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Villa v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

March 22, 2017

JAIME VILLA, Appellant


          Keller, P.J.

         Appellant participated with gang members in a gang-related assault. The complainant testified that he was assaulted by gang members and that appellant was one of the people who assaulted him. The court of appeals held that the evidence was insufficient to show that appellant was himself a member of the gang. We hold that the court of appeals failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and that it therefore erred in holding the evidence to be insufficient.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Trial

         Ruben Bejaran, a former member of the Barrio Azteca gang, gave an interview with National Geographic as part of its "Lockdown" series on street gangs. Whether it was the result of this interview or for some other reason, [1] Bejaran aroused the ire of the gang leadership-earning himself a "green light" or a "hit, " meaning that gang members who saw him would do what they could to hurt him, including killing him on sight. Bejaran was later assaulted by a group of people while attending a party. Appellant participated in this assault and was charged with engaging in organized criminal activity as a member of a street gang.[2]

         Bejaran testified at trial about his ordeal. While he was at the party, he recognized a Barrio Azteca gang member known as "2Short." Upon seeing 2Short, Bejaran left, but he later returned. When he came back, the hostess told Bejaran that he needed to leave. As he turned to leave, Bejaran ran into another gang member known as "Giant, " and the two began to fight. Bejaran testified to what happened next:

Q. What happens next?
A. And then we're pushing the fight towards the middle of the street, right there by the driveway, and other gang members start coming towards me, at least like six at that time, at that moment.
Q. Do you recognize anybody?
A. Yes.
Q. Who did you recognize?
A. I recognized Hawaiiano. I recognized Felix. I recognized Tiny. I recognized Sleepy. I recognized 2Short and, of course, Giant.

         Bejaran later testified that "Sleepy" was appellant's nickname. Testimony from another witness showed that Felix was appellant's brother, and other testimony showed that there were two individuals known as "Tiny" who participated in the fight, one of whom was from Chaparral and was appellant's brother or stepbrother. Bejaran stated that "a lot more Azteca members" joined the fight, but he "didn't recognize all of them." Several of the gang members stabbed Bejaran with knives, while Hawaiiano and appellant stomped on him.

         After this description of the attack, the State began questioning Bejaran about each of the identified individuals, one by one, beginning with an identification of the individual in a photo array. During the individual questioning about 2Short, Hawaiiano, Giant, Tiny, and Felix, the State asked Bejaran if each was a Barrio Azteca gang member and Bejaran responded affirmatively. The State also asked Bejaran about Tiny from Chaparral, and Bejaran explained that it was Tiny who first introduced him to appellant:

Q. Okay. And how do you know Tiny from Chaparral?
A. I've known him from the jail Annex.
Q. Okay. And did you work together?
A. And we worked together. I ended up running into him at a job site at some apartments, and he's the one who introduced me to Sleepy, and he's the one who introduced me to Felix'[s] brothers.
Q. And were they introduced to you just as, "these are my brothers, " or were they introduced to you as gang members?
A. As prospects.
Q. Okay. So not quite gang members but prospects?
A. Yes.

         Later, Bejaran testified more about the fight:

Like when I swung [at Giant], I barely, like missed, but, like, I grazed him, and he went back. And I was going to try to hit him again, and that's when I saw like five of them, the ones that I had mentioned, the ones that I had punched. I saw them right there, and then when I started fighting them from the driveway, fighting them all towards the street-I didn't know what my brother was doing. I was too involved in these guys. And the next thing I know, I'm surrounded by like 18, 20 of them.

         Andres Sanchez, a detective with the gang unit of the El Paso Police Department, testified that the gang unit administers a database of gang members based on criteria in the Code of Criminal Procedure.[3] One criterion alone was sufficient to classify a person as a gang member if that criterion was either an in-court self-admission of gang membership or a judgment of conviction for a gang-related crime.[4] Otherwise, two criteria were required, [5] or in one situation, three criteria.[6] Some of these criteria included a self-admission of gang membership outside of court, associating with known criminal street gang members, being arrested with known gang members for a crime that is consistent with gang activity, or using specific letters, words, marks, or colors associated with the gang.[7]

         Detective Sanchez testified that several of the people involved in the assault met at least two of the criteria in the two-criteria situation. For example, ...

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