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State v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

February 6, 2019



          Paula C. Marx COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Ralph Johnson

          Herbert Todd Nesom Joe Green COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: State of Louisiana

          Ralph Johnson DEFENDANT/APPELLANT IN PROPER PERSON: Ralph Johnson

          Court composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, John E. Conery, and Candyce G. Perret, Judges.


         On May 28, 2014, Defendant Ralph Johnson was charged by grand jury indictment with one count of second degree murder in violation of La.R.S. 14:30.1, and one count of obstruction of justice in violation of La.R.S. 14:30.1(B)(1). Defendant pled not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to both charges. After the appointment of a sanity commission and consideration of its report, the trial court found Defendant competent to stand trial. The issue of sanity at the time of the offense was reserved for trial. Defendant also raised the affirmative defense of voluntary intoxication under La.R.S. 14:15(2). The jury found Defendant guilty of second degree murder, and not guilty of obstruction of justice. The trial court heard and denied Defendant's motion for new trial and motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal. At the sentencing hearing held on March 27, 2018, Defendant received the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor to be served without the benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. Defendant now appeals his conviction and sentence. For the following reasons, we affirm.


         On April 7, 2014, police were dispatched to the Bowman Hicks apartments, in response to a call that a black male was running around with a knife chasing people and stabbing someone. Upon arrival, Officer Froehlich and Officer Frank were pointed in the direction of Unit 56, the apartment of Ralph Johnson, who witnesses identified as the person who committed the stabbing. The officers arrested Ralph Johnson for aggravated battery for stabbing Michael Kirklin. When officers were later informed the victim had died, Ralph Johnson was charged with second degree murder.

         Nadia Whiting testified that, the night before the incident, she and Defendant smoked PCP at her apartment, but noted that Defendant was not acting erratically. However, according to Ms. Whiting, the next day, Defendant returned to her apartment and was talking to "Leroy[1] about he wanted to cook some crack, but he had some cocaine, but he didn't have enough cocaine. And Leroy wasn't gonna do it and he was mad." When Defendant's request was denied, he became angry and left. [2] Ms. Whiting testified that when Defendant returned to her apartment, he was very angry and threatening to kill everyone who was at her apartment. He then attempted to cut into the screen on Ms. Whiting's front door with a knife, at which point she called the police and he left.

         Other residents of Bowman Hicks apartments testified that Defendant then began threatening a group of teenage boys, who Defendant believed were mocking him. Eye-witness accounts and video evidence show that when Michael Kirklin, the victim, told Defendant to "chill out" Defendant then began to chase him, wielding his knife and threatening him. The victim ran into the home of Laura Kirklin, his grandmother, and Defendant followed him. Laura Kirklin testified through perpetuated video testimony obtained prior to trial [3] that Defendant attacked her and held a knife to her stomach. According to the testimony of Cletoria Kirklin, the victim's younger cousin, the victim rushed out of the apartment and punched Defendant in an attempt to stop Defendant from attacking his grandmother. Cletoria Kirklin further testified that the victim threw a chair at Defendant, who then began chasing the victim, at which point the victim slipped and fell. Defendant got on top of the victim and immediately began stabbing him. According to Cletoria Kirklin's testimony, Defendant stabbed the victim five or six times. Lauranna Kirklin, another cousin of the victim, also testified that Defendant stabbed the victim multiple times, then he stood up and ran to his house, dropping the knife as he ran.

         The State called a total of ten witnesses who presented eye-witness accounts of the events on April 7, 2014. The State also submitted into evidence a cellphone video taken by Jahiem Kirklin, a cousin of the victim, which depicted the actions of Defendant prior to the murder. Another cellphone video was submitted into evidence by the State from Terrance "T.J." Merritt, a friend of the victim, which clearly showed Defendant stabbing the victim.

         The State also presented a video of Defendant's post-arrest interview statement to Detective West on April 7, 2014. Defendant's account of events prior to the stabbing matches most of the eye-witness testimony. According to the video interview, Defendant stated that he had a knife because he was going after Leroy to get his money back because Leroy sold him baking soda instead of crack. Defendant also stated that when he was headed to Leroy's apartment, a group of teenage boys started to tease him, then the victim hit him with a chair. Defendant stated that "Mike got in the way"[4] but claims that he does not remember what happened. Later in the interview, when questioned about the knife, Defendant was not able to recall whether he had a knife. According to Defendant's statements in the video interview, he did not remember anything about stabbing the victim, stating that he only remembered getting hit with a chair and then going to jail, but nothing in between those two events.

         Sanity Commission Proceedings

         On June 11, 2014, Defendant entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial court appointed a sanity commission composed of Dr. James Anderson and Dr. Garrett Ryder, who issued reports finding Defendant competent to stand trial. On May 1, 2015, the trial court issued an amended order directing Dr. Ryder and Dr. Anderson to supplement their initial evaluations with their findings as to Defendant's state of mind at the time of the offense. At the hearing on the motion to determine mental capacity, the doctors found that Defendant had the mental capacity and competency to proceed to trial and that he was sane at the time of the offense, and they so testified at trial.

         Trial and Post-Trial Proceedings

         At trial, the State presented the testimony of multiple eye-witnesses, the officers who came into contact with Defendant on the date of his arrest, and the doctors appointed to the sanity commission. The defense presented testimony of a detective, a deputy, and Mr. Carlos Robinson. The State recalled Dr. Anderson as a rebuttal witness.

         The jury returned a verdict of guilty of second degree murder and not guilty on the charge of obstruction of justice. The trial judge ordered a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) and set sentencing for March 27, 2018. On November 30, 2017, Defendant filed a motion and order for new trial and/or motion for post-verdict judgment granting acquittal. At a hearing on January 11, 2018, the trial court denied Defendant's motions. At the March 27, 2018 sentencing hearing, the trial court considered the PSI, which indicated that Defendant was a fourth felony offender. In accordance with La.R.S. 14:30.1, second degree murder, the trial court sentenced Defendant to the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor to be served without the benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.

         Defendant now timely appeals his conviction and sentence asserting two assignments of error through counsel and two assignments of error through a pro se brief filed by Defendant.


         Defendant submits the following counselled assignments of error:

1. The evidence introduced at the trial of this case, when viewed under the Jackson v. Virginia, 433 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) standard, was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of second degree murder. Ralph Johnson was under extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the time of this offense, which is of such severe nature that it is not possible to treat this offense as a second degree murder.
2. The trial court erred in denying defense challenge for cause of juror no. 23[, ] Penny Bergeron[;] juror no. 206, Richard Nichols[;] and juror no. 112 Alexis Hamilton.

         Defendant submits the following pro se assignments of error:

1. Johnson's trial counsel violated client autonomy when he conceded guilt to specific intent murder during his closing argument to the jury.
2. The State exercised a peremptory challenge against an African-American juror in violation of Article I, § § 1, 2, 13, 16, 17 and 22 of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


         Errors Patent

         In accordance with La.Code Crim.P. art. 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.

         Assignment of Error One: Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Defendant asserts that the State failed to provide sufficient evidence to convict him of second degree murder. Specifically, Defendant argues that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had the specific intent to kill due to his defenses that he was either insane at the time of the offense or that he was so intoxicated that he could not form specific intent. Alternatively, Defendant argues he was provoked such that a responsive verdict of manslaughter should be applicable, not second degree murder. Therefore, Defendant's conviction and sentence should be reversed.

         The analysis for a sufficiency of the evidence claim is well-settled:

The standard of review in a sufficiency of the evidence claim is "whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each of the essential elements of the crime charged." State v. Leger, 05-11, p. 91 (La. 7/10/06), 936 So.2d 108, 170, cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1221, 127 S.Ct. 1279, 167 L.Ed.2d 100 (2007) (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), and State v. Captville, 448 So.2d 676 (La.1984)). The Jackson standard of review is now legislatively embodied in La.Code Crim.P. art. 821. It does not allow the appellate court "to substitute its own appreciation of the evidence for that of the fact-finder." State v. Pigford, 05-477, p. 6 (La. 2/22/06), 922 So.2d 517, 521 (citing State v. Robertson, 96-1048 (La. 10/4/96), 680 So.2d 1165, and State v. Lubrano, 563 So.2d 847 (La.1990)). The appellate court's function is not to assess the credibility of witnesses or to reweigh the evidence. State v. Smith, 94-3116 (La. 10/16/95), 661 So.2d 442.
The factfinder's role is to weigh the credibility of witnesses. State v. Ryan, 07-504 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/7/07), 969 So.2d 1268. Thus, other than insuring the sufficiency evaluation standard of Jackson, "the appellate court should not second-guess the credibility determination of the trier of fact," but rather, it should defer to the rational credibility and evidentiary determinations of the jury. Id. at 1270 (quoting State v. Lambert, 97-64, pp. 4-5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 9/30/98), 720 So.2d 724, 726-27). Our supreme court has stated:
However, an appellate court may impinge on the fact finder's discretion and its role in determining the credibility of witnesses "only to the extent necessary to guarantee the fundamental due process of law." State v. Mussall, 523 So.2d 1305, 1310 (La.1988). In determining the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a conviction, an appellate court must preserve "'the factfinder's role as weigher of the evidence' by reviewing 'all of the evidence ... in the light most favorable to the prosecution.'" McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U.S. 120, 134, 130 S.Ct. 665, 674, 175 L.Ed.2d 582 [(2010)] (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979)). When so viewed by an appellate court, the relevant question is whether, on the evidence ...

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