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State v. Crow

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

June 26, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA Appellee
v.
LEE VESTER CROW, JR. Appellant

          Appealed from the Twenty-Sixth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Webster, Louisiana Trial Court No. 92595 Honorable Robert L. Pittard, Judge

          LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT Counsel for Appellant By: Peggy J. Sullivan

          J. SCHUYLER MARVIN Counsel for Appellee District Attorney

          HUGO A. HOLLAND, JR. JOHN M. LAWRENCE Assistant District Attorneys

          Before WILLIAMS, GARRETT, and STEPHENS, JJ.

          WILLIAMS, C.J.

         The defendant, Lee Vester Crow, Jr., was charged by bill of indictment with second degree murder, in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1. Following a jury trial, he was found guilty of the responsive verdict of manslaughter, La. R.S. 14:31. He was sentenced to serve 26 years in prison at hard labor. For the following reasons we affirm.

         FACTS

         On August 30, 2017, at approximately 4:00 a.m., James Morgan was driving down a rural road in Shongaloo, Louisiana, when he saw the tail lights of a vehicle off the road near a line of trees. Morgan recognized the vehicle as the one usually driven by his neighbor's teenage daughter, MiKaylah, who he suspected had been involved in an automobile accident. Morgan turned his vehicle around and called 911. Following the instructions of the 911 operator, Morgan approached the vehicle and called out to its occupant; the person in the vehicle did not respond. As Morgan moved closer to the vehicle, he noticed a hole in the back window on the driver's side and a woman slumped over in the seat. After calling out again and receiving no response, Morgan went to the home where MiKaylah lived with her mother, Kameka Brantley, and the defendant, Lee Vester Crow, Jr. (Kameka's husband of approximately three years). Morgan knocked and MiKaylah eventually answered the door. At that point, Morgan suspected that the woman in the vehicle was Kameka. He took MiKaylah to her grandmother's house located nearby and returned to the vehicle to wait for law enforcement officers to arrive.[1]

         Detective Scott Tucker, of the Webster Parish Sheriff's Office, was the first detective to arrive on the scene. The deceased female in the vehicle was identified as Kameka Brantley. After interviewing MiKaylah, the deputies quickly developed the defendant as a suspect in the shooting death of Kameka.

         A warrant was obtained for the defendant's arrest. Soon after the warrant was issued, the deputies learned that the defendant had been arrested that morning in Claiborne Parish for driving while intoxicated ("DWI"). The officers traveled to Claiborne Parish, where the defendant had just been processed for the DWI offense. The deputies transported the defendant and his vehicle back to Webster Parish.[2] The defendant was advised of his rights and executed a waiver of rights form. Thereafter, he gave a statement to the deputies, during which he initially denied killing Kameka and denied shooting a firearm that morning. However, later during the interview, the defendant admitted that he fired the gun toward Kameka's car, stating, "I didn't say sh*t to her. I just popped off the rounds. *** Evidently I wasn't thinking worth a f**k." The defendant also stated that he needed to go to Haynesville because that was where he had disposed of the gun. Subsequently, Det. Tucker, accompanied by another deputy, drove the defendant to Haynesville and retrieved the gun.

         On October 23, 2017, the Webster Parish Grand Jury returned an indictment charging the defendant with second degree murder, in violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1. On March 13, 2018, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the law enforcement officers. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the defendant's motion to suppress.

         The defendant's trial commenced on September 19, 2018. James Morgan, the neighbor who discovered Kameka's body in the vehicle, testified with regard to the events of that morning.

         Dr. Jennifer Forsyth, the pathologist who performed the autopsy of Kameka, also testified at the defendant's trial. Dr. Forsyth testified as follows: the autopsy revealed that Kameka sustained three gunshot wounds; the first gunshot wound entered the left side of her back and penetrated her heart and both of her lungs; the first wound caused a large amount of internal bleeding and caused the injuries that led to Kameka's death; the bullet from the first gunshot wound did not exit the body and was recovered and sent to the Webster Parish Sheriff's Office; the second gunshot wound came from a bullet traveling in the same direction as the first; the second bullet entered and exited Kameka's left breast and did not strike any organs; and the third gunshot wound was a superficial "graze" wound on the back of her right arm.

         Det. Tucker testified as follows: the vehicle in which Kameka was discovered had to be covered by a tarp to be processed because it was raining heavily; he was able to partially process the vehicle at the scene; the vehicle was transported to a secure area, out of the rain, where the officers could complete the processing of the vehicle; due to the wetness of the ground, he was able to clearly see how the vehicle traveled before it came to rest in the area near the trees; he observed tire tracks from Kameka's yard to the road, approximately 150 to 200 yards from the home Kameka shared with the defendant; it appeared that the vehicle "left the yard, came up and just went right back down"; there was "very minor, minor" damage to the front of the vehicle, as it appeared the car "was just rolling"; he did not see any other tire tracks in the yard, and there was no indication that the vehicle went back and forth, or was spinning in the yard; while he was in Kameka's yard, a car pulled up with MiKaylah inside; after talking to MiKaylah, the defendant was developed as a suspect and a warrant was issued for his arrest; while processing Kameka's vehicle, the officers recovered two bullets; one bullet appeared to have entered the driver's side window, hit the console, and entered the passenger seat; the other bullet entered the back driver's side window, struck something metal in the back seat and lodged there; the second bullet did not strike Kameka; later that morning, he learned that the defendant had been arrested in Claiborne Parish; at approximately 1:30 p.m., he and another detective transported the defendant and his vehicle back to Webster Parish; and he searched the defendant's vehicle prior to interrogating him.

         On cross-examination, Det. Tucker testified that the bullet lodged in the back seat of Kameka's vehicle was recovered before he interviewed the defendant. During Det. Tucker's testimony, the jury was shown the video of the defendant's statement wherein he initially denied any knowledge of Kameka's homicide, boasted about his proficiency in shooting a firearm, and initially denied having fired a gun that day. The video also showed that the defendant became emotional and told the officers that they needed to go to Haynesville, which is where he threw the gun out of his vehicle, and that shooting his wife was an accident. Det. Tucker testified that following the interview, the defendant directed police officers to the area where he had discarded the gun and that the gun was quickly retrieved.[3]

         During his testimony on cross-examination, Det. Tucker testified that he had confirmed that the defendant's blood-alcohol concentration ("BAC") was .143 when he was arrested earlier that day in Claiborne Parish. However, the detective stated that the defendant did not show any signs of intoxication when he was interviewed that afternoon. Det. Tucker also testified that during the interview, he and the other officers were attempting to ascertain what had occurred between the defendant and Kameka when the defendant finally stated that he had fired the gun and that the shooting was an accident.

         Kameka's sister, Essence Brantley, testified with regard to the contentious relationship between the defendant and Kameka. More specifically, Essence testified about a previous incident between Kameka and the defendant, after which she observed that Kameka had a "busted" lip.

         Webster Parish Sheriff Deputy Terry Brown also testified at trial. He informed the jury of a separate incident of violence involving the defendant and Kameka. He stated that he was able to use his body camera to copy a recording from Kameka's phone, which had captured the incident. According to Deputy Brown, the defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with aggravated assault and domestic abuse battery for allegedly pulling a knife on Kameka.

         Kameka's mother, Minnie Brantley, also testified. She described the emotional impact Kameka's death has had on her family, particularly MiKaylah. Minnie testified that the defendant and Kameka were "high school sweethearts," who went their separate ways and later reconnected. She stated that the defendant and Kameka had been married for approximately three years when the shooting occurred. On cross-examination, Minnie described the relationship between Kameka and the defendant as "stormy."

         Lieutenant Shawn Baker, a narcotics supervisor for the Webster Parish Sheriff's Office, was called to testify as a witness for the defense. He testified that he had known the defendant more than 40 years. He also testified regarding a prior incident involving the defendant and Kameka. He stated that several months before Kameka's death, he went to a store in Shongaloo, driving his personal vehicle, and the defendant pulled up next to him and asked for his help. According to Lt. Baker, the defendant explained that Kameka had called him stating that her vehicle had broken down on Wiley Road, an isolated area about five miles away. He stated that the defendant expressed some apprehension about going to this location alone, particularly because Kameka's car was "fairly new and it should not be breaking down." Lt. Baker testified that the defendant asked him to go with him to the location, and he agreed to accompany the defendant. Lt. Baker further testified that when they arrived, he reached into Kameka's car, turned the ignition, and the vehicle started immediately.

         On cross-examination Lt. Baker testified that this incident occurred approximately seven months before the homicide. He also stated that he followed Kameka and the defendant home, and he did not observe any verbal argument between them.

         The defendant also testified at his trial. He testified as follows: he and Kameka were together "on and off" for a number of years; in the last year, their relationship began to become "problematic"; their arguments would sometimes "turn physical," but they did not usually call law enforcement to intervene; he could not recall the prior incident where Kameka had a busted lip; he could not recall the incident Kameka captured on her cellphone; he was "pretty intoxicated" when he was arrested for the incident captured on Kameka's cellphone, to the point where he could hardly stand up; during a prior, unrelated incident, Kameka had threatened him with a sword by swinging the weapon at him and, in return, he grabbed his sawed-off shotgun to get her to stop; at the time, he believed Kameka was going to hurt him; when he picked up the shotgun, Kameka turned around and tripped over some shoes next to the bed and fell, hitting a small refrigerator; and he and Kameka were arguing about his girlfriend, who lived in Haynesville.

         With regard to the morning of Kameka's death, the defendant testified as follows: he and Kameka were arguing about his girlfriend; the day before the shooting, Kameka had driven his truck to work and received a note on it from another woman; the note was about the due date of the woman's baby; he was in bed when Kameka returned home from work; Kameka woke him because she was upset about the note the woman had written; he and Kameka argued 20-25 minutes; he told Kameka that he was going to Haynesville the next morning to tell the woman to leave his wife alone; when he awakened the next morning to go to Haynesville, he noticed that all the lights in the house were on and the television volume was "very loud," which was an unusual occurrence in his household at 3:00 a.m.; he noticed that Kameka was not in the house; he questioned MiKaylah regarding Kameka's whereabouts, but she stated that she did not know; as he was leaving the house, he grabbed his gun and went to his truck, which was parked in the driveway; as he was about to leave, he noticed Kameka sitting in MiKaylah's car, blocking his path; he exited his truck and went to the driver's side of Kameka's car to talk to her; Kameka was still angry and did not want him to go to see the woman in Haynesville; he and Kameka argued approximately 10-15 minutes; he attempted to return to his truck; Kameka "came at" him fast with the car; she passed him and then put the car in reverse, heading in his direction; Kameka told him that she was going to "drag [him] to the crossroad"; Kameka tried to run over him again and he hit his hand on the driver's mirror; he pulled out his gun to get her to stop; as he was falling back, he fired two "quick" shots and then a third "out of reflex"; the incident happened so fast that he did not have time to think; he fell to the ground after he fired the shots; when he looked up, he saw that the car was "down into the woods"; and he "jumped in [his] truck and left."

         The defendant further testified as follows: after he left the scene, he was scared, nervous and unable to believe what had happened; he drove toward Cotton Valley, then down Hwy. 371 to Dixie Inn; he then drove onto the interstate and traveled to Shreveport; he exited North Market Street in Shreveport and drove down Hwy. 1; it began to rain, so he turned around on Hwy. 1 and went to Haynesville; as he was driving, he was drinking from a pint of vodka; he went to his daughter's home in Haynesville, but she was not there; he threw the gun out the passenger's side window of his truck in Haynesville; he stopped and purchased more alcohol from a liquor store "at the state line," then drove aimlessly, driving toward Arkansas; while driving, he ingested Lortab and OxyContin; he was arrested in Homer, Louisiana (Claiborne Parish), and was there approximately 2½ hours before being transported to Minden (Webster Parish); when he arrived in Minden, he was tired, sleepy, "hung over," "a little intoxicated," and upset; he had never been interrogated before, and he did not really want to speak to the law enforcement officers because he had been up "half the night"; the police officers continued to "suggest things" and scenarios regarding what had happened; and he "just told them what they wanted to hear."

         On cross-examination, the defendant testified as follows: his girlfriend was the subject of all of the arguments between him and his wife; other than Lt. Baker, he could not think of anyone who could corroborate any of his testimony; after he fired three shots toward Kameka and saw her vehicle go "into the woods," he did not approach the vehicle to check on her or call 911; he did not call and ask Kameka's mother to check on her; he did not check on MiKaylah; he panicked and fled the scene; and he does not know why he did not call and inform law enforcement that he had shot his wife in self-defense. The defendant admitted that during his interrogation, he stated that Kameka was not trying to run over him with her car. Further, the defendant admitted that he had bragged to the police officers about being a "good shot," and that he had boasted about his ability to use a pistol to "walk" gunshot shells "along the ground."

         After deliberating, the jury found the defendant guilty of the responsive verdict of manslaughter.[4] On December 10, 2018, the defendant was sentenced to 26 years' imprisonment at hard labor. Following sentencing, counsel for the defendant made an oral motion to reconsider, arguing that a sentence for a first offender of more than half of the maximum sentence was excessive. The trial court denied the motion to reconsider sentence.

         The defendant now appeals.

         DISCUSSION

         The defendant contends the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for manslaughter. He argues that the state failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was not acting in self-defense when he fired the gunshots into Kameka's vehicle. The defendant maintains that he fired the shots after Kameka had driven her vehicle toward him, then backed up in another effort to strike him with her car. He argues that he feared for his life, and he pulled his gun in an attempt to convince Kameka to stop the vehicle.

         When issues are raised on appeal both as to the sufficiency of the evidence and as to one or more trial errors, the reviewing court should first determine the sufficiency of the evidence. State v. Hearold, 603 So.2d 731 (La. 1992); State v. Robinson, 51, 830 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2/28/18), 246 So.3d 725, writ denied, 2018-0573 (La. 2/11/19), 263 So.3d 897. The reason for reviewing sufficiency first is that the accused may be entitled to an acquittal under Hudson v. Louisiana, 450 U.S. 40, 101 S.Ct. 970, 67 L.Ed.2d 30 (1981), if a rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in accordance with Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), in the light most favorable to the prosecution, could not reasonably conclude that all of the essential elements of the offense have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Hearold, supra.

         The standard of appellate review for a sufficiency of the evidence claim is whether, after viewing the case in a light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, supra; State v. Tate, 2001-1658 (La. 5/20/03), 851 So.2d 921, cert. denied, 541 U.S. 905, 124 S.Ct. 1604, 158 L.Ed.2d 248 (2004); State v. Robinson, 50, 643 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/22/16), 197 So.3d 717, writ denied, 2016-1479 (La. 5/19/17), 221 So.3d 78. This standard, now legislatively embodied in La.C.Cr.P. art. 821, does not provide the appellate court with a vehicle to substitute its own appreciation of the evidence for that of the fact finder. State v. Pigford, 2005-0477 (La. 2/22/06), 922 So.2d 517; State v. Robinson, supra.

         The appellate court does not assess the credibility of witnesses or reweigh evidence. State v. Smith, 1994-3116 (La.10/16/95), 661 So.2d 442; State v. Johnson, 41, 428 (La.App. 2 Cir. 9/27/06), 940 So.2d 711, writ denied, 2006-2615 (La. 5/18/07), 957 So.2d 150. Where there is conflicting testimony about factual matters, the resolution of which depends upon a determination of the credibility of the witnesses, the matter is one of the weight of the evidence, not its sufficiency. State v. Crossley, 48, 149 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/26/13), 117 So.3d 585, writ denied, 2013-1798 (La. 2/14/14), 132 So.3d 410; State v. Speed, 43, 786 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1/14/09), 2 So.3d 582, writ denied, 2009-0372 (La. 11/6/09), 21 So.3d 299. A reviewing court affords great deference to a jury's decision to accept or reject the testimony of a witness in whole or in part. State v. Mitchell, 50, 188 (La.App. 2 Cir. 11/18/15), 181 So.3d 800, writ denied, 2015-2356 (La. 1/9/17), 214 So.3d 863; State v. Eason, 43, 788 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2/25/09), 3 So.3d 685, writ denied, 2009-0725 (La. 12/11/09), 23 So.3d 913, cert. denied, 561 U.S. 1013, 130 S.Ct. 3472, 177 L.Ed.2d 1068 (2010).

         La. R.S. 14:31 provides, in pertinent part:

A. Manslaughter is:
(1) A homicide which would be murder under either Article 30 (first degree murder)[ [5] or Article 30.1 (second degree murder), [ [6] but the offense is committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection. Provocation shall not reduce a homicide to manslaughter if the jury finds that the offender's blood had actually cooled, or that an average person's blood would have cooled, at the time the offense was committed; or
(2) A homicide committed, without any intent to cause death or great bodily harm.
***

         In the instant case, the evidence presented shows, and the defendant admitted, that he shot his wife three times after a heated argument about the defendant's relationship with another woman. Thus, we are satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to support the defendant's conviction for manslaughter. Consequently, we must consider whether the state met its burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the homicide was not committed in self-defense.

         La. R.S. 14:20 provides, in pertinent part:

A. A homicide is justifiable:
(1)When committed in self-defense by one who reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm and that the killing is ...

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