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State v. Cox

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

February 21, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, STATE OF LOUISIANA Paul D. Connick, Jr. Terry M. Boudreaux Andrea F. Long Rachel L. Africk Douglas E. Rushton



          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Marc E. Johnson, and Robert A. Chaisson.


         Defendant, Albert Cox, appeals his convictions and sentences for second degree murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Defense counsel has filed an appellate brief challenging evidentiary rulings by the trial court. In addition, defendant has filed a pro se supplemental brief asserting that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for second degree murder, that the form of the jury verdict was improper, and that the trial court failed to comply with the sentencing guidelines set forth in La. C.Cr.P. art. 894.1. We have considered the arguments presented in these briefs, and finding them to be without merit, we affirm defendant's convictions and sentences.


         On January 14, 2016, a Jefferson Parish Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant with second degree murder, in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1 (count one), and with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of La. R.S. 14:95.1 (count two). Defendant pled not guilty to the charges at his arraignment on January 15, 2016. On May 4, 2016, defendant filed a motion to appoint a sanity commission, and after a hearing on June 22, 2016, the trial court found defendant competent to stand trial.

         The matter initially proceeded to trial in December of 2016; however, at the conclusion of the proceedings, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. Trial commenced again before a twelve-person jury on April 10, 2017. After considering the evidence presented, the jury, on April 12, 2017, found defendant guilty as charged. Defendant thereafter filed a motion for acquittal notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for new trial. On April 19, 2017, the trial court denied these motions, and after delays were waived, sentenced defendant to life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence on count one and to fifteen years imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence on count two, to run consecutively. Defendant now appeals.


         This case stems from the shooting of Cornell Woods that occurred in October of 2015 in a neighborhood in Kenner known as "Susan Park." At trial, Leroy Cage, a very good friend of the victim, recounted the events leading up to the shooting.

         According to Mr. Cage, on October 7, 2015, he and Mr. Woods were "hanging out" after work in their neighborhood as they routinely did. As they were sitting in Mr. Woods' truck in front of Mr. Cage's house on Tupelo Street, defendant approached Mr. Woods on the driver's side of the truck, pointed his finger at him, and referred to Mr. Woods as a "bitch." Mr. Woods and Mr. Cage exited the truck, at which point Mr. Woods called defendant a "bitch, " and defendant told Mr. Woods, "Whenever I walk down, I'm going to pistol whip you." Defendant then walked off in the direction of 27th Street towards his house on Jasper Street. Mr. Cage tried to deescalate the situation, telling Mr. Woods not to worry about "that fool, " and they parted ways.

         Shortly thereafter, as Mr. Cage was walking his dog in the neighborhood, he saw defendant, whom he knew from the neighborhood as "Wayne, " walking down the street.[1] Mr. Cage greeted defendant, but defendant ignored him and kept walking. Mr. Cage noticed that defendant, who had earlier been wearing a white t-shirt and blue shorts, was now dressed all in black and kept one hand in his pocket as he headed in the direction of Mr. Woods' house.

         Mr. Cage then telephoned Mr. Woods to let him know defendant was heading his way; however, despite the earlier incident, Mr. Woods expressed that he was not "worried about that fool." After Mr. Cage got off the phone with Mr. Woods, he walked into the street and saw defendant, who was about three and a half blocks away, cross to the middle of the street by Mr. Woods' house and start shooting. At trial, Mr. Cage explained that he could not see anyone's faces at that point, but he heard four shots and could see the fire from the gun. Mr. Cage called 9-1-1, took his dog back to his house, told his wife that "Wayne just shot Cornell, " and then got into his vehicle and drove to Mr. Woods' house.

         In the meantime, officers from the Kenner Police Department responded to the scene. Upon his arrival, Detective Devin Diedling observed the victim lying face up, breathing sporadically, with an apparent gunshot wound to his chest. Mr. Woods was transported to the hospital where he later died from his injuries.[2]During the course of their investigation, officers spoke to Mr. Cage about the information he had regarding the incident. As a result of this information, Detective Vincent Miranti, the lead detective in this case, compiled a photographic lineup and showed it to Mr. Cage, who positively identified defendant as the individual he knew as "Wayne."

         Following this positive identification, Detective Miranti applied for a search warrant for defendant's house. However, before he got the chance to execute the warrant, [3] he was informed that relatives of defendant had called to provide information regarding the case. Detective Miranti spoke with Laquittia Davis and Keokuk Davis, cousins of defendant. Laquittia told Detective Miranti, and subsequently testified at trial, that defendant called her on October 8, 2015, and told her that he "shot someone, " which she was able to establish was Mr. Woods. Keokuk stated that Laquittia called him after speaking with defendant, which led him to call defendant. He questioned defendant, asking if what he told Laquittia was true, to which defendant affirmatively responded. Rene Cox, another cousin of defendant, went to the Kenner Police Department and provided information to Sergeant Jeff Adams. According to Ms. Cox, defendant had also called her and told her that he had killed someone.[4]

         Based on the information obtained through the course of the investigation, Detective Miranti secured an arrest warrant for defendant. On October 8, 2015, after being located by the U.S. Marshals in Baton Rouge at the bus station, defendant was arrested and was subsequently transported to the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center.


         Exclusion of Evidence Regarding Defendant's Mental State (Assignment of Error Number One)

         In his first assignment of error, defendant contends that his rights to confrontation and to present a defense were violated by the trial court's erroneous ruling that prohibited the introduction of evidence regarding his mental limitations at the time of his purported confessions to family members.

         Prior to the first trial, the State filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of insanity or mental defect pursuant to La. C.Cr.P. art. 651. In the motion, the State argued that evidence of defendant's mental status or alleged mental defect was inadmissible because defendant pled not guilty and did not place his sanity at issue through a formal plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. At the November 17, 2016 hearing on the motion, defense counsel responded that she should be allowed to cross-examine witnesses regarding defendant's mental capacity. She specifically asserted that she did not intend to present evidence of defendant's mental limitations in an attempt to negate any specific element of the offenses or to show diminished capacity. Rather, defense counsel maintained that she wanted to introduce the evidence of defendant's mental limitations in order to show bias against him on the part of some of the witnesses who were family members. In addition, defense counsel asserted that evidence of defendant's mental capacity would demonstrate that the manner in which he communicated his statements to family members would reveal that he is not a "normal communicator." After hearing arguments of counsel, the trial court ruled as follows:

I will say this: I think we're all in agreement on what the law provides. And I think we're all in agreement that you are allowed to conduct cross-examination. The problem is simply this: It's the question that you present to a witness to determine whether they are biased or prejudiced and whether that is an appropriate question. So, what I am going to do is hold this open, and when you are ready to ask those questions, you approach the Bench and you ask to get clearance from the Court before you do it.

         Prior to the start of defendant's second trial, defense counsel reurged her opposition to the State's motion in limine, arguing that it has become "even more pertinent that the defense be able to ask a few questions of the witnesses, his family members that know him, regarding his ability to read and write, about his vocabulary, and essentially his low intellectual functioning in order to combat the State's evidence that he is communicating inculpatory statements." The trial court ruled: "Based upon the arguments of counsel and the fact that no additional briefing has been submitted to the Court, nor any additional evidence to substantiate the argument of the defense, the Court's previous ruling remains in effect, and it is not admissible and prohibited."

         Defendant now challenges this ruling. He specifically contends that the trial court's exclusion of evidence concerning his mental state at the time of the purported confessions to family members under the guise of La. C.Cr.P. art. 651 denied him his constitutional rights to confrontation and to present a defense.

         Both the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of the Louisiana Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant the right to present a defense. However, this right does not require a trial court to permit the introduction of evidence that is irrelevant or has so little probative value that it is substantially outweighed by other legitimate considerations in the administration of justice. State v. Lirette, 11-1167 (La.App. 5 Cir. 6/28/12), 102 So.3d 801, 813, writ denied, 12-1694 (La. 2/22/13), 108 So.3d 763.

         The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution also guarantees an accused in a criminal prosecution the right to confront the witnesses against him. The Confrontation Clause of the Louisiana Constitution specifically and expressly guarantees the accused the right "to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against him." La. Const. Art. I, § 16. Confrontation not only means the ability to confront the witnesses physically but also to secure for the opponent the opportunity of cross-examination, which is its main and essential purpose. Cross-examination is the principal way to test the believability and truthfulness of the testimony, and it has traditionally been used to impeach or discredit the witness. State v. Robinson, 01-273 (La. 5/17/02), 817 So.2d 1131, 1135. For the reasons that follow, we find that defendant's constitutional rights to present a defense and to confront and cross-examine witnesses were not violated by the trial court's evidentiary ruling relating to his mental state at the time of his statements to family members.

         Clearly, pursuant to La. C.Cr.P. art. 651, when a defendant is tried upon a plea of "not guilty, " evidence of insanity or mental defect at the time of the offense shall not be admissible. State v. Necaise, 466 So.2d 660, 664 (La.App. 5thCir. 1985). In his appellate brief, defendant acknowledges the prohibition of evidence of mental defect pursuant to this article. However, he asserts that he is not attempting to introduce evidence of his mental deficiencies at the time of the offense, but rather is trying to show his mental state at the time of his statements to his cousins in order to allow the jury to better weigh the inculpatory statements. Defendant reasons that since Article 651 specifies "at the time of the offense, " it necessarily implies that evidence of insanity or mental defect at times other than "at the time of the offense" is not prohibited. Therefore, he contends that the trial court erred in using Article 651 to exclude evidence relating to his mental functioning at the time of his inculpatory statements to his cousins.

         We first note that we do not necessarily agree with defendant's assessment that the trial court used Article 651 to exclude this evidence. Rather, from the exchange at the hearing on the State's motion in limine, it appears that the trial court excluded this evidence on the basis of relevancy. In particular, when addressing defendant's arguments at the hearing, the trial court noted a clear distinction between using this evidence to show bias as opposed to using it to obtain the witnesses' personal impressions of defendant's alleged mental defect. The trial court commented that the witnesses' personal impressions of defendant's mental defect was not "relevant at all, " and that it could be appropriate to show bias or prejudice, but "to get their mental impression of him is something completely different."

         Relevant evidence is defined in La. C.E. art. 401 as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law, and irrelevant evidence is not admissible. La. C.E. art. 402. However, relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, or waste of time. La. C.E. art. 403. The trial court is accorded great discretion in evidentiary rulings, and absent a clear abuse of that discretion, rulings ...

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