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State v. Ayala

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

April 18, 2018



          Peggy J. Sullivan Louisiana Appellate COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Jose Isreal Ayala, III

          Asa Allen Skinner District Attorney Terry Wayne Lambright First Assistant District Attorney COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: State of Louisiana

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, John D. Saunders and Van H. Kyzar, Judges.

          VAN H. KYZAR JUDGE.

         The defendant, Jose Isreal Ayala, III, appeals his sentences imposed following guilty pleas to the offenses of manslaughter and obstruction of justice, entered pursuant to a plea agreement with the State of Louisiana. For the reasons assigned, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Defendant was indicted on September 4, 2014 by the Vernon Parish Grand Jury for second degree murder and obstruction of justice, violations of La.R.S. 14:30.1 and La.R.S. 14:130.1. On April 27, 2017, Defendant pled guilty to the lesser offense of manslaughter and to obstruction of justice, along with the offense of aggravated escape, an offense charged under a separate docket number and which is also subject to an appeal of the sentence imposed in a separate appeal before this court.

         The record contains the following facts recited at the plea hearing:

Yes, sir, Judge, under the Bill of Indictment 86, 777, the State believes that it could show that back on the morning of March the 29th, 2014, the State submits that the evidence will show that the victim, Jamie[1] (spelled phonetically) Stephens, went to the home of Shannon Perkins, who he had dated off and on. Shannon's daughter, Cassandra Ward, a codefendant, had spent the night there with the defendant, Jose Ayala, and Cassandra's daughter, Ryleigh. The State submits that as Cassandra Ward saw Jamie Stephens walking up the driveway, she instructed the defendant to take her daughter and go into a room in the rear of the trailer. The State submits that Jamie Stephens walked up the driveway to the rear porch of Shannon's trailer to a sliding glass door, where he was confronted by Cassandra Ward. It is contended that, through the glass door, Cassandra Ward advised Jamie that her mother was not there and that he needed to leave. We submit that words may have been exchanged, but the evidence would show that the victim had no weapon, that the victim made no attempt to get into the home. The evidence would show that, without cause and without solicitation, the defendant, Jose Ayala, emerged from the back room of the trailer and handed Cassandra Ward her daughter, Ryleigh, moving quickly, urgently down the hall to a rear door that opened unto « onto the back porch. The State submits that a room rented by the defendant, at the end of the hall, contains what the State contends was an S.K.S. rifle, which the defendant grabbed prior to going onto the porch. The state submits that the defendant, Ayala, intentionally confronted Jamie Stephens, although Jamie had not engaged the defendant, had not confronted the defendant in any manner. Jamie had not attempted to get into the home, and the defendant was safely locked inside the home. Yet, the defendant intentionally exited onto the porch and confronted Jamie, while armed with a firearm. The State submits that the codefendant, Cassandra Ward, heard the defendant fire what she believed, Judge, was a warning shot and sees the victim turn from the sliding glass door toward the rear side door and telling the defendant, "I'm not afraid of you, " and then she hears four or five rapid shots. The evidence would show that the defendant re-enters the trailer, requesting a blanket to cover the victim's body, where the codefendant gives the defendant a blanket. Thereafter, Cassandra Ward hears the defendant make a phone call to another codefendant, Matthew Andrews, telling him, bring the shovels. The evidence will show that Matthew Andrews showed up at 2409 [sic] Bailey Road with the shovels and helped defendant, Ayala, load the victim's body into Cassandra Ward's vehicle. The evidence will show that the parties, along with Cassandra Ward's daughter, traveled to a location out on Highway 1211 in Vernon Parish, Louisiana where they dug a shallow grave and buried the body of James Stephens. Thereafter, the State submits that the defendant traveled back to 2409 [sic] Bailey Road, where he, along with the codefendant, Cassandra Ward, used [a] water hose and bleach to destroy the evidence of Jamie's murder. Washed the grass, washed the porch, bleached the porch to conceal the -- the murder. It was further contended by the State, that within the week after Jamie's murder, that the defendant revisited Jamie's body, the site where they had buried him. That this defendant dug his body up, removed his clothes, his shoes, his socks, his pants, his underwear, his shirt, took those items, traveled to the home of another codefendant, Robert Worth, and as Robert Worth and Cassandra War[d] watched, burned Jamie's clothes, burned their clothes, for the purpose of destroying evidence. It is further contended by the State that this defendant instructed the codefendant, Cassandra Ward, to dispose of the weapon and the digging in - implements. The digging implements were discarded behind a dumpster behind a place known as "Rudy's Bar-B-Q" over in Spring, Texas. The gun was given to an unknown individual, those arrangements having been set up by the defendant, Jose Ayala. The digging implements were later recovered by the Sheriffs Office here in Vernon Parish. The State could - believes that it could further show that this defendant bragged to another codefendant, Robert Worth, that, "Yes, I shot Jamie Stephens. It was the sloppiest murder I ever done." The State would submit this factual recitation along with all of the answers to discovery and the entire suit and file into evidence in support of the charges of second degree murder and the charge of obstruction of justice.

         On June 29, 2017, the district court reviewed a pre-sentence investigation, reviewed letters, and heard from witnesses, before sentencing Defendant to forty years each for manslaughter and obstruction of justice. The sentences were ordered to run consecutively. Defendant filed a written Motion to Reconsider Sentence on July 7, 2017. The trial court denied the motion on July 12.[2]

         Defendant now appeals. In his sole assignment of error, Defendant argues that the forty-year sentences imposed for each offense, to be served consecutively, are excessive.

         Errors Patent

         In accordance with Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure Article 920, all appeals are reviewed for errors patent on the face of the record. After reviewing the record, we find there are no errors patent.


         In his sole assignment of error, [3] Defendant argues that his forty-year sentences are excessive. The sentence imposed by the trial court for each of the offenses to which the defendant pled guilty are the maximum sentences. See La.R.S. 14:31(B) and La.R.S. 14:130.1(B)(1). The law is well settled concerning the standard of review to be used in excessive sentence claims:

La. Const, art. I, § 20 guarantees that, "[n]o law shall subject any person to cruel or unusual punishment." To constitute an excessive sentence, the reviewing court must find the penalty so grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime as to shock our sense of justice or that the sentence makes no measurable contribution to acceptable penal goals and is, therefore, nothing more than a needless imposition of pain and suffering. State v. Campbell, 404 So.2d 1205 (La. 1981). The trial court has wide discretion in the imposition of sentence within the statutory limits and such sentence shall not be set aside as excessive absent a manifest abuse of discretion. State v. Etienne, 99-192 (La.App. 3 Cir. 10/13/99); 746 So.2d 124, writ denied, 00-0165 (La.6/30/00); 765 So.2d 1067. The relevant question is whether the trial court abused its broad sentencing discretion, not whether another sentence might have been more appropriate. State v. Cook, 95-2784 (La.5/31/96); 674 So.2d 957, cert, denied, 519 U.S. 1043, 117 S.Ct. 615, 136 L.Ed.2d 539 (1996).

State v. Barling, 00-1241, 00-1591, p. 12 (La.App. 3 Cir. 1/31/01), 779 So.2d 1035, 1042-43, writ denied, 01-838 (La. 2/1/02), 808 So.2d 331.

         Sentences falling within statutory sentencing ranges may still be unconstitutionally excessive if they shock the sense of justice or make no meaningful contribution to acceptable penal goals. Several factors may be considered when reviewing such a sentence for excessiveness:

[A]n appellate court may consider several factors including the nature of the offense, the circumstances of the offender, the legislative purpose behind the punishment and a comparison of the sentences imposed for similar crimes. State v. Smith, 99-0606 (La.7/6/00); 766 So.2d 501. While a comparison of sentences imposed for similar crimes may provide some insight, "it is well settled that sentences must be individualized to the particular offender and to the particular offense committed." State v. Batiste, 594 So.2d 1 (La.App. 1 Cir. 1991). Additionally, it is within the purview of the trial court to particularize the sentence because the trial judge "remains in the best position to assess the aggravating and mitigating circumstances presented by each case." State v. Cook, 95-2784 (La.5/31/96); 674 So.2d 957, 958.

State v. Smith, 02-719, p. 4 (La.App. 3 Cir. 2/12/03), 846 So.2d 786, 789, writ denied, 03 562 (La. 5/30/03), 845 So.2d 1061.

         In this case, Defendant pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement whereby the State amended the originally indicted second degree murder charge to manslaughter. The trial court gave extensive oral reasons for the sentences imposed for the two offenses at issue here.

         The court first noted that the victim was shot multiple times with a rifle and that Defendant was originally charged with second degree murder, such that the plea agreement allowing Defendant to plead guilty to manslaughter amounted to a substantial benefit in his favor, and that Defendant also benefited by the dismissal of other charges in connection with the plea. The sentencing judge further considered mitigating factors offered by Defendant at the sentencing, including multiple letters submitted by family and friends on his behalf, Defendant's youth, being only 27 years old, and his military service primarily as a military police officer. The court noted, however, that Defendant had been discharged from the U.S. Army after repeatedly being found using or possessing marijuana and had three convictions for marijuana possession. The court also noted Mr. Ayala's attempt to blame his then-girlfriend for the murder and the fact that she was also charged in connection with the case, but eventually concluded that such would not exonerate or excuse Defendant from his involvement in the crime as a principal even if his version were true. Finally, yet significantly, the court considered the lack of remorse shown by Defendant for the results of his actions, as follows:

What is very interesting to this court as well is I read through all of this stuff and I took the time to do it 'cause I wanted to be fair to Mr. Ayala and see what he had to say. And he often expressed regret for some things that happened, regret. Never did I glean from anything I read from him that he had any kind of remorse for what happened to the victim and the victim's family and the - the agony they have had to go through. That tells me a lot about him. I think both of them were evil people. People who could end up in something that would result in someone's death and not seek to do the right thing about it. And the consequences are that many, many lives now have been involved and affected for the rest of their lives and it could have been a lot different if common sense and decency had been [] involved in this whole process. We've got a family, including two children -- two small children, who have a family member who was killed brutally and senselessly. They won't see him. They have memories. They have pictures. They have thoughts, but they won't see him. Two children will grow up -- gonna grow up without a father. And from what I understand he was divorced, but he had involvement with his children and they I'm sure have missed him and will miss him as they grow up. Certain milestones, like graduating from school or getting married and walking the child down the aisle, will never be an option. That has been taken away. Growing old and seeing grandchildren, that is taken away[.] Instead, grandparents and other families are gonna have to fill roles they don't wanna fill and shouldn't have to fill for these children. So, there is damage and harm here that is irreparable and eternal and that makes this very, very heinous and serious and requires severity in the punishment.
As I noted, he benefitted significantly from his plea agreement and all of the other things but that's the -- really from a mitigating point of view, there's not a lot that I see here that mitigates anything as it relates to Mr. Ayala. The sentence of the court -- considering all of this - is as follows: In Number 86, 777, Count 1, on the charge of manslaughter, I sentence him to serve 40 years at hard labor with the Louisiana Department of Corrections. In Number 86, 777, Count 2, the obstruction of justice, I sentence him to serve 40 years at hard labor. These are the maximums. In 87, 354, 1 order him to serve ten years at hard labor with the Louisiana Department of Corrections. That sentence, by law, shall be served without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. The court is gonna [sic] order that all three of these sentences be served consecutive to each other. He is entitled to credit for time served.

         The Manslaughter Sentence

         Defendant pled to a factual scenario more supportive of the original charge of second degree murder than manslaughter. Generally, manslaughter is a homicide that would be murder, but the offense is partially mitigated when the circumstances are sufficient to excite the passion or heat the blood of an average person. La.R.S. 14:31(A)(1). The State, according to the recitation at the sentencing hearing, was prepared to prove that Defendant shot the victim multiple times with a rifle, under circumstances that were insufficient to provoke a murder. Defendant's conduct after the murder reflected a cold, calculated, and callous outlook on the sanctity of life, and a lack of remorse for his actions or the persons harmed thereby. As such, it is clear that Defendant received a substantial benefit by the reduction of the second degree murder charge to manslaughter. He also received the benefit of the dismissal of other charges as part of the plea agreement.

Generally, maximum sentences are reserved for the most serious violation of the offense and the worst type of offender. State v. Russell 42, 479 (La.App. 2 Cir. 9/26/07), 966 So.2d 154, writ denied, 07-2069 (La.3/7/08), 977 So.2d 897. However, "where a defendant has pled guilty to an offense which does not adequately describe his conduct or has received a significant reduction in potential exposure to confinement through a plea bargain, the trial court has great discretion in imposing even the maximum ...

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