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Guzman v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

June 26, 2018


          On Appeal from the 268th District Court Fort Bend County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 14-DCR-068089

          Panel consists of Justices Busby, Brown, and Jewell.


          Kevin Jewell Justice

         Appellant Delfino Guzman appeals his conviction for assault family violence. He asserts error in four issues. First, appellant contends the trial court erred in refusing to disqualify the district attorney's office. Second, appellant argues the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on the complainant's alleged eligibility to receive benefits under a federal program aimed at assisting domestic abuse victims. Third, appellant claims the trial court erred in granting the State's request for a lesser included offense instruction after evidence closed. According to appellant, by waiting until after the evidence closed to request a lesser included offense instruction, the State deprived appellant of constitutionally required notice that the State would pursue a lesser included offense and, thus, deprived him of the ability to prepare an informed and effective defense to a lesser included offense. Finally, appellant contends legally insufficient evidence supports the jury's verdict that appellant is guilty of committing assault family violence.

         Concluding that appellant has not shown that the trial court committed error in any of three regards he alleges and that legally sufficient evidence supports the jury's verdict, we affirm.


         A Fort Bend County grand jury indicted appellant for felony assault family violence.[1] The State alleged that appellant "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause[d] bodily injury to [Natalie, [2] appellant's wife], by impeding [her] normal breathing or circulation of blood . . . by applying pressure to [her] throat or neck or by blocking [her] nose or mouth."[3] Appellant pleaded not guilty.

         Before trial, appellant filed a motion to disqualify the district attorney's office. Appellant argued that the office has a financial incentive to prosecute domestic abuse cases because the office receives grant money under a federal law, the Violence Against Women Act ("VAWA").[4] The trial court denied the motion to disqualify.

         Appellant also filed a pre-trial motion to instruct the jury that Natalie had a financial incentive to testify falsely in order to receive VAWA benefits. The trial court did not expressly rule on this motion; the judge initially stated during a pre-trial motions hearing that he was not going to instruct the jury as requested but then "h[e]ld ruling until" after a recess during which the appellant's attorney could further research the applicability of VAWA to the facts of this case. After the recess, the judge told appellant's attorney that he could examine witnesses regarding potential "motivation[s]."

         The case proceeded to trial. Natalie testified. She said she was scolding her children on the evening of the events in question, and appellant "got angry with [her] and told [her] to stop shouting." Natalie and appellant began arguing. Appellant grabbed Natalie by her arms, then grabbed her by the neck; "[h]is hands were surrounding [her] neck." Natalie said that she had "a little bit" of difficulty breathing when appellant's hands were around her neck. She was afraid when appellant had his hands around her neck. Appellant also hit her hard on the chest with a closed fist. Natalie could not explain exactly what happened or how long the assault lasted because "[e]verything happened so fast." Natalie said that she grabbed appellant in an attempt to push him away from her during the altercation, but she could not remember where she grabbed him.

         Natalie testified that her daughter, Eliza, "came between" appellant and Natalie, telling appellant to "[l]eave [Natalie] alone." After appellant released Natalie, appellant called the police. According to Natalie, appellant told the police that they needed to come and remove Natalie from the house.

         On cross-examination, Natalie admitted that she bruises easily. Appellant's attorney also asked Natalie to "show the jury where [appellant's] hands were when they were around [her] neck." Natalie "demonstrated down by [her] clavicles on [her] chest, not around [her] neck."

         Eliza testified that her parents were arguing. She said she saw appellant hold Natalie against the wall, his hands gripping her arms. Appellant was very angry. Natalie was struggling to get appellant's hands off of her. Eliza believed her mother was in pain because Natalie was "crying . . . [and] really red in her face." Eliza also believed her mother was having trouble breathing, because Natalie's mouth was open and she was trying to cough.

         Deputy Justin Cloud with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office testified that he responded to an assault family violence call at the home. Deputy Cloud first spoke to Natalie, who appeared nervous and "shook up." Deputy Cloud observed visible injuries on Natalie's body, including redness on her neck, marks on her collarbone, and scratch marks on her arms, all of which he photographed while at the scene. The photos were admitted and published to the jury. Deputy Cloud testified that Natalie told him "that she was strangled by her husband" and that appellant "grabbed" her. Deputy Cloud observed that appellant's knuckles were red. Based on his observations, Deputy Cloud believed that "[a]ssault family violence and strangulation" had occurred, and he arrested appellant.

         Deputy Eduardo Perez assisted Deputy Cloud in responding. Deputy Perez, who is fluent in English and Spanish, translated for Deputy Cloud, who speaks English, and appellant and Natalie, both of whom speak Spanish. Based on what Natalie told Deputy Perez, he believed "[a]ssault family violence, physical assault" occurred and that strangulation may have occurred. Deputy Perez spoke to the daughter, Eliza, who corroborated her mother's account of what happened. Deputy Perez also spoke to appellant, who said that he and Natalie were arguing but that no offense occurred as far as appellant physically assaulting Natalie; rather, appellant contended that he was assaulted by Natalie. Deputy Perez acknowledged that stories often conflict in domestic violence cases, but that Natalie's account was supported by her physical injuries.

         Before the case was submitted to the jury, the State requested that the jury be charged on the lesser included offense of assault family violence (without the elevating element of impeding breathing or circulation).[5] Appellant objected, which the trial court overruled. The jury was charged on both the offense as provided in the indictment and the lesser included offense.

         The jury found appellant not guilty of the charged offense but found appellant guilty of the lesser included offense, i.e., misdemeanor assault family violence. Upon the parties' agreement on punishment, the trial court sentenced appellant to 300 days in county jail, which was probated for 11 months.

         Appellant now appeals.


         In four issues, appellant challenges his conviction. He argues that: (1) the trial court erred in denying appellant's motion to disqualify the district attorney's office; (2) the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on Natalie's purported eligibility to receive benefits under VAWA; (3) the trial court erred in charging the jury on the lesser included offense over appellant's fair notice objection; and (4) there is legally insufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that appellant committed assault family violence. We address appellant's last issue first because, if sustained, it would afford him the greatest relief. See Saldivar v. State, 542 S.W.3d 43, 45 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.).

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         In his fourth issue, appellant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's guilty verdict. Appellant points to Natalie's testimony, specifically that Natalie did not testify that she suffered pain or became ill because of appellant's conduct. From this, appellant contends the evidence is insufficient to prove that appellant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused Natalie bodily injury.

         1. Standard of review

         We apply a legal-sufficiency standard of review in determining whether the evidence is sufficient to support each element of a criminal offense that the State is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979); Temple v. State, 390 S.W.3d 341, 360 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). Under this standard, we examine all the evidence adduced at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict to determine whether a jury was rationally justified in finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Temple, 390 S.W.3d at 360; Criff v. State, 438 S.W.3d 134, 136-37 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. ref'd). This standard applies to both direct and circumstantial evidence. Criff, 438 S.W.3d at 137. Accordingly, we will uphold the jury's verdict unless a rational factfinder ...

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