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State v. Eckert

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 2, 2018



          Hon. Asa Allen Skinner Thirtieth Judicial District Attorney Terry Wayne Lambright First Assistant District Attorney COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: State of Louisiana

          Katherine M. Franks Louisiana Appellate Projec COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Daniel Jeremy Eckert

          Court composed of Marc T. Amy, Shannon J. Gremillion, and Candyce G. Perret, Judges.


         Defendant, Daniel Jeremy Eckert, appeals his conviction of second degree murder, a violation of La.R.S. 14:30.1. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


         On February 10, 2016, Defendant and his wife, Clarissa, were engaged in a physical altercation at their Anacoco, Louisiana, home. Defendant placed Clarissa in a choke hold, where he held her until she passed out. Sometime between 12:00 and 12:30 a.m., Defendant went to the home of his neighbor, Mr. Justin Kay, and asked if he could use his phone because his wife had hidden their phones. Mr. Kay testified that Defendant told him his wife had been drinking, fell, and hit her head on the wall. Defendant told Mr. Kay that he thought Clarissa had broken her neck. Mr. Kay asked if he should call an ambulance, to which Defendant responded that it was too late, "She's cold." Defendant then called 9-1-1.

         Deputy Drew Coleman of the Vernon Parish Sheriff's Office was the first authority to arrive on the scene. Defendant was in his back yard. He told Deputy Coleman that he thought his wife had committed suicide. Deputy Coleman entered the home and found Clarissa seated or propped up beside the bed of the master bedroom. Her eyes were open, but her skin was red-purple. She had what appeared to be blood around her mouth and nose.

         To preserve the scene, Deputy Coleman began to take photographs of the body and surroundings. The space in which Clarissa's body sat was very close to a wall. In the course of attempting to photograph the body, Deputy Coleman knocked it over when he disturbed the mattress. He replaced the mattress and repositioned the body where it had been. Deputy Coleman also called his supervisor, Deputy Jerry Twyman, who was already en route.

         Detective Misti Bryant led the sheriff's office investigation of Clarissa's death. She testified that after she completed her survey of the scene, she proceeded to the sheriff's office, where Defendant had been taken. After advising Defendant of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966), Detective Bryant interrogated Defendant, who told her that his wife had begun drinking earlier in the evening. Defendant cooked supper, got the couple's two children ready for bed, then went to bed himself. He woke up around midnight and went to the bathroom and found his wife dead on the floor.

         Later, Defendant was interviewed by Detectives Bryant and David Vance. In this interrogation, which lasted about four hours, Defendant stated that his wife had retired to the room of his two children, with "her bottle, " to watch a television program. He cooked supper and got his kids ready for bed. He and his two children then got into his bed and began watching a DVD movie. Some time later, according to Defendant, Clarissa then began trying to kick the door in before she realized it was not locked. Clarissa was angry at the couple's daughter, Belle. Clarissa entered the room and began to hit and shake Belle. Wyatt, Belle's younger brother, attempted to intervene, but Clarissa hit or pushed him off the bed. At that point, Defendant told the investigators, he seized Clarissa from behind in a choke hold, which he maintained until, he thought, Clarissa passed out. Defendant left Clarissa passed out on the floor and restarted the movie. Later, he awoke and saw that Clarissa was still on the floor. At this point, he discovered that she was dead. He then went to Mr. Kay's home and called 9-1-1.

         Belle was interviewed at the Rapides Children's Advocacy Center in Alexandria. Detective Bryant was present, but Bethany Branim conducted the interview. She told the interviewer that her mother entered the room as Belle, her dad, and brother were watching a "dragon show." Clarissa entered the room and started kicking Belle, telling her to get out of the bed and go to her room. Then Clarissa began hitting Defendant. Defendant then grabbed Clarissa and was "holding on (gestures) to her neck really long and she stopped. . . ." Belle later stated that Defendant held Clarissa for ten seconds. After Clarissa stopped moving, Defendant told Belle that Clarissa was asleep, but Belle thought her mother was dead. She unequivocally identified Clarissa's drinking and behavior as the catalyst for the violence, attributing it to Clarissa's consumption of vodka and Coke. "And when she drunk it every time, she started to be bad and be mean."

         A Vernon Parish grand jury indicted Defendant for second degree murder. Several discovery motions were filed by Defendant and the State. The State filed a notice of its intent to introduce evidence of prior domestic violence incidents pursuant to La.Code Evid. art 404.

         In response to discovery requests, Defendant identified Rich Clementi and Matthew Larsen as potential expert witnesses. These men were identified as experts in the "naked choke hold." The State moved for a hearing pursuant to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993).

         Larsen testified that he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1984. While stationed at Marine Barracks Tokyo, he began training in martial arts. This training continued throughout Larsen's duty with the Marine Corps. After leaving the Marine corps, Larsen enlisted in the United States Army. While in the Army, Larsen convinced his then-commander, Stanley McChrystal, that the prevailing methods of hand-to-hand combat training were insufficient. Larsen was tasked with developing new methods, which resulted in Larsen being named Battalion Master Trainer. Larsen went on to become the Regimental Trainer for an Army Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia, then Brigade Trainer for an entire Ranger Brigade.

         In 2002, Larsen re-wrote the Army Field Manual for hand-to-hand combat. This manual was used to train every active-duty, reserve, and National Guard soldier. Larsen re-wrote the manual in 2009, after he had retired from the Army and had been hired by the Army as Director of its Combatives Program. Mr. Larsen continues to train soldiers, law enforcement officers, and private individuals.

         Larsen was questioned about the "rear naked" choke hold. This is a hold taught in hand-to-hand training in the Army. One combatant attempts to restrict the blood flow to the brain by applying pressure to one side of the neck with his biceps and to the other with his forearm, effectively forming a "V" with his arm. The hands are clasped, allowing the holder to apply force with his back muscles. This usually results in the person being held losing consciousness in between ten and twelve seconds, according to literature from the United States Judo Association. After the hold is released, consciousness will return as the blood flow is restored. The hold is called "naked" because it does not rely upon using the held person's clothing to gain mechanical advantage.

         The rear naked choke hold is taught in judo to students as young as twelve. The hold is considered a legal hold in Olympic judo competition, as well as in jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts competitions. The rear naked choke has been taught in the Army since 1905.

         On cross-examination, Larsen admitted that he had met Defendant the day of the hearing. In preparation for the hearing, Larsen reviewed the statements given by the witnesses to Clarissa's death. Larsen opined that Defendant employed a rear naked choke hold on Clarissa primarily based upon Belle's description of the incident. He also opined that a rear naked choke hold was used based upon the lack of damage to Clarissa's neck area. Larsen possesses no specialized medical training beyond the type of trauma medicine taught Army Rangers, nor does he have any forensic training. While he did not necessarily opine that the choke was used correctly Larsen was careful to state that it was not used incorrectly, which would be indicated by damage to Clarissa's esophagus. Larsen has been accepted by a military court as an expert in hand-to-hand combat.

         At the close of his testimony, Larsen was offered by Defendant as "an expert in martial arts, specifically, the application of the rear naked chokehold." The trial court granted the State's motion to exclude Larsen as an expert because it did not feel that he was qualified to opine whether the application of a rear naked choke resulted in Clarissa's death. Accordingly, the trial court denied Larsen qualification as an expert witness.

         Defendant's jury trial commenced on April 3, 2017. Detectives Bryant and Vance testified as set forth above. Belle testified that "everyone" was asleep in her parents' bed when Clarissa suddenly slapped Defendant in the face. Defendant attempted to slap her back, but instead hit Belle. Belle's parents then started fighting and rolled off the bed, and Defendant began to choke Clarissa on the floor and stopped when he thought she was "asleep." Belle had no recollection of her interview at the Rapides Children's Advocacy Center. That interview was played for the jury.

         The State called Dr. Terry Welke, forensic pathologist at the Calcasieu Parish Forensic Center, who performed the autopsy on Clarissa's body. Dr. Welke catalogued the many signs of trauma he noted to Clarissa's body, including bruising on both sides of her head, her chin, breasts, and neck. He opined that Clarissa died from asphyxia, which is a deprivation of oxygen from the brain. There are several means of succumbing to asphyxia, including strangulation, suffocation, exposure to toxic gases, and "positional asphyxia, " which occurs when a person becomes incapacitated and falls into a position in which the chin is too close to the chest.

         Dr. Welke submitted Clarissa's blood for toxicological analysis. Clarissa's blood demonstrated an alcohol concentration of .277 grams per deciliter of blood, roughly four times the limit for intoxication while driving. Clarissa's blood also contained a high level of Hydroxyzine, a sedative. Clarissa's blood measured 477 nanograms per milliliter, and the "normal level is up to 80. " "And, so, that means it was elevated. And did she have any reaction to that, I don't know, possibly, maybe a little drowsiness, and in combination with the alcohol, probably so." Dr. Welke did not feel that the hydroxyzine and alcohol combination would have been potentially lethal. Dr. Welke would not express an opinion whether Hydroxyzine can cause seizures.

         In Dr. Welke's opinion, whether Clarissa asphyxiated from suffocation or strangulation or positional asphyxia as a result of her being rendered unconscious from a rear naked choke hold was of small import, because all three would be actions of another person that led to her death, which meant that the death was ...

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