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State v. King

Supreme Court of Louisiana

September 18, 2017



          Hughes, Justice.

         This case involves a trial court's grant of a motion for new trial on the basis that the verdict was contrary to the law and the evidence pursuant to Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure article 851(1).[1] A jury convicted the defendant of second degree murder and armed robbery. The defendant filed a motion for new trial, which focused on inconsistencies in the evidence presented to the jury, arguing that the testimony of the one eyewitness contained internal inconsistencies and was at least partially irreconcilable with the physical evidence. The trial court granted the motion, ordering a new trial for the defendant. The appellate court reversed. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the appellate court and reinstate the trial court ruling.


         The following narrative was presented at trial. The body of Javier Sanchez was found on November 2, 2007 in Orleans Parish near the old Jazzland Theme Park. He had been shot in the abdomen at close range. Earlier that evening, Maria Abreu, Mr. Sanchez's girlfriend with whom he shared an apartment on Clearview Parkway in Metairie, answered a knock at the door. Three armed men forced their way into the apartment looking for Mr. Sanchez and "two kilos." Ms. Abreu does not speak English well and could not understand exactly what the men wanted. She gave them about $8, 000 from a briefcase in the house. The assailants bound her hands and feet with duct tape and then used the tape to tie her to the bedposts of a bed on the second floor of the apartment. Ms. Abreu's cell phone was taken. The assailants continued to ransack the home.

         Mr. Sanchez returned from his errands carrying a drink and a bag containing food. He yelled to Ms. Abreu when he entered that she should have answered her phone. Ms. Abreu heard some items fall (later determined to be the food and drink) and heard the men leave. She then went to the window in the second-floor bedroom and saw Mr. Sanchez's Ford Expedition drive away. She saw one person sitting in the driver's seat. Mr. Sanchez was sitting in the middle of the back seat with one person on either side of him. The parking lot of the apartment complex was dark, but Ms. Abreu said she could see into the Expedition because an interior light was on.

         Mr. Sanchez's vehicle was found in New Orleans East on November 8, 2007. The car was found under a covered carport adjacent to a residence. The car's interior was burned and the steering column was damaged.

         At trial, the parties stipulated that a latent fingerprint lifted from the adhesive side of a roll of duct tape recovered from the living room at the apartment matched Calvin King's right index finger. The state's only eyewitness to any of the events of November 2, 2007 was Ms. Abreu. Also at trial, the defense called an investigator who testified that based on a reconstruction of the scene, Ms. Abreu could not have seen what she claimed she witnessed based on where the Expedition would have been parked, the distance, angle and lighting conditions as well as an apron on the window that blocked the view from the apartment. Other inconsistencies brought to light were whether Ms. Abreu previously told police that the men came knocking on the door twice; whether Ms. Abreu had previously told law enforcement that she knew Mr. Sanchez was selling cocaine; whether Ms. Abreu's mouth had been duct taped; and whether Ms. Abreu had reported to police that she had been pistol whipped.

         A jury returned verdicts of guilty of second degree murder (La. R.S. 14:30.1) and guilty of armed robbery (La. R.S. 14:64.3) on February 1, 2013. The defendant filed a Motion for New Trial, which was based on Louisiana Code Criminal Procedure articles 851(1) and 851(2).

         Following a hearing, the trial court granted the motion and gave the following reasons from the bench:

Through all the motions that we heard in this case and the trial itself, I've had a lot of problems with the testimony of Maria Abreu because of so many inconsistencies that she's had in her testimony. And this is strictly a circumstantial case against Mr. King. There were no witnesses who testified that he committed the murder or he did the robbery other than Maria Abreu, who was not a witness to the murder, just to the events that took place in the apartment.
I'm going to grant your motion for new trial.

         The state took a writ to the court of appeal, which reversed the trial court in a split decision. The Fifth Circuit held that the trial court legally erred when it failed to "adequately state whether it made the required threshold finding that the defendant suffered an injustice." State v. King, 15-39, p. 2 (La.App. 5 Cir. 5/13/15). The Fifth Circuit also stated that even if the trial court did determine the defendant suffered an injustice, the trial court abused its discretion because the inconsistencies in Ms. Abreu's testimony were "insignificant and did not bear on the elements of the crimes the State charged the defendant with committing." Id. at p. 3.

         This court granted the defendant's writ application. State v. King, 15-1283 (La. 5/20/16), 191 So.3d 1060.


         The grounds for a motion for new trial are found in Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure Article 851[2], which provided at the time the defendant filed his motion:

The motion for a new trial is based on the supposition that injustice has been done the defendant, and, unless such is shown to have been the case the motion shall be denied, no matter upon what allegations it is grounded.
The court, on motion of the defendant, shall grant a new ...

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