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State v. Lambert

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

May 23, 2018

STATE OF LOUISIANA Appellee
v.
DARREN SCOTT LAMBERT Appellant

          Appealed from the Fourth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Ouachita, Louisiana Trial Court No. 15-F1466 Honorable Daniel J. Ellender, Judge.

          LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT By: Douglas Lee Harville Counsel for Appellant.

          ROBERT S. TEW District Attorney Counsel for Appellee.

          HOLLY CHAMBERS JONES JENNIFER H. JOHNSON Assistant District Attorneys

          Before GARRETT, COX, and STEPHENS, JJ.

          GARRETT, J.

         Following a bench trial, the defendant, Darren Scott Lambert, was convicted of domestic abuse battery by burning and attempted manslaughter. He was sentenced to 35 years at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence for domestic abuse battery by burning and 20 years at hard labor for attempted manslaughter. The trial court ordered that the sentences be served concurrently. The defendant appeals, contending the evidence was insufficient to convict him. We affirm the defendant's convictions and sentences. However, we remand the matter to correct the court minutes to reflect that the defendant's sentence for attempted manslaughter was imposed with no restriction of benefits.

         FACTS

         For approximately 2½ years, the defendant and the victim, Katie Battaglia, were engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship that was aptly described at trial as "toxic." There were multiple incidents of domestic abuse by the defendant against Katie. The violence ultimately culminated in a tragic episode on May 30, 2015, when the 23-year-old defendant poured rubbing alcohol on Katie, age 21, and then set her on fire. Katie suffered second and third degree burns to her upper torso, back, arms and ears. Additionally, Katie, who was approximately 10 weeks pregnant, lost the baby. The defendant was charged with domestic abuse battery by burning and attempted second degree murder. He was also charged with first degree feticide, but that charge was dismissed prior to trial.

         The defendant, who was represented by retained counsel, waived his right to a jury trial. The six-day bench trial began on April 10, 2017. The testimony of Katie, her parents, and her best friend established that the defendant's abuse of Katie began early in the relationship and continued throughout its duration. Furthermore, one episode led to his arrest and subsequent guilty plea for violence against Katie's father. The defendant testified on his own behalf and claimed that Katie set herself on fire. After hearing all of the testimony and closing arguments, the trial court recessed for several hours to consider all the evidence and review the extensive notes taken during the lengthy trial. After deliberating on the matter, the trial court found the defendant guilty as charged of domestic abuse battery by burning and guilty of the responsive verdict of attempted manslaughter. In lengthy and extensively detailed oral reasons for its verdicts, the trial court made strong credibility determinations in favor of Katie and the other witnesses for the prosecution. The trial court concluded that there was a significant history of domestic violence in the relationship between the defendant and Katie. It further found that the defendant's "self-serving" testimony "defied . . . and contradicted logic" in many instances.

         Thereafter, the defense filed a motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to convict the defendant based on the victim's inconsistent testimony. At the sentencing hearing on June 21, 2017, the trial court denied the motion as procedurally improper.[1]After reviewing the presentence investigation report, the trial court sentenced the defendant as described above.

         The defendant appealed, asserting that the evidence was insufficient to convict him.

         LAW

         Standard of Review

         The standard of appellate review for a sufficiency of the evidence claim is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979); State v. Tate, 01-1658 (La. 5/20/03), 851 So.2d 921, cert. denied, 541 U.S. 905, 124 S.Ct. 1604, 158 L.Ed.2d 248 (2004); State v. Carter, 42, 894 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1/9/08), 974 So.2d 181, writ denied, 08-0499 (La. 11/14/08), 996 So.2d 1086. This standard, now legislatively embodied in La.C.Cr.P. art. 821, does not provide the appellate court with a vehicle to substitute its own appreciation of the evidence for that of the fact finder. State v. Pigford, 05-0477 (La. 2/22/06), 922 So.2d 517; State v. Dotie, 43, 819 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1/14/09), 1 So.3d 833, writ denied, 09-0310 (La. 11/6/09), 21 So.3d 297.

         The Jackson standard is applicable in cases involving both direct and circumstantial evidence. An appellate court reviewing the sufficiency of evidence in such cases must resolve any conflict in the direct evidence by viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. When the direct evidence is thus viewed, the facts established by the direct evidence and inferred from the circumstances established by that evidence must be sufficient for a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of every essential element of the crime. State v. Sutton, 436 So.2d 471 (La. 1983); State v. Robinson, 50, 643 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/22/16), 197 So.3d 717, writ denied, 16-1479 (La. 5/19/17), 221 So.3d 78.

         The appellate court does not assess the credibility of witnesses or reweigh evidence. State v. Smith, 94-3116 (La. 10/16/95), 661 So.2d 442. A reviewing court accords great deference to a trier of fact's decision to accept or reject the testimony of a witness in whole or in part. State v. Sims, 49, 682 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2/27/15), 162 So.3d 595, writ denied, 15-0602 (La. 2/5/16), 186 So.3d 1161.

         Where there is conflicting testimony about factual matters, the resolution of which depends upon a determination of the credibility of the witnesses, the matter is one of the weight of the evidence, not its sufficiency. State v. Crossley, 48, 149 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/26/13), 117 So.3d 585, writ denied, 13-1798 (La. 2/14/14), 132 So.3d 410; State v. Speed, 43, 786 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1/14/09), 2 So.3d 582, writ denied, 09-0372 (La. 11/6/09), 21 So.3d 299. In the absence of internal contradiction or irreconcilable conflict with physical evidence, one witness's testimony, if believed by the trier of fact, is sufficient support for a requisite factual conclusion. State v. Johnson, 47, 913 (La.App. 2 Cir. 4/10/13), 113 So.3d 1209.

         The testimony of a victim alone is sufficient to convict a defendant. State v. McGill, 50, 994 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1/11/17), 213 So.3d 1181, writ not cons., 17-0455 (La. 4/24/17), 219 So.3d 329.

         Domestic Abuse Battery by Burning

         Domestic abuse battery is the intentional use of force or violence committed by one household member upon the person of another household member. La. R.S. 14:35.3(A). If the domestic abuse battery is committed by burning that results in serious bodily injury, the offense shall be classified as a crime of violence. La. R.S. 14:35.3(M).

         At the time of the offense, La. R.S. 14:35.3 provided the following pertinent definitions:

B. For purposes of this Section:
(1) "Burning" means an injury to flesh or skin caused by heat, electricity, friction, radiation, or any other chemical or thermal reaction.
(4) "Household member" means any person of the opposite sex presently living in the same residence or living in the same residence within five years of the occurrence of the domestic abuse battery with the defendant as a spouse, whether married or not, or any child presently living in the same residence or living in the same residence within five years immediately prior to the occurrence of domestic abuse battery, or any child of the offender regardless of where the child resides.
(5) "Serious bodily injury" means bodily injury that involves unconsciousness, extreme physical pain, or protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or ...

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