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State v. Eason

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 27, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
CHRISTOPHER NICHOLLS EASON

          Appealed from the 21st District Court In and for the Parish of Tangipahoa State of Louisiana Case No. 1402849 Honorable Robert H. Morrison, II, Judge Presiding

          Scott M. Perrilloux District Attorney Patricia Parker Amos Assistant District Attorney Amite, Louisiana Counsel for Appellee State of Louisiana

          Lieu T. Vo Clark Mandeville, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/Appellant Christopher Nicholls Eason

          Christopher Nicholls Eason Saint Gabriel, Louisiana Defendant/Appellant In Proper Person

          BEFORE: HIGGINBOTHAM, PENZATO, AND LANIER, JJ.

          LANIER, J.

         The defendant, Christopher Eason, was charged by grand jury indictment with second degree murder, a violation of La. R.S. 14:30.1. He pled not guilty. Following a jury trial, he was found guilty of the responsive offense of manslaughter, a violation of La. R.S. 14:31. See La. Code Crim. P. art. 814(A)(3). He was sentenced to thirty years at hard labor. He now appeals, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, [1] venue and jurisdiction, his sentence as excessive, and the denial of his motions for mistrial and new trial based on alleged juror misconduct.[2] For the following reasons, we affirm the defendant's conviction and sentence.

         FACTS

         The charred body of the victim, Kimberly Bowman, a white female, was recovered from a burned car in Orleans Parish early on October 20, 2014. Examination of the body revealed the victim did not die from smoke inhalation, but rather from a fatal gunshot wound through her chest prior to being burned. According to expert testimony, the victim survived seconds or minutes after being shot, but less than an hour.

         Don Michael Raines testified at trial that he lived at the Contempo Apartments in Hammond, and he had sold marijuana to the victim prior to her death. On October 19, 2014, the victim called "for something," but Raines did not have any drugs to sell. Raines told the victim "she could come through, somebody would be out there." The victim told Raines to "give her a few minutes" because she was cashing a check at the "money center" in Walmart. According to Raines, the defendant was at a dice game across the street when Raines yelled to him, "that a girl going to be coming through trying to get some smoke, and she was going to pull up across the street." Thereafter, Raines heard two gunshots and saw a car speeding off. He believed it was the same car the victim had used the previous day when buying drugs from him. Raines called the victim's phone, but there was no answer. He then called the defendant's phone, and initially, there was also no answer. Raines, however, kept calling both phones. The defendant eventually answered and was frantic, stating "she's bleeding, she's bleeding," and then hung up.

         According to Raines, the defendant came to Raines' apartment the next morning and told him "[the victim] upped with a gun and [the defendant] had to shoot her[.]" The defendant also told Raines that after shooting the victim, the defendant drove her to New Orleans and "set the car on fire." The defendant told Raines to dispose of Raines' phone because the victim had called him. Raines denied killing the victim.

         Johnny Ray Walker also testified at trial. In October 2014, he was living with the defendant, the defendant's girlfriend Elexis Maryland, her brother, and her daughter in an apartment in the Contempo Apartments. Walker had been on probation for carnal knowledge of a juvenile. He had failed to report to his probation officer, and an arrest warrant was outstanding for him. Walker testified that on the night in question, the defendant told him, "[the defendant] was going to go hit a lick[, ]" which was street talk for "to try to get any means of money," or "to do something wrong." The defendant stated he had an "easy lick" for money from a white female. Walker testified he unsuccessfully tried to dissuade the defendant from his plan, both "[b]ecause it was wrong," and because Walker was afraid of any police attention due to his outstanding warrant. Walker later fell asleep while playing games on his phone.

         Walker awoke to his phone ringing. The defendant was on the line and stated he "just committed a murder" in the back of the Contempo Apartments. The defendant further told Walker that he had driven the body to New Orleans and burned it in the car. According to Walker, the defendant told him that "he [the defendant] walked up to the car and tried to rob her or whatever, and he pulled a gun, and she pulled a gun, and he shot her." The defendant then told Walker to let him talk to Maryland. Thereafter, Walker and Maryland drove to New Orleans and picked up the defendant.

         Antoine Schaffer also testified at trial. He and the defendant were "associates," and the defendant confided in him. Schaffer testified the defendant told him "they were supposed to have a lick." A white lady was "supposed to come through to get ... some weed." The defendant was supposed to sell the lady drugs, "but [the defendant] reached for his gun because he was going to pull a lick." The victim, however, also reached for her gun. They wrestled and, in the struggle, the defendant shot the victim. The defendant pushed the victim over, got into her car and left. He drove the car to "some projects" in New Orleans and "burned the car up." The defendant then called his girlfriend.

         The defendant also testified at trial. In 2014, he was living with Maryland in the Contempo Apartments in Hammond. According to the defendant, during the night of October 19, 2014, Raines called him and wanted the defendant to "ride somewhere with him." The defendant met Raines at Raines' apartment and walked with him to a car parked about thirty seconds away. The defendant claimed Raines left his phone with his girlfriend and told her to call the defendant if she needed to contact Raines. The defendant testified Raines opened the door of the car, revealing a body on the front floor of the vehicle. The defendant claimed he was scared and initially refused to get in the vehicle, but eventually got into the vehicle because he was afraid Raines would shoot him if he tried to run away. According to the defendant, Raines stated "we have to go somewhere and get rid of the body." The defendant claimed Raines then drove the vehicle to an abandoned building in New Orleans. According to the defendant, once they arrived, he made an excuse to leave, stating he was "going to go get some help from somebody." The defendant then borrowed a phone and called Maryland to come and pick him up. The defendant denied murdering the victim. He also denied confessing that he had killed someone to Walker and Schaffer. Analysis of cell site information indicated that Raines' phone did not leave the Hammond area between 9:00 p.m. on October 19, 2014 and 6:00 a.m. on October 20, 2014.

         SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

         In pro se assignment of error number two, the defendant argues the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction because "not one of the witnesses were testifying on a personal eyewitness account that they saw Defendant pull the trigger that ended the life of the victim." The defendant further complains that the State failed to present scientific or physical evidence that he killed the victim.

         In cases such as this one, where the defendant raises issues on appeal both as to the sufficiency of the evidence and as to one or more trial errors, the reviewing court should preliminarily determine the sufficiency of the evidence, before discussing the other issues raised on appeal. When the entirety of the evidence, both admissible and inadmissible, is sufficient to support the conviction, the accused is not entitled to an acquittal, and the reviewing court must review the assignments of error to determine whether the accused is entitled to a new trial. State v. Hearold, 603 So.2d 731, 734 (La. 1992); State v. Smith, 2003-0917 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/31/03), 868 So.2d 794, 798.

         A conviction based on insufficient evidence cannot stand as it violates Due Process. See U.S. Const, amend. XIV; La. Const, art. I, § 2. The standard of review for the sufficiency of the evidence to uphold a conviction is whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also La. Code Crim. P. art. 821(B); State v. Ordodi, 2006-0207 (La. 11/29/06), 946 So.2d 654, 660. The Jackson standard of review, incorporated in Article 821, is an objective standard for testing the overall evidence, both direct and circumstantial, for reasonable doubt. State v. Mitchell, 2016-0834 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/21/17), 231 So.3d 710, 731, writ denied, 2017-1890 (La. 8/31/18). 251 So.3d 410.

         When a conviction is based on both direct and circumstantial evidence, the reviewing court must resolve any conflict in the direct evidence by viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. When analyzing circumstantial evidence, La. R.S. 15:438 provides that, in order to convict, the fact finder must be satisfied that the overall evidence excludes every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. The facts then established by the direct evidence and inferred from the circumstances established by that evidence must be sufficient for a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of every essential element of the crime. State v. Watts, 2014-0429 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/21/14), 168 So.3d 441, 444, writ denied, 2015-0146 (La. 11/20/15), 180 So.3d315.

         In State ex rel. Elaire v. Blackburn, 424 So.2d 246, 251 (La. 1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 959, 103 S.Ct. 2432, 77 L.Ed.2d 1318 (1983), the Louisiana Supreme Court recognized the legitimacy of a "compromise verdict," i.e., a legislatively approved responsive verdict that does not fit the evidence, but that (for whatever reason) the jurors deem to be fair, as long as the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for the charged offense. If the defendant timely objects to an instruction on a responsive verdict on the basis that the evidence does not support that responsive verdict, the court overrules the objection, and the jury returns a verdict of guilty of the responsive offense, the reviewing court must examine the record to determine if the responsive verdict is supported by the evidence and may reverse the conviction if the evidence does not support the verdict. However, if the defendant does not enter an objection (at a time when the trial judge can correct the error), then the reviewing court may affirm the conviction if the evidence would have supported a conviction of the greater offense, whether or not the evidence supports the conviction of the legislatively responsive offense returned by the jury. Id.

         In this case, there was no objection to the instruction on the responsive verdict of manslaughter. The jury's ultimate reasoning for returning this responsive verdict is unclear, but it is possible that this verdict represented a "compromise." Regardless of the jury's ultimate reasoning, the evidence ...


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