STATE v. LETULIER No. 97-KA-1360.
750 So.2d 784 (1998)
STATE of Louisiana v. Ronald James LETULIER.
Supreme Court of Louisiana.
July 8, 1998.
Richard Phillip Ieyoub, Attorney General, Bernard E. Boudreaux, Jr., District Attorney, John Phillip Haney, St. Martinville, Counsel for Respondent.
This is a capital case where the defendant chose to plead guilty to first degree murder and a jury then sentenced him to death. On March 5, 1996, a St. Martin grand jury indicted Ronald James Letulier, and his wife, Stephanie, for the February 5, 1996 first degree murder of Wilmer Blanchard, Sr. in violation of R.S. 14:30.
On December 17, 1996, defendant pled guilty to the first degree murder charge pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 557.
Also on January 30, 1997, defendant pled guilty to the amended charged of attempted second degree murder, armed robbery, and simple arson, relative to the offenses of February 6, 1996. The trial judge imposed the maximum sentence on each count and ordered the sentences to be served consecutively with one another and consecutive to defendant's death sentence.
Wilmer Blanchard, Sr., age 85, lived next door to two of his eleven children in Catahoula, Louisiana. On Monday, February 5, 1996, he and his daughter, Sonia, had coffee together before Sonia went to work, as they regularly did. Mr. Blanchard then set out to the St. Martin Bank and Trust Co. to cash two Social Security checks, totalling $590.00. A bank representative testified that Mr. Blanchard did not maintain a checking account and always used cash. Around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., Mr. Blanchard stopped by the Catahoula Water System and paid his water
The next morning, Sonia noticed that her father's truck was not at home when she went to check on him. Thinking he had perhaps gone to the store, she went on to work and did not become concerned until her brother, Wilmer, Jr. called around noon asking if she knew where their father was. Sonia came home, and using her key she entered her father's house. Upon inspection, she noticed that her father's bed was made and that nothing appeared out of place. However, Mr. Blanchard routinely took meat out of the freezer to thaw after lunch to cook for the next day's meals. Sonia was concerned because meat was still left out on the counter and the wood stove was ice cold.
Sonia called her other brothers and sisters, but no one had seen their father. Wilmer, Jr. worked for the St. Martin Sheriffs Department, and he along with some other deputies, began searching the levee, because one of the victim's daily pastimes was to check the water level and report to his sons and sons-in-law, who were crawfishermen.
On the morning of February 5, 1996, Letulier and his wife Stephanie, began arguing around 6:00 a.m. about how they were going to pay the bad checks that they had written. Defendant's niece, Ernestine Sonnier, who resided with them, overheard defendant and Stephanie discuss robbing people to get the money. Defendant left the house and later returned for Stephanie.
Defendant admitted that he and Stephanie were riding around looking for someone to rob so that they could purchase more crack cocaine when they saw Wilmer Blanchard, Sr. pull up on the levee at the Stafford Melancon Landing. Defendant told Stephanie to pull in behind him.
The following morning, defendant told Stephanie that he was going back out to rob again to obtain money for more drugs. At that point she indicated that she did not want anything to do with it. Defendant left the house in the early morning, but ran out of gas just as he approached a service station. He called a friend he had known from jail who lived close by, Nanette Robichaux, who drove over to the service station around 8:30 a.m. and brought defendant five dollars for gas.
Letulier decided to pass by Linda Badon's house, which he had rented in early 1995, to retrieve his mail. Specifically defendant was looking for his W-2 form. He decided to rob Mrs. Badon and knowing that her husband worked for extended periods offshore, defendant queried Mrs. Badon as to whether she had any money, asking "Well, like, if you need money until he gets back in or whatever?" When she indicated that she had enough to get by, defendant left the house to retrieve a knife from his car.
Realizing that his victim was not dead and could possibly scream for help, defendant drove back around and hit Mrs. Badon with his car, knocking her into the adjacent field. His car then hit the fence and got stuck in the mud. Defendant tried to camouflage the body with a blanket, grass and branches. Once again, he left Mrs. Badon for dead.
Letulier then walked down the road to Murphey Oubre's farm, where he had previously worked as a laborer. Mr. Oubre's son, Brian, recalled that defendant showed up at the farm around 10:30 a.m. Brian used a tractor and pulled defendant's dark blue Ford Thunderbird out of the mud. The defendant then drove to a nearby convenience store and purchased a bottle of rubbing alcohol and drove back to Mrs. Badon's house. When he checked on his victim he saw that her body was still moving. He then took a tire iron from his trunk and beat her about the head until he crushed her skull and jaw, broke her nose and blinded her in the left eye. Defendant once again covered Mrs. Badon's seemingly lifeless body with grass and debris, and threw the tire tool into the field. He then went in her house, doused the curtains with rubbing alcohol and set the house on fire so that evidence, including his fingerprints and blood, would not be found.
Realizing that he had to get out of town, defendant drove home and picked up his wife. On their way out of town, they drove back towards Mrs. Badon's house and parked in a field to watch the fire from a distance and to see if anyone had discovered her body. Defendant forgot that he needed a change of clothes, so around 2:00 p.m., he called his former brother-in-law, Wilbert St. Julien, and had Stephanie go in to pick up the clothes. However, St. Julien came out of the house and asked for a ride to his mother's house. St. Julien noticed defendant's clothes and hands were bloody. Defendant told him about Mrs. Badon and that he had robbed and killed an old man the day before. Defendant then changed clothes, disposed of the bloody clothing, the knife handle, and wallet in Lake Martin, and threw the purse out onto Lake Martin Road. Sensing that the police may already be looking for him, defendant advised St. Julien that he could not take him any farther. Defendant and Stephanie then proceeded to Lafayette to buy drugs and then to Nashville, Tennessee.
John Childers of the Louisiana State Police heard the report of the fire on his police radio around 1:00 p.m., and since he was about to finish his shift for the day, decided to pass by the fire on his way home. He observed that the farmhouse was totally destroyed and as he surveyed the area, he noticed an unusual pile of trash out in the field. Upon his approach, he saw an arm move and notified the fire fighters that there was someone lying in the field. The officers were amazed that even in her extremely wounded condition, Mrs. Badon seemed to express fear that her attacker had returned to hurt her, and she was battling to prevent that.
Shortly afterwards, St. Martin Sheriff Detective Joseph Arthur Boyd, investigated the attempted murder and robbery of Linda Badon and immediately sought defendant for questioning, only to learn that Letulier was not home. Detective Boyd set up surveillance at defendant's house around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. when the dispatch division contacted him about a 911 call received from Wilbert St. Julien in reference to a homicide. St. Julien relayed to the detective the details which defendant had earlier told him. St. Julien then led the authorities to the evidence defendant had discarded at Lake Martin. On February 8, 1996, having exhausted most of the $150-175 on crack that defendant took
Defendant's hand was severely infected and swollen from being cut by barbed wire when he tried to free his car after wrecking into the fence at Mrs. Badon's house. The Nashville officers immediately sought medical treatment for defendant.
On February 9, 1996, detectives from St. Martin Parish traveled to Nashville in an attempt to speak with defendant. However, the doctors gave the detectives a five-day time frame because defendant was medicated to combat the pain from blood poisoning.
On February 11, 1996, St. Martin Parish Sheriffs' divers located Mr. Blanchard's truck in about 25 feet of water at the Stafford Melancon Landing. Mr. Blanchard's body was recovered inside the truck. Contents found on this victim included 27 cents, a chain with a medal, and a pocket knife. No wallet was recovered.
The St. Martin Parish detectives returned to Nashville and on February 14, 1996, after the detectives advised defendant of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona,
Assignment of Error No. I
Defendant first asserts that the trial court erred in excusing for cause, prospective juror, Adley Douet. The trial court initially questioned the prospective jurors regarding their knowledge of the case, the parties and on the Witherspoon/Witt inquiries.
At a bench conference, the trial judge expressed her inclination to excuse Mr. Douet for cause, despite the absence of any challenge by the state or the defense. The state then questioned Mr. Douet as to whether he would want somebody in his frame of mind on the jury if he or one of his relatives were charged with murder, given his relationship with the victim's family. Mr. Douet responded that he would not. He admitted that although he would try to be fair and impartial if he had to, he just did not think he could. He further stated that his relationship with the Blanchard family would always be in the back of his mind if called upon to consider the appropriate penalty. Mr. Douet stated that he felt that he could do a better job as a prospective juror if he did not know any of the victim's family members. Finally, Mr. Douet concluded that he could not put aside his relationship with the Blanchard family such that it would not influence his decision in the case. The court then dismissed Mr. Douet for cause on its own motion and over defense objection. Defendant claims that the trial judge abused her discretion in dismissing Mr. Douet and deprived defendant of his right to accept this juror.
La.C.Cr.P. art. 787 provides that "[t]he court may disqualify a prospective petit juror from service in a particular case when for any reason doubt exists as to the competency of the prospective juror to serve in the case." The official comments to art. 787 provides as follows:
Thus, La.C.Cr.P. art. 787 should be read in pari materia with La.C.Cr.P. art. 797 and art. 798 which set forth the grounds upon which a juror may be challenged for cause.
In the instant case, viewing the voir dire as a whole with respect to Adley Douet, the record reflects his inability to put aside his relationship with the Blanchard family. Accordingly, while a relationship between a juror and the victim will not automatically disqualify a prospective juror, the trial judge properly recognized that Mr. Douet should not be called upon to decide the appropriate penalty for defendant by serving as a juror. State v. Blanton,
Assignment of Error No. II
Defendant contends that the trial court erred in granting the state's motion to determine the admissibility of unadjudicated other crimes evidence, and in allowing the state to present the entire testimony of Linda Badon as other crimes evidence. In defendant's view, by presenting the testimony of Linda Badon, "who related the gruesome details of the horrible crime perpetrated upon her by the defendant," after having previously elicited the details of this crime through the testimony of the investigating officers, the state injected a cumulative and arbitrary
La.C.Cr.P. art. 905.2 provides that "[t]he sentencing hearing shall focus on the circumstances of the offense, the character and propensities of the offender, and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family members." In State v. Brooks,
In State v. Jackson,
In Bourque, this court held that evidence of an unrelated and unadjudicated killing, committed one hour before the murder at issue in the capital case being tried, was admissible, since it was relevant evidence of Bourque's character and propensities and fell within the Brooks and Jackson limitations. However, we reversed Bourque's death sentence on the basis that the prosecutor conducted a "prohibited mini-trial" on the issue of the defendant's guilt or innocence in the unrelated killing. Of the 12 prosecution witnesses in the penalty phase, 11 testified about the unrelated killing, which this Court held resulted in "impermissibly shift[ing] the focus of a capital sentencing jury from considering the character and propensities of the defendant to a determination of guilt or innocence of the unadjudicated criminal conduct." Bourque, 622 So.2d at 248.
However, we retreated from Bourque in the decision of State v. Comeaux, 93-2729 (La.7/1/97);
Comeaux, 699 So.2d at 23.
In the instant case, on December 9, 1996, before defendant entered his guilty plea to the first degree murder of Mr. Blanchard, the state filed a motion captioned "Motion to Determine Admissibility of Non-Adjudicated Crimes for use in Penalty Phase." The state noticed its intent to introduce evidence that the defendant committed other crimes including attempted first degree murder and simple arson on or about February 6, 1996. Accordingly, the state fulfilled the notice requirement, the first guideline set forth in Comeaux.
Subsequently, on December 17, 1996 and in open court, defendant pled guilty to the charge of first degree murder pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 557. In accepting defendant's guilty plea, the court heard the state's evidence to support a factual basis for the plea in the murder of Mr. Blanchard. Included in that hearing, the state proffered the testimony of Detective Marcus Guidry, who took defendant's confession in the Badon incident, and the videotape of defendant's confession.
On December 27, 1996, the trial court rendered its rulings on pre-trial motions, including the state's motion to introduce evidence of unadjudicated crimes in its case-in-chief at the penalty phase. The trial judge found defendant's confession to have been freely and voluntarily given, and held as follows:
The trial court's colloquy reflects scrupulous attention to this Court's directives and as such comports with the second Comeaux guideline that the court conduct a hearing to determine the admissibility of the evidence under the analysis of Brooks. Finally, the trial court observed that the evidence proffered by the state complied with the Jackson limitation of violent criminal conduct and timeliness, and thus complied with the third Comeaux guideline.
Before Mrs. Badon took the stand, defense counsel objected to her testifying, which the trial court overruled. Following a brief recess, and before Mrs. Badon testified, the state and defense counsel agreed that the state would be allowed to ask leading questions to Mrs. Badon in an attempt to comply with Bourque and Brooks.
In presenting the evidence of unadjudicated criminal conduct, specifically the Badon incident, the state called eight witnesses who testified about the defendant's activities leading up to the offenses which comprised the unadjudicated criminal conduct at issue. The first witness called was Nanette Robichaux. In her testimony, the state established that defendant was out driving around at about 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. the morning of February 6, 1996 and ran
The second witness to testify about matters relative to the Badon incident was Brian Oubre. Through his testimony the state established that defendant got his blue Thunderbird bogged down in the mud and sought assistance from his former employers at the nearby Oubre farm. Brian Oubre also placed defendant in the vicinity of Mrs. Badon's home around 10:30 a.m. on the morning of February 6, 1996.
The third witness to testify about the Badon incident was State Trooper John Childers. He was the first person to notice Linda Badon's body under the pile of debris in the field. He testified to Mrs. Badon's battered condition and the fact that she survived the brutal attack. He also verified that when he arrived on the scene, Mrs. Badon's house was destroyed by fire.
The next witness to testify about the Badon incident was Ned Decoux who testified that he found a tire tool in the field beside Mrs. Badon's house on February 7, 1996.
The fifth witness to testify about facts related to the Badon incident was Wilbert St. Julien. His testimony established that he provided defendant with a change of clothes sometime around 2:00 p.m. on February 6, 1996. He also testified that he rode in the car with defendant and his wife, Stephanie, to Lake Martin where defendant changed clothes. St. Julien saw defendant discard the bloody clothes and other evidence of defendant's crimes in and around the lake. St. Julien further testified that defendant confessed to him that he had killed Mrs. Badon and that he killed an old man the night before. St. Julien also acknowledged that defendant and Stephanie had written bad checks to buy crack cocaine and that he had smoked crack with them on several occasions.
The sixth and seventh witnesses to testify regarding the Badon incident were employees of the St. Martin Parish Sheriff's office, Joseph Arthur Boyd and Marcus Guidry.
The eighth and final witness to testify about defendant's unadjudicated criminal
In analyzing whether the state injected an arbitrary factor into the penalty phase of the Mr. Blanchard's murder by introducing evidence of the unadjudicated attempted murder of Linda Badon, based upon the new standard set forth in Comeaux, this evidence does not inject an arbitrary factor. Although the state exceeded its own proffer of one officer plus defendant's confession which the judge ruled admissible pretrial, the eight witnesses that testified did not constitute a "prohibited mini-trial." See also State v. Robertson, 97-0177 (La.3/4/98);
Assignment of Error No. III
Defendant further claims that the trial court erred in overruling defense objections to the admissibility of certain state's exhibits which were photographs of the deceased "as he was dredged up from his watery grave" and of his autopsy.
The state is entitled to the moral force of its evidence and postmortem photographs of murder victims are admissible to prove corpus delicti, to corroborate other evidence establishing cause of death, location, placement of wounds, as well as to provide positive identification of the victim. State v. Koon, 96-1208, (La.5/20/97);
In the instant case, the first photograph about which defendant complains, S-20, was admitted over defense objection during the testimony of the victim's daughter, Sonia Blanchard. The state offered S-20, which depicted Mr. Blanchard after his body was located. Although his face was bloodied, his daughter was able to identify her father's facial features through the picture, and also testified that he was wearing the jacket that he always wore.
The remaining photographs complained of were admitted during the testimony of a detective with the St. Martin Sheriff's office, Scott Haydel. Detective Haydel is the dive rescue specialist who located Mr. Blanchard's truck at the Stafford Melancon Landing. Using the scene photographs, he was able to testify that the pictures fairly and accurately depicted the condition of the body once the truck was winched up from a depth of approximately 25-30 feet and the body was discovered within. Additionally, he works as a coroner's assistant and in that capacity, he photographed Mr. Blanchard's body during autopsy to record the various wounds to the body.
A review of the complained of photographs reveals that none is particularly gruesome. In addition, the scene photographs are relevant to depict how defendant left the body and the autopsy photographs are relevant to illustrate the number and location of stab wounds to the victim. As such, the probative value of the photographs outweighed any prejudicial effect. La.C.E. art. 403. The trial judge therefore did not err in ruling that the photographs were "not illegally gruesome" and could therefore be admitted. This assignment of error lacks merit.
Assignment of Error No. IV
Defendant asserts that the trial court erred in allowing the state to present improper rebuttal testimony through state witness Wilbert St. Julien, relating to evidence of other crimes on the part of the defendant, and in denying the motion for mistrial regarding this evidence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked defendant's brother, Frem Sonnier, whether he was aware of any problem defendant had ever had with Wilbert St. Julien, to which Mr. Sonnier responded that he was not aware of any problem.
As a general matter, in the bifurcated sentencing phase of a first degree murder trial, the character of the defendant is automatically at issue, whether the defendant has placed his character at issue or not. State v. Bourque,
Normally, notice and a determination by the trial court that the evidence is admissible are required before evidence of unadjudicated crimes is permitted. However, Jackson indicates that these evidentiary limitations are not applicable to the state's case in rebuttal. In Jackson this court noted that if the accused introduces evidence in the penalty phase relating to his good character or lack of criminal history, the prosecutor may introduce appropriate and relevant rebuttal evidence. Jackson, 608 So.2d at 954, n. 6.
In the instant case, the state argued that counsel's questions to defense witnesses about whether they ever knew defendant to be a violent person opened the door. Under State v. Sepulvado, 93-2692 (La.4/8/96),
In the instant case, outside the presence of the jury, the state proffered the testimony of Wilbert St. Julien so that the trial court could make a ruling as to whether it would permit the state to call him as a rebuttal witness under Sepulvado and State v. Johnson,
After the defense rested its case, the state recalled Wilbert St. Julien as its only rebuttal witness. St. Julien testified similarly to his proffer made outside the jury's presence, and told the jury about an incident in July, 1995 in which he was spending the night at the home of defendant and Peggy Broussard, defendant's girlfriend at the time. St. Julien testified that the three had shared about a case and a half of beer and that at about 3:00 a.m. he was asleep on the floor when he overheard an argument between defendant and Peggy and then defendant came in attacked St. Julien by stomping on his face and beating him with a curtain rod until he was unconscious. St. Julien was hospitalized for five days as a result of the attack and had to have surgery on his broken jaw. St. Julien admitted that the attack was precipitated by defendant learning about a sexual encounter between St. Julien and Peggy Broussard.
The trial court properly admitted the evidence of the unadjudicated other crimes stemming from the battery upon Wilbert St. Julien according to the dictates of Sepulvado and Johnson and only after the defense presented four character witnesses who each declared that they knew nothing of defendant's violent nature. In rebuttal, the state was entitled to contradict defense assertions of nonviolent character with previous incidents without running afoul of Jackson. The state could present extrinsic evidence of a specific act of misconduct (involving violence to the person) in rebuttal of the defendant's character evidence because of the special rules governing character and propensity evidence in a capital sentencing hearing.
CAPITAL SENTENCE REVIEW
Pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 905.9 and Louisiana Supreme Court Rule 28, this Court reviews every sentence of death to determine if it is constitutionally excessive. In making the determination, the Court considers whether the sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or arbitrary factors; whether the evidence supports the jury's findings of the statutory aggravating circumstances; and, whether the sentence is disproportionate considering both the offense and the offender. In the instant case, the district judge submitted a Uniform Capital Sentence Report and the Department of Public Safety and Correction submitted a Capital Sentence Investigation Report. In addition, both the state and defense submitted a capital sentence review memorandum.
Defendant, Ronald James Letulier, a white male, was 32 years of age at the time of the commission of the murder of Wilmer Blanchard, Sr., an 85-year-old white male. Defendant completed the ninth grade in school and subsequently obtained his GED. His IQ is in the medium range of 70-100. He worked sporadically as a farm laborer and performed seismic work in oil and gas exploration. He was raised for the most part by his older sister because his mother was an alcoholic and his father died in a car accident when defendant was about 2 years old. Evidence further suggested that defendant was also injured in that same wreck and hospitalized with a fractured skull requiring several operations.
Defendant acknowledged that his criminal history began as a juvenile when he was convicted of burglary of a camp in St. Martin Parish and placed on probation. As an adult, defendant pled guilty in 1989 to possession with intent to distribute marijuana and was sentenced to serve two and one half years imprisonment at hard labor. He was released on parole and while on parole was arrested on charges of unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling, attempted simple rape, criminal trespass, and aggravated burglary. Pursuant to a plea agreement, defendant pled guilty in 1990 to simple burglary and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment at hard labor. He was released in September, 1994.
While in St. Martin Parish jail, defendant met Stephanie King, who was serving time on a marijuana and cocaine charge. Defendant and Stephanie married in November, 1995, after they were released. Defendant urges that he committed these crimes because of his addiction to crack cocaine. However, on cross-examination, he admitted that he understood what he was doing when he murdered Mr. Blanchard and that drugs did not affect his mental state.
(A) Passion, Prejudice or any other Arbitrary Factors
In his capital sentence review memorandum, counsel claims he "feels strongly that an arbitrary factor was injected in the proceedings as discussed in the argument to assignment of error number two." This claim, as well as unargued assignments numbers three and four, were treated and disposed of under the individual assignments of error.
(B) Statutory Aggravating Circumstances
The jury returned all aggravating circumstances urged by the state: 1) that the offender was engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of an armed robbery; 2) that the offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel manner, and; 3) that the victim was older than 65 years of age.
The first and third aggravating circumstances were conceded by defendant both in his guilty plea and by counsel in his closing argument. The evidence presented
When one aggravating circumstance is upheld on review, the failure of another aggravating circumstance will not invalidate the death penalty, unless it can be shown that the evidence of the unproven circumstance injected an arbitrary factor into the proceedings. State v. Taylor, 93-2201, (La.2/28/96),
Although the federal Constitution does not require a proportionality review, Pulley v. Harris,
This Court reviews death sentences to determine whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalty imposed in other cases, considering both the offense and the offender. If the jury's recommendation of death is inconsistent with sentences imposed in similar cases in the same jurisdiction, an inference of arbitrariness arises. Sonnier,
According to the state's Sentence Review Memorandum, in the 16th Judicial District, since January 1, 1976, sentence was imposed in 37 first degree murder cases, excluding the instant case. Of the 37, the jury returned the death sentence in five cases. None resembles this case closely. In Sonnier, defendant Eddie James Sonnier and his brother, Elmo Patrick Sonnier,
In State v. Welcome,
In Bourque, we affirmed the defendant's conviction but reversed his death sentence.
Given the scarcity of comparable cases in St. Martin Parish, it is appropriate for this Court to look beyond the judicial district in which sentence was imposed and conduct the proportionality review on a state-wide basis. State v. Davis, 92-1623, (La.5/23/94);
For the reasons assigned, defendant's conviction and sentence are affirmed for
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