[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, PARISH OF JEFFERSON, STATE OF LOUISIANA. NO. 11-1048, DIVISION " M" . HONORABLE HENRY G. SULLIVAN, JR., JUDGE PRESIDING.
CONVICTIONS AND SENTENCES AFFIRMED; REMANDED FOR CORRECTION OF COMMITMENT.
PAUL D. CONNICK, JR., DISTRICT ATTORNEY, Twenty-Fourth Judicial District, Parish of Jefferson, TERRY M. BOUDREAUX, MATTHEW CAPLAN, DOUGLAS W. FREESE, VINCENT J. PACIERA, JR., ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEYS, Gretna, Louisiana, COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE.
BRUCE G. WHITTAKER, ATTORNEY AT LAW, Louisiana Appellate Project, New Orleans, Louisiana, COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT.
Panel composed of Judges Jude G. Gravois, Marc E. Johnson, and Stephen J. Windhorst.
MARC E. JOHNSON, J.
[14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 2] Defendant, Chasity Griffin, appeals her convictions and sentences for second degree murder, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, raising several issues including sufficiency of the evidence, admissibility of an officer's testimony on expert matters, and admissibility of hearsay testimony of a deceased witness. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Defendant's convictions and sentences and remand the matter for the correction of the commitment.
Defendant Griffin, along with her co-defendants Quentin McClure and Jeffrey Nelson, were charged in an eight-count indictment on February 2, 2012 with various crimes relating to the murders of Theodore Pierce and eyewitness Charles Smith. Defendant was charged with the January 2, 2011 second degree murder of Pierce, in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1 (count one); possession of a [14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 3] firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of La. R.S. 14:95.1 (count five); and conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, in violation of La. R.S. 14:26 and 14:130.1(A)(2) and/or (A)(3) (count eight). Defendant pleaded
not guilty and filed several pre-trial motions.
Defendant filed motions to suppress evidence, identification, and statements, which were heard and denied on November 28, 2011. On October 4, 2011 and November 28, 2011, hearings were held on the State's motion for admission of witness' statements pursuant to La. C.E. art. 804(B)(7)(a). The trial court denied the State's motion on December 12, 2011, finding the State had not met its burden of proof. On January 26, 2012, pursuant to the State's motion for reconsideration, the trial court reexamined its prior ruling and based on the additional evidence presented, vacated its original ruling. The trial court ordered the statement of the deceased, Charles Smith, admissible for use at trial.
Defendant, and her two co-defendants, proceeded to trial on August 5, 2013 before a twelve-person jury. After an eight-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged against Defendant on all three counts. On September 12, 2013, Defendant filed a motion for new trial, which was heard and denied prior to Defendant's sentencing on September 19, 2013. The trial court subsequently sentenced Defendant to concurrent sentences of life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence on count one (second degree murder); 20 years at hard labor without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence on count five (felon in possession of a firearm); and 30 years at hard labor on count eight (conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice).
[14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 4] FACTS
In summary, Theodore Pierce was murdered outside of a friend's house in Bridge City on January 2, 2011. Defendant and co-defendant McClure were arrested shortly thereafter and charged with his murder. Pierce's murder was witnessed by Charles Smith, a neighbor. On August 17, 2011, Smith was found shot to death in front of his home located at 231 Fourth Street in Bridge City. It was alleged that Defendant and McClure conspired with co-defendant Nelson, who is McClure's younger brother, to murder Smith.
The Murder of Theodore Pierce
At approximately 4:41 p.m. on January 2, 2011, Detective Travis Eserman with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office (JPSO) responded to the scene of a homicide located at 235 Fourth St. in Bridge City involving a victim by the name of Theodore Pierce. Upon his arrival, Det. Eserman observed Pierce's body in the driveway on the passenger side of a pickup truck. Pierce died on the scene. An autopsy revealed that Pierce died of multiple gunshot wounds to his face, neck and back. Fifteen spent casings were recovered at the scene. Two experts in firearm and toolmark examination, Jene Rauch and Colonel Timothy Scanlan, analyzed the ballistics material recovered from the scene and opined four guns -- two .40 caliber pistols and two 9 mm pistols -- were used at the scene. Colonel Scanlan, who was also qualified as an expert in crime scene reconstruction, opined there were four shooters shooting at one person from separate locations. The murder weapons were never recovered.
During the investigation, police received an anonymous tip identifying four people, including Defendant and McClure, as being involved in the shooting. [14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 5] While canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, police interviewed Charles Smith who lived next door to the murder scene. Smith stated that he witnessed the shooting of Pierce, whom he described as a childhood friend, and subsequently identified Defendant and McClure in photographic lineups as two of the individuals involved in the shooting. In a taped statement, Smith explained that he witnessed McClure and Defendant, who he occasionally saw walking around the neighborhood, shoot at Pierce while they were standing in front of a neighbor's house located at 301 Fourth St. Smith stated that the duo were initially standing in the street and then made their way into the yard while they shot at Pierce. He then observed McClure approach Pierce and " finish him off." Smith further stated that he saw a second male on the scene at the time of the shooting but did not see his face or notice whether he had a gun. Smith confirmed that Pierce did not have a gun and was not shooting back at Defendant or McClure.
Smith also told police during his statement that the day after the shooting, McClure drove to his house armed with a gun and confronted him stating, " I heard you talking about, about the, the shooting," to which Smith responded that he had not been talking about anything. Smith stated that he believed his life was in danger because he had witnessed the murder.
After Smith's statement and identifications, arrest warrants were prepared for Defendant and McClure. McClure was subsequently arrested a few blocks from the shooting at his residence located at 313 Lafitte St. A .38 caliber revolver was seized from his residence; however, testing revealed that it was not used in connection with Pierce's murder. After his arrest and after being advised of his [14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 6] Miranda  rights, McClure gave a taped statement to police explaining that he was home watching the Saints football game on the day of the murder. He stated that after the football game, around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., he went to his girlfriend, Jocelyn Scott's, house in Kenner. When asked why someone would want to implicate him in Pierce's murder, McClure stated that his friend, Reginald Lewis, had been murdered in the same neighborhood in July 2010, and that it was suspected that Pierce killed Lewis.
Several days later, Defendant was arrested at her sister's home in St. Rose. She likewise provided a taped statement to police after her arrest and after being advised of her rights. In her statement, Defendant stated she had been with an acquaintance named " Christy" in Algiers
at the time of the murder. She indicated that she had met Christy the night before the murder at a nightclub, had entered Christy's phone number into her phone, and had exchanged text messages with Christy on the day of the murder. However, there was no phone number for or text messages to or from Christy found on Defendant's phone, and police were unable to confirm Christy's existence.
Records for Defendant's and McClure's cell phones showed that they were both in the area of Pierce's murder at the time he was shot and they left the area minutes after his murder. The cell phone records further indicated that Defendant and McClure exchanged phone calls in the minutes leading up to Pierce's murder and then again four or five hours after the murder.
[14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 7] At trial, McClure presented testimony from his sister, Lekisha Nelson, and Nelson's girlfriend, Oraneisha Brown, who stated that McClure was home with them at 313 Lafitte St. watching the Saints game at the time Pierce was killed. Both testified that they learned of Pierce's murder when Nelson's cousin came to the house around 4:30 p.m. and told them someone had been killed, and that McClure was among the people who had gathered outside in front of their house.
Defendant testified in her defense and testified that she was with a female acquaintance at the time of Pierce's murder. Defendant explained that she had given her cell phone to her brother prior to going to the acquaintance's house. She stated that upon news of Pierce's death, the female acquaintance dropped her off in Bridge City. Defendant further explained that her brother, who had her cell phone, went to St. Rose immediately after the killing. She denied any involvement in Pierce's murder.
The Murder of Charles Smith
At approximately noon on August 17, 2011, the day before a scheduled motion hearing to determine the admissibility of the photographic identifications made by Smith of Defendant and McClure as the shooters in Pierce's murder, Charles Smith, the lone eyewitness, was murdered in front of his home. Eight casings were found at the scene and Ms. Rauch, the firearm and tool mark examiner expert, opined that only one gun was used in the shooting. An autopsy revealed Smith died of multiple gunshot wounds to his head, chest and leg. The murder weapon was never recovered.
[14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 8] Colonel Scanlan testified that the evidence was consistent with a " targeted action," meaning one mobile shooter started shooting from the rear of the residence in a place of cover and then moved forward down the fence line. He opined the evidence was consistent with someone who was waiting to attack Smith when he came out of his home.
McClure's brother, Jeffery Nelson, was subsequently arrested and charged with Smith's murder.
Evidence of a Conspiracy
During his investigation of Smith's murder, Detective Matthew Vasquez with the JPSO listened to " hundreds of hours" of jailhouse phone calls made by Defendant and McClure from the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center (JPCC) both before and after Smith's murder. Det. Vasquez explained that while neither Defendant, McClure nor Nelson admitted killing Smith in any of these phone calls, he identified several phone calls that he deemed significant. He had those calls transcribed and excerpts were played for the jury, beginning with a phone call on January 6, 2011, a few days after Pierce's murder. During the playing of these phone calls for the jury, Det. Vasquez offered testimony as to who was talking and the meaning of the " code" language being used.
In the January 6, 2011 phone call from McClure to an unknown male, McClure stated that he's " good" as " [l]ong as the n*gg* don't say nothing." On the next day, McClure assured his mother that everything was alright " long as nobody don't say nothing." In a call to his brother, Frank, two days later, McClure indicated that the police claimed they had one witness and " n*gg* already know who the witness is."
[14-251 La.App. 5 Cir. 9] On January 25, 2011, McClure and an unknown female facilitated a three-way call with Nelson during which McClure stated, " I ain't trippin' . . . They don't got no witness . . . Well, they got one witness, but . . . he ain't coming to court or whatever, woo di woo." Two days later, Nelson asked McClure how he got caught to which McClure responded, " I was acting stupid . . ...