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Harper v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

January 9, 2018

CORNELIUS MILAN HARPER, Appellant
v.
THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 434th District Court Fort Bend County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 11-DCR-056513

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Brown, and Lloyd.

          OPINION

          HARVEY BROWN JUSTICE.

         Cornelius Harper was convicted of capital murder of multiple persons and sentenced to confinement for life.[1] In eight issues, Cornelius contends that (1) there is legally insufficient evidence that he committed the murders, (2) there is legally insufficient evidence the murders were committed either during the same criminal transaction or pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct, (3) his right to an unanimous verdict was violated, (4) the trial court abused its discretion by excluding testimony that he maintained his innocence while incarcerated awaiting trial, (5) the trial court abused its discretion by excluding testimony that the State's jailhouse informant testified falsely during trial, (6) the trial court abused its discretion by excluding evidence of a pertinent character trait of a State witness, (7) he has been deprived of a true and accurate reporter's record, and (8) the trial court abused its discretion by permitting the trial proceedings to continue after he became incompetent. We affirm.

         Background

         Leiah is stabbed at her duplex

         Leiah Jackson and her boyfriend, Yancey Daniels, lived together in the back unit of a duplex in Missouri City. The property was owned by Leiah's mother, Pamela Jackson, who lived in the front unit.

         One early fall morning, around 12:30 a.m., Pamela heard a loud noise at the front of her unit, opened the front door, and found Leiah, then eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, lying on the ground, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. Pamela called 911.

         Pamela testified that, while the two waited for the paramedics, Leiah's eyes began to close, and Leiah told her, "Yancey's cousin did this and Yancey's not here." Leiah was taken to a Houston hospital, where she and the baby were pronounced dead.

         When the police arrived at the duplex, they found Yancey's SUV with blood spattered on the inside and outside of the vehicle. The SUV had a window broken out, but there was no broken glass on the ground, indicating the window had been broken elsewhere. The police recovered four spent .380 caliber bullet casings from inside the vehicle and found gunshot residue in the center console. In the front yard, the police found a .380 caliber handgun and a trail of fresh blood between the two duplex units.

         Inside the back unit, the police found blood on light switches and doorknobs leading to the back bedroom-where, according to Pamela, Yancey had recently said he kept a large amount of cash. The police observed that the items in the room's closet appeared to be disturbed, with a container pulled out and its contents emptied onto the floor. The police further observed that the blood trail continued from the back bedroom out the backdoor to the backyard, where part of the fence was down, indicating that the perpetrator had exited through the backdoor.

         A neighbor, Matthew Fields, told the police that around the time of the stabbing, he heard a woman scream and then a loud "thud, " like someone landing after jumping over a fence. Matthew said he then saw a figure in the yard next to his, directly behind the duplex, walking away from the scene. Matthew said that he believed the figure was tall because his head was above the fence line.

         Yancey's body is found at a nearby apartment complex

         Later that day, the police found Yancey's body in the courtyard of an apartment complex in nearby Houston. Yancey had been shot seven times at close range, including twice in the head. The police found a fired bullet and fresh, broken automotive glass at the scene of Yancey's murder.

         Cornelius becomes the primary suspect

         As the police investigated the murders, Cornelius quickly became the primary suspect. The police determined that Cornelius and Yancey were first cousins and that Cornelius was the only cousin who Yancey saw on a regular basis.[2]

         They further determined that, on the afternoon before the murders, Cornelius met with Yancey and Leiah at the house of Yancey's father, Bill Daniels. Bill testified that Cornelius had been coming to his house looking for Yancey for about a month, and Yancey appeared to have been avoiding him. According to Bill, when Cornelius arrived that afternoon, he seemed agitated. When Yancey, Leiah, and Cornelius finished visiting with Bill, the three of them drove off in Yancey's SUV.

         Later that evening, sometime after 10:30 p.m., Cornelius returned to Bill's house in Yancey's SUV to pick up a car battery. Cornelius said they needed it to jump Yancey's other car, a Mitsubishi. Yancey did not come into Bill's house, and Bill never saw whether Yancey was actually with Cornelius.

         At 11:36 p.m., Cornelius called his friend, Marina Honeycutt, from Yancey's phone. Marina testified that Cornelius told her that he was buying a Mitsubishi from his cousin (presumably Yancey) and that he was going to come see her that night at her apartment-which was in the same complex where Yancey's body was later found. Marina further testified that Cornelius never actually visited her that night.

         In the early morning following the murders, around 4:00 a.m., Bill's daughter and Yancey's sister, Tarhonda Daniels, learned that Leiah had been stabbed and that Yancey was missing. She drove to Bill's house and told him what had happened to Leiah.

         Around 7:00 a.m., Bill and Tarhonda drove to Cornelius's apartment, looking for Yancey.[3] When they told Cornelius that Leiah had been stabbed and that both she and her baby were dead, Cornelius responded, "The baby is dead, too?" Bill testified that he believed Cornelius was surprised that the baby was dead, but not Leiah. Tarhonda testified that she believed Cornelius was feigning shock at hearing the news. When they asked about Yancey, Cornelius told them that he had been dropped off by Yancey around 10:00 p.m. the night before, went to bed, and had not heard from him since. Tarhonda testified that Cornelius did not appear to have been sleeping when they arrived.

         Later that morning, while Bill and Tarhonda were still looking for Yancey, Cornelius drove to Bill's house and spoke with Bill's friend, Robbie Cooper. Robbie told Cornelius that Bill and Tarhonda had driven to somewhere on West Airport Boulevard, which (unbeknownst to Robbie) was the main street of the apartment complex where Yancey's body was later found. When Cornelius heard this, he became visibly upset and began hitting the washing machine and dryer.

         That afternoon, the police searched Cornelius's apartment, which he shared with his then-girlfriend, Ana Pina. The police found several spent .380 caliber bullet casings. The police then searched the car that Cornelius had driven to Bill's house the day before and found more .380 caliber bullet casings.

         A firearms analysis later showed that the casings found in Cornelius's apartment and car and the bullets recovered from Yancey's body and found at the apartment complex where his body was located were all fired by the handgun found at the duplex. The analysis further showed that the handgun's magazine spring was broken and that it had problems extracting spent casings, causing it to jam.

         Later that afternoon, the police interviewed Cornelius. During the interview, the police noticed that Cornelius's knuckles were red and swollen and that he had scratches on his hands. Cornelius initially denied owning a handgun but later admitted that he had owned one after the police told him they had found casings in his apartment. Cornelius told the police that he had spent the previous evening with Leiah and Yancey but returned home around 10:20 p.m.

         The police then interviewed Ana. Ana said that Cornelius told her to tell them that he had arrived home the previous evening at 10:20 p.m., even though she was asleep and did not know what time he actually returned.

         Cornelius is indicted, tried, and convicted

         Cornelius was indicted for the capital murder of Yancey, Leiah, and their unborn child. The State's theory was that Cornelius first shot Yancey and then stabbed Leiah. The State presented evidence from the duplex, the apartment complex where Yancey's body was found, and Cornelius's apartment. The State also presented testimony from multiple witnesses, including an inmate with whom Cornelius had spent a significant amount of time while awaiting trial, Tyler Quinn, who testified in detail that Cornelius had confessed to the murders.

         The jury found Cornelius guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to confinement for life. Cornelius appeals.

         Legal Sufficiency

         In his first issue, Cornelius contends that there is insufficient evidence that he murdered Yancey, Leiah, or their unborn child. In his third issue, Cornelius contends that, even if there is sufficient evidence that he murdered Yancey, Leiah, and their unborn child, there is insufficient evidence that he committed the murders either during the same criminal transaction or pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct. We will consider these two issues together.

         A. Standard of review

         When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict to determine whether any rational factfinder could have found the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979); see Adames v. State, 353 S.W.3d 854, 859 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011) (holding that Jackson standard is only standard to use when determining sufficiency of evidence). The jury is the exclusive judge of the facts and the weight to be given to the testimony. See Bartlett v. State, 270 S.W.3d 147, 150 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

         We afford almost complete deference to the jury's credibility determinations. Lacon v. State, 253 S.W.3d 699, 705 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008). We may not reevaluate the weight and credibility of the evidence or substitute our judgment for that of the factfinder. Williams v. State, 235 S.W.3d 742, 750 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). Rather, we determine "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319; Thornton v. State, 425 S.W.3d 289, 303 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

         Circumstantial evidence is as probative as direct evidence in establishing guilt, and circumstantial evidence alone can be sufficient to establish guilt. Sorrells v. State, 343 S.W.3d 152, 155 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011); Clayton, 235 S.W.3d at 778. "Each fact need not point directly and independently to the guilt of the appellant, as long as the cumulative force of all the incriminating circumstances is sufficient to support the conviction." Hooper v. State, 214 S.W.3d 9, 13 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). "Evidence is legally insufficient when the 'only proper verdict' is acquittal." Nelson v. State, 405 S.W.3d 113, 122 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, pet. ref'd) (quoting Tibbs v. Florida, 457 U.S. 31, 42 (1982)).

         B. The evidence is legally sufficient to support Cornelius's conviction

         Cornelius was charged with capital murder under Section 19.03(a)(7) of the Penal Code. Section 19.03(a)(7) provides that a person commits capital murder if he "commits murder as defined under Section 19.02(b)(1)" and "murders more than one person" either "during the same criminal transaction" or "during different criminal transactions but . . . pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct . . . ."[4] Tex. Penal Code § 19.03(a)(7).

         The difference between murders that occur "during the same criminal transaction" and murders that occur "pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct" is "the degree of 'the continuity of the killing.'" Coble v. State, 871 S.W.2d 192, 198 (Tex. Crim. App. 1993) (quoting Rios v. State, 846 S.W.2d 310, 314 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992)). Murders occur "during the same criminal transaction" when the evidence shows a "continuous and uninterrupted chain of conduct occurring over a very short period of time . . . ." Heiselbetz v. State, 906 S.W.2d 500, 506 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995) (quoting Vuong v. State, 830 S.W.2d 929, 941 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992)); see Coble, 871 S.W.2d at 198-99 (holding that murders occurred "during the same criminal transaction" when they "occurred in close proximity to each other, on the same road, within a few hours of each other, in a continuous and uninterrupted series of events"). Murders occur "pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct" when the evidence shows a break in conduct but an "over-arching objective or motive . . . ." Feldman v. State, 71 S.W.3d 738, 754 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002).

         The trial court's charge instructed the jury to find Cornelius guilty of capital murder if it determined beyond a reasonable doubt that Cornelius murdered Yancey, Leiah, and their unborn baby either during the same criminal transaction or pursuant to ...


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