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State v. Beckley

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

May 8, 2019




          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT, DANIEL BECKLEY Daniel Beckley, Gwendolyn K. Brown

          Panel composed of Judges Marc E. Johnson, Stephen J. Windhorst, and John J. Molaison, Jr.


         Defendant, Daniel Beckley, appeals his convictions and sentences for second degree murder and obstruction of justice, asserting that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions and that the appellate record is incomplete. For the following reasons, we affirm defendant's convictions and sentences.


         Defendant was indicted by a grand jury on September 29, 2017 and charged with the second degree murder of Jorion White ("Miss White" or the "victim") in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1 and obstruction of justice in violation of La. R.S. 14:130.1(A)(1)(a). Defendant pled not guilty, waived his right to a jury trial and proceeded to trial before the trial judge on October 10-13, 2017. After trial, the trial judge found defendant guilty as charged. On November 7, 2017, defendant filed a Motion for New Trial and a Motion for Post-Verdict Judgment of Acquittal, both of which were denied.

         On December 12, 2017, the trial judge sentenced defendant to life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence for the second degree murder conviction and imprisonment at hard labor for thirty years without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence for the obstruction of justice conviction, with the sentence imposed for obstruction of justice to be served consecutively to the sentence imposed for second degree murder. Defendant filed a Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence, which was denied.

         Defendant's convictions are based on the following facts. On April 22, 2016, Michelle Price and defendant, Ms. Price's live-in boyfriend of nine years, went to the Kenner Police Department (KPD) and reported that Miss White, Ms. Price's sixteen-year-old daughter, was missing from their home in Kenner. They advised Deputy Gabriel Castro that defendant had last seen Miss White at home that morning at approximately 2:45 A.M., and that she was not at home when he returned at 3:15 P.M. Deputy Castro testified that defendant pulled him off to the side and told him that Miss White was known to associate herself with alleged drug dealers. The deputy subsequently advised Ms. Price and defendant that Miss White would be entered into the National Crime Information Center database as a runaway juvenile. Deputy Castro noted that Ms. Price appeared to be calm, but that defendant looked nervous and uneasy.

         Miss White's body was found on April 24, 2016 by a family that spotted a nude body in the ditch on St. Rose Avenue in St. Charles Parish. They pulled over and called 9-1-1. After confirming that there was a body in the water, Deputy Randolph McClendon of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office (SCPSO) informed dispatch that there was a body. Deputy Scott Harrell responded, shut down the road, contacted detectives, and started a "crime scene log." Detectives posted information on their Facebook page in an attempt to identify the body, specifically, that the body was a black female with green and pink curlers in her hair. Ms. Price contacted SCPSO and informed detectives that she believed the body was her daughter. Dental records later confirmed that the body was that of Miss White, Ms. Price's minor daughter.

         Dr. Marianna Eserman, the Deputy Coroner for Jefferson Parish, performed an autopsy on the victim and found that her body was in an advanced state of decomposition with extensive breakdown of her tissues. At trial, Dr. Eserman testified that the victim's body was so decomposed that they were unable to tell what specific injury caused her death, but concluded that the cause of death was homicidal violence of unknown means and the manner of death was homicide. She stated that strangulation or suffocation could not be ruled out. Elizabeth Hamilton, a DNA analyst at the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, was accepted as an expert in the field of forensic DNA. Ms. Hamilton testified that she examined several items, including a sexual assault kit from the victim, a sheet from her bed, a pair of blue jeans found in defendant's car and oral swabs from defendant. Based on her analysis, there was a very high probability that the seminal fluid found in the victim's cervical, perineal, and anal areas belonged to defendant.

         Detective Aaron Savoie testified that he obtained a search warrant for Ms. Price's residence, where defendant resided. He testified that when they arrived at Ms. Price's residence, the street was filled with people who were saying, "He did it, he killed the girl," and that those people were referring to defendant. Detective Dewhirst testified that those people were trying to get to defendant and kill him, and that when they arrived, the door of the residence had been kicked in.

         On April 24, 2016, Jason Troxler, a SCPSO crime scene technician, took photographs and collected evidence at the St. Rose Avenue crime scene, where the victim's body was found, and at her residence. Mr. Troxler testified that he took photographs of the tire impressions located in the grassy area between St. Rose Avenue and the drainage ditch, and that he recovered a green bungee cord from near the ditch in close proximity to the body. He noted that the black cap was missing from one of the hooks on that bungee cord. Mr. Troxler also identified photographs he took of defendant's wrists, which had marks on them. Dr. Eserman, the coroner, testified that the marks on defendant's wrists could be consistent with fingernail scratches.

         At the victim's residence, Mr. Troxler took photographs of defendant's 2002 Cadillac and the residence. He found a bag of curlers or rollers inside a dresser and a package of bungee cords inside a kitchen drawer. Mr. Troxler identified a photograph of a black cap that was found inside defendant's trunk, the black cap itself, and a photograph of water bottles defendant kept in his vehicle. Mr. Troxler measured the tires on defendant's vehicle and identified photographs of his measurements.

         Detective Joseph Dewhirst, the lead detective investigating this homicide, testified that he compared the tire marks on the road where the body was found to the tires on defendant's vehicle, and found the tires marks and defendant's tires were very similar. Detective Dewhirst also testified that he took a videotaped statement from defendant, which was played at trial. In the statement, defendant asserted that Miss White was having sex with three or four boys and that she "slipped back into doing some of the things she had been doing," specifically some "stupid" things, such as setting up boys to get beaten up. Defendant suggested that something possibly happened to her out of retaliation. Defendant also said during his statement, "What are you not getting from me?" and that he hoped that she "changed her mind," "tried to fight him off," and "went down swinging." Defendant further told Detective Dewhirst that he did not engage in sexual activity with the victim and that he did not know what happened to her. He said that he told Miss White goodbye before he left for work at approximately 2:00 to 2:30 A.M. on April 22, 2016.

         According to Detective Dewhirst, defendant said the scratches on his wrists were made by people trying to get into the house. Detective Dewhirst testified that he found out from Ms. Price that she and defendant had recently purchased the bungee cords from a U-Haul store. Although the box of bungee cords was supposed to contain several different colors and sizes, the box found in the kitchen drawer was missing all of the green bungee cords. Detective Dewhirst stated that the bag of curlers retrieved by Mr. Troxler contained all green rollers and the pink ones were missing from the bag. He explained that the pink rollers were in the victim's hair and that one green roller was found at the crime scene on St. Rose Avenue.

         Detective Dewhirst testified that they found a pair of blue jeans and a black rubber cap in defendant's trunk, and that they suspected the rubber cap was the missing cap for the green bungee cord that they found at the St. Rose crime scene. When he called Ms. Price, she told him that she had not had contact with defendant since the night they came to headquarters, and that she would not allow defendant to come back to the house. Detective Dewhirst maintained that once he obtained the DNA results, he knew defendant was lying when he said there had been no sexual contact between him and the victim.

         Based on surveillance footage, [1] the police found that defendant's actions and whereabouts on the night and following morning of Miss White's disappearance were as follows. Because defendant's vehicle had a very distinctive tail strip on the trunk which could be seen on the video, police were able to follow its route. Between 11:15 P.M. and 12:15 A.M., defendant's vehicle was pulled in with its "nose" to the house in the yard of his residence and defendant was backing the car out, turning it around, and then reversing it into the driveway by the side door. After defendant turned his vehicle around at 12:13 A.M., the lights then went out. At 12:25 A.M., the headlights came on, and defendant's vehicle traveled down Phoenix Street toward 27th Street. At 12:35 A.M., defendant's vehicle turned around and headed back toward the area where the victim's body was found.

         At 12:57 A.M., defendant stopped at a Discount Zone to get gas and air; and while there, opened his trunk, manipulated something white, and readjusted things. The detective noticed from the video that defendant's vehicle did not turn very well due to the extra wide tires. At 1:05 A.M., defendant's vehicle returned home, pulling in straight. Defendant left again at 2:30 A.M. for work.

         Detective Dewhirst further testified that he showed Ms. Price a video of the neighborhood children walking to the bus stop on the morning of April 22, 2016, and that Ms. Price stated Miss White was not in that video. This was confirmed by Ms. Price during her testimony.

         Several fact witnesses testified at trial: Ms. Price, Tara Collins, Debbie Bordelon, Nicole Celestine, ...

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