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State v. Bratton

Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Second Circuit

January 14, 2015

STATE OF LOUISIANA, Appellee
v.
FRANK BRATTON, Appellant

Page 938

Appealed from the Twenty-Sixth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Bossier, Louisiana. Trial Court No. 200472. Honorable Allen Parker Self, Jr., Judge.

LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT, By: Teresa Culpepper Carroll, Counsel for Appellant.

J. SCHUYLER MARVIN, District Attorney, JOHN M. LAWRENCE, ANDREW JACOBS, LANE PITTARD, Assistant District Attorneys, Counsel for Appellee.

Before STEWART, DREW and PITMAN, JJ.

OPINION

Page 939

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 1] DREW, J.

Frank Bratton was unanimously convicted of second degree murder for the killing of Ryan Hammett. The defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor without benefits. He appeals his conviction and sentence. We affirm.

FACTS

This senseless killing occurred on May 24, 2013, at Bossier City's Siesta Motel, a single-story structure laid out in the shape of a " U." Many of its guests are long-term residents. This was the case for the defendant, the victim, and the victim's girlfriend, Jeannie Welch. Bratton and Hammett lived in rooms on opposite sides of the " U" and had become friends at the motel.

Jeannie Welch testified that:

o the relationship between the two men was quite social, and the two had never fought before the date of this event; [1]
o either the day before or the day of this incident, a woman named Veronica had moved into Bratton's motel room;
o she and Hammett gave Veronica $20 to buy chicken;
o this she did, leaving the food with them, and returning to Bratton's room;
o there was no argument or unpleasantness with Veronica at this point;
[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 2] o she and Hammett remained in their room and decided to eat their meal later during a basketball game on television;
o Hammett had a mixed drink; and
o shortly afterward, violence broke loose.[2]

Joel Frady, another resident, saw Bratton and Hammett arguing in [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 3] the parking

Page 940

lot. He unsuccessfully tried to get Bratton to disengage, but the combatants argued some more, and the melee resumed.[3]

Charles Yoder, another long-term resident of the Siesta Motel, testified that:

o he was inside his room, about to take a shower, when the fight began;
o he saw the defendant and Hammett fighting in the parking lot;
o he did not see either man actually hit the other;
o he never saw either man fall to the ground;
o when the fight ended, he heard Bratton say " I've got something for you" as he returned to his room;
o he saw through the defendant's window that the defendant was rummaging through a bowl atop a radio in the room;
o he saw Bratton leave his room and walk back toward Hammett's room;
o Veronica was begging Bratton to stop;
o he didn't see Bratton carrying anything, although he saw that one of Bratton's hands was " clasped" or " cupped" ;
o Welch was standing in the doorway of Hammett's room;
o he heard Bratton say " move, bitch" and then push her to the ground;
o he (Yoder) helped Ms. Welch to her feet and did not see Bratton enter Hammett's room, but soon after saw the defendant swinging at Hammett, who was trying to escape;
[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 4] o he saw the defendant cut the victim twice;
o the disturbance inside Hammett's room lasted two to three minutes; and
o Hammett collapsed in the doorway.[4]

After the stabbing, Bratton walked back across the parking lot to a grassy area, threw away the knife, and returned to his room.

Bossier City police officers arrived shortly thereafter and arrested Bratton.

Page 941

Because Bratton had a heart condition and complained of chest pains, BCPD Officer Chad Boyett transported him to University Health for examination. Bratton was explained his Miranda rights.[5] He spoke with Officer Boyett at the hospital.[6]

Officer Boyett noted no physical injuries to the defendant.

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 5] BCPD Officer Christopher Owens processed and photographed the crime scene. He found defendant's distinctive baseball cap on the floor of Hammett's room. Later, Owens found a small quantity of marijuana and rolling papers in Hammett's pants pocket. The knife was recovered; Bratton's DNA was found on the handle and Hammett's DNA was found in the blood on the knife.

When Bratton was transported to the Bossier City Police headquarters, he spoke with BCPD Sgt. Darren Barclay, who also noted no injuries to the defendant. Barclay again administered Miranda warnings. Bratton admitted getting a knife from his motel room and stabbing the victim in Hammett's room.

When Barclay realized that Bratton wanted to speak about the incident, he stopped Bratton and called in BCPD Detective Jeffrey Humphrey to take a recorded formal statement. Detective Humphrey once again read Bratton his Miranda rights. Bratton admitted going to Hammett's room and stabbing him.

Bratton was 54 years old, 6' 1" tall, and weighed approximately 220 pounds. Hammett was 34 years old, 5' 7" tall, and weighed 167 pounds.

The toxicology report from the autopsy revealed the presence of Lortab, marijuana, and midazolam. Hammett's blood alcohol level was .029%, over three times greater than the BAC level sufficient to trigger proof of a DWI.

One week after the killing, the defendant suffered a heart attack while jailed in the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Maximum Security Facility. A nurse [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 6] who treated Bratton noted an eye injury that he claimed to have sustained in the fight. The injury was traumatic iritis which was consistent with trauma to the eye.

The defendant chose to testify.[7] He was convicted by a unanimous jury and received the mandatory life sentence, without benefits.

Page 942

The defendant did not file a motion to reconsider sentence.

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 7] DISCUSSION

I. Sufficiency

Bratton's first argument is that the evidence shows that he acted in self-defense or, at worst, that this offense was a manslaughter rather than second degree murder. Appellate review of such claims is well settled.[8]

Second degree murder is the killing of a human being when the offender has the

Page 943

specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm. La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1).

La. R.S. 14:20 provides, in part:

A. A homicide is justifiable:
(1) When committed in self-defense by one who reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm and that the killing is necessary to save himself from that danger.

La. R.S. 14:21 provides:

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 8] A person who is the aggressor or who brings on a difficulty cannot claim the right of self-defense unless he withdraws from the conflict in good faith and in such a manner that his adversary knows or should know that he desires to withdraw and discontinue the conflict.

When self-defense is raised as an issue by the defendant, the state has the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the homicide was not perpetrated in self-defense. Thus, when the defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence in such a case, the question becomes whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was not committed in self-defense. State v. Jones, 48,458 (La.App. 2d Cir. 11/20/13), 128 So.3d 593, writ denied, 2013-2926 (La. 5/30/14), 140 So.3d 1173.

In this case, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Bratton did not act in self-defense. Regardless of the cause of the argument and fight in the parking lot, that incident had concluded with both men returning to their respective motel rooms prior to the stabbing. Indeed, the defendant was the individual who went to his room to retrieve a weapon, whereas the victim was not seen or found with a weapon and was in his own room when the killing occurred. Both Welch and Yoder heard Bratton threaten Hammett while Bratton was returning to his room to obtain the weapon. Bratton was the aggressor at the time he needlessly returned to Hammett's room, and in his recorded statement to police, Bratton admitted that he started swinging at Hammett when he entered Hammett's room. Despite his heart condition, Bratton, who had armed himself with a knife, was plainly [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 9] not afraid of the much smaller Hammett because Bratton reinstated the conflict after it had terminated.

Likewise, the verdict of second degree murder rather than manslaughter was appropriate. In pertinent part, La. R.S. 14:31 defines manslaughter as a homicide which would be murder under either Article 30 (first degree murder) or Article 30.1 (second degree murder), but the offense is committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection, or a homicide committed without any intent to cause death or great bodily harm. Provocation shall not reduce a homicide to manslaughter if the jury finds that the offender's blood had actually cooled, or that an average person's blood would have cooled, at the time the offense was committed.

" Sudden passion" and " heat of blood" are not elements of the offense of manslaughter. Instead, they are mitigatory factors in the nature of a defense which

Page 944

exhibit a degree of culpability less than that present when the homicide is committed without them. State v. Lombard, 486 So.2d 106 (La. 1986). A defendant who shows by a preponderance of the evidence that these mitigatory factors are present is entitled to the verdict of manslaughter. State v. Lombard, supra ; State v. Jackson, 34,076 (La.App. 2d Cir. 12/6/00), 774 So.2d 1046. The defendant is not obligated to establish the factors affirmatively; instead, the jury may infer them from the overall evidence presented. State v. Jackson, supra.

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 10] The evidence does not clearly reveal the genesis of this argument. In his statement to police, Bratton said that Hammett " said something stupid" to him, but he testified at trial that he was upset over something that Hammett had said to Veronica. None of this vague and conflicting evidence supplies proof that an average person would have been reasonably provoked to lethal violence.

II. Restriction on questioning a witness about her parole status

During the cross-examination of Hammett's girlfriend, Jeannie Welch, the trial court refused to allow counsel to explore Welch's parole status.[9]

The defendant urges that he should have been allowed to question Welch about her potential parolee status in order to probe her potential motivation for her testimony. He argues that the limitation of her testimony was error because she was the only witness to testify that Bratton cut her [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 11] with the knife and the only witness to testify that he actually threatened to kill Hammett.

La. C.E. art. 609.1 provides:

A. General criminal rule. In a criminal case, every witness by testifying subjects himself to examination relative to his criminal convictions, subject to limitations set forth below.
...
B. Details of convictions. Ordinarily, only the fact of a conviction, the name of the offense, the date thereof, and the sentence imposed is admissible.

The defendant argues that Welch's parole status was a part of the sentence imposed and thus admissible. Because the court itself supplied the defendant's objection to the ruling, the actual basis for any objection the defendant had was not stated for the record. Assuming arguendo that the issue is adequately preserved for review, the trial court probably was overly restrictive in ruling that the defendant

Page 945

could not question this witness about her parole status.

State v. Bright, 2002-2793 (La. 5/25/04), 875 So.2d 37, cited by defendant, is not dispositive but it is instructive. In that case, the state withheld from the defense the rap sheet of the state's star witness, so the defendant did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness's status as a parolee. The court found reversible error, stating:

Information about a witness's convictions is admissible and can form an important source for impeachment of such witnesses. See, LSA-C.E. art. 609.1; see generally, State v. Tolbert, 03-0330 (La. 6/27/03), 849 So.2d 32. The fact that Thompson was under the supervision of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (" DOC" ) at the time of the shooting and could have been subject to parole revocation for violation of the terms of his parole (by drinking, as he admitted doing), gave him the motivation to cooperate with law-enforcement authorities, motivation defendant had a right [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 12] to reveal to the jurors. See, e.g., Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 318, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 1111, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974) (Bias may arise from a witness's vulnerable status as a probationer; the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation includes the right to cross-examine a prosecution witness concerning a possible source of bias.) The importance of such information can be heightened in a case such as defendant's, where only one witness--the felon whose record the State suppressed--identified defendant. The only evidence relied on to convict defendant was Thompson's testimony; there were no other witnesses, and there was absolutely no physical evidence.

Any error here was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The incident was witnessed by numerous people and there was no doubt that the defendant was the perpetrator of the offense. The critical questions were whether the defendant acted in self-defense or whether his conduct was less culpable than second degree murder. Ms. Welch's statement that the defendant threatened to kill the victim was probative of the defendant's intentions, but the testimony of Mr. Yoder also reflected the defendant's verbal threat to harm Hammett. Moreover, the defendant's own varied statements were sufficient to foreclose his claim of self-defense; he admitted that the conflict was over and that he, not Hammett, was the party who armed himself and chose to resume the encounter by using lethal force. This record lacks any basis for a viable manslaughter defense.

This record contains overwhelming evidence that the defendant was guilty as charged. Any arguable trial error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

III. Restriction on defendant's right to inquire about previous altercations between the victim and a witness

[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 13] This assignment concerns another limitation of Ms. Welch's testimony. Ms. Welch was suffering from a broken arm at the time of this incident:

Q: Well, why didn't you just yell to Ryan that he's got a knife, close the door?
A: It all happened so fast. I - when I fell and got back up there was - I had no time to do anything. Frank was already in our room.
Q: Well, how did you break your arm?
A: I hit Ryan. And that was in the past. That was a conflict between me and Ryan.
Q: Okay, so you and Ryan had a physical fight that ended up with you a broken arm?

Page 946

A: Yes, sir.
Q: Okay. Did y'all fight often?
Prosecutor: Your Honor, I'm going to object. Your Honor, I'm going to make an objection under - make sure I have the right article. ... Your Honor, I'm going to make an objection pursuant to Code of Evidence Article 404, the character of a victim. And particularly, if the victim is known for violence there has to be evidence of an overt act on the part of the victim before they can bring into any type of acts or reputation is there was violence. There hasn't been any overt act on the part of Ryan Hammett showing that he started a fight.
Defense counsel: Well, Your Honor, would it get to self-defense and I think that the - if the defendant knows about the violent character of the accused - of the alleged victim, but his knowledge of that is admissible as well as the - the character of the victim for violence. I think it's admissible in a self-defense case.
Prosecutor: Your Honor, that's exactly what the article speaks to. Provided that in the absence of evidence of a hostile demonstration or overt act on the part of the victim at the time of the offense charged, evidence of his dangerous character is not admissible.
[49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 14] Defense counsel: But I would submit that a fist fight in the parking lot is an overt act.
Court: Well, I don't really yet understand how that all got started. I - I've listened carefully, but I really don't know how that started. But I think you've asked the question. It's been answered. I don't think we get to delve into their domestic relationship because I don't think it really adds to what we're talking about as it relates to this between this victim and the defendant. So, I'm going to note your - I'm going to sustain your objection and note your objection to my ruling.

La. C.E. art. 404 provides, in part:

A. Character evidence generally. Evidence of a person's character or a trait of his character, such as a moral quality, is not admissible for the purpose of proving that he acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion, except: (2) Character of victim. (a) Except as provided in Article 412, evidence of a pertinent trait of character, such as a moral quality, of the victim of the crime offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the character evidence; provided that in the absence of evidence of a hostile demonstration or an overt act on the part of the victim at the time of the offense charged, evidence of his dangerous character is not admissible[.]

In State v. Johnson, 41,428 (La.App. 2d Cir. 9/27/06), 940 So.2d 711, writ denied, 2006-2615 (La. 5/18/07), 957 So.2d 150, this court explained the relevant analysis in detail:

When a defendant attempts to present evidence of a victim's character, it must be for a relevant purpose, such as self-defense. See La. C.E. art. 401. Thus, character evidence that paints the victim as a bad person deserving his fate of death at the hands of the defendant is prohibited by La. C.E. art. 404. State v. Wade, 33,121 (La.App. 2d Cir. 5/15/00), 758 So.2d 987, 996, writ denied, 2000-2160 (La. 9/28/02), 797 So.2d 684. Evidence of the dangerous character of the victim is admissible only if the accused first produces evidence that at the time of the incident, the victim made a hostile demonstration or committed an overt act against the accused of such character that would have created in the mind of a reasonable person a belief that he was in immediate danger of losing life or suffering great bodily harm. See State v.

Page 947

Scott, 31,379 (La.App. 2d Cir. 10/28/98), 720 So.2d 415, 424, writ [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 15] denied, 1999-0170 (La. 5/14/99), 741 So.2d 664 (citing State v. Gantt, 616 So.2d 1300 (La.App. 2d Cir. 1993)). An " overt act" within the meaning of La. C.E. art. 404 is " any act of the victim which manifests in the mind of a reasonable person a present intention on his part to kill or do great bodily harm." See State v. Scott, 720 So.2d at 424 (quoting State v. Demery, 28,396 (La.App. 2d Cir. 8/21/96), 679 So.2d 518). Before being entitled to present evidence of the victim's character, the defendant must present " appreciable evidence" of the overt act. See State v. Woodhead, 2003-1036 (La.App. 5th Cir.1/27/04), 866 So.2d 995, 1001, writ denied, 2004-0598 (La.7/2/04), 877 So.2d 144 (citing La. C. Cr. P. art. 404; State v. Edwards, 420 So.2d 663 (La. 1982)). Once the defendant has presented appreciable evidence of the overt act, " the trial court cannot exercise its discretion to infringe on the fact-determination function of the jury by disbelieving this defense testimony and thus, deny the accused a defense permitted by law." See State v. Woodhead, 866 So.2d at 1002 (quoting State v. Lee, 331 So.2d 455, 459 (La. 1975)). Thus, the threshold inquiry is whether the defendant presented evidence of " hostile demonstration or an overt act on the part of the victim."

The trial court's ruling here was grounded more in the relevance of the evidence than its admissibility under La. C.E. art. 404. The particular question objected to was whether the victim and the witness fought often and had nothing to do with any past troubles between the victim and the defendant. The relevance of the evidence about conflict between the victim and Ms. Welch would tend to go to the violent character of both the witness and the victim, and during cross-examination, the witness said that she broke her arm when she hit the victim. Welch's broken arm did not tend to prove that the victim had a violent temper.

Moreover, the evidence ultimately showed that the initial violent encounter between the defendant and the victim had ended prior to the second encounter when the defendant stabbed the victim. One purpose of the article allowing evidence of a victim's violent character, upon a showing [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 16] of a hostile act, is to show that the defendant's reaction was reasonable. Any overt act of violence by the victim occurred in the parking lot before the second encounter. All evidence proved that the defendant was the aggressor and thus not entitled to claim self-defense after he reinitiated the conflict despite his claim at trial, repudiating his prior statements, that Hammett attacked him when he entered Hammett's room.

IV. Excessive Sentence

The defendant argues that his life without parole sentence is excessive. The defendant concedes that mandatory sentences have been upheld as constitutional but urges that he is an exception to that rule given his age and poor health.

Whoever commits the crime of second degree murder shall be punished by life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. La. R.S. 14:30.1. Where there is a constitutional mandatory sentence, there is no need for the trial court to justify, under La. C. Cr. P. art. 894.1, a sentence which it is legally required to impose. State v. Koon, 31,177 (La.App. 2d Cir. 2/24/99), 730 So.2d 503; State v. Rose, 606 So.2d 845 (La.App. 2d Cir. 1992); State v. Gill, 40,915 (La.App. 2d Cir. 5/17/06), 931 So.2d 409, writ denied, 2006-1746 (La. 1/26/07), 948 So.2d 165.

Page 948

Failure to make or file a motion to reconsider sentence or to include a specific ground upon which a motion to reconsider sentence may be based, including a claim of excessiveness, shall preclude the state or the defendant [49,434 La.App. 2 Cir. 17] from raising an objection to the sentence or from urging any ground not raised in the motion on appeal or review. La. C. Cr. P. art. 881.1.

To rebut the presumption that the mandatory minimum sentence is constitutional, the defendant must clearly and convincingly show that because of unusual circumstances this defendant is a victim of the legislature's failure to assign sentences that are meaningfully tailored to the culpability of the offender, the gravity of the offense, and the circumstances of the case. State v. Lindsey, 1999-3302 (La. 10/17/00), 770 So.2d 339.

Although the defendant demonstrably has a serious heart problem, this record is devoid of a valid basis by which to justify a downward departure from the mandatory sentence. The victim had retreated from the encounter prior to the murder, and the defendant--acting under seemingly no provocation--chose to arm himself, restart the conflict and deliberately stab the unarmed victim repeatedly.

This brutal crime was senseless. The mandatory sentence is appropriate.

CONCLUSION

Even if the trial court arguably erred in restricting defendant's cross-examination of a witness, any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

DECREE

The defendant's conviction and sentence are AFFIRMED.


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