased at sentencing.  

 

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen praised the court of appeals' decision: “Today’s decision validates a proper search of Pirtle’s residence by police, who entered his residence with the consent of another resident, and without objection by Pirtle.  The decision also affirms the trial court’s authority to control its courtroom in the face of a disruptive and disrespectful defendant.” 

 

According to the opinion, Pirtle’s girlfriend and co-resident called 911 after she found blood and a dead body in a garbage can in the basement.  Milwaukee police went to the residence and the girlfriend let an officer into the residence, while Pirtle waited in a police wagon.  Pirtle did not object to the officer entering the residence.  The officer went inside and saw the body.  Officers asked Pirtle for consent to search the residence, and he refused.  Officers obtained a search warrant and found Pirtle’s blood on the victim and his DNA under her fingernails.  Pirtle was arrested, and he confessed to killing the woman. 

 

Pirtle was charged with first-degree intentional homicide.  The trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence, and he was tried to a jury.  On the first day of trial, Pirtle requested a new attorney.  The court denied the request, and Pirtle refused to return to the courtroom until the second day of trial.  Pirtle’s attorney later moved for a mistrial due to reports that a woman in the hallway outside the courtroom had yelled “innocent, innocent” to some of the jurors.  The trial court denied the motion and instructed the jurors to disregard the comment.  Pirtle opted not to testify at trial.  The jury found him guilty of first-degree intentional homicide.

 

At sentencing, the trial court noted that Pirtle had been arrested for sexual assault in 2007 in a case with a similar fact situation to the current case.  Pirtle accused the judge of bias, and after an exchange, the court called Pirtle “a piece of garbage.”  The court apologized, and then imposed sentence of life imprisonment with no eligibility for extended supervision.  Pirtle moved for postconviction relief, asserting that the court was biased.  The court denied the motion, stating that it was not subjectively biased, and that the sentence it imposed was based on the circumstances of the case and not on the exchange with Pirtle. 

 

The court of appeals affirmed in a unanimous decision.  The court concluded that the entry into Pirtle’s residence was lawful.  The court noted that if one co-resident consents to entry into the residence and another expressly refuses consent, the entry is unlawful.  However, because his girlfriend consented to the entry and Pirtle did not object, the entry was lawful.  Then, after police found the body and Pirtle refused to consent to a further search, officers lawfully obtained a search warrant.

 

The court of appeals concluded that the trial court properly determined that Pirtle’s request to fire his attorney was for the purpose of delaying the trial, and that any conflict between Pirtle did not result in a total lack of communication.  The court of appeals further concluded that Pirtle waived and forfeited his right to be present in the courtroom by his “disruptive and disrespectful conduct.”  The court of appeals determined that the trial court properly denied Pirtle’s motion for a mistrial after the comment by a passerby, because the court instructed the jurors to disregard the comment.  The court of appeals concluded that Pirtle knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to testify.  Finally, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not show judicial bias when it called Pirtle a “piece of garbage” at sentencing, but that the court’s remark resulted from its “justifiable frustration with Pirtle’s disruptions and disrespect.”         

 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision in Calvin Jerome Pirtle, No. 2010AP1363-CR, appears at the Court's website: 

http://www.wicourts.gov/ca/opinion/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=63762

 

The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office prosecuted Pirtle in Milwaukee County Circuit Court.  Assistant Attorney General Michael Sanders represented the State of Wisconsin in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.