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State v. Pruitt

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 30, 2018



          James R. Lestage, Richard Alan Morton COUNSEL FOR: Plaintiff/Appellee - State of Louisiana

          David L. Wallace COUNSEL FOR: Defendant/Appellant - Jackie Lynn Pruitt aka Jackie L. Pruitt

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Phyllis M. Keaty, and D. Kent Savoie, Judges.


         Defendant Jackie Lynn Pruitt was convicted of first degree murder of Sonya Ortego in violation of La.R.S. 14:30(A)(1) and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. Defendant now appeals his conviction, alleging insufficiency of evidence. We affirm.



         We must consider whether the evidence was sufficient for a rational factfinder to find Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.



         Defendant was convicted of the crime of first degree murder of twenty-nine-year-old Sonya Ortego committed on March 24, 2016, at Dee's Motel in DeRidder. Defendant was tried by a twelve-person jury and was convicted with an eleven-to-one verdict. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor without parole after the trial court denied his post-trial motions.

         Shortly before noon on March 24, 2016, the owner of Dee's Motel, James Bethard, found Ms. Ortego dead in room 6 when he went to deliver fresh towels. After knocking a few times with no response, Mr. Bethard entered room 6 where he discovered Ms. Ortego face down on the floor and covered partially with a bedspread by the foot of the bed. Mr. Bethard tried tapping her foot and calf to wake her before he noticed blood by her head, and he left the room to call 911. Beauregard Parish Sheriff Deputies Michael Daniel Rick and Scott Greenum arrived shortly after noon, followed thereafter by Acadian Ambulance. The paramedics noted that Ms. Ortego was already dead, but her body was still warm. Detectives began to interview witnesses and collect evidence at the scene.

         Ms. Ortego and her fiancé Matthew Jantzen had lived together in room 6 at Dee's Motel since February 1, 2016 and paid the rent through March 25, 2016. Ms. Ortego was mentally impaired and did not complete high school. She was unemployed and received Social Security benefits for her mental limitations. Mr. Jantzen was working as a skidder operator for a logging crew. On the day of the murder, Mr. Jantzen and Ms. Ortego fought as they did sometimes. Another motel resident, Trollis Dillard, often went to bed around five in the morning and described himself as "basically like the security" at the motel. When he was about to go to bed on March 24, 2016, he heard some arguing and cursing. Mr. Dillard came out of his room and saw Mr. Jantzen and Ms. Ortego fighting, and saw "[Ms. Ortego] was putting it on him[, ] and he was doing a lot of ducking." He noted Mr. Jantzen acted "scared, he was the one getting whooped." Mr. Dillard told Ms. Ortego to stop and she did. Mr. Dillard saw Ms. Ortego go back into her room and Mr. Jantzen left when his ride to work pulled up around that time.

         Adrian Jerry McDonald worked with Mr. Jantzen for approximately six months prior to the murder. Mr. McDonald generally picked up Mr. Jantzen at Dee's Motel around 4:45 to 5:00 A.M., and their commute to the worksites took about thirty minutes. On the day of the murder, their work was rained out around noon. Mr. McDonald and Mr. Jantzen planned to go to Mr. McDonald's house to drop off his work truck and to cash their checks. However, when they passed Dee's Motel, they saw an ambulance and police cars so they stopped.

         Mr. Jantzen testified that on the morning of the murder, he and Ms. Ortego argued because he made a noise which woke her up. Mr. Jantzen said she was easily upset and would start "screaming like she always did." When he left for work, Ms. Ortego "was still upset[, ]" and they were sending each other text messages the entire time he was away until she stopped answering at 7:45 A.M. Mr. Jantzen sent a text at 7:57 A.M. which read, "Baby Are [sic] you okay" because she stopped answering his texts. Mr. Jantzen denied physical contact with Ms. Ortego that morning. Mr. Jantzen said that he and Ms. Ortego engaged in sexual relations around 7:00 P.M. on March 23, 2016, and she was not on her menstrual cycle.

         On March 23, 2016, Defendant went to visit his cousin, Richard Daniel James, in the afternoon and asked for the number to Dee's Motel. Mr. James had not seen Defendant for nearly a year. Mr. James thought that Defendant may have been drinking, but "he wasn't drunk[.]" Defendant visited Mr. James for a couple of hours while he was waiting for someone to send him some money through Walmart. Defendant left around 6:00 or 7:00 P.M. and did not return. Mr. James had offered Defendant his couch, and he "said he might come back[.]" Defendant went to Dee's Motel on March 23, 2016, checked into room 7 and paid the twenty-five ($25) dollars to rent the room for one night.

         Russell Longoria lived in room 8 at Dee's Motel from March of 2014 to March of 2017. On March 23, 2016, Mr. Longoria returned from work around 5:00 or 5:15 P.M. Room 7 had been empty for weeks, but was occupied that night. Mr. Longoria spoke to the man renting room 7 while they were outside, and the man was drinking what Mr. Longoria assumed to be vodka. The man finished one pint, throwing it into the back of his pickup truck, which was backed up to room 7. He then took another full pint from his pocket and began to drink it. Mr. Longoria identified Defendant at trial as the man he saw that night. Mr. Longoria went to bed around 9:30 or 10:00 P.M. and did not hear anything because there is a storage room between rooms 7 and 8. On March 24, 2016, Mr. Longoria woke up around 6:30 A.M. and left for work around 7:30 A.M. He did not see or hear anything unusual. When he returned around 7:45 P.M., he saw crime scene tape set up around Dee's Motel.

         At the time of the trial, Walter Wayne Hassien lived in room 5 at Dee's Motel for almost seven years. Mr. Hassien worked in the oil field and did repair work at the motel. He would keep his room while he would be gone for three to four months. On March 23, 2016, around 4:00 P.M., Mr. Hassien opened his door and saw Defendant who "had a little bottle of whiskey" in his hip pocket. Around 10:30 or 11:00 P.M., Defendant came by wanting a cigarette and had asked a few other rooms. Defendant was still drinking. At 3:30 to 4:00 A.M., Mr. Hassien wanted to go outside to smoke a cigarette, but he looked outside his window and Defendant "was standing at his door looking back up towards [sic] our rooms and stuff." Mr. Hassien stayed inside because he did not want to interact with Defendant, because "he didn't seem right, he didn't feel right." Around 6:00 A.M., Mr. Hassien got up and "heard a commotion" in room 6. He believed it was Ms. Ortego and Mr. Jantzen playing around, and he went back to bed. When Mr. Hassien awoke again later, he heard a banging noise which he described as "like they were trying to repair something they tore up." Mr. Hassien first testified that Michael Wallace[1] talked to Defendant around 10:00 A.M. on Thursday, March 24, 2016. Mr. Wallace offered Defendant a job and Mr. Wallace told them that Defendant did not want a job. Mr. Hassien did not indicate to whom Mr. Wallace was telling about that interaction. Mr. Hassien saw Defendant loading his truck up before Mr. Hassien went back into his room. Around 10:30 A.M., Defendant left in his red truck. Mr. Hassien remembered Defendant was in a hurry when he was leaving Dee's Motel. Mr. Hassien told Mr. Bethard about the banging noise he heard, and Mr. Bethard asked him to go with him to the room. They found Ms. Ortego lying on the floor and saw blood on the wall and around her head.

         Mr. Hassien testified that Ms. Ortego would usually open the door to her room around 10:00 or 10:30 A.M., sit on the bed, and play games on her phone. If she knew they were outside, she would open the door. Then she might close it around 3:00 P.M. At about 4:30 P.M., Ms. Ortego would usually stand in the doorway waiting for Mr. Jantzen.

         Mr. Dillard woke up around 8:30 or 9:00 A.M. when Mr. Hassien asked if he wanted to have coffee. They were in Mr. Hassien's room along with Mr. Wallace until Mr. Bethard came to get them to go into Ms. Ortego's room. Mr. Dillard did not want to enter the room because he was afraid. When Mr. Dillard saw Ms. Ortego early that morning, she was wearing a blouse and shorts. However, when they found her body she was only partially clothed.

         Mr. Dillard had spoken to Defendant on March 23, 2016, requesting that he park his truck "the long way." Mr. Dillard stated that after the police were called, he saw Defendant come out of his room without a shirt. Mr. Dillard said he was talking to Mr. Bethard and Mr. Hassien about the police being on their way and that Defendant "acted like he didn't know what was there . . . ."

         On the night before the murder, Defendant went around the motel asking for a cigarette. Defendant asked Mr. Jantzen and Ms. Ortego because their door was open, and they said they did not smoke. Mr. Jantzen did not see Defendant again. Mr. Jantzen said Ms. Ortego complained of noises at the motel and worried about her safety at Dee's Motel. Ms. Ortego liked being reclusive at the motel and "didn't like anybody in her business." Ms. Ortego considered Mr. Dillard to be "in her business" when he told Ms. Ortego and Mr. Jantzen what to do or not to do.

         Tommy Pruitt, Defendant's brother, was Defendant's only witness at trial. He testified that he did not know that his brother was coming to DeRidder for a court appearance on March 24, 2016. Defendant came to their mother's house around 10:00 A.M. but did not spend Wednesday night there "because he was court ordered not too [sic]." Mr. Pruitt described Defendant as calm, not anxious, and "didn't even think he was gonna [sic] get put in jail" when he went to court. Defendant washed some clothes at their mother's house, and their mother put them in the dryer and folded them after Defendant left. He said that Defendant did not appear to be drinking but "looked better than [Mr. Pruitt] had seen [Defendant] in a while" even though they had not seen him for at least a year.

         Deputy Michael Daniel Rick of Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office received the dispatch of an unconscious female at Dee's Motel around 11:45 A.M. He arrived at 11:56 A.M., finding Ms. Ortego lying face down in the bedroom corner, with a blanket draped over her. Deputy Rick was wearing gloves and did not check for a pulse because he saw no signs of lividity. Deputy Rick noted in retrospect he should have checked for a pulse because he possibly could have done something at that point. Deputy Rick, along with Deputy Scott Greenum, had been in the room before Acadian Ambulance and the detectives arrived on the scene. Deputy Rick saw "blood on the walls and furniture" as he backed out to avoid contaminating the crime scene. Later, when Deputy Rick took photographs, he found what he believed to be two stab wounds between Ms. Ortego's shoulder blades. Deputy Rick was present at the crime scene for several hours, and placed crime scene tape around room 6 and the surrounding rooms.

         Deputy Oscar Louis Lopez, Jr. of the Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office responded to Dee's Motel, along with Detectives Matt Barrett, Bobbi Ripley, and Toree Jones, at 12:20 P.M. Deputy Lopez photographed and videotaped rooms 6 and 7. Deputy Lopez noted that the door to room 6 did not appear to be forced open. He found a side panel of a knife near Ms. Ortego's body that was covered in blood. Deputy Lopez testified that he could clearly see a knife wound.[2] In room 7, Deputy Lopez found a stained bath towel and a stained hand towel. Deputy Lopez and some detectives collected DNA swabs from the doorknob on the entrance to room 7, as well as from the sink in that room. Deputy Lopez handled the items while wearing gloves and placed them into evidence bags as someone else logged them. [3] The jury saw Deputy Lopez's video and photographs, which showed: bloodstained walls and bed sheets in room 6; the side panel of the knife; the sink which appeared as if someone had tried to clean up blood; and a stain on the wall which looked diluted.

         Deputies noted that Ms. Ortego's body was found clothed in a shirt and socks, but no underwear. Panties were found near the doorway. No feminine hygiene products were found. No barbed wire was found in either room or Defendant's truck.[4] Deputy Lopez did not fingerprint anything in the room. He found room 7 "was fairly clean" with just "the dirty towels inside of the restroom."

         Detective Herford and Deputy Franks entered room 7 which appeared clean except for some bathroom towels. The Sheriff's Department applied Blue Star, [5] a chemical used to identify the presence of blood, to the Defendant's room and Deputy Lopez took photographs of "[w]here the [B]lue [S]tar activated" next to the bed, near the front ...

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