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State v. Diggs

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 27, 2019


          On Appeal from the 32nd Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Terrebonne State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 756, 226 Honorable Juan W. Pickett, Judge Presiding

          Joe Waitz District Attorney J. Christopher Erny Ellen Daigle Doskey Assistant District Attorneys Houma, LA Attorneys for Appellee, State of Louisiana

          Gwendolyn K. Brown Louisiana Appellate Project Baton Rouge, LA Attorney for Defendant -Appellant, Michael Damonte Diggs


          HIGGINBOTHAM, J.

         The defendant, Michael Damonte Diggs, was charged by grand jury indictment with first degree murder on counts one and two, violations of La. R.S. 14:30(A)(3), and with attempted first degree murder on counts three, four, five, and six, violations of La. R.S. 14:30(A)(3) and La. R.S. 14:27.[1] He pled not guilty and, after a trial by jury, was found guilty as charged on each count. The defendant filed a motion for postverdict judgment of acquittal and a motion for new trial. The trial court denied the motion for new trial. The motion for postverdict judgment of acquittal was granted on count three, and denied on the other counts.[2] On counts one and two, the trial court imposed life imprisonment at hard labor on each count. On counts four, five, and six, the trial court imposed fifty years imprisonment at hard labor on each count. The trial court ordered that the sentences run concurrently, without the benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. The defendant now appeals, assigning error to the trial court's rulings on the following: (1) his challenge for cause of a prospective juror during voir dire; (2) his objection to trial testimony regarding Facebook messages; and (3) his motion for new trial.


         During the evening hours of June 28, 2016, Roderick Smith (the victim of count six) and Troy Deroche (the victim of count one) were riding around "druggin' it" and were ultimately joined by the defendant. Sometime after midnight, Troy and Roderick agreed to drop off the defendant, who was sitting in the backseat of the vehicle, in the Village East neighborhood in Houma. Once they arrived at Thomas Drive in Village East, gunshots were fired from the backseat of the vehicle. John Darjean (the victim of count two), Jaquan Smith (the victim of count four), and Malik Pharr (the victim of count five) were outside on Thomas Drive at the time of the shooting. John was fatally shot in the head, Jaquan was struck in the leg two times, and Malik escaped without injury.

         Roderick testified at trial that after hearing the gunfire, he went into a state of shock, accelerated the vehicle, and questioned the defendant, who was the only person in the backseat, what he was doing. The defendant did not respond. Roderick testified that he had no doubt that the defendant was the person who fired a gun from the backseat of the vehicle.

         After the initial gunshots, Roderick drove to Samuel Street in the Mechanicville area, hoping that the defendant would exit the vehicle in that area. Once they approached the intersection at Senator Street, the defendant exited the vehicle. Roderick then heard more gunshots, and he and Troy were struck several times. At the time of the trial, Roderick still had bullets in his body, including one that was lodged near his heart. While Roderick survived, Troy died from his gunshot injuries.

         The defendant participated in a pretrial interview. After being advised of his Miranda [3] rights, he stated that he "heard about" the shootings and repeatedly denied that he was in the vehicle or committed the shootings. At about an hour and twenty-two minutes into the interview, he finally admitted that he was in the vehicle. At that point, the defendant indicated that he was the driver, Troy was the front passenger, and Roderick was in the backseat using the defendant's gun (a .40 caliber Glock handgun) to commit the shootings on Thomas Drive.[4] After further questioning, the defendant stated that a fourth occupant, a "kind of heavy-set" black male that he did not know, was in the backseat with Roderick. The defendant stated that he sped off after the gunfire and drove to Samuel Street. After Roderick gave him his gun back, the defendant then exited the vehicle, at which point the defendant heard more gunshots coming from the vehicle. When asked who shot Roderick and Troy, the defendant indicated, "I think the big boy shot them, the fat boy." The defendant did not testify at trial.


         In assignment of error number one, the defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his challenge for cause to exclude James Belanger, a prospective juror on panel two. The defendant argues that Mr. Belanger complained of a host of medical issues that precluded his ability to serve competently as a juror. He contends that while the prosecutor and trial court made light of Mr. Belanger's professed short-term memory loss, such an issue could have hindered his ability to recall testimony presented over the multi-day trial. Defendant argues that he was prejudiced by the trial court's erroneous denial of his challenge for cause, noting that he was forced to use a peremptory challenge to remove Mr. Belanger and ultimately exhausted all of his peremptory challenges.

         An accused in a criminal case is constitutionally entitled to a full and complete voir dire examination and to the exercise of peremptory challenges. La. Const, art. I, § 17(A); La. Code Crim. P. art. 786. The purpose of voir dire examination is to determine prospective jurors' qualifications by testing their competency and impartiality and discovering bases for intelligent exercise of cause and peremptory challenges. State v. Mills, 2013-0573 (La.App. 1st Cir. 8/27/14), 153 So.3d 481, 486, writs denied, 2014-2027 (La. 5/22/15), 170 So.3d 982 & 2014-2269 (La. 9/18/15), 178 So.3d 139. Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure article 797(1) provides that the State or the defendant may challenge a juror for cause on the ground that the juror lacks a qualification required by law. When a defendant is forced to utilize a peremptory challenge to correct an error in denying a challenge for cause and thereafter exercises all available peremptory challenges on other prospective jurors, a substantial right of the defendant, guaranteed by the Louisiana constitution, is affected. State v. Mickelson, 2012-2539 (La. 9/3/14), 149 So.3d 178, 184-85. In such cases, a defendant need make only two showings to establish error warranting reversal of a conviction and sentence: (1) the district court erred in refusing to sustain a challenge for cause; and (2) the ...

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