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State v. Wright

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

December 18, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
JASON WRIGHT

          APPEAL FROM THE TWELFTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF AVOYELLES, NO. 203701-B HONORABLE WILLIAM J. BENNETT, DISTRICT JUDGE.

          Edward K. Bauman Louisiana Appellate Project COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Jason Wright.

          Anthony F. Salario Assistant District Attorney 12th Judicial District COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: State of Louisiana.

          Court composed of John D. Saunders, Shannon J. Gremillion, and John E. Conery, Judges.

          JOHN E. CONERY JUDGE.

         On November 8, 2017, Defendant, Jason Wright, was charged by bill of information with three counts of attempted first degree murder in violation of La.R.S. 14:27 and 14:30. The victim in each count was accurately described as "a peace officer engaged in the performance of his lawful duties."

         On December 29, 2017, Defendant filed a motion to enter dual pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity and requested a sanity commission be appointed. On March 15, 2018, the trial court appointed a sanity commission. Both doctors found Defendant was sane and competent to proceed to trial.

         On January 16, 2019, a jury found Defendant guilty of the attempted second degree murder of Detective Mike Simmons, as well as the attempted manslaughter of Captain Jeremiah Honea and Detective Casey Threeton. All three convictions were 10-2 verdicts.

         On February 11, 2019, Defendant filed a "Motion for Post Verdict Judgment of Acquittal with Incorporated Memorandum of Law." On February 12, 2019, the motion was denied, Defendant waived sentencing delays, and was sentenced to forty years at hard labor without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence for the attempted murder conviction, and twenty years at hard labor for each count of attempted manslaughter, with all three sentences to run concurrently. Defendant filed a motion to reconsider sentence on February 13, 2019, alleging generally "that the sentence imposed upon him is excessive." The trial court denied Defendant's motion to reconsider sentence on February 14, 2019.

         Defendant now appeals his convictions and sentences, alleging four assignments of error: (1) the State failed to prove specific intent to kill Detective Simmons and failed to prove that Defendant's actions were not justified and not committed in self-defense; (2) the State failed to prove Defendant had specific intent to kill Captain Honea or Detective Threeton; (3) the trial court erred in denying a requested jury charge regarding justification; and (4) his sentences are excessive.

         FACTS:

         As two of Defendant's assignments of error concern the sufficiency of the State's evidence with regard to specific intent, we will highlight the testimony presented at trial. The State's first witness was Detective Mike Simmons of the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office, the victim in count one of the bill of information. Detective Simmons stated he spent sixteen years with the St. Tammany Sheriff's Department before spending the next fourteen years with the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Department.

         Detective Simmons testified that on September 13, 2017, he was pursuing a Mr. Shawn Morris in connection with several burglary and theft cases he was investigating. After failing to locate Mr. Morris at his grandmother's house, Detective Simmons and a number of other detectives and patrol officers went to the residence of James and Maria Gaspard based on knowledge that Mr. Morris frequented the residence. Detective Simmons testified that he "had recovered stolen property from that residence in the past involving Shawn Morris as well as the occupants or residents." He indicated he was wearing a criminal investigations uniform, which consisted of a tan shirt with a sheriff's officer logo, dress slacks, and a duty belt with his weapon. Although the detectives were in unmarked vehicles, Detective Simmons stated they had marked patrol vehicles with them and the deputies driving those vehicles were in standard uniforms.

         Detective Simmons testified that when he, Captain Jeremiah Honea, and Detective Casey Threeton knocked on the door, there was initially no answer although people could be heard moving around inside. At that point, he stated they loudly announced that it was the sheriff's office. Detective Simmons stated they announced themselves several times "because it took awhile for anyone to come and answer the door." Detective Simmons testified he subsequently spoke with Mr. James Gaspard, the owner of the residence, who granted him permission to enter and look for Shawn Morris. Upon entry, Detective Simmons observed there were three or four people in the living room.

         Detective Simmons testified that he entered the residence with Captain Honea directly behind him and Detective Threeton bringing up the rear. Detective Simmons stated he followed Mr. Gaspard down a hallway because he was moving "in a very hasty manner." He testified that partway down the hall, he came to a slightly ajar door and pushed the door open while keeping his body out of the doorway. He then testified:

So[, ] as I pushed the door open[, ] I saw a subject sitting there with a shotgun. And as the door came all the way open[, ] I saw the shotgun level down towards me with the barrel, it wasn't pointed to the left or to the right, it was pointed right at me. And I saw the barrel come down you know pointed right at me.

         Detective Simmons clarified the shotgun was initially upright, that he and Defendant saw each other at the same time, then Defendant lowered the shotgun at him. Detective Simmons yelled "gun" to warn Captain Honea and Detective Threeton and drew his weapon, firing two shots as he backed away. At about the same time, the shotgun was discharged and went through the wall inches from where Detective Simmons had been standing. Detective Simmons testified that they then cleared the residence, with only himself and Captain Honea remaining in the living room. They eventually exited the house when Defendant would not surrender himself, although he had surrendered the shotgun by throwing it into the hallway. Detective Simmons testified his involvement with the Defendant ended then.

         Detective Simmons stated he had never encountered Defendant prior to September 13, 2017. He said the residence was known for drug activity and moving stolen property. Detective Simmons stated he did not announce the Sheriff's Department's presence once they entered the house, although it had been announced loudly and repeatedly prior to their entrance into the home. He indicated there was about fifteen to twenty seconds between entering the home and the shooting.

         The State then called James Gaspard. He testified that his kids woke him up and told him the "cops" were present, so he went to answer the door. Mr. Gaspard was unsure how many people were in the living room of the home but believed there were five. Mr. Gaspard testified that Defendant was living in the second bedroom in the home and stated he had previously told Defendant he could not have guns in the residence because Mr. Gaspard is a convicted felon. He testified he had never before seen the shotgun Defendant fired at law enforcement. He testified he and Detective Simmons were walking together when Detective Simmons opened Jason's door and shoved Mr. Gaspard as shots began to be fired, at which time he ran to his bedroom in the back of the home. He stated he did not know Defendant before one of his kids introduced them and Defendant asked if he could stay with Mr. Gaspard. Mr. Gaspard indicated that Defendant had been living in the trailer awhile before the shooting occurred.

         The State then called Temica Littleton, Defendant's former fiancé. Ms. Littleton testified that on the morning of the shooting, she was in bed with Defendant. While in bed, she heard knocking, looked out the window and saw uniformed deputies and sheriff's department vehicles at the scene. She testified she tried waking Defendant, but he would not wake up initially. She testified she told him the police were there. Ms. Littleton testified she did not see the shotgun until Defendant grabbed it and fired toward the door where Detective Simmons was located. She testified Defendant grabbed the shotgun "as the detective was like coming towards the bedroom door there."

         Ms. Littleton stated she did not know Defendant to use or abuse any type of drugs. She testified that when Defendant picked up the gun she yelled "no" because she thought he was going to harm himself, as he had previously told her "he wasn't going back to jail." She stated it was at that time the shots occurred between Defendant and Detective Simmons. Ms. Littleton testified she was right next to Defendant on the bed when she yelled and said Detective Simmons shot first. She also stated that Defendant did not typically grab a shotgun as soon as he woke up and heard people in the hallway.

         The State's next witness was Ms. Morgan Murray, a booking officer with the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Department. On September 14, 2017, she encountered Defendant during his 72-hour hearing. She testified that when Defendant was informed that he was charged with three counts of attempted first degree murder, he responded that he "only tried to kill one." Ms. Murray testified that her mother, Crystal Brown, was also present and heard Defendant's statement. She acknowledged that the 72-hour hearings were not recorded.

         Mrs. Crystal Brown testified that she works for the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Department and that 72-hour hearings are held over Skype in her office. Mrs. Brown confirmed that when informed he was facing three counts of attempted murder; Defendant made a statement that he "only tried to shoot and kill one of them."

         The State then called Detective Randolph Norred, who stated he had been with the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Department for five years and a detective for two years. His involvement in the investigation of the September 13, 2017 officer involved shooting was to photograph the crime scene and log in the evidence. Detective Norred discussed the photographs previously entered into evidence in conjunction with the testimony of Detective Simmons. More particularly, he identified in the photographs the area where the shooting took place and noted the evidence of a shotgun blast which went "through and through" the door directly across from the bedroom door where Defendant was located when he fired the shotgun.

         Detective Norred further testified in response to a question about whether "the closeness of the range" tells you anything as follows:

Due to the closeness of the range you can tell that he shot at close range the bullet hadn't had time to expand. In a shotgun the father away you shoot the larger the pattern is going to be being that that's ...

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