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State v. Wilson

Supreme Court of Louisiana

December 5, 2018



          PER CURIAM

         On March 8, 2008, the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office responded to a residential fire in Franklinton and discovered two bodies burned beyond recognition. The victims were later identified as the occupants, Donald Wayne Demille Williams ("Demille") and Kimberly Sims. Autopsies revealed both were fatally shot in the head before being burned.

         A grand jury indicted defendant, Jeremy Wilson, and co-defendant, Erick Townsend, with two counts of first degree murder. The trial court severed the matters, and thereafter, Townsend pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter in exchange for his agreement to testify at defendant's trial. A Washington Parish jury ultimately convicted defendant of two responsive counts of second degree murder, and the trial court imposed consecutive life sentences.

         The evidence presented by the state at trial was sufficient to support defendant's convictions, but it was by no means overwhelming. The state called Townsend as a witness, but he refused to testify despite being held in contempt and having habitual offender proceedings instituted against him. Before pleading guilty, Townsend had led detectives to a creek where they recovered three weapons. Forensic analysis presented to the jury revealed that these weapons were consistent with projectiles recovered from the victims' bodies in caliber only; the state's expert could not offer more conclusive ballistic analysis.

         The state also presented testimony from two witnesses whom it had granted immunity: Britney Farrell, mother to two of defendant's children; and Felicia Brewer Wilson, defendant's wife and mother to one of defendant's children. Britney had told the police that defendant confessed his role in the murders to her. Felicia had told the police that she drove Townsend and defendant to road near a wooded area on the night of the murders, let them out of her car, and-after they returned dressed in different clothes and wearing masks and bloody gloves-drove them to dispose of the weapons. Prior to trial, both women recanted these statements in notarized affidavits.

         At trial, Britney largely testified to a lack of knowledge concerning all of her prior statements. Over defense objections, the state questioned Britney by reading from, and asking her to verify, large swaths of her statements describing defendant's purported confession. Britney did not dispute that she made the earlier statements, but she generally declined to express whether she believed they were true. She admitted to having child custody issues with defendant around the time she first spoke with the police.

         Felicia testified at trial in conformity with the statements she had previously made to the police. She disavowed her recantation, explaining that she had only executed this affidavit to get defendant out of jail. On cross-examination, Felicia explained that she tried to contact defendant and Townsend via phone call and text message after she let them out of her car. Defendant challenged this testimony during his case-in-chief by calling a detective who noted that the transaction logs for cell phones belonging to defendant and Felicia showed no activity during the suspected time of the murders.

         At trial, defendant wished to pursue the theory of third-party guilt, as supported by evidence that the police had previously arrested three other people for the murders: Ricky Magee, Monica Simmons, and Andrew James. In connection with this theory of innocence, defendant sought to call as witnesses-or introduce the out-of-court statements of-multiple individuals, including two of the alleged guilty parties. The trial court ruled most of these witnesses' proposed testimony or statements inadmissible as violations of the prohibition against hearsay.[1] Defense counsel proffered all of the excluded statements into evidence, as well as several others that became strategically useless in light of the trial court's evidentiary rulings.

         The court of appeal affirmed in a split-panel decision. State v. Wilson, 15-1794 (La.App. 1 Cir. 4/26/17), 220 So.3d 35. Judge Crain agreed with the trial court's hearsay rulings, and he found that defendant showed no violation of his right to present a defense therefrom because "the primary criterion for admissibility-the trustworthiness and reliability of the statements-was not established." Id., 15-1794, pp. 23-24, 220 So.3d at 52. Judge Holdridge, concurring, opined that the trial court erred in excluding most of the statements from evidence because they were "not hearsay" and offered to prove "that persons other than the defendant made statements that Ricky Magee killed the victim." Id., 15-1794, concurrence at p. 1, 220 So.3d at 59-60. Nonetheless, Judge Holdridge found the error to be harmless.

         Judge Welch dissented. He opined that "the trial court's blanket ruling that the evidence at issue was not admissible as an exception to hearsay was clearly erroneous" because of the nature of the statements and the requisite degree of corroboration present. Id., 15-1794, dissent at pp. 8-9, 220 So.3d at 58-59. He also believed the trial court's rulings violated defendant's constitutional right to present a defense because "[t]he proffered statements by Monica Simmons and Paul Robinson contained evidence that tended to establish the defendant's innocence by furnishing a basis for the inference that the offenses were committed by Ricky Magee." Id., 15-1794, dissent at p. 9, 220 So.3d at 59.

         As Judge Welch noted, the most critical of the excluded witness statements came from Paul Robinson and Monica Simmons. Paul Robinson told police that Ricky confessed to him that he killed Kimberly, stating that "he hated that he had to kill her." This confession purportedly occurred while the men were using drugs together. Paul was initially willing to testify as a defense witness, but the trial court directed a public defender to speak with defendant's proposed witnesses to advise them concerning any Fifth Amendment issues. The following morning, the public defender informed the trial court that Paul would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The trial court did not inquire as to the basis for this invocation.

         Monica Simmons spoke with the same public defender and also chose to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination without further examination from the trial court. Defense counsel proffered three statements that Monica had given to the police and two statements from lay witnesses concerning information that Monica allegedly relayed to them.

         In two of Monica's statements to the police, she denied any involvement in, or direct knowledge of, the murders. However, Monica's story changed slightly between these two statements. In one, Monica stated that she saw Ricky at Andrew James's house before she went to bed on the night of the murders and then not again until the next morning. In the other, Monica described that she went back to the ...

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