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State v. Leger

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

November 15, 2017

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
DAVID LEGER

         On Appeal from the 19th Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 03-11-0844 Honorable Richard "Chip" Moore, Judge Presiding

          Hillar C. Moore, III District Attorney Cristopher J. M. Casler Assistant District Attorney Baton Rouge, LA Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellee, State of Louisiana

          Rachel I. Conner New Orleans, LA Attorney for Defendant-Appellant, David Leger

          BEFORE: HIGGINBOTHAM, HOLDRIDGE, AND PENZATO, JJ.

          HIGGINBOTHAM, J.

         The defendant, David Leger, was charged by grand jury indictment with five counts of vehicular homicide, a violation of La. R.S. 14:32.1, and pled not guilty. Following a jury trial, he was found guilty as charged. Subsequently, the defendant filed motions for post-verdict judgment of acquittal and new trial and filed a motion to recuse the trial judge, who initially denied the motion to recuse. This court vacated that ruling and ordered that the motion to recuse be randomly allotted to another judge for disposition. State v. Leger, 2014-1518 (La.App. 1st Cir. 10/16/14), 2014 WL 12570083 (unpublished), writ denied, 2014-2200 (La. 11/5/14), 152 So.3d 161. Following the random allotment for purposes of that motion, the motion to recuse was granted by Judge Donald Johnson and the case was ordered to be randomly allotted for further proceedings. Following reallotment to Judge Richard "Chip" Moore, the trial court denied the defendant's motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal, but granted his motion for new trial. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the grant of the new trial and remanded for reconsideration.[1] State v. Leger, 2015-1720 (La. 2/19/16), 184 So.3d 685 (per curiam). Following that remand, the defendant filed a renewed motion for new trial, which was denied by the trial court. Thereafter, the defendant was sentenced on count six[2] to a fine of two thousand dollars, and five years imprisonment at hard labor, three years to be served without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence, to run consecutively to the sentences imposed on counts seven through ten; on count seven to a fine of two thousand dollars, and five years imprisonment at hard labor, three years to be served without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence and three years of that sentence to be served consecutively to the sentences imposed on counts six and eight through ten; on count eight to a fine of two thousand dollars, and five years imprisonment at hard labor, three years to be served without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence, to run concurrently with the sentences imposed on counts six, seven, nine and ten; on count nine to a fine of two thousand dollars, and five years imprisonment at hard labor, three years to be served without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence, to run concurrently with the sentences imposed on counts six through eight and ten; and on count ten to a fine of two thousand dollars, and five years imprisonment at hard labor, three years to be served without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence, to run concurrently with the sentences imposed on counts six through nine.

         The defendant appeals, asserting the evidence at trial was insufficient to convict him of vehicular homicide, his rights to a fair trial and due process were violated when the trial judge failed to preside impartially over the trial, the trial court erred when it denied the defendant's motion to challenge a potential juror for cause, the trial court erred when it allowed the prosecution to introduce highly prejudicial evidence, the trial court erred when it denied the defendant's requested jury instructions, the trial court erred when it denied the defendant's motion for new trial, and the trial court erred in disproportionately sentencing the defendant when compared to his co-defendant.

         FACTS

         On March 13, 2011, at approximately 8:30 p.m., five people, Effie Fontenot, her three sons, Austin Fontenot, Hunter Johnson and Keagan Fontenot, and her friend and co-worker, Kimberly Stagg, died in a motor vehicle collision in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 10 in East Baton Rouge Parish. The defendant's vehicle, originally traveling in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, crossed the median, first striking an eighteen-wheeler trailer, then colliding with the victims' vehicle, which burst into flames, killing the victims.

         Several minutes prior to this collision, the defendant was driving a white pickup truck westbound on Interstate 10. At the same time, Kelsye Hall ("Hall") was also driving a green Mercedes SUV westbound on Interstate 10. Several eyewitnesses, who were also driving in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, testified at trial. According to Dara Soulier ("Soulier"), when she looked in her mirror she saw two vehicles approaching from behind her, and she noticed flashing lights on the defendant's vehicle. Soulier testified that Hall's vehicle was swerving back and forth, and the defendant's vehicle was trying to pass it. Soulier was in the right lane, and both vehicles passed her at a speed in excess of the speed limit of seventy miles-per-hour. It appeared to her that Hall was not allowing the defendant to pass. Soulier said that the defendant would get over to pass, and then Hall would get over, ride the center line back and forth and not allow the defendant to pass. She described the vehicles as playing "cat and mouse." According to Soulier, the defendant did not disengage from playing, did not slow or try to fall back, continued at a high rate of speed, and continued to try to pass Hall. After the vehicles passed her, Soulier observed taillights on the shoulder of the roadway, then saw the defendant's vehicle "shoot" across the interstate and the median, striking an eighteen-wheeler and vehicle.

         Kevin Patton ("Patton"), also traveling westbound, testified that Hall's vehicle passed him at a very high rate of speed and rapidly pulled in front of him, almost clipping his bumper. Very shortly after, the defendant passed him at a similar speed and appeared to be following Hall very closely. At the time, Patton thought the vehicles were following each other, like "cat and mouse, " chasing each other, or were engaged in "road rage, " and he observed that both vehicles were darting in and out of traffic. Patton testified that the defendant did not appear to slow down or disengage. After these two vehicles were approximately ten to fifteen car lengths ahead of him, Patton observed the defendant's vehicle go to the shoulder, then veer back across, through the median, hitting vehicles traveling eastbound. Several other witnesses who were traveling eastbound on Interstate 10 at the time, including the driver of the eighteen-wheeler, testified at trial that they observed the defendant's vehicle cross the median, hit the eighteen-wheeler, then collide with the victims' vehicle.

         Hall, who was charged and convicted of five counts of negligent homicide in this case, testified at the defendant's trial. According to Hall, while she was driving that night on Interstate 10, she noticed a white pickup truck following her closely, and the truck engaged its bright lights, then flashed the lights. When she got into the right lane, the truck followed her, and although she tried to let the truck pass her several times, the truck continued to follow her, and this happened multiple times over an approximately ten mile distance. Hall testified that, as she was in the right lane, the truck came around on the shoulder of the roadway, swerved and cut back in front of her vehicle, clipping the front of her vehicle. The truck then went to the right, and Hall went to the left, the truck turned perpendicular and went into the median, hitting vehicles in oncoming traffic. Hall exited at the next exit and returned to the scene on the eastbound side of the interstate. Hall denied that she tried to cut off the defendant or that she swerved between both lanes to prevent him from passing her. Hall admitted that she was straddling both lanes of the interstate, but asserted she did this because the defendant continued following her with bright lights flashing, and she had already allowed him the opportunity to pass multiple times, but he would not pass her. Hall testified that she did not believe she did anything wrong that night and described herself as a "victim."

         Louisiana State Police Trooper James Summerford ("Trooper Summerford") arrived at the scene, as the fire department was extinguishing the vehicle fire. The defendant's vehicle was in three pieces, the defendant had been ejected from the vehicle, and his passenger was still being cut out of the vehicle. Both were transported to the hospital. Trooper Summerford documented damage to the front headlight and adjacent area of Hall's vehicle and damage to the left rear trailer of the eighteen-wheeler, where a tire was missing from one rim and the rim was bent. A partially empty bottle of "Captain Morgan, " intact and with the cap on, was found inside the defendant's vehicle. Although Trooper Summerford was able to determine there was a collision between the defendant and Hall on the westbound side of the interstate, he was unable to determine the exact location of that collision. Louisiana State Troopers marked and tracked the path of the defendant's vehicle through the median, and assisted with the scene and the investigation. Trooper Burnell Thompson ("Trooper Thompson"), after assisting with traffic and the accident scene, went to the hospital to meet with the defendant. He read the defendant his rights and obtained his consent in providing a blood sample, which was drawn by a nurse at 11:06 p.m. and maintained in the chain of custody. At trial, the parties stipulated to the admission of the results of this test, which showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 grams percent. After returning to the scene, Trooper Thompson subsequently took Hall to the troop headquarters for a breath intoxilyzer test, to which she voluntarily submitted at 12:16 a.m., and which showed no trace of alcohol.

         Trooper Darryl Davis ("Trooper Davis") was accepted by the court as an expert in accident reconstruction. Trooper Davis assisted in the investigation at the scene, taking photographs and using a mapping device to take measurements. According to Trooper Davis, there were no skid marks or debris in the westbound lanes to indicate the exact location of the collision between Hall and the defendant. Trooper Davis noted that there was contact between the two vehicles, then the defendant's vehicle rotated and was out of control where he crossed the center median. Trooper Davis testified that after crossing into the eastbound lanes, the defendant struck the eighteen-wheeler, then struck the victims' vehicle, likely stopping it in its tracks, and that shortly thereafter, the victims' vehicle caught on fire. Trooper Davis noted an imprint of the defendant's front tire in the radiator of the victims' vehicle, further opining that these collisions all occurred very violently. Trooper Davis was unable to determine the cause of the collision between Hall and the defendant.

         The defense expert, Michael Gillen ("Gillen"), was accepted by the court as an expert in accident reconstruction. Gillen testified that the dent to Hall's vehicle near the headlight had a rounded cup profile consistent with the left rear corner of the defendant's vehicle's bumper. Gillen opined that the sudden redirection of the defendant's vehicle, from the eyewitness statements and the physical evidence of the tire marks and damage to Hall's vehicle, was consistent with the front of Hall's vehicle making contact with the left rear corner of the bumper of the defendant's vehicle. This resulted in a shifting of the rear of the defendant's vehicle to the right which, in turn, redirected the front of the defendant's vehicle to the left, resulting in an unexpected redirection of the defendant's vehicle that sent him projecting across the travel lanes of the westbound interstate in the center median. Gillen's opinion was that Hall moved into the rear of the defendant's vehicle, based upon the fact that Hall did not lose control, i.e., she was expecting it and able to maintain control through the collision. Gillen opined that this collision caused such a significant redirection of the defendant's vehicle that no person, drunk or sober, could avoid this change in direction, and the defendant's intoxication did not have anything to do with the redirection because there was no evidence of any loss of control until this contact. The defendant's vehicle was rotating counterclockwise as he left the westbound lanes. Gillen opined that, as the defendant was coming out of the median, he was no longer rotating, which indicated steering input by the defendant, which suggested perception and reaction to the event and did not indicate the actions of an impaired driver. The distance across the median was approximately 170 feet, and at seventy miles-per-hour, the reaction time would be one-and-one-half seconds, which is within a normal range of perception. Gillen testified that, without steering input, grass would have been piling up on the right side of the defendant's vehicle against the wheels, and would have caused the defendant's vehicle to roll over. The defendant's vehicle struck the left rear tandem axles of the eighteen-wheeler, knocking off one tire and causing heavy damage to the steel wheel, which corresponded to heavy damage and black smudging on the left rear side of the defendant's vehicle. This collision caused another redirection of the defendant's vehicle, rotating it to the left, and the defendant's vehicle then impacted the victims' vehicle. The tire mark in the front grill of the victims' vehicle corresponded with the front tire of the defendant's vehicle. Relying on the overall travel distance documented by the investigating officers and speeds of seventy miles-per-hour, Gillen opined that the post-impact distance from the collision with Hall's vehicle to the final resting place of the defendant's vehicle was 306 feet and occurred in a three second time frame. Gillen further opined that he did not think this accident would have happened if both vehicles had behaved reasonably.

         SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

         In his first assignment of error, the defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the convictions for vehicular homicide. In his brief, the defendant acknowledges that there was no question at trial that this collision caused the deaths of the five victims. However, the defendant contends that the ...


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