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State v. Sanders

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

May 22, 2019


          Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Trial Court No. 319159 Honorable Brady D. O'Callaghan, Judge

          LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT Peggy J. Sullivan Counsel for Appellant

          JAVONTE SANDERS Pro Se

          JAMES E. STEWART, SR. District Attorney Counsel for Appellee


          Before GARRETT, STEPHENS, and McCALLUM, JJ.

          STEPHENS, J.

         This criminal appeal by Javonte Sanders arises from the First Judicial District Court, Caddo Parish, State of Louisiana. Following a bench trial, Sanders was found guilty as charged of second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. Sanders now appeals his conviction and sentence. For the following reasons, we affirm Sanders' conviction and sentence.


         On November 3, 2010, Sherri Payton, age 47, was found deceased in her home located at 575 Lynbrook Boulevard in Shreveport, Louisiana. Results from her autopsy and evidence recovered at the crime scene established Payton died of a homicide. Investigators systematically ruled out possible suspects. This matter became a "cold case," until law enforcement officers received an anonymous tip in 2013, leading them to investigate Payton's former neighbor, Javonte Sanders. Sanders was arrested on October 30, 2013, after forensic tests of fingerprints and DNA placed him at the crime scene. Sanders was subsequently indicted for the first degree murder of Sherri Payton in violation of La. R.S. 14:30; however, the charge was later amended to second degree murder, in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1. During the pendency of Sanders' case, he was represented by multiple attorneys, both appointed and retained, and also represented himself for a period of time. Multiple pretrial motions were filed and argued on Sanders' behalf by multiple attorneys, as well as by Sanders in a pro se capacity. Sanders ultimately waived his right to a jury trial and elected to have a bench trial, which began on January 29, 2018, wherein 17 witnesses testified, all called by the state. After deliberation, the trial court returned a verdict of guilty as charged. Following his conviction, Sanders filed a motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal and a motion for new trial, both of which were heard and denied on March 12, 2019. Sanders was sentenced on that same day to the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor, without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. This appeal by Sanders ensued.


         On appeal, Sanders asserts that (1) the evidence at trial was insufficient to support his conviction; (2) the trial court erred in denying his request for a fingerprint expert; (3) the trial court erred in denying his motions for continuance; and, (4) the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress his recorded statement.

         Sufficiency of the Evidence

         In his first assignment of error, Sanders argues the evidence introduced by the state at trial to convict him of second degree murder was circumstantial in nature and was not sufficient to negate every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. At trial, the state called Payton's son, Kory Hill, as its first witness. He testified Sanders was a childhood friend from the neighborhood but there was no reason Sanders would be inside Payton's home. Hill stated it had been a year or more since he had lived in his mother's home. He further testified he normally spoke with his mother by telephone every evening and became worried when she had not answered his calls for three days, beginning October 31, 2010. He called several people asking if they had seen or spoken with Payton and ultimately made contact with his friend Kiwaun Wise, whom Hill asked to search his mother's house.

         On cross-examination Hill testified at the time of his mother's death, he had been incarcerated for three months. He stated while he was still living with his mother, a year or more before her death, he kept drugs in his mother's house. The state objected to the defense attorney's question to Hill of whether he kept or sold drugs from his mother's house on grounds the question was not relevant. The defense argued that Hill may have owed a debt to someone over the drugs and someone may have been responsible for Payton's murder. The trial court sustained the objection, finding there was enough of a gap in the three-month delay from Hill's arrest to Payton's murder that Hill's obligations to other parties were not relevant to the instant offense.

         Breunka Hawkins, the mother of Hill's young daughter, Ka'lasia, testified she had lived with Payton during her pregnancy, and the house was always kept clean because Payton was a "neat freak." After Ka'lasia was born, Payton helped in transporting Ka'lasia to and from daycare. Payton also kept a bedroom for Ka'lasia at her house. Hawkins testified she was in Payton's home every week, and it was always clean and picked up, including Ka'lasia's room. Hawkins last saw and heard from Payton on October 30, 2010, which was the last time she and Ka'lasia were at Payton's home. On November 2, Hawkins unsuccessfully attempted to reach Payton. On November 3, Payton did not arrive to pick Ka'lasia up, and Hawkins again was unsuccessful in reaching Payton on the phone. At noon on November 3, Hawkins stopped at Payton's house and knocked on the door, but no one answered. Hawkins saw that Payton's car was gone and the mail remained in the mailbox. Hawkins saw through the front bathroom window that the bathroom light was left on, which Hawkins testified was unusual.

         Ashley Thomas, the mother of Hill's infant son, Koryion, last saw Payton when they visited Hill in jail on October 31, 2010. Afterward, they returned to Payton's house. Thomas said there was no broken window or broken glass in the kitchen and the house was clean, just as it always was. Thomas testified she left Payton's house between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. on October 31. She tried to reach Payton by phone on November 1 and 2, but she never saw or heard from Payton again. At Hill's request on November 3, Thomas stopped by Payton's home between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Thomas testified no one answered her knock on the front door. Seeing Payton's vehicle was gone, Thomas thought Payton had left for work. Later that same afternoon, Hill called Thomas at work, and she assisted Hill in reaching his close friend Kiwaun Wise on the phone. Wise was near Payton's house and agreed to stop by.

         Kiwaun Wise testified when he arrived at Payton's house on the evening of November 3, 2010, he found the front door locked but was able to enter the kitchen through the unlocked door in the carport. In the kitchen, Wise saw the back door window was broken. Entering the bathroom, he found Payton, nude and laid over the edge of the bathtub, with her hands in the water. Wise called 911, and members of the Shreveport Fire Department and Shreveport Police Department responded at approximately 6:20 p.m.

         Michael Cook, Jr., a fire department paramedic, arrived on the scene and observed Payton had no pulse and that rigor mortis had occurred. Corporal Gary Thomas and Sergeant Christi Snell testified they saw the broken back door window and a child's room in complete disarray, with a smashed piggy bank, coins scattered across the floor, and items tossed around. The officers testified they found Payton face down, with her upper body draped across the edge of the bathtub, which was partially filled with water. Payton was nude except for a bra, unhooked and hanging from her shoulders. Sgt. Snell testified multiple bruises and fibers were visible on Payton's body.

         Corporal Thomas further testified Payton's missing white Grand Am sedan was found on November 4, 2010, parked several miles away in an apartment complex. Sgt. Snell, who was also a security officer at the apartment complex, stated the vehicle was not at the apartment complex during her morning shift on November 3. She testified no surveillance video was available from the apartment complex. The vehicle was towed to the police department for processing and printing.

         Sergeant Tracy Mendels, a crime scene investigator with the Shreveport Police Department, testified that as she arrived at Payton's house around 6:46 p.m. on November 3, 2010, she observed the intense odor of bleach emanating from the house. She stated the smell got stronger as she entered the house and became much stronger as she entered the bathroom. The odor appeared to be coming from the bathtub. Sgt. Mendels observed Payton's hands soaking in the bathtub water, from 3-4 inches above her wrists to her fingertips. Sgt. Mendels stated discoloration on Payton's hands indicated how the water level in the bathtub changed and dropped over time. Payton still had several pieces of jewelry on her person. Sgt. Mendels testified the bra found hanging from Payton's shoulders was frayed, as if cut. She noted Payton was bruised all over her body, including her face. Sgt. Mendels observed on Payton trace evidence, including hair, carpet fibers, and debris. Sgt. Mendels testified she also noticed tape marks on the victim's legs. Touching them with her gloved hands, she found the markings were sticky. Sgt. Mendels did not take a sample of the bathtub water.

         Sergeant Mendels observed that the home was extremely well-kept and very neat, with the exception of the small bedroom clearly decorated for a young girl. Sgt. Mendels noticed a poster had been knocked from the wall, and a table and chair appeared to have been tossed onto the bed. Adult-size clothing-a blue rain jacket and knee-high leather boots-were on the floor along with a multicolored brown scarf and a shower cap. The floor was covered in loose change and the pieces from a smashed pink ceramic piggy bank. Sgt. Mendels secured viable fingerprints from the piggy bank pieces, which were transferred to Sgt. Duddy for analysis. In the master bedroom, Sgt. Mendels saw a skirt and a board game placed on the bed. She stated Payton's jewelry boxes and purses did not appear disturbed, missing anything, or dumped out, and Payton's checkbooks remained in her purse. However, Sgt. Mendels noticed a large rectangle-sized void in the dust on the floor suggested that something, perhaps a rug, had been removed from the floor in front of the bed. Sgt. Mendels also recovered one of Payton's journals, in which a quote had been written in cursive, and above it, upside down, someone had printed the word "die." No fingerprints were recovered from the journal. In the laundry room, Sgt. Mendels found a wad of paper towels in the trash can. She testified the towels were covered in a "gross" shiny material, appearing to be "snot" or saliva, and was still wet. In the kitchen sink, Sgt. Mendels found a serrated blade knife she thought might have been used to cut Payton's bra strap. However, no fibers from the bra were found on the knife. Sgt. Mendels did not find any containers of bleach or anything containing bleach in the home, and she did not find any tape.

         Sergeant Mendels further observed burglar bars covered every window except the one in the back door. She testified, other than the broken back door window, none of the windows, doors, or door locks bore any signs of forced entry. She found tiny fragments of broken glass inside the kitchen in front of the back door, but found large broken pieces of glass outside, at 5-6 feet and at 20 feet from the back door. Because of rain, Sgt. Mendels was unsuccessful in recovering latent prints from the broken pieces of glass, which were found in the yard. She stated the outside of the back door appeared to have been wiped. Sgt. Mendels photographed the entire crime scene and retained various items for further processing.

         The next day, November 4, 2010, Sgt. Mendels processed Payton's car. Sgt. Mendels testified as she walked up to the vehicle, she observed a strong odor of bleach and when she opened the car door, the odor became extremely strong. She found the entire vehicle had a "just washed" appearance and had been wiped down. However, she noticed fresh mud splatter on the inside of the car door frame was not on the outside. Sgt. Mendels examined the vehicle but no prints of any value were recovered.

         Long Jin, M.D., a forensic pathologist, was accepted as an expert in forensic pathology and testified about his autopsy of Payton, performed on November 4, 2010. Dr. Jin opined, based upon the body's condition, Payton had likely been deceased for 12-16 hours, plus or minus two hours, when her body was discovered in the early evening of November 3, 2010.

         Dr. Jin testified he was able to rule out drugs, alcohol, and disease as a cause of death, and Payton did not die of natural causes or accident. He stated Payton had numerous blunt-force injuries over her body, noting contusions, abrasions, and lacerations found on Payton's face, head, shoulders, arms, chest wall, thighs, knees, and lower legs. Dr. Jin pointed out significant contusions to both temporal sides of Payton's head were not small, but rather a "pretty good size" and could have been made by a fist. Payton had two small lacerations on the right side of her lower lip, contusions on her neck below her chin, and a contusion on her left jaw. Additionally, he noted a laceration in Payton's vaginal area and contusions on her right inner thigh. Dr. Jin testified Payton's cause of death was asphyxia due to forceful drowning, based upon the condition of the body and the evidence at the scene where Payton was found by the bathtub filled with water. He noted that when a person is submerged in water, their air is cut off and they suffocate. Dr. Jin testified water or liquid might be found in the lungs or stomach, but not always, and he did not find water in Payton's lungs or stomach. He also opined the multiple injuries found on Payton's body were consistent with someone being forcefully smothered or drowned, and the contusions and abrasions on Payton's neck and shoulders indicated that Payton struggled. Additionally, Dr. Jin noted evidence of a sticky residue on the victim's body suggested the possibility that Payton was tied up or bound at the time she was drowned. He testified that the manner of death was homicide.

         Dr. Jin noted Payton's hands, which were found submerged in the bathtub water, were a "unique yellow-whitish" color he had never seen before. He testified the color was consistent with a reaction to a chemical, such as bleach. Dr. Jin testified the crime lab tests only for drugs commonly found in the blood and not every chemical, drug, or toxin. He noted Payton's blood did not indicate the presence of any chemicals, but the lab would not have tested for a chemical, such as bleach, unless specifically requested.

         Henry Blake testified he was married to Rita Payton, the victim's sister. When he learned Sherri Payton was found dead on the evening of November 3, 2010, Blake went to Payton's house and found it blocked off by police. He testified it was nearly dark when a man walked up. Blake stated this man appeared to be about 5 feet, 5-6 inches tall, with what appeared to be a recent scar on his upper cheek. He testified the man asked, "What's up?" and then stated, "A woman must have been beat up pretty bad." Blake testified he was only 60 percent certain he would recognize the man. He then identified Sanders in court as the man who spoke to him in 2010. Blake testified he gave this information to Detective Ken Strickland about two to three weeks after Payton was found murdered.

         Detective Ken Strickland of the Shreveport Police Department testified he took over the case investigation on August 24, 2011. He stated that on September 20, 2011, he interviewed Henry Blake about his conversation with an unknown male at the crime scene on the day Payton's body was discovered. Blake described the man to Det. Strickland as being 5 feet, 6-7 inches tall, and weighing about 200 pounds. Det. Strickland testified he obtained ...

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