State v. Carter, 2015 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 198 (LA Ct. App. 2015)
STATE OF LOUISIANA VERSUS BERGERON CARTER
2014 KA 1601
COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT
2014 1601 (La.App. 1st 04/24/15); 2015 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 198
April 24, 2015, Judgment Rendered
Hillar C. Moore, III, Cristopher J.M. Casler, Baton Rouge, LA, Counsel for Appellee State of Louisiana.
Prentice L. White, Baton Rouge, LA, Counsel for Defendant/Appellant Bergeron Carter.
BEFORE: WHIPPLE, C.J., McCLENDON AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.
OPINION BY: WHIPPLE
The defendant, Bergeron Carter, was charged by grand jury indictment with manslaughter, a violation of LSA-R.S. 14:31, and pled not guilty. Following a trial by jury, he was found guilty as charged. The trial court denied the defendant’s pro se and counseled motions for a new trial. The defendant was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment at hard labor. The defendant now appeals, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence in support of the conviction. For the following reasons, we affirm the defendant’s conviction and sentence.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
On March 1, 2012, officers of the Baton Rouge City Police Department (BRPD) were dispatched to 10950 Darryl Drive in the Brandywine Apartment Complex after a female tenant called 911 at approximately 9:53 p.m. to report a stabbing. Upon arrival, Officer Alec Pirie and Sergeant Gina Hedrick observed a male subject, later identified as twenty-two-year-old Brian Bradley (the victim), lying on the ground with a pool of blood by his side. As they secured the scene, the police received another dispatch informing them that an involved subject, later identified as the defendant, called 911 at approximately 9:56 p.m. to report the stabbing and was at Apartment 217 in the same complex. Upon contact, the defendant was immediately read his Miranda1 rights. After the defendant led the officers to the butcher knife, purportedly used in the incident, and which was in the defendant’s kitchen sink, the officers secured the area, detained the defendant, and awaited the arrival of the Violent Crimes Unit (VCU). The victim was transported to the hospital where he underwent surgery, and the defendant was transported to VCU where he was again advised of his rights, completed a waiver-of-rights form, and gave a recorded statement. Approximately two weeks later, before the police were able to obtain a statement from the victim, the victim collapsed at a gas station and died.
ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR
In the sole assignment of error, the defendant argues that the evidence is insufficient to support the conviction. The defendant specifically argues that he committed the homicide in self-defense. The defendant contends that he lived in a high crime area and carried a knife for protection. He contends that when he used his knife, he did not have the intent to kill, but only to disable the victim who was attacking him at the time. The defendant argues that the victim was the aggressor in this case and initiated the altercation. He notes that he is disabled, that the victim was younger than he, and was a trained and intimidating boxer. The defendant claims that he never intended to kill the victim and was provoked to respond with force because of the unforeseeable attack. The defendant further claims that he did not have the opportunity to retreat, contending that the victim was positioned over him and poised to strike him in the face again. He argues that he had to act to save his life. The defendant also argues that it is difficult to understand how the jury could have determined that he was guilty considering intervening factors, including the victim’s use of illegal drugs and aggressive behavior that purportedly resulted in the need for the defendant to use defensive action.
A conviction based on insufficient evidence cannot stand as it violates due process. See U.S. Const, amend. XIV, ß 1; La. Const, art. I, ß 2. The constitutional standard for testing the sufficiency of the evidence, as adopted by the Legislature in enacting LSA-C.Cr.P. art. 821, requires that a conviction be based on proof sufficient for any rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, to find 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). The Jackson standard of review is an objective standard for testing the overall evidence, both direct and circumstantial, for reasonable doubt. When analyzing circumstantial evidence, LSA-R.S. 15:438 provides that the trier of fact must be satisfied that the overall evidence excludes every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. State v. Graham, 2002-1492 (La. App. 1st Cir. 2/14/03), 845 So. 2d 416, 420. When a case involves circumstantial evidence and the jury reasonably rejects the hypothesis of innocence presented by the defendant’s own testimony, that hypothesis falls, and the defendant is guilty unless there is another hypothesis that raises a reasonable doubt. State v. Captville, 448 So. 2d 676, 680 (La. 1984); State v. Taylor, 97-2261 (La. App. 1st Cir. 9/25/98), 721 So. 2d 929, 932.
As previously noted, the defendant was convicted of manslaughter. Manslaughter consists, in pertinent part, of a homicide 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, requiring the presence of specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm. LSA-R.S. 14:31(A)(1); State v. Hilburn, 512 So. 2d 497, 504 (La. App. 1st Cir.), writ denied, 515 So. 2d 444 (La. 1987). “Sudden passion” and “heat of blood” are not elements of the offense of manslaughter; rather they are mitigatory factors in the nature of a defense which tend to lessen the culpability. State v. Rodriguez, 2001-2182 (La. App. 1st Cir. 6/21/02), 822 So. 2d 121, 134, writ denied, 2002-2049 (La. 2/14/03), 836 So. 2d 131.
Specific intent is that state of mind which exists when the circumstances indicate that the offender actively desired the prescribed criminal consequences to follow his act or failure to act. LSA-R.S. 14:10(1). Since specific intent is a state of mind, it need not be proved as a fact, but may be inferred from the circumstances of the transaction and the actions of the defendant. State v. Graham, 420 So. 2d 1126, 1127 (La. 1982). Thus, specific intent may be proven by direct evidence, such as statements by a defendant, or by inference from circumstantial evidence, such as a defendant’s actions or facts depicting the circumstances. Specific intent is an ultimate legal conclusion to be resolved by the fact finder. State v. Buchanon, 95-0625 (La. App. 1st Cir. 5/10/96), 673 So. 2d 663, 665, writ denied, 96-1411 (La. 12/6/96), 684 So. 2d 923. Specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm may be inferred from the intentional use of a deadly weapon such as a knife or a gun. State v. Butler, 322 So. 2d 189, 194 (La. 1975); State v. Templet, 2005-2623 (La. App. 1st Cir. 8/16/06), 943 So. 2d 412, 421, writ denied, 2006-2203 (La. 4/20/07), 954 So. 2d 158.
When the defendant in a homicide prosecution claims self-defense, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was not committed in self-defense. State v. Williams, 2001-0944 (La. App. 1st Cir. 12/28/01), 804 So. 2d 932, 939, writ denied, 2002-0399 (La. 2/14/03), 836 So. 2d 135. Louisiana Revised Statute 14:20(A)(1) provides that a homicide is justifiable 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 necessary to save himself from that danger. However, a person who is the aggressor or who brings on a difficulty cannot claim the right of self-defense unless he withdraws from the conflict in good faith and in such a manner that his adversary knows or should know that he desires to withdraw and discontinue the conflict. LSA-R.S. 14:21. On appeal, the relevant inquiry is whether or not, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational fact finder could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. Williams, 804 So. 2d at 939.
In a prosecution for murder, the criminal agency of the defendant as the cause of the victim’s death must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not essential, however, that the act of the defendant should have been the sole cause of the death; if it hastened the termination of life, or contributed, mediately or immediately, to the death, in a degree sufficient to be a clearly contributing cause, that is sufficient. State v. Matthews, 450 So. 2d 644, 646 (La. 1984). The State can establish causation by showing that the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the forbidden result. State v. Small, 2011-2796 (La. 10/16/12), 100 So. 3d 797, 812; Matthews, 450 So. 2d at 646; State v. Durio, 371 So. 2d 1158, 1163-64 (La. 1979).
Detective Jeff Anders of the BRPD, a VCU homicide detective, arrived on the scene after the defendant was detained. Additional crime scene units were summoned to photograph the scene. The defendant was also photographed at the scene. The defendant did not have any visible injuries on his face. However, a photograph taken of the inside of the defendant’s lip revealed a small red mark or laceration inside his lower lip. Detective Anders estimated that the defendant weighed slightly over two hundred pounds and was forty-two years of age at the time of the offense. On cross-examination, Detective Anders acknowledged that his estimation did not match the height and weight noted in the police report. He explained that the portion of the police report that listed the defendant’s height and weight was based on dated information that was previously stored in the police report database and did not reflect the defendant’s physical appearance at the time of the offense. Both the defendant and the victim were residents of the Brandywine Apartment Complex.
During the recorded interview at the VCU, the defendant stated that just before the stabbing, he attempted to talk to the victim about a referral for someone who would charge thirty dollars for a tattoo that the defendant wanted to purchase. The defendant noted that the victim had a pint of gin and a beer in his hand at the time and sat the beverages down at some point. The defendant stated that after he inquired about the tattoo, the victim told the defendant to “move around before I do something.” As the defendant proceeded to walk home, he was walking behind the victim. The victim turned around and asked the defendant, “What’s up?” The defendant then asked the victim, “What’s going on, man.” According to the defendant, at that point, the victim then punched him in the mouth. The defendant stated that he “backed up,” but that the victim was “steady coming on me [the defendant],” as the defendant grabbed his knife and stabbed the victim. The defendant also stated that a male subject was with the victim at the time of the encounter and contended that this individual would corroborate his account of the facts, stating “you could ask him that’s how it went down.” The defendant did not know the other individual’s name but provided a description of his attire that night and stated that he had seen him before that night. The defendant stated that the knife was at his side in his pants before he pulled it out. He further indicated that after the stabbing, he went to his apartment, told his son what had happened, put the knife in the sink, rinsed the blood off of the knife, and rinsed out his mouth to stop the bleeding. The defendant also indicated that he had been engaged in a sexual relationship with the victim’s sister at the time, but he was not sure if that was a factor in the victim’s behavior. In fear, he called 911 after being informed that one or more of the victim’s armed acquaintance(s) were surrounding his apartment.
On March 15, 2012, fourteen days after the stabbing, Dr. Bruce Wainer, an expert in forensic pathology and the deputy coroner for East Baton Rouge Parish at the time of the victim’s death, performed the autopsy of the victim. He testified that the victim had a sharp force injury, the result of the knife wound, on the main artery leaving the heart on the right side. The trajectory of the wound was left to right, and it was eight to ten centimeters deep. The victim also had a small injury to the aortic trunk. Regarding the cause of death, Dr. Wainer specifically testified as follows:
In this particular case, I had to review the history and, apparently, the decedent had received a sharp force injury several — at an earlier time and had been treated in the hospital and then collapsed after he had been released from the hospital. So, what I found was because of these injuries — when I first performed the autopsy, I found a very large amount of blood in the chamber that the heart sits in — we call that the pericardial sac — and also in the left lung cavity. It was my opinion, and it is still my opinion, that the cause of death was the injury to the roots of the pulmonary trunk and the aortic wound that became weakened and eventually ruptured leading to lethal blood loss and death.
The death was ruled a homicide due to the “initiating event” being a stab wound resulting from the altercation with the defendant. The results of the victim’s toxicology report showed a negative blood alcohol content. However, Dr. Wainer further testified that, as indicated in his report, the victim was in a state of cocaine intoxication. The effects of the cocaine, a central nervous stimulant, included an increased blood pressure. Dr. Wainer considered the cocaine to be a contributing factor, noting that an increase in blood pressure resulting from cocaine, while an injured major artery was present, could be a fatal combination and may have contributed to the rupture of the large vessels. When asked if the victim would have died without the cocaine use, Dr. Wainer stated that in his opinion, it is likely that because of the injuries sustained by the victim, the vessels would have eventually ruptured at some point in time and caused the victim to die. He could not predict the number of weeks it would have taken for the victim to die from the injuries to the vessels alone, but noted that the cocaine accelerated the victim’s death. During cross-examination, Dr. Wainer testified that it was possible that the victim’s artery could have healed without rupturing. He noted, however, that usually once the vessels that function under high pressure are weakened by scrapes, they are likely to rupture at some point in time after the injury. In a subsequent report, Dr. Wainer noted that in his opinion, based on the treatment the victim was given when he was initially admitted to the Baton Rouge General Hospital after the stabbing, the wound may have incorrectly been considered at that time to be confined to the left chest cavity with injury to his left internal mammary artery (the artery that was actually cut) without taking the scrapes into account.2
During the trial, the defendant testified and added details to the version of the incident he had given during his pretrial interview. The defendant noted that he had known the victim for about two weeks before the incident in question, but they never had any altercation before the incident. The defendant noted that he had consumed alcohol on the night in question, but denied being intoxicated, noting that he had just purchased the alcohol ten to fifteen minutes before the altercation. The defendant further noted that the victim knew how to get in contact with the person that the defendant wanted to hire for a tattoo. The defendant stated that when he approached the victim and asked about the individual that he wanted to hire to do his tattoo, the victim stated, “Move around before I bust you in your mouth.” The defendant stated that he did not understand why the victim wanted to attack him and asked the victim, “[W]hat are you talking about?” He further testified:
And then, after that, I said, what’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong. Move around before I break your jaw. So, I walked a few and said, I’m going to let your momma know how you cutting up with me because me and you ain’t never did nothing like this. He thought about it and said, oh, yeah, that’s right. Today is the first. I don’t need no money. I’m going to get that money from you.
The defendant claimed the victim was aware that he had the money for the tattoo, noting that he wanted to purchase two tattoos for a total of sixty dollars. The defendant added that the victim stated, “I’m going to take your money.” Regarding the moments before the stabbing, the defendant testified:
He [the victim] running up, coming to me, saying, give me that money. He hit me and we both fell down. I got back up. He got back up. When he come on me again, I done like this with the knife. I hit him like this with the knife. I backed up, he backed up, and he backed up until he fell against the other building and I went kept and walked on back home.
He added that the victim came towards him with a “running start” before hitting him, causing both of them to fall to the ground. The defendant testified that he was not trying to kill the victim, that he only wanted to get the victim off of him, and that the victim looked like he wasn’t going to stop until he got the money.
Regarding his relationship with the victim’s sister, the defendant noted that he had had sex with her about three weeks before the stabbing, but stated that he did not think that the victim was aware of that information. The defendant contended that the details included in his testimony that were not included in his pretrial statement were left out because he was not asked about those specific details. The defendant noted that he was heavier in weight at the time of the offense because he would eat a lot, throughout the day and night. When asked if he had any medical illnesses, the defendant stated that he had a bad liver and high blood pressure.
The defendant testified that he and the victim were alone at the time of the stabbing, claiming that the individual who arrived with the victim at the apartment complex had driven off, and that Jessica, the victim’s sister with whom the defendant conversed that night, had gone into her apartment to attend to her child before the encounter.
When confronted on cross-examination with his pretrial indication that another individual was with the victim at the time of the stabbing, the defendant stated that he only indicated that a man was in the area, and that he was unaware of the individual being with the victim at the time of the encounter or stabbing, stating “I don’t know nothing about him and his buddy walking up or whatever.” During cross-examination, the defendant further added that he had loaned the victim money before the incident and suggested that the victim needed money for drugs.
The record herein, including the defendant’s own testimony and self-defense argument, clearly supports a finding that the defendant intentionally stabbed the victim. Accordingly, despite his contention otherwise, the jury could have reasonably inferred that the defendant had the specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm upon the victim. On appeal, the defendant does not dispute the other elements of manslaughter. Rather, he claims that the killing was justified because he acted in self-defense and notes the victim’s use of illegal drugs as an intervening factor. Therefore, the remaining issues for review of the sufficiency of the evidence is whether or not the defendant acted in self-defense and whether or not the victim’s use of illegal drugs rendered the verdict unreasonable.
The trier of fact is free to accept or reject, in whole or in part, the testimony of any witness. Moreover, when 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. The trier of fact’s determination of the weight to be given evidence is not subject to appellate review. Williams, 804 So. 2d at 939. On appeal, this Court will not assess the credibility of witnesses or reweigh the evidence to overturn a fact finder’s determination of guilt. State v. Glynn, 94-0332 (La. App. 1st Cir. 4/7/95), 653 So. 2d 1288, 1310, writ denied, 95-1153 (La. 10/6/95), 661 So. 2d 464.
The guilty verdict in this case indicates the jury rejected the defendant’s contention that he stabbed the victim in self-defense or that he was in fear of losing his life at the time of the stabbing. Considering the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we conclude that a rational juror could have found that the State established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense, and that in stabbing the victim, the defendant contributed to the victim’s death in a degree sufficient to be a clearly contributing cause of his death. In reviewing the evidence, we cannot say that the jury’s determination was irrational under the facts and circumstances presented to them. See State v. Ordodi, 2006–0207 (La. 11/29/06), 946 So. 2d 654, 662. An appellate court errs by substituting its appreciation of the evidence and credibility of witnesses for that of the fact finder and thereby overturning a verdict on the basis of an exculpatory hypothesis of innocence presented to, and rationally rejected by, the jury. State v. Calloway, 2007-2306 (La. 1/21/09), 1 So. 3d 417, 418 (per curiam).
After a thorough review of the record, we are convinced that any rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence presented in this case in the light most favorable to the State, could find that the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and to the exclusion of hypotheses of innocence raised by the defendant at trial, all of the elements of manslaughter. Based on the foregoing, we find that the assignment of error lacks merit. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction and sentence are hereby affirmed.
CONVICTION AND SENTENCE AFFIRMED.
1 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966).
2 The victim also had narcotics in his system that were consistent with drugs that would be present in an individual who had a hospital stay due to the type of wound the victim sustained.