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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

September 25, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
TRAE WILLIAMS

          APPEAL FROM CRIMINAL DISTRICT COURT ORLEANS PARISH NO. 522-053, SECTION "D" Honorable Paul A Bonin, Judge

          Leon Cannizzaro District Attorney Kyle Daly Assistant District Attorney DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE ORLEANS PARISH COUNSEL FOR STATE OF LOUISIANA

          Meghan Harwell Bitoun Louisiana Appellate Project P. O. COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT

          Court composed of Judge Edwin A. Lombard, Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano, Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins

          Edwin A. Lombard, Judge

         This appeal is from a manslaughter conviction. After review of the record in light of the applicable law and arguments of the parties, the defendant's conviction is reversed.

         Relevant Procedural History

         The defendant, Trae Williams, was charged on October 2, 2014, with the second-degree murder of Eddie Salvant, III. The defendant pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on October 15, 2014. The defendant's motions to suppress the identification, statement, and evidence were denied on October 21, 2015.

         The jury was unable to reach a verdict in the defendant's first trial and ended in a mistrial on June 14, 2017. At his second trial, which began on April 23, 2018, the jury returned a responsive verdict on April 24, 2018, by a 10-2 vote. The defendant's motions for new trial and for post-verdict judgment of acquittal were denied and, after being adjudicating a second-felony offender on July 27, 2018, [1] he was sentenced to sixty years at hard labor. On September 20, 2018, the district court denied the defendant's motion to reconsider the sentence and granted his motion for appeal.

         This appeal was timely filed.

         Relevant Evidence Adduced at Trial

         On April 9, 2014, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) received a 911 call at 4:06 PM reporting a shooting at the intersection of Eliza and Lebouef Streets in Algiers.[2] Detective Theophilis Kent responded, arriving at the scene approximately forty-five minutes after the shooting, and conferred with the responding officers and crime lab personnel on the scene.[3] Detective Kent testified that when he left the crime scene that day, he had one name of a possible suspect, although no witnesses voluntarily spoke with the police officers. Further canvassing of the neighborhood the next day for witnesses and surveillance video was fruitless.

         A month later (May 8, 2014), Detective Kent interviewed Kendall Sylve who was incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison on a pending burglary charge. During the interview, Mr. Sylve identified the defendant in a photographic line-up but refused to memorialize the identification by signing the photo. In mid-May, however, Mr. Sylve contacted Detective Kent, indicating he had additional information which he was willing to supply in the presence of his attorney. Accordingly, on June 26, 2014 Detective Kent met with Mr. Sylve and his defense counsel, as well as a representative of the District Attorney's Office. At this meeting Sylve gave a recorded statement, identified the defendant as the shooter from a photo lineup, and signed his name to the photo he identified. Based on this identification, an arrest warrant was issued for the defendant.

         The defendant's father and victim's half-brother, Curtis Williams, Jr., testified that he was the son of Verna Williams and Curtis Williams, Sr., that he was serving a seventy-eight year sentence for attempted murder, and that he had talked to his mother (now deceased) after his brother was shot.[4]

         Ms. T'she Salvant identified herself as the victim's daughter and the defendant's cousin. Ms. Salvant stated a couple of days before the shooting she received a phone call from her father who was angry and stated that he had been in an altercation with his stepfather, Curtis Williams, Sr. . When she arrived at the house at 1422 Eliza Street, her father told her he had dialed 911 because of the altercation and that "Trae and Curtis was going to kill him." She conceded that the police never arrived and, although she requested them, she never received any documents related to the purported 911 call. She related that her father visited his mother daily but did not get along with his stepfather. In response to the prosecutor's question, she agreed that the defendant and his grandfather were close, explaining that the defendant grew up in the house with his grandparents and "Curtis practically raised Trae." .

         Mr. Sylve testified that the week "the incident went down, " he was staying in a friend's house next door to the Williams' home on LeBoeuf Street looking for and using heroin. He acknowledged that he was a junk during that period of his life and that he agreed to testify in exchange for plea bargains he received in relation to his 2014 burglary and 2015 drug charges.[5] According to Mr. Sylve's testimony at trial, on the afternoon of the shooting, he was playing basketball at the intersection of Lebouef and Eliza streets "waiting on the dope man to get there" when he heard the victim and his mother arguing in the Williams home. He next saw the defendant enter the house as Mr. Salvant exited it and, moments later as he was chasing a ball towards the corner, he heard shots and looked up to see the defendant shoot his uncle. Mr. Sylve insisted that he immediately returned to playing basketball after the shooting and remained there (very near the spot where the shooting occurred and, thus, the victim's body) the entire time the police were on the scene but the police never spoke to him or questioned him.

         Mr. Sylve acknowledged that he had been in a fight with Mr. Salvant the day before his murder over a DVD player and that a family member suggested his name to the police as a suspect after the shooting. Accordingly, when the police came to see him in jail a month later after he was arrested on theft charge, his main focus was to avoid being charged with the murder. Thus, he told Detective Kent that he heard shots but did not see the shooting, although he indicated that after the shooting the defendant walked past him. Two days later, however, Mr. Sylve's charge was upgraded to burglary and he requested a second meeting with Detective Kent. At the second meeting with Detective Kent, attended by Mr. Sylve's attorney and a representative from the District Attorney's office, Mr. Sylve identified the defendant in a photographic line-up as the shooter and executed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding his burglary charge. Subsequently, while out on bond for the burglary charge, Mr. Sylve was arrested for heroin and, again, negotiated a plea deal with the State in exchange for his continued cooperation in this matter.

         Discussion

         On appeal, the defendant raises four assignments of error: (1) the district court erred in allowing inadmissible hearsay at trial; (2) the district court erred in denying the inclusion of two requested jury charges; (3) the defendant's conviction by a 10-2 jury vote was in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (4) the defendant's 60 year sentence at hard labor is unconstitutionally excessiveness.

         Assignment of Error 1

         The defendant argues that the State attempted to bolster Mr. Sylve's testimony by eliciting inadmissible hearsay from witnesses suggesting that more evidence existed to corroborate Mr. Sylve's identification of the defendant as the shooter.

         Applicable Law

         Pursuant to La. Code Evid. 801(C), "'Hearsay' evidence is a statement, other than one made by the declarant testifying at the present trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." It "rests for its value upon the credibility of the out-of-court asserter." State v. Wille, 559 So.2d 1321, 1329 (La. 1990) (citation omitted). A primary justification for the exclusion of hearsay is that the defendant "has no opportunity to cross-examine the absent declarant to test the accuracy and completeness of the testimony." Id. Moreover, the party who purportedly made the statement that is being repeated in court by another party was not under oath at the time of the statement. Id. In addition, pursuant to the confrontation clause of the United States Constitution, "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him, " U.S. Const. amend. VI, and when an assertion by one party is presented through the testimony of another party there is no opportunity for confrontation. Id.

         Reversal of a defendant's conviction is appropriate when there is "a reasonable possibility that the evidence might have contributed to the verdict." State v. Skipper, 2011-1346, p. 10 (La.App. 4 Cir. 10/10/12), 101 So.3d 537, 544 (citation omitted). To determine whether the admission of hearsay was harmless error, this court must consider "the importance of the witness' testimony in the prosecution's case, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of evidence corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points, the extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted, and, of course, the overall strength of the prosecution's case." State v. Legendre, 2005-1469, pp.9-10 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/27/06), 942 So.2d 45, 52 (citation omitted).

         Hearsay admitted at trial

         In the State's opening statement, the prosecutor asserted:

So, ladies and gentlemen, Detective Kent, like it has gone so far, has a suspect. His suspect has been confirmed. But he at this point, because he failed to memorialize the photograph, he does not have enough ...

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