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Vanhalst v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

April 12, 2017


          Date Submitted: January 6, 2017

         On Appeal from the 4th District Court Rusk County, Texas Trial Court No. CR15-038

          Before Morriss, C.J., Moseley and Burgess, JJ.


          Ralph K. Burgess Justice.

         Dustin Vanhalst was convicted of murdering Jay Clements and was sentenced to serve forty-seven years' confinement in prison. On appeal, Vanhalst contends that the State's witness, Justin Deen, was an accomplice and that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate Deen's testimony as required by Article 38.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The trial court instructed the jury that if it found Deen was an accomplice, it could not find Vanhalst guilty unless there was other evidence before it which corroborated Deen's testimony. Because the jury found Vanhalst guilty, it either found he was an accomplice and that there was sufficient evidence to corroborate Deen's testimony or it found that Deen was not an accomplice and no corroboration was necessary. Because we find that there was sufficient evidence on which the jury could have found Deen was not an accomplice, we affirm the judgment.

         I. Procedural and Factual Summary

         On January 16, 2015, Rusk County Sheriff's Deputy Austin Wright discovered the body of Clements next to his pickup truck outside his burning residence in Rusk County. A later autopsy revealed that Clements had suffered fifty-nine sharp-force injuries to his head, upper body, back, chest, left flank, hands, and arms. The injuries to his upper body and head were consistent with a machete blade, and the rest of his injuries were consistent with a steak-knife blade. The State's forensic pathologist, Dr. John Stash, testified that Clement's death was a homicide and that the cause of death was multiple sharp-force injuries. The State's theory at trial was that Vanhalst attacked and killed Clements because he believed Clements, alone or in combination with others, had sodomized Vanhalst at least once while Vanhalst was in the midst of a methamphetamine-induced blackout.

         At trial, the State called Deen, who had been Vanhalst's friend for several years. Deen testified that at about 5:30 on the morning of January 15, 2015, Vanhalst called him and asked for help. According to Deen, Vanhalst said that "he was in a pretty bad spot." Vanhalst also told him he was in trouble and thought that someone or some group of people were planning to kill him. He added that other people "had disappeared already, " and he asked Deen for a ride out of Arp, the town where he was staying. When Deen picked up Vanhalst later that afternoon, Vanhalst said that "[he] need[ed] to talk to the FBI or somebody high up in law enforcement." Deen telephoned his former brother-in-law, Brady Middlebrooks, who was a detective with the Kilgore Police Department. Deen drove Vanhalst to meet Middlebrooks.

         Middlebrooks testified that Vanhalst said he had "been on a meth binge" and that he had "slept approximately three days." According to Middlebrooks, Vanhalst said he had awakened with "some pain and discomfort in his rectal area" and found what he thought was semen in his stool. Vanhalst told Middlebrooks he had previously told his girlfriend, Tina Shirey, about his pain and that she told Vanhalst "she had done some things to him, " but that no one else had been involved. Vanhalst presented Middlebrooks with a DVD of the movie Beetlejuice and told him the disc "contained hidden layers of the actors, other actors involved in the sexual assault, and of the sexual assault." Yet, when Middlebrooks played the disc, he saw only "scratchy images . . . white noise."

         Deen further testified that he took Vanhalst home after meeting with Middlebrooks. On the way, they needed to repair a tire on Vanhalst's car, but could not find an open tire shop. During this time, Vanhalst "said something about [Clements] having a spare tire he could have." Later, Vanhalst told Deen that Clements had been one of the people who had sodomized him. When Deen asked why he had not told that information to Middlebrooks, Vanhalst answered, "That would have been a motive."

         Vanhalst then told Deen other things he believed had happened during his blackout. According to Deen, Vanhalst said Clements left a voice message on his telephone in which Clements said he could not wait to sodomize Vanhalst again. Vanhalst also said the voice message contained the sound of someone snoring in the background. Accordingly, Vanhalst concluded that Clements left the message on his cell phone while Vanhalst was still blacked-out and could be heard snoring in the background. Additionally, Deen testified that Vanhalst had asked him "[a] handful" of times to borrow a pistol, but that he had always refused. On one occasion when Deen refused to lend Vanhalst a pistol, they were at Vanhalst's home and Deen pointed towards a sword hanging on Vanhalst's wall as if to say, "[U]se that."

         On the night of the murder, Vanhalst asked Deen to drive him to Clements' home, but Deen refused; however, he did drive Vanhalst past Clements' home twice. After the second occasion, Deen suggested that he take Vanhalst home, but Vanhalst declined, responding, "I'm getting out. . . . Pray for me." According to Deen, Vanhalst exited the truck between one-half and one-third of a mile from Clements' home.

         Deen testified he next saw Vanhalst about 3:00 the next morning, and Vanhalst was limping, soaking wet, stiff, and sore. Deen described Vanhalst as being "stove up." Deen said he wished Vanhalst had not come to his house, and Vanhalst replied, "It wasn't pretty." Vanhalst told Deen Clements had "admit[ted] to it, " but Deen said he did not want to hear anything else. Vanhalst showered at Deen's house while Deen took Vanhalst's clothes out to the yard and burned them. Deen admitted that he did not report the crime until about five days later, when he called his uncle, who was a county commissioner, and that he was subsequently indicted for tampering with evidence. Deen also testified that at the time of his testimony, he had rejected a plea offer from the State and was still under indictment.

         II.Was Deen An ...

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