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Herrera v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

July 13, 2017


         On Appeal from the 183rd District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 1454506

          Panel consists of Justices Higley, Bland, and Brown.



         Eddie Herrera and J.G. (pseudonymously referred to as "Jessica") attended Jessica's high school prom together and spent that night in a nearby hotel room. By the next morning, Jessica was dead. As part of the investigation of her death, her bodily fluids were tested for alcohol and narcotics and an autopsy was performed. The toxicology tests revealed large amounts of alcohol as well as Hydrocodone in her system. The autopsy revealed significant injuries to Jessica's neck that would have required a large degree of force to achieve, including large hemorrhages in multiple layers of muscle tissue in both the front and the back of her neck.

         The police investigation led to charges against Herrera. Based on evidence of significant injuries to Jessica's neck and his statement to investigators that he squeezed Jessica's neck the night of the prom during sexual intercourse, he was charged with first-degree felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his hands) on an individual with whom he had a dating relationship.[1] A jury convicted Herrera and assessed punishment at 25 years' confinement.

         In four issues, Herrera contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction and that the trial court erred by charging the jury under an erroneous mens rea standard.

         We affirm.


         Jessica was a 17-year-old high school senior when she invited 18-year-old Herrera, whom she had known for several years, to her high school prom. Without telling Jessica's mother, Herrera's mother, Melissa Martinez, helped the pair secure a hotel room, narcotics, and alcohol for prom night, and then Martinez presented Jessica's mother with a cover story for the young couple. When Martinez did not return Jessica home on time, Jessica's mother repeatedly tried to call Jessica, Herrera, and Martinez, but none responded. In the middle of the night, Jessica's mother contacted the police.

         Around 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Martinez called for emergency assistance in the pair's hotel room, reporting to the emergency operator that Jessica was cold and not breathing. The emergency dispatcher instructed Martinez to perform CPR on Jessica. The Houston Fire Department arrived within minutes to find that Jessica was dead.

         When Sergeant M. Miller arrived at the hotel, he noted that Jessica's clothing appeared as though it had been put on haphazardly and "[d]idn't look like she had put [it] on herself." According to Miller, there were no signs of a struggle in the hotel room and neighboring occupants did not hear screams or anything that indicated a struggle.

         J. Oliphant with the Houston Police Department Crime Scene Unit investigated the scene. He testified that he found an empty bottle of Crown Royal in the trash and another half-empty bottle repackaged in the Crown Royal box inside Jessica's bag. Oliphant also found prescription bottles in the room.

         At the hotel, Miller spoke with Herrera and his mother together and then individually. Herrera gave Miller an overview of the night. According to Herrera, he and Jessica checked into the hotel, went to the prom for a couple hours, went back to the room, had sexual intercourse, and went to sleep. When he woke up the next morning, he found Jessica dead. Miller asked Martinez and Herrera to be interviewed in the homicide division offices.

         During questioning at the homicide division offices later that day, Herrera told Miller that he woke up around 7:00 a.m., saw Jessica's dead body, and called his mother in a panic. Martinez, who was already near the hotel, arrived quickly. Herrera and his mother dressed Jessica's naked body, then Martinez called 9-1-1. The emergency call was placed around 9:10 a.m.-two hours after Herrera found Jessica and called Martinez.

         Herrera indicated to the investigators that Jessica had brought all the alcohol as well as any Hydrocodone she consumed that night. During a break in the questioning, though, investigators allowed Martinez and Herrera time to talk between themselves in the interview room. That portion of the videotape, along with the remainder of the interview, was played to the jury. During their conversation, Martinez told Herrera to be truthful about her providing the Hydrocodone and alcohol. From that point on, Herrera told the police that he and his mother were involved in bringing the alcohol and Hydrocodone to the hotel room.

         During further questioning, Herrera told the investigators that he and Jessica had consensual intercourse in the hotel room after the prom, but he made no mention of placing any pressure on her neck during the encounter.

         Miller testified that at no point during the interview did Herrera become emotional or show any signs of being upset.

         Dr. Haden-Pinneri, a medical examiner for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, performed an autopsy on Jessica's body the day after she was found. In her external examination of Jessica, she found bruises on her neck, face, and legs. In her internal examination of Jessica's body, Pinneri found extensive injuries to Jessica's neck, anal trauma, and petechiae in Jessica's eyes, which Pinneri explained are burst blood vessels that can be markers of "potential asphyxia or an absence or reduction of blood flow that goes to the brain" and are often seen in cases involving neck-compression injuries. She further testified that these petechial hemorrhages are not typical of drug overdose deaths absent an unusual post-death body position, which Jessica did not exhibit.

         The presence of petechiae led Pinneri to closely examine Jessica's neck for evidence of compression. There she found multiple hemorrhages in multiple layers of muscle tissue in both the front and back of Jessica's neck. According to Pinneri, it would have required "a directed forceful squeeze, multiple places, multiple times" to cause that level of hemorrhaging; it could not have resulted from "a light touch" or "someone simply grabbing the front of the neck."

         Pinneri advised the police of her findings. Because Herrera's earlier statement was inconsistent with the extensive neck injuries seen during the autopsy, the investigators interviewed Herrera again.

         Miller questioned Herrera about Jessica's neck injuries. Herrera explained that Jessica had asked him to "choke her a little bit" during sex and that he put his right hand around her neck only "once" while he was facing her and for "no more than a few minutes." Herrera stated that, after sex, he and Jessica had an extended discussion, took photos on Snapchat, and then fell asleep. Miller had Herrera demonstrate his hand placement and the amount of pressure he had applied. At trial, Miller described Herrera as using "very mild pressure."

         After the interview, Miller provided Pinneri with an audio recording of Herrera's remarks. According to Pinneri, none of Jessica's injuries were consistent with someone "simply grabbing the front of the neck" or the consensual sexual encounter Herrera described. Pinneri testified that she would not expect that someone "would be up chatting, taking photographs and talking about future plans after sustaining that degree of neck trauma." According to Pinneri, the neck injuries would likely have caused Jessica to lose consciousness.

         Herrera was interviewed again. He said that Jessica had placed his hands on her neck and then he "squeezed her neck." He maintained that this was part of their consensual intercourse. During this interview, Herrera no longer indicated that they had a conversation or took pictures after the sexual encounter; instead, he said that he did not remember if she spoke at all and that he immediately passed out. Herrera told the investigators that, when he woke up the next morning, Jessica was in the same position she had been in when the intercourse ended.

         After the interview, Herrera was indicted for felony aggravated assault. A jury convicted Herrera and assessed punishment at ...

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