Stanton Laroy Caviness v. The State of Texas--Appeal from 230th District Court of Harris County

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Opinion issued March 4, 2004



In The

Court of Appeals

For The

First District of Texas

NO. 01-03-00200-CR

____________

STANTON LAROY CAVINESS, Appellant

V.

THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee

On Appeal from the 230th District Court

Harris County, Texas

Trial Court Cause No. 923096

MEMORANDUM OPINION

A jury found appellant, Stanton Laroy Caviness, guilty of the second degree felony offense of criminal attempt // with intent to commit arson of a habitation. // Appellant elected to have the trial court assess punishment, and the trial court sentenced appellant to confinement for six years and a fine of $600. The trial court then suspended the imposition of the sentence of confinement and placed appellant on community supervision.

In two points of error, appellant contends that (1) the evidence was factually insufficient to support his conviction and (2) the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial, which was based on the fact that an incorrect range of punishment for the offense was provided to the jury during voir dire.

We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

In September 2002, appellant lived in a camper on property owned by his girlfriend, Donna Morphis, the complainant. The complainant and her daughters, Krista and Jamie Morphis, lived in a trailer on the same property.

Nathan Paul, a friend of Krista, testified that, on the afternoon of September 3, 2002, he helped appellant remove some carpet from inside the complainant s trailer. While they were working, Paul saw appellant consume one, maybe two drinks of whiskey. At some point later that afternoon, Paul left the property to run an errand for appellant [t]o go get a bottle of whiskey.

That evening, Paul took Krista out for dinner. When Paul and Krista returned, appellant told Paul that appellant and the complainant had been arguing and that the complainant had ordered appellant to vacate the property within 72 hours. Paul then left the complainant s property to go to his home. On his way home, Krista paged Paul, and, when Paul called in response to the page, appellant told Paul that he wanted [him] there as a witness to what he could take off of the property. When Paul returned to the complainant s property, he found the complainant and appellant yelling at each other inside the complainant s trailer.

Paul further testified that, shortly after he entered the trailer, appellant left, carrying a whiskey bottle. The complainant followed appellant, yelled at him, and then came back inside the trailer to retrieve a shotgun. Paul explained that, at appellant s request, Paul had removed the shells from the shotgun earlier that day. // As she grabbed the shotgun from inside the trailer, the complainant yelled, He s pouring gasoline on the house! The complainant then went outside, carrying the shotgun.

When the complainant reached the bottom of the stairs outside the trailer, she collided with appellant, who was carrying a gasoline can. When appellant and the complainant collided, some of the gasoline splashed out of the can, and appellant dropped the can. Paul then saw appellant wrestle the shotgun away from the complainant, knock her to the ground, and throw the shotgun away. At that point, Paul smelled a very strong odor of gasoline next to the trailer, and he saw appellant holding a lighter and striking it. Paul, fearing for the lives of the complainant and her daughters, then pointed a .22 pistol, which he had brought with him, at the ground and told appellant to get off the property, or Paul would shoot.

Paul and appellant yelled at each other for a few minutes, and appellant told Paul that all he want[ed] [wa]s his stuff. Paul agreed to help appellant get his stuff, and appellant then grabbed his bottle of whiskey and went to leave the complainant s property. Appellant unhooked the electricity and water connections from his camper and drove it off its blocks. Paul opened the gate to the complainant s property and moved his own truck, which was blocking the driveway, and appellant drove away.

Krista testified that appellant and the complainant had been arguing that evening and that the complainant was very upset and very unorganized in her mind. Krista noted that appellant had been drinking alcohol that day, and, when asked how much alcohol appellant had consumed, she stated: He had about his usual, which was maybe around half of a half a gallon, if that. That s what he had. After Krista got home from dinner, appellant asked her to page Paul so somebody would be there to say afterwards what had happened in a clear state of mind, and she did.

Krista also testified that, when the complainant came inside the trailer, she told Krista to call for emergency assistance because appellant was pouring gasoline on the trailer and was trying to burn the house down. Krista admitted that, although she later smelled a strong odor of gasoline outside, she did not see appellant pour any gasoline on the trailer. Krista testified that she saw appellant struggle with the complainant for the shotgun and that, after Paul pointed his pistol at appellant and ordered him to stop, she saw appellant backing up towards the trailer while striking a lighter.

Harris County Arson Investigator Kenneth Callaway testified that he was dispatched to the complainant s property that evening. Upon his arrival, Callaway interviewed the complainant, her daughters, and Paul. Callaway detected a strong odor of gasoline around the home and determined that [t]he exterior of the home and the grass at the base of the home was saturated with liquid that smelled like gasoline. By examining the grass and dirt around the trailer, Callaway also determined that a wet trail of gasoline extended approximately 50 feet along the entire length of one side of the trailer.

Callaway also testified that, after interviewing the witnesses at the scene, he prepared a written statement for the complainant, which she read and signed under oath that same evening. The written statement was admitted into evidence and read as follows:

On Monday September 02, 2002, I began arguing with my boyfriend [appellant] about family members. [A]ppellant stays in a motor home on my property. [A]ppellant had been drinking whiskey all day. [A]ppellant began threatening me and my family. He said he was going to kill us and burn my house. He went outside. I went out and saw him pouring gasoline on the side of my house. I ran inside and got my shotgun and told my family he was setting the house on fire. I went outside and told him to stop. We began scuffling and he took the shotgun away from me. He grabbed me and threw me to the ground. I hurt my back. He began flicking his lighter. My daughter s boyfriend had a pistol and stopped [appellant] from lighting the gasoline. [A]ppellant ran to his motor home and left. When [appellant] was pouring the gasoline he splashed it on me.


The complainant testified that, as of the time of trial, she and appellant were living together in her trailer. The complainant admitted that, before trial, she had been reluctant to discuss this incident with the prosecutor and had asked the prosecutor to dismiss the case. The complainant denied that appellant had ever threatened her or her family, and she denied seeing appellant pour gasoline on the trailer. The complainant also testified that she did not recall speaking with or giving a statement to Callaway, although she admitted that her signature appeared on the statement.

Appellant testified that he and the complainant had been arguing because the complainant was upset and extremely unrational [sic] about her oldest daughter s behavior. Appellant admitted that he had been drinking that day, but testified that he had consumed only two drinks. He stated that, after the complainant had told him to vacate the property, he began gathering his belongings. As they discussed what appellant could take with him, appellant asked Krista to page Paul to come and to act as a mediator because the complainant started demanding things that didn t belong to her.

When appellant was preparing to leave, he went outside to get a gasoline can to make sure that his camper was full of gasoline before he left. As appellant walked toward his camper, he tripped, fell on his knee, and dropped the gasoline can. Because the top on the can was loose, it came off when he fell, and [a] pint or two of gasoline spilled on the ground. The lighting was poor, and he had some difficulty trying to find the cap. Appellant then heard the complainant yelling and turned to see her coming out of the trailer with a shotgun in her hand. Although he knew that the shotgun had previously been unloaded, appellant was afraid, grabbed the shotgun from the complainant, and threw it away from where they were standing. When he did so, some gasoline from the can splashed on the complainant. Paul then pointed a pistol at appellant and said, Don t make me shoot you. After Paul had threatened him, appellant held up his lighter and started backing up toward the trailer as a threat so as to prevent Paul from shooting him. Appellant further testified that he had no intention of igniting the gasoline near the trailer because all of his clothes and personal papers were in the trailer, along with an expensive saddle, a pet dog, and a ferret.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

In his first point of error, appellant argues that the evidence was factually insufficient to support the jury s verdict because [g]iven the testimony as it developed, it appears that [appellant] was simply trying to extricate himself from a bad situation where he was threatened by two different people with firearms, and may have used whatever he had available to [sic] hand.

We review the factual sufficiency of the evidence by examining all of the evidence neutrally and asking whether the evidence, both for and against the finding, demonstrates that the proof of guilt is so obviously weak as to undermine confidence in the jury s determination, or whether the proof of guilt, although adequate if taken alone, is greatly outweighed by contrary proof. Johnson v. State, 23 S.W.3d 1, 11 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000).

A person commits the offense of criminal attempt if, with specific intent to commit an offense, he does an act amounting to more than mere preparation that tends, but fails, to effect the commission of the offense intended. Tex. Pen. Code Ann. 15.01(a) (Vernon 2003). The offense of criminal attempt is one category lower than the offense attempted. Id. 15.01(d) (Vernon 2003). A person commits a first degree felony offense if the person starts a fire with intent to destroy or to damage a habitation. Id. 28.02(a), (d) (Vernon 2003).

Here, appellant testified that he never intended to burn down the trailer and that his actions were simply misinterpreted by the complainant and the other witnesses. Also, the complainant, at trial, recanted her statements to Callaway and testified that she did not see appellant pouring gasoline on the trailer.

However, the complainant also admitted that appellant was living with her and that she had asked the prosecutor to dismiss the case. Moreover, Paul, the complainant s daughter, and Callaway testified that the complainant told them that she saw appellant pouring gasoline on the trailer. The jury was presented with testimony that appellant, who had been drinking that day, argued with the complainant that evening and, after he struggled with the complainant over the shotgun, threatened to ignite the gasoline next to the trailer with a lighter. Callaway s testimony that the trail of gasoline extended the length of the trailer was inconsistent with appellant s testimony that he had accidently spilled only [a] pint or two when he tripped and fell.

Juries may infer intent from a defendant s conduct and the surrounding facts and circumstances. LaPoint v. State, 750 S.W.2d 180, 182 (Tex. Crim. App. 1986); McGee v. State, 923 S.W.2d 605, 608 (Tex. App. Houston [1st Dist.] 1995, no pet.). The jury may simply have found appellant s version of events to be not credible and the testimony of Paul, the complainant s daughter, and Callaway to be credible. Evidence is not factually insufficient merely because a defendant offers a different explanation for the facts. Russell v. State, 665 S.W.2d 771, 776 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983). The jury, as the trier of fact, was the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and was free to accept or to reject all or part of the witnesses testimony. Jones v. State, 944 S.W.2d 642, 647 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996). Based on the record presented, we hold that the evidence was factually sufficient to support the jury s verdict.

Appellant also argues in his first point of error that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this incident was not self-defense. // The record indicates that appellant did not request that a self-defense instruction be included in the jury charge, did not object to the trial court s failure to include such a charge, and, on appeal, appellant does not challenge the trial court s failure to include such a charge. Thus, appellant has waived any complaint on this issue. See Tex. R. App. P. 33.1(a); Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 36.14 (Vernon Supp. 2004).

We overrule appellant s first point of error.

Motion for Mistrial

In his second point of error, appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial because the trial court erroneously instructed the venire panel on the range of punishment, and appellant thus had no opportunity to use his peremptory strikes intelligently since he had not discussed the jurors views on the range of punishment.

A trial court may declare a mistrial when an error occurs that is so prejudicial that the expenditure of further time and expense would be wasteful. Wood v. State, 18 S.W.3d 642, 648 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000). We review the denial of a motion for mistrial under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Ladd v. State, 3 S.W.3d 547, 567 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999).

Here, during voir dire, the trial court erroneously instructed the venire panel that the range of punishment for the offense of criminal attempt with intent to commit arson of a habitation was confinement for two to 10 years. In fact, the punishment range is two to 20 years. // Appellant made no objection to the trial court s error during voir dire. After the members of the jury were selected, but before they were sworn, the trial court realized its error and brought it to the attention of the parties. Appellant then moved for a mistrial, without elaboration of the particular grounds upon which it was based. The trial court denied the motion, instructed the 12 jurors as to the correct range of punishment, and permitted counsel to conduct additional voir dire of the jury on this issue. Appellant s counsel asked no further questions of the jurors. The trial court then administered the oath to the jurors.

Appellant relies on Shipley v. State, 790 S.W.2d 604, 607-08 (Tex. Crim. App. 1990) for the proposition that, as a result of the trial court s denial of his motion for mistrial, appellant was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel under Article I, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution. // Texas courts have held that the right to be represented by counsel includes the right of counsel to question the members of the jury panel in order to intelligently exercise peremptory challenges. Id.

We find Shipley to be distinguishable from the present case. In Shipley, the defendant was unable to obtain certain information because the trial court refused to permit the venire members to answer questions propounded by the defendant s counsel during voir dire. Id. at 608. Here, defendant s counsel made no objection during voir dire after the trial court incorrectly instructed the venire members as to the range of punishment. Moreover, appellant has not shown how the trial court s incorrect instruction to the venire members concerning the applicable range of punishment was so prejudicial as essentially to deny appellant a fair trial, especially in light of the steps taken by the trial court to correct its error. See Wood, 18 S.W.3d at 648. Nor has appellant shown what different or additional questions he would have posed to the venire members concerning the correct range of applicable punishment so as to intelligently exercise his peremptory challenges. Shipley, 790 S.W.2d at 607-08. Accordingly, we hold that appellant has not shown that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion for mistrial.

Even assuming that the trial court erred in denying appellant s motion for mistrial, appellant has not shown how he was harmed by such error. See Tex. R. App. P. 44.2(b). After the jury found him guilty, appellant elected to have the trial court assess punishment. The trial court imposed a punishment within the range that had been incorrectly given to the venire members, suspended its sentence, and placed appellant on community supervision. Accordingly, we hold that appellant has not shown that the trial court s denial of his motion for mistrial was harmful.

We overrule appellant s second point of error.

Conclusion

We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Terry Jennings

Justice


Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Jennings and Higley.


Do not publish. Tex. R. App. P. 47.2(b).