X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:On June 14, 2001, Angela Davis, an employee of the city of Houston’s animal control department, stopped to render assistance when the truck in front of her veered off the road into a ditch near the entrance to Brock Park in Harris County. Approximately 10 to 20 minutes after the truck veered off the road, Davis looked into the park and noticed something moving. She went to investigate and discovered James Playonero, covered in blood and suffering from several gunshot wounds. Davis called the police for help. Although Playonero attempted to speak to Davis, she could not understand what he was saying, because he was mumbling. Playonero died before the ambulance arrived, approximately 10 minutes after he was discovered. According to Davis, between the time she stopped to assist the driver of the truck that veered off the road and the time she went to investigate the movement in the park, she did not hear any gunshots or see any other people or vehicles. Davis discovered Playonero near a 1995 Toyota Avalon, which Playonero had borrowed from a friend named Angel Ayala earlier that morning. The car appeared to have rolled into a tree and was stuck in the mud. The gear-shift was in neutral, and the ignition was in the accessory position. Police suspected that a tire iron found in the front seat of the car had been wedged against the accelerator so the car could propel itself into the trees. Based on the discovery of a wad of burned paper lodged in the gas manifold, police also concluded that someone had tried to set the car on fire by igniting the gas tank. An assistant medical examiner with the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office testified that Playonero was shot at close range and that Playonero died within five to 10 minutes after suffering the wounds. He also stated that, based on his training and experience, there was no way that Playonero could have lived for 20 to 30 minutes after receiving those wounds. The evidence at trial showed that there was a significant amount of blood inside the car and a moderate amount on the outside of the car. A latent-fingerprint examiner with the Houston Police Department testified that he identified prints belonging to Playonero, Ayala and Leviyas Jamail Clayton. He testified that he identified three sets of prints, stamped in blood: one on the middle console, one on the gear shift and one on the steering wheel. These prints belonged to Clayton. The prints identified as belonging to Playonero and Ayala were not bloody. Sgt. Boyd Smith, one of the first homicide officers on the scene, testified that there were no witnesses at the park who saw Playonero get shot. Although bullet fragments were discovered in the car, there were no bullet holes inside the car. Smith believed that Playonero was shot both in and outside the car and that the shooting did not take place in the park, because there were no shell casings found outside the car. He suspected that Playonero’s murder involved a drug deal when he learned that Ayala and Playonero were Columbian, also basing his suspicions on the nature of Playonero’s gunshot wounds. Referring to the wounds, Smith stated: “The fact that he was shot in both legs, twice in both legs, once in the forearm, once through and through in the flesh and the stomach, shot in the penis, shot in the middle of the back of the neck, they were torturing him or trying to get information or getting information from something over a bad drug deal.” Jesus Sosa, an officer with the Homicide Division, was assigned to investigate Playonero’s death. Clayton became the focus of his investigation based on the print identification. After Sosa obtained an arrest warrant for Clayton in mid-July, he first attempted to find Clayton at his grandmother’s house, which was located three to four miles from Brock Park. He also tried to locate Clayton at his girlfriend’s apartment and the homes of various relatives. Despite Sosa’s efforts, authorities did not arrest Clayton until he was stopped for a traffic violation in March 2002, some eight months later. Explaining what his investigation revealed, Sosa testified that he did not speak with any witnesses who saw Clayton in the park on June 14th or who witnessed Clayton shoot Playonero. He also testified that he did not interview any witnesses who could connect Clayton to Playonero. Concurring with Smith’s opinion about why Playonero had been murdered, Sosa testified that, based on his investigation, he believed that Playonero was conducting a drug transaction in the park and that the deal had “gone bad.” During his investigation, Sosa verified his initial suspicions about Playonero’s involvement with drugs. He stated that Playonero’s wife told him that Playonero was involved in the drug business and that he would disappear for several days at a time and return with money. Sosa also testified that he eliminated Ayala as a suspect when he interviewed Ayala to determine his involvement. Ayala told Sosa that he was at home alone when Playonero was shot. The police never recovered a firearm linked to the shooting. Clayton was the only defense witness. He testified that he went to the park on June 14th about a quarter before noon to meet a woman he had met at a nightclub two weeks earlier. Immediately before he entered the park, he saw a blue car exiting at a high rate of speed. He did not see any other cars in the park when he first arrived. But when he was halfway into the park, he noticed a white Avalon wrecked in front of a tree with the engine running and the rear passenger’s door open. Clayton got out of his car and walked toward the car. He saw Playonero lying in the backseat covered in blood. With both hands, Clayton grasped Playonero’s left hand for a few seconds and, in response, Playonero began to mumble but Clayton did not understand what he was saying. Clayton then got in the driver’s seat, sat on the tire iron, and “tried to put the car in reverse, but the gravel around the car was � where the ground was wet and the mud was, the car wouldn’t move.” Although he tried to move the car two times, the tires just spun. During direct examination by his attorney, Clayton stated that he did not remember touching the console of the car but that he did remember touching the gear-shift handle and the steering wheel. According to Clayton, the gear-shift was in the drive position before he moved it, and when the car would not move, he put the gear-shift in neutral and turned the engine off. Clayton then saw a truck veer off the road outside of the park; he panicked, got in his car and left the park. As he left the park, he saw two animal control trucks parked behind the truck that veered off the road across the street. Clayton then headed to the house that he shared with his grandmother. On cross-examination, the prosecutor challenged Clayton’s testimony about his attempts to move the Avalon out of the mud, particularly the lack of mud on the front fender as a result of Clayton’s alleged tire spinning. And when the prosecutor questioned him about whether he called 9-1-1 when he got home, Clayton admitted that he did not call and stated that he went to his room, sat on his bed for a while thinking about what he had seen and cried for a few minutes. Although Clayton testified that he often confided in his grandmother, he stated the he did not tell her about what he had seen even though she was there when he came home. Finally, when asked by the prosecutor if any of his family members told him that the police had a warrant for his arrest, Clayton stated that he did not know about the warrant until he was arrested during the traffic stop in March. The jury convicted Clayton of murder and sentenced him to 30 years of imprisonment. Clayton appealed his conviction, claiming legal and factual insufficiency. Without addressing Clayton’s factual sufficiency claim, the 13th Court of Appeals held that the evidence was legally insufficient, reversed the trial court’s judgment, and entered a judgment of acquittal. Considering Clayton’s bloody prints first, the court of appeals stated that the bloody prints “are not evidence that [Clayton] was with the victim before the shooting, and an inference to that effect can be reached only by first assuming that appellant was the perpetrator of the murder and then working backwards.” The 13th Court concluded that the prints only proved that Clayton was at the crime scene after Playonero was shot and that Clayton’s presence after the murder is not enough to prove guilt. Next, the court noted that an individual’s failure to notify law-enforcement officials about a crime is not enough to prove guilt. The court then focused on proof of motive. While observing that motive is not an element of murder, the court stated that “when identity is called into question, as it is here, proof of motive might be the glue that holds the entire case together.” The 13th Court pointed to the absence of any evidence connecting Clayton to Playonero and then determined that drug-deal-gone-bad theory was unreliable. The CCA granted review to determine whether the 13th Court of Appeals erred in its legal sufficiency analysis and erred in holding that the evidence was legally insufficient to support Clayton’s murder conviction. HOLDING:Reversed and remanded. The CCA held that the 13th Court of incorrectly applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard set forth in its 1979 opinion Jackson v. Virginia when considering the circumstantial evidence supporting Clayton’s conviction. The court failed to properly consider the combined and cumulative force of the evidence and view the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury’s guilty verdict. The CCA stated that the 13th Court did not consider all of the evidence in its sufficiency analysis and, in conducting its cursory review of the evidence, the court improperly used a divide-and-conquer approach, systematically isolating and then discounting the evidence supporting Clayton’s conviction. Giving proper deference to the jury’s verdict, the CCA found the evidence legally sufficient to sustain Clayton’s conviction. The state and Clayton, the CCA stated, presented the jury with two conflicting theories. The jury was able to assess the credibility and demeanor of the witnesses who testified at trial. And most importantly, the jury was able to assess Clayton’s credibility and demeanor when he explained the presence of his bloody prints in the Avalon. From the guilty verdict, the CCA found it clear that the jury rejected Clayton’s exculpatory explanation. The CCA began with Clayton’s bloody prints. The CCA stated that the 13th Court of Appeals correctly concluded that the prints, standing alone, did not sufficiently establish that Clayton shot Playonero. But the CCA also concluded that the 13th Court failed to recognize the prints’ significance when considered with the remaining circumstantial evidence admitted at Clayton’s trial. The CCA also noted that a factfinder may draw an inference of guilt from the circumstance of flight. Clayton’s flight from the park, the CCA stated, constituted an additional piece of incriminating circumstantial evidence. The court also found that a rational juror could infer that Clayton knew about the warrant and intentionally avoided apprehension. Finally, given Davis’ testimony that Playonero lived for some time after she discovered him and the evidence indicating that no one other than Clayton was with Playonero during the final minutes of his life, the CCA found it rational to infer that Clayton was with Playonero when he was shot. When considered with the combined and cumulative force of the incriminating circumstantial evidence, the CCA held that a rational juror could find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Clayton was responsible for killing Playonero. The CCA remanded the matter to the 13th Court for a factual sufficiency analysis. OPINION:Keasler, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which Keller, Price, Womack, Johnson, Hervey, Holcomb and Cochran, JJ., joined. Meyers, J., did not participate.

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Benefits of a Digital Membership:

  • Free access to 3 articles* every 30 days
  • Access to the entire ALM network of websites
  • Unlimited access to the ALM suite of newsletters
  • Build custom alerts on any search topic of your choosing
  • Search by a wide range of topics

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.