APPEAL FROM THE NINTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, PARISH OF RAPIDES, NO. 311,414. HONORABLE PATRICIA EVANS KOCH, DISTRICT JUDGE.
CONVICTIONS AND SENTENCES AFFIRMED.
James C. Downs, District Attorney -- 9th Judicial District, Michael W. Shannon, Assistant District Attorney -- 9th Judicial District, Alexandria, LA, COUNSEL FOR: Plaintiff/Appellee - State of Louisiana.
Jermaine L. Harris, Alexandria, LA, COUNSEL FOR: Defendant/Appellant - Jaymes Lamar Harris.
Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, John D. Saunders, and Phyllis M. Keaty, Judges.
[14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 1]
THIBODEAUX, Chief Judge.
Jaymes Lamar Harris appeals from convictions and sentences for one count of second degree murder under La.R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1) or (2) and one count of obstruction of justice under La.R.S. 14:130.1(A)(1)(a). Finding sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdicts, we affirm both convictions and sentences. We refer two of the defendant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to post-conviction relief.
We must decide:
(1) whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support a conviction of second degree murder;
(2) whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support a conviction for obstruction of justice;
(3) whether the trial court deprived Mr. Harris of his federal and state constitutional rights to compulsory process and to put on a defense; and
(4) whether Mr. Harris was denied effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
At 10:46 a.m. on May 15, 2012, the Rapides Parish Communications District received a 911 call regarding the death of a child. Upon arrival at the scene, police found a twenty-one-month-old female child, Aleecia Miller, lying in a bed. The child's body appeared to be covered in a Vaseline-type substance, was [14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 2] cold to the touch, and was already stiffening due to rigor mortis. The forensic pathologist determined that the victim had been dead at least eight to twelve hours when the police discovered her. The cause of death was determined to be " acute peritonitis due to stomach perforation resulting from blunt force injuries," and the manner of death was determined to be homicide. The forensic pathologist also found approximately sixteen bruises on the victim's body, all of which appeared to be less than eighteen hours old. Defendant Jaymes Harris and the victim's mother, Porsha Miller, were arrested for second degree murder and obstruction of justice.
Both were charged by grand jury indictment with one count of second degree murder, a violation of La.R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1) or (2), and one count of obstruction of justice, a violation of La.R.S. 14:130.1(A)(1)(a). The State severed the trials. The only defendant in the present appeal is Jaymes Lamar Harris.
Mr. Harris pled not guilty to the charges. He subsequently filed an Application for Appointment of Sanity Commission, raising the issues of capacity to defend and capacity to understand right from wrong at the time of the crime. Following a contradictory hearing, the trial court found Mr. Harris competent to proceed. Following trial, the jury found Mr. Harris guilty of second degree murder on count one and guilty of obstruction of justice on count two.
For second degree murder, Mr. Harris was sentenced to life imprisonment without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. For obstruction of justice, he was sentenced to twenty years, to run concurrently with the life sentence imposed for second degree murder.
[14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 3] III.
LAW AND DISCUSSION
Sufficiency of the Evidence
The defendant alleges that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of second degree murder and obstruction of justice.
Standard of Review
The standard of review in a sufficiency of the evidence claim is " whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each of the essential elements of the crime charged." The Jackson [ v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979)] standard of review is now legislatively embodied in La.Code Crim.P. art. 821. It does not allow the appellate court " to substitute its own
appreciation of the evidence for that of the fact-finder." The appellate court's function is not to assess the credibility of witnesses or reweigh the evidence.
State v. Francis, 12-1221, pp. 6-7 (La.App. 3 Cir. 4/3/13), 111 So.3d 529, 533, writ denied, 13-1253 (La. 11/8/13), 125 So.3d 449 (citations omitted).
Evidence Introduced at Trial
Sonya Gremillion testified that she received the 911 call regarding the victim's death at 10:46 a.m. on May 15, 2012. Two Rapides Parish Sheriff's Deputies who responded to the call testified regarding their investigations.
Detective Stephen Phillips arrived at approximately 11:19 a.m. He found the child lying on a bed about knee high in what appeared to be her bedroom. She was cold to the touch and stiffening due to rigor mortis. He opined that she had been dead at least twelve hours or more.
Deputy Randell Isles arrived at the scene at 11:33 a.m. He testified that the " baby" was lying on the bed, dressed in a white shirt and diaper. The bed [14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 4] was soiled and smelled of urine, but the victim's diaper was clean. A Vaseline substance was all over the victim's body. She had swelling and red marks around her eyes, swelling in her stomach, fluid oozing out of her nose and mouth, and a small blood hemorrhage in her eye. He saw discoloration and red marks on the left side of her torso, and swelling, red marks, and bruising on the right side. Later he saw an " older brand slash burn on [the child's] upper right shoulder" which looked like the very top of a cigarette lighter. On the floor, a spot near the bed appeared to be some type of bowel or ooze. Another spot was found on the mattress, and an odor of urine was detected in a comforter balled up on the bed. All window units in the residence were off.
Detective Phillips spoke with the defendant at the scene. Mr. Harris said the victim was the child of his girlfriend, and they lived at the residence together. He gave an account of events beginning at noon the previous day. After eating pancakes, the victim started vomiting and felt feverish. They went to bed around 9:00 p.m. Later that evening, into the early morning hours, he heard Aleecia fall out of bed. He put her back in her bed and went back to his bed. When he got up the next morning, Aleecia was face down on the floor near her bed. He did not enter the room. He went to his mother's residence a couple of blocks away, talked to his mother for ten minutes, and returned home. He then checked on Aleecia and thought she may be deceased. He informed the child's mother and " the two of them went and made contact with their landlord . . . asked for her assistance to come back because they didn't know what was wrong with the child."
Detective Phillips said he was somewhat suspicious upon seeing obvious signs of bruising in various stages, which did not appear consistent with a [14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 5] mere accident. He described a shiny substance on the victim like Vaseline, a container of which was later discovered on Mr. Harris' bed. Detective Phillips also thought it odd that the victim was wearing a crisp, clean diaper from the package, as if it had just been placed on her. Because of the coldness and stiffness of the victim's body, he concluded that there was a delay in reporting her death. His suspicions were further aroused by the defendant's statement that he found the victim on the floor. He believed that if the victim was still on the floor with her arms stiff, she would have been elevated off the floor. He reported that Willie Mae Young, the neighbor/landlord, was the first person to call 911. As a result of his investigation and the pathology
report, Detective Phillips obtained a warrant to arrest both Jaymes Harris and Porsha Miller for second degree murder and for obstruction of justice as " it appeared that the scene had been tainted and/or rearranged, moved, staged." Subsequently, Detective Phillips recorded two additional statements made by the defendant.
In the May 16, 2012 statement, the defendant said he did not know what happened. He reported similar events including the pancakes and Aleecia's fall from bed. In this statement, Aleecia woke up three or four times, and Porsha also got up to check on her. The next morning, Harris checked on Aleecia; she was face down on the floor; and he went to his mom's house. When he returned home, he checked again and told his " old lady" that the " baby was dead." The defendant said Aleecia was not wearing any clothes because she was hot. He put a diaper on her because he was not comfortable with her being without a diaper in front of other people. He stated that he barely disciplined the child and spanked her on her hand or her butt. He claimed that he did not know how Aleecia received her injuries.
[14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 6] In the May 18, 2012 statement, the defendant attempted to blame Porsha Miller for everything. He said he got up in the middle of the night and saw Aleecia standing in the middle of the floor in a daze. He put her back in her bed. He stated that Porsha was getting aggravated with the child because she would not stay in bed. One of the times Porsha got up, he saw her " trying to discipline" Aleecia. He described Porsha's " discipline" as swinging her arms " wild" at the victim and hitting her. The defendant stated that he tried to stop Porsha from " whooping" the child and he probably " nipped" the victim a couple of times. He also stated that he blacked out, and he probably hit the child because whatever he hit felt different from hitting the bed. He said Porsha stayed with Aleecia, and he went back to bed. The next morning, he put a blanket on Aleecia because it was cold in the house and then went to see his mom. When he returned to his house and tried to pick the victim up off the floor, he could not do so. He said it was like she was frozen to the floor. The defendant said he and Porsha panicked and went to tell Ms. Young that " my baby was dead." He went to tell his mom and returned to his house to find Ms. Young trying to administer CPR.
When asked how the child came to be wearing a diaper, the defendant stated that he put the diaper on her because it was " freezing cold." When asked about the Vaseline on the victim, the defendant replied:
A: Porshia was trying, she was trying to rub the Va... the Vaseline on her to um, (inaudible) my mom, my mom was saying something about like she, she like (inaudible) when Aleecia use to like Aleecia she, she always like jump, jump off the bed (inaudible) and she always like bruised herself.
[14-981 La.App. 3 Cir. 7] A: So my mama use, my mama was telling us like if you like rub, rub the Vaseline on her and stuff for the to make, make most, make the bruises go away. So Porshia, she tried to, she tried to rub the Vaseline on her and to make, make some make the bruises go away. The bruises, the bruises went didn't go no where.
Q: When did she tell you that, that morning?
. . . .
A: My mom, she told me that, that morning, that morning when I went back when I came back from her house.
When asked how the subject of Vaseline came up, the defendant said that he brought it up. When asked who put the Vaseline on Aleecia, the defendant answered " Porshia" and then stated:
A: Porshia start off rubbing it on her face.
Q: Okay, what on her face?
A: The Vaseline.
Q: Okay, where did y'all do this at? Your room, the baby's room?
A: She did the Vaseline in the baby's room.
The defendant was asked if he knew anything about a rag found in the bottom of his dresser drawer that " had some of the same stuff that was on the bed." He stated that he was confused and knew ...