On Appeal from The 19th Judicial District Court, In and for Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana. Trial Court No. 11-11-0770. The Honorable Richard D. Anderson, Judge Presiding.
Hillar C. Moore, III, District Attorney, Dale R. Lee, Assistant District Attorney, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for Plaintiff/Appellee, State of Louisiana.
John P. Calmes, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for Defendant/Appellant, James Thomas Watts.
BEFORE: PARRO, McDONALD, AND CRAIN, JJ.
[2014 0429 La.App. 1 Cir. 2]
The defendant, James Thomas Watts, was charged by bill of information with vehicular homicide, a violation of Louisiana Revised Statute 14:32.1. He pled not guilty and, following a jury trial, was found guilty as charged. He filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied, and was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment at hard labor, with the first five years to be served without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. The trial court suspended six years of the defendant's sentence, ordered three years of active, supervised probation upon his release, and imposed a $2,000.00 fine and other special conditions, including completion of a substance abuse program. The defendant now appeals. We affirm his conviction and sentence.
The subject accident occurred on September 9, 2011, at approximately 5:20 p.m., at the intersection of Greenwell Springs Road and Will Avenue. Phillip Abington, who was 16 years old, was driving a Honda Civic in an easterly direction on Will Avenue and had stopped at a stop sign where Will Avenue meets Greenwell Springs Road. The speed limit on Greenwell Springs Road at that location is 45 miles per hour. Southbound traffic on Greenwell Springs Road was moving slowly and had backed up to Will Avenue. As Abington slowly entered the roadway in an apparent attempt to turn left into the northbound lane of Greenwell Springs Road, his vehicle was struck by a Chevrolet Silverado truck being driven by the defendant at a high rate of speed in the northbound lane. The impact propelled the Civic a distance of 122 feet into a ditch, caused severe damage to the vehicle, and fatally injured Abington. When questioned by the investigating state trooper at the scene, the defendant stated that he was driving 55-60 miles per hour and denied any consumption of alcohol. A blood test [2014 0429 La.App. 1 Cir. 3] approximately two hours after the accident revealed that he had a blood alcohol content of .09 grams percent, and a crash data recorder in his truck recorded a vehicle speed of 95 miles per hour two seconds prior to the impact.
SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE
In his first, fourth, and fifth assignments of error, the defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence in support of his conviction. Specifically, he contends that the jury erred in finding that the victim's death was caused proximately or directly by his actions and that his condition at the time of the accident was a contributing factor to the victim's death. He also contends that the jury erred in finding that he was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident.
A conviction based on insufficient evidence cannot stand, as it violates due process. See U.S. Const, amend. XIV; La. Const, art. I, § 2. In reviewing claims challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, this court must consider " whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979); see also La. Code Crim. Pro. art. 821B; State v. Mussall, 523 So.2d 1305, 1308-09 (La. 1988). The Jackson standard, incorporated in Article 821, is an objective standard for testing the overall evidence, both direct and circumstantial, for reasonable doubt. State v. Petitto, 12-1670 (La.App. 1 Cir. 4/26/13), 116 So.3d 761, 766, writ denied, 13-1183 (La. 11/22/13), 126 So.3d 477; State v. Patorno, 01-2585 (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/21/02), 822 So.2d 141, 144.
When a conviction is based on both direct and circumstantial evidence, the reviewing court must resolve any conflict in the direct evidence by viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. State v. Wright, 98-0601 [2014 0429 La.App. 1 Cir. 4] (La.App. 1 Cir. 2/19/99), 730 So.2d 485, 487, writs denied, 99-0802 (La. 10/29/99), 748 So.2d 1157, 00-0895 (La. 11/17/00), 773 So.2d 732. When analyzing circumstantial evidence, Louisiana Revised Statute 15:438 provides that, in order to convict, the fact finder must be satisfied that the overall evidence excludes every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. Petitto, 116 So.3d at 766; Patorno, 822 So.2d at 144. The facts then established by the direct evidence and inferred from the circumstances established by that evidence must be sufficient for a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of every essential element of the crime. Wright, 730 So.2d at 487.
As pertinent to this case, vehicular homicide is the killing of a human being caused proximately or caused directly by an offender engaged in the operation of, or in actual physical control of, any motor vehicle, whether or not the offender had the intent to cause death or great bodily harm, when the operator is under the influence of alcoholic beverages as determined by chemical tests administered under the provisions of Louisiana Revised Statute 32:662, or the operator's blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or more by weight based upon grams of alcohol per one hundred cubic centimeters of blood. La. R.S. 14:32.1A(1), (2).
Under the vehicular homicide statute, the State must prove that an offender's unlawful blood alcohol concentration combined with his operation of a vehicle to cause the death of a human being. State v. Taylor, 463 So.2d 1274, 1275 (La. 1985); State v. Dickinson, 08-0558 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/3/08), 5 So.3d 179, 183, writs denied, 08-2813, 08-2876 (La. 6/5/09), 9 So.3d 870. The evident purpose of the statute is to curb traffic fatalities caused by the consumption of alcohol. It is not aimed at persons involved in vehicular fatalities whose alcohol consumption does not cause, but merely coincides with, such an accident. Taylor, 463 So.2d at 1275;
Dickinson, 5 So.3d at 183. In order to convict, the statute should be [2014 0429 La.App. 1 Cir. 5] construed to require proof of a causal relationship between an operator's unlawful blood alcohol concentration and the death of the victim. Taylor, 463 So.2d at 1275; Dickinson, 5 So.3d at 183. Causation is a question of fact that should be considered in light of the totality of circumstances surrounding the ultimate harm and its relation to the actor's conduct. State v. Kalathakis, 563 So.2d 228, 231 (La. 1990).
Louisiana State Police Trooper Robert Fontenot investigated the accident and testified that the collision occurred on a clear day with sunshine and very good visibility. There were no abnormalities in the roadway, such as potholes, and the road was clear of debris.
Trooper Fontenot interviewed two witnesses, Darrell Wayne Hayes and Harlan Jerro, both of whom testified at the trial. Hayes, a network technician with Cox Communications, was driving his company vehicle, a large bucket truck, when he witnessed the collision. He was traveling southbound on Greenwell Springs Road and had driven past Will Avenue when traffic came to a complete stop in his lane. He scanned his mirrors and, in his passenger side mirror, saw the Civic pull up to and stop at the stop sign on Will Avenue. The Civic was approximately four-to-five car lengths behind Hayes' vehicle. Hayes then heard the sound of an engine that was higher pitched than normal and saw a truck approaching him very fast. He looked into his mirror as the truck was passing and saw the front of the Civic pulling out, and the collision occurred. Hayes did not recall seeing brake lights on the truck nor hearing braking sounds in ...