Fifth Circuit Rejects Habeas Request of Man who Stabbed Firefighter

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of a man sentenced to forty-years in prison for stabbing a firefighter at a fire scene in 2014. Kirk Ross Engle was convicted of stabbing Yorktown, Texas firefighter Brian Smolik.

The facts as described in the court ruling are as follows:

  • According to trial testimony, the events that gave rise to Engle’s conviction occurred on the evening of August 19, 2014 in Yorktown, Texas.
  • Firefighters from the Yorktown Volunteer Fire Department were called to the scene of a brush fire.
  • When they arrived, Engle was standing nearby and told them he had started the fire intentionally.
  • He taunted the firefighters, saying “f*** the fire department” and discouraging them from putting out the fire.
  • As firefighter Brian Smolik prepared to extinguish the blaze anyway, Engle said, “Do you want to die tonight?” and then stabbed Smolik in the stomach with a knife.
  • When Smolik’s fellow volunteer Monte Riedel moved to intervene, Engle threatened, “Do you want to get stabbed tonight, too?” before fleeing on foot.
  • Eric Von Helbing, another firefighter on the scene, called the police and paramedics.
  • Smolik was transported to the hospital, where he remained for four days, three of which he spent in the ICU.

When arrested, Engle admitted to stabbing Smolik claiming he wanted to go back to prison, which he referred to as “home.” He lamented that it was “hard making it outside of prison” and “didn’t want to get out.” He also told officers that Smolik was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Later, when given his Miranda warning at the police station, he refused to speak to officers.

At trial, Engle admitted to stabbing Smolik, but claimed temporary insanity due to a medication reaction. The case set up an interesting Constitutional dilemma: Engle claims he was temporarily insane at the time of the offense due to a medication reaction. Yet he made rational statements to officers about why he stabbed Smolik that were consistent with what he told other witnesses about wanting to return to prison. Prosecutors also questioned him on the witness-stand about the fact he invoked his right to remain silent, suggesting that his decision to remain silent was proof he was not insane.

Engle was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison as a habitual offender. When his state court challenges proved unsuccessful, Engle filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court claiming his due process rights had been violated due to prosecutorial misconduct. The trial court denied the writ, prompting his appeal to the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit denied the writ, but not before finding that the prosecution violated Engle’s due process rights:

  • We think it follows naturally and necessarily… that the prosecution in this case violated Engle’s due-process rights.
  • At the outset of custodial interrogation following his arrest, Ranger Wilson gave Engle the statutorily required warning that he “ha[d] the right to terminate the interview at any time.”
  • Engle immediately invoked this right.
  • The prosecutor subsequently relied on that invocation at trial as evidence of Engle’s sanity.
  • The State, in doing so, violated the clearly established strictures of the Due Process Clause, as construed by the Court.
  • That Engle’s due-process rights were violated does not necessarily mean, however, that he is entitled to habeas relief.
  • He must also demonstrate prejudice—that is, that the constitutional error was sufficiently serious as to call the outcome of his trial into doubt.
  • This is where Engle falls short.
  • Our careful review of the record leaves us with the firm impression that the constitutional violation did not have a substantial effect on the verdict.
  • For one, the prosecution’s references to Engle’s termination of questioning were relatively infrequent.
  • That fact was mentioned in the prosecutor’s opening argument and again during his direct examination of Ranger Wilson, but only twice did the prosecutor suggest any kind of connection between Engle’s termination of questioning and his sanity.
  • Moreover, the prosecutor’s fleeting mentions of Engle’s invocation of his right to terminate police questioning were merely cumulative of the State’s other, far stronger evidence of Engle’s lucidity at the time he stabbed Smolik.
  • The prosecution elicited testimony that, just before the assault, Engle explained to the firefighters that he had started the fire on purpose, as well as that Engle told the police who arrested him that he had been “waiting for [them]” and had wanted to return to prison.
  • Engle apparently had the presence of mind at the time of his arrest that, upon overhearing one of the officers misspelling Engle’s name to dispatch, he interjected to correct the spelling.
  • Engle then explained to Ranger Wilson after arriving at the Sheriff’s Office that he wanted to go back to prison and that “this [was] what it took.”
  • Once the jury had heard the foregoing evidence of Engle’s lucidity at the time of the offense, it is quite implausible that testimony that Engle terminated police interrogation by uttering a single word—a fact far less probative of his sanity than the extensive testimony about his contemporaneous interactions with police and firefighters—could have substantially affected the verdict.
  • On the whole, even setting aside the improper mentions of Engle’s invocation of his right to terminate police interrogation, the evidence offered by the State to rebut his claim of temporary insanity was overwhelming.

Here is the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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