James David Wright v. State of Arkansas

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February 18, 2004


[NO. CR2001-677-I]




Josephine Linker Hart, Judge

Appellant James David Wright was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment in the Arkansas Department of Correction. For reversal, appellant argues that 1) there was insufficient evidence to convict him of second-degree murder; 2) the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion for a directed verdict; and 3) the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion for mistrial. We disagree with appellant and affirm.

At trial the statement given to the police by appellant was read to the jury. According to his statement, cash and methamphetamines had been stolen from appellant when his home had been burglarized two weeks earlier. Although he never believed that the deceased, Travis Tranthum, was involved, he discussed the theft with Josh West after hearing that Tranthum was bragging about breaking into his home. West, who had also heard of Tranthum's bragging, told appellant that "we will just wipe his ass." Appellant admitted that following his conversation with West, he believed that West planned to hurt Tranthum. On the night of September 9, 2001, West, Jeff Hyland, and others failed in an attempt to locate Tranthum. Two days later,

Hyland, with appellant's knowledge, conceived a plan to lure Tranthum into appellant's home by staging a break-in.

Appellant also stated that he told Hyland that he "did not want any drama" at his house. However, on the night of September 11, 2001, appellant remained at his home with West while Hyland and Matt Haley left to locate Tranthum and Robert Scott and returned with them to the residence. Upon their return, Hyland entered the residence through a window and opened the front door for Tranthum to enter the residence while appellant, West, and others hid in the bedroom. When appellant refused West's direction to confront Tranthum, West ran out of the bedroom and hit Tranthum with a torque wrench.

While Tranthum was unconscious, appellant and others placed him into a truck and dropped him on the side of a road next to Slaughter Bridge. Tranthum died as a result of the blow to the head. Afterward, appellant gave Haley $2 to wash the truck to clean up the blood. Later that evening, appellant had Haley and West replace the blood-stained carpet, and appellant disposed of it by throwing it into the woods.

At trial, appellant admitted the accuracy of his out-of-court statement, but contended that he "did not have a major role in the planning" of the attack on Tranthum. Although he admitted hiding in the bedroom while waiting for Tranthum to arrive, he asserted that he never intended to beat Tranthum and that he had paged Hyland in an attempt to call off the plan, but Hyland said, "I'm on my way." Appellant stated that he "couldn't stop him," and further, that Hyland was twice his size, and that he "did not want bodily harm caused" to himself. According to appellant, West chose to use a torque wrench because it was heavier despite appellant's plea, "Man, don't use that." After West hit Tranthum, appellant suggested that they take Tranthum to the hospital, and asked Hyland several times if Tranthum would live, and Hyland said thatTranthum would be "OK." Appellant admitted directing the driver of the truck to the location of the bridge where they later dumped Tranthum.

Appellant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury verdict and also cites as error the trial court's failure to grant his motion for a directed verdict. Because a directed verdict motion is a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, points one and two are consolidated for the purpose of discussion.

Our standard of review in matters such as this is well settled and oft-stated:

A motion for a directed verdict is a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The test for such motions is whether the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, direct or circumstantial. Substantial evidence is evidence of sufficient certainty and precision to compel a conclusion one way or another and pass beyond mere suspicion or conjecture. On appeal, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the appellee and consider only the evidence that supports the verdict.

Goodman v. State, 74 Ark. App. 1, 7, 45 S.W.3d 399, 402-03 (2001).

Appellant does not dispute that he knew that West and Hyland planned to lure Tranthum to his home where he would be beaten once inside the house. The crux of appellant's argument is that he neither harmed Tranthum nor participated in the planned attack, but was merely a "passive bystander." Although appellant correctly notes that West was the individual who hit Tranthum with the torque wrench and that Tranthum died as a result of that single injury, he wholly fails to address the issue of accomplice liability.

The State, however, argued at trial and on appeal that the evidence was sufficient to convict appellant as an accomplice to second-degree murder. A person commits murder in the second degree if "with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of any person." Ark. Code Ann. ยง 5-10-103(a)(2)(Repl. 1997). The court will affirm a sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge if substantial evidence exists that the defendant acted as an accomplice to the commission of the offense. Cook v. State, 350 Ark. 398, 86 S.W.3d 916 (2002).

Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-2-403 (Repl. 1997) defines an accomplice as follows:

(a) A person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of an offense if, with the purpose of promoting or facilitating the commission of an offense, he:

(1) Solicits, advises, encourages, or coerces the other person to commit it; or

(2) Aids, agrees to aid, or attempts to aid the other person in planning or committing it; or

(3) Having a legal duty to prevent the commission of the offense, fails to make proper effort to do so.

(b) When causing a particular result is an element of an offense, a person is an accomplice in the commission of that offense if, acting with respect to that result with the kind of culpability sufficient for the commission of the offense, he:

(1) Solicits, advises, encourages, or coerces the other person to engage in the conduct causing the result; or

(2) Aids, agrees to aid, or attempts to aid the other person in planning or engaging in the conduct causing the result; or

(3) Having a legal duty to prevent the conduct causing the result, fails to make proper effort to do so.

Although one's status as an accomplice is ordinarily a mixed question of law and fact, Atkinson v. State, 347 Ark. 336, 347, 64 S.W.3d 259, 266 (2002), a defendant acts as an accomplice when he renders the requisite aid or encouragement to the principal, even if he does not directly commit the crime. Id. Further, when a defendant assists another in the commission of a crime, he acts as an accomplice and is criminally liable for the conduct of the others. Id. A participant cannot disclaim responsibility because he did not personally take part in every act that made up the crime as a whole. Id.

One's presence at the crime scene or failure to inform law enforcement officers of a crime does not make one an accomplice as a matter of law. Cook, supra. However, the presence of the accused in proximity of a crime, the opportunity to commit the crime, and an association with a person involved in a manner suggestive of joint participation are relevant factors in determining that appellant was an accomplice in the commission of the crime. McGehee v. State, 348 Ark. 395, 72 S.W.3d 867 (2002).

Appellant was present and acquiesced in the implementation of the plan to lure Tranthum into his home. He participated in the plot by hiding in a dark bedroom knowing West intended to hit Tranthum with a torque wrench when Tranthum entered the house. The blow to Tranthum's head ultimately resulted in his death. Following the attack on Tranthum, appellant assisted in loading him into the back of a truck and then directed the driver of the truck to the area where the body was dumped. Appellant then disposed of the carpet containing Tranthum's blood.

Based on the record, we hold that the trial court did not err in refusing to grant appellant's motion for directed verdict and that there was substantial evidence from which the jury could find appellant guilty of second-degree murder.

For his last point on appeal, appellant argues that the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion for mistrial after his mother, Sue Ann Thompson, suffered what was believed to be a seizure in the hallway outside the courtroom. Although an ambulance was summoned, appellant's mother refused medical treatment because of her desire to stay at the trial. Thereafter, appellant moved for a mistrial asserting that he was effectively denied his right to assist counsel in his defense because of his concern for the health of his mother. He argued that his concern for his mother interfered with his ability to focus and assist his counsel with jury selection. The trial court denied the motion for mistrial after noting that appellant's mother did not believe her condition to be serious enough to require medical attention.

After the State's first two witnesses testified, appellant's counsel informed the court that appellant's mother had been taken to the hospital and moved for mistrial again due to appellant's inability to assist in his defense. The trial court again denied appellant's motion, stating that the condition of appellant's mother was not life-threatening.

Directing our attention to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, appellant states that a defendant must be sufficiently competent to "assist in his own representation."1 While we agree with the general proposition that a defendant must be competent to stand trial, that is not the issue in this case. Here, appellant concedes that he was not incompetent but asserts that his mental stability was in question. However, at trial, appellant only sought a mistrial and did not seek either a continuance or a competency hearing.

A mistrial is an extreme remedy that should be granted only when justice cannot be served by continuing the trial. Kenyon v. State, 58 Ark. App. 24, 946 S.W.2d 705 (1997). The trial court has wide discretion in granting or denying a motion for a mistrial, and the appellate court will not disturb the court's decision absent an abuse of discretion. Id.

In this case, appellant failed to request an alternate remedy and relied solely on his motion for a mistrial; therefore, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion. Thus, we affirm.


Crabtree and Roaf, JJ., agree.

1 Appellant cites Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966) (failure of state court to hold a hearing on defendant's competency to stand trial deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial); Bishop v. United States, 223 F.2d 582 (D.C. Cir. 1955) (convicted defendant who collaterally attacked sentence on ground that he had been mental incompetent at time of trial had burden of proof upon that issue), vacated by 350 U.S. 961 (1956). Neither of these cases cited by appellant support his contention.