Wilson, Willie Frank v. The State of Texas

Annotate this Case

Reverse and Remand; Opinion Filed June 14, 2012.
In The
Court of Appeals
Fifth District of Texas at Dallas
No. 05-11-00176-CR
On Appeal from the Criminal District Court No. 2
Dallas County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. F08-39144-I
Before Justices Moseley, Lang-Miers, and Murphy
Opinion By Justice Murphy
        A jury convicted Willie Frank Wilson of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to mandatory life without parole. In nine issues, Wilson challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, the trial court's exclusion of his family and the public from the courtroom during jury selection, and multiple evidentiary rulings. We overrule his sufficiency issue. Based on recent controlling decisions by the United States Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminals Appeals, we reverse and remand the case for a new trial because the voir dire closure violated Wilson's constitutional right to a public trial. See Presley v. Georgia, 130 S. Ct. 721, 724 (2010); Steadman v. State, 360 S.W.3d 499, 504-05 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012). Because all dispositive issues are well-settled in law, we issue this memorandum opinion. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.2(a), 47.4.
        On February 29, 2008, police officers from the city of Lancaster were dispatched to a residence located at 4188 Edwards Street in Lancaster, Texas based on a 911 call reporting a double homicide. Upon arriving at the scene, police officers found Wilson, who had made the 911 call, standing in his front yard. According to Wilson, he had arrived home from work at approximately 6:30 or 6:40 a.m. to find the bodies of his girlfriend, Natalya Tilley, who lived with him at the house, and her seventeen year-old daughter, T. J., in the living room of his home. Autopsies later performed on Tilley and T.J. showed that both victims had been stabbed repeatedly: Tilley had nine “sites of sharp force trauma”-five of which were described as “major” stab wounds in her chest and abdomen -along with multiple bruises and other injuries of the upper extremities. T.J. had “14 separate sharp force injuries.” Both victims also had suffered significant blunt force injuries, and there was evidence of defense-type wounds on the hands and arms of both victims. While both victims were covered in blood, one detail on T.J.'s body stood out: police officers noticed a “pattern in the blood” on her abdomen “[t]hat appeared to be similar to a shoe pattern.” Both victims' pants had been partially pulled down and their shirts pulled up. Sexual assault kits were conducted on both victims, but the medical examiners that performed the autopsies reported no signs of sexual assault. As a result, the kits were never analyzed.
         Police officers that searched the home found that the back door showed signs of forced entry and several items such as a TV, jewelry, a watch, and “things a burglar might be interested in” were undisturbed. Several pieces of wood from a broken TV tray were “laying in various places around the living room into the kitchen.” Some of the pieces of the TV tray were found “in and around” the victims' bodies. Medical examiners that performed the autopsies testified that the TV tray would be capable of causing the blunt force trauma found on the victims.
        A neighbor reported that around midnight she was outside charging her phone in her car when she had heard dogs barking in the back alley. Police officers canvassing the alley for evidence found a large butcher knife in a drainage ditch located approximately 100 yards from the house. The knife had “a red substance on it” that “appeared to be blood.” A field test performed on the knife confirmed the presence of blood, and later DNA analysis showed that the blood on the knife was consistent with samples taken from the victims.
        Wilson-who at the time was not in custody -was questioned at the scene regarding what he knew of the murders. Wilson told detectives that the last time he saw Tilley alive was shortly after 9:00 p.m. when he left to go to work at McKinley Container Company in Mesquite, Texas. According to Wilson, he had clocked in at work at 9:48 p.m. and had clocked out at 6:01 a.m. Wilson said he had left work only once around “12:45, midnight” to go to a Taco Bell located a short distance from where he worked to get some food for himself and a co-worker. Wilson volunteered the Taco Bell receipt to police. The timestamp on the receipt read 12:57 a.m. on February 29, 2008.
        Wilson claimed that he had called Tilley multiple times throughout the night, but she never answered her telephone. While it was unusual for her not to answer, he did not call “anybody and have anybody go check on them.” Wilson claimed that the last time he had attempted to call her was approximately 5:00 a.m. in an attempt to wake her up so she could go to school. Police officers that questioned Wilson described his demeanor as “very calm.[v]ery rational” and “cooperative.”
        When asked if he knew of anybody that would be interested in harming Tilley or T.J., Wilson pointed to one man, Daniel Howard. According to testimony at trial, Tilley had dated Howard in the past but had left him for Wilson, though Tilley and Howard “were still having a relationship of some type,” and Tilley would see Howard whenever she visited her family in Tyler, Texas on the weekends. On two occasions, Howard had violently confronted Tilley when she was with Wilson. In one of those instances, Howard had pulled a knife on her. Tilley's phone records indicated that Tilley and Howard had talked earlier in the night of her murder.
        After being interviewed at the crime scene, Wilson agreed to go to the Lancaster Police Department for further questioning. While at the police department, Wilson gave consent to search his clothing for blood and other evidence from the scene. His clothing was taken and sent to the Dallas County Sheriff's Office Physical Evidence Section to be analyzed. Analysis of his clothing revealed blood on the inside of the right pocket of Wilson's pants, across the front and back of his shirt, on his keys, and on the top and bottom of his shoes.
        Evidence gathered in the course of the investigation began to cast doubt on Wilson's claim that he had been at work for the entire morning except for a short trip to Taco Bell. Specifically, a review of his cell phone records indicated that Wilson was traveling from his work place in Mesquite to his home in Lancaster between 11:30 p.m. and 12:11 a.m. on the morning of February 29th. The records also indicated that Wilson was traveling away from his home shortly after 12:33 a.m.
        Based on this evidence, Wilson was arrested on March 4, 2008. A jury convicted Wilson of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to mandatory life without parole. This appeal followed.
Point of Error One: Sufficiency of the Evidence for Conviction
        In his first point of error, Wilson argues that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to support a conviction of capital murder. Specifically, he argues that a review of the testimony shows that the record is insufficient to show he participated in the murders.
Standard of Review
        In a legal sufficiency review, we examine all the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); Brooks v. State, 323 S.W.3d 893, 894-95 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010). We defer to the jury's credibility and weight determinations, because the jury is the sole judge of the witnesses' credibility and the weight to be given their testimony. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319.
        Wilson was charged with capital murder under subsection 19.03(a)(7) of the penal code. Under this subsection, a person commits an offense if “the person murders more than one person: (A) during the same criminal transaction; or (B) during different criminal transactions but the murders are committed pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct.” Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 19.03(a)(7) (West 2011). A person commits murder if, in relevant part, he “(1) intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; [or] (2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.” Id. § 19.02(b).
        Wilson bases his sufficiency challenge on the claim that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to show he participated in the murders.
        Witnesses testified at trial that a DNA analysis showed that the blood found on Wilson's pants, shirt, keys, and shoes was the blood of Tilley and T.J. The jury also heard evidence from a forensic scientist with training in blood stain pattern analysis that the blood pattern found on his T- shirt indicated that this “was a cast off stain where there was something that was being put in an arc that had blood on it.” From this testimony, the jury could have inferred that Wilson wielded the knife and blunt instrument that killed Tilley and T.J. The jury also heard evidence suggesting that it was unlikely that the blood found on the top of Wilson's shoes could have ended up there from walking through the crime scene. A forensic scientist testified that, “to just walk into a scene that has blood on the floor with no blood flying around, it would be very implausible that the blood would get on the top of the shoe by just walking into the scene.”
        Witnesses also testified regarding the origin of the bloody shoe print found on T.J.'s body. Medical examiners were able to lift an impression of the shoe print from her body, and a forensic scientist trained in conducting footwear analysis compared it to an impression taken from the shoes Wilson was wearing when the murders took place. The comparison revealed a match: the tread pattern from Wilson's shoes matched the tread from the bloody shoe print found on T.J.'s body.         Other evidence heard by the jury implicated Wilson. Wilson told the police that, except for a quick trip to a Taco Bell located a short distance from his employer, he was at work the entire morning of February 29th. Cell phone records presented by the State, however, suggested a different story. The State presented evidence from an employee of Sprint that it is possible to use a cell phone record to determine approximately where a cell phone was located during a telephone call. This is possible because “[t]he information contained on the call detail record reports indicate the exact cell phone tower that the subject number is using at the beginning of the phone call and at the end of the phone call,” and based on the location of these cell towers, it is possible to “give a general range as to where that phone is located with respect to where the towers are located.” Based on this information, detectives determined that Wilson's cell phone “attached itself” to a cell tower approximately “a mile to two miles” from the scene of the crime at approximately 12:11 a.m., right around the time that Wilson claimed he had left work to go to Taco Bell. His cell phone then “attached itself” to a cell tower a short distance from his employer in Mesquite, Texas at 1:28 a.m. Wilson claimed he had only gone to Taco Bell, which was “right down the road from where he worked” in Mesquite. The distance between Wilson's home and his place of employment was estimated to be 17 to 20 miles, and the maximum distance that a cell phone can connect to a cell phone tower in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is “closer to 2 miles.” Given these distances, the Sprint employee testified that it would be impossible for Wilson's cell phone to attach to a tower near his house while he was in the vicinity of his employer. At trial, the State presented a map rendering of cell tower locations where Wilson's cell phone had attached itself the night the murders took place. According to the detective that presented the map, it contained “addresses of the tower locations and proximity to the highway and direction of travel [Wilson] may have traveled to go from work to home” during the time the murders took place. From this evidence, a jury could deduce that Wilson had not left work to go to Taco Bell as he had claimed, but that he had gone home, murdered Tilley and T.J., and then returned to complete his shift at work.
        In his defense, Wilson presented two witnesses that were present when Howard had confronted Tilley. In April 2007, Howard approached Tilley in the parking lot of Ladelle Baptist Church. One witness testified that he was in the parking lot where Tilley was “standing outside . . . talking to different guys,” when Howard drove up, got out of his car, “twisted [Tilley's] arm and pulled a knife on her and made her get in his car.” Tilley and Howard sat in the car for “maybe 10 or 12 minutes,” then Howard “got out of the car and took her on inside the church” where Tilley sat in the choir stand. In the church, Tilley and Howard began arguing. Several men, including Wilson, confronted Howard and attempted to calm him down. After some time, Howard finally left. On that occasion, the police were not called.
        On the second occasion, Howard confronted Tilley, T.J., and Wilson at the Church of Philadelphia on Sunnyvale Street in Dallas. A witness testified that just before devotion started, Wilson, Tilley, and T.J. walked into the church. Sometime after devotion had started, Howard walked in. A few minutes later, Wilson, Tilley, and T.J. got up and walked out. Howard followed. At some point, Howard pulled a gun on Wilson and possibly Tilley as well. While Howard had the gun pointed at Wilson, he pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. When police arrived, Howard tried to flee. He also tried to hide the gun, but it was recovered. Testimony at trial suggested that Howard was indicted for this incident, but the charges were dismissed.
        Detectives testified that they had gone to Tyler, Texas to speak with Howard early in the investigation. But Howard had an alibi for the night Tilley and T.J. were murdered: his sister told detectives that he was with her the entire evening. Based on this, officers ruled out Howard as a suspect. Despite this, Wilson argues that “the police did not adequately investigate Mr. Howard,” who had “plenty of opportunity to drive to Lancaster and commit the offense before the bodies were discovered by Mr. Wilson the next morning.” As the judge of credibility and in light of the officers' testimony, the jury was free to disregard the implication of Wilson's witnesses that another individual was involved in the murder of Tilley and T.J. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319.
        Wilson argues that “[t]he record establishes, at best, only a 'mere modicum' of evidence of Appellant's guilt, which will not support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.” We disagree. Examining the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict under the Jackson standard, we conclude that the evidence presented to the jury at trial was legally sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson participated in the murders of Tilley and T.J. As stated above, the jury was presented with evidence that the victims's blood was found on Wilson's clothing, that the blood did not get there when Wilson allegedly discovered the bodies the morning after the murders, that Wilson returned home the night of the murders, and that Wilson lied to police regarding his whereabouts when the murders took place. A fact finder reasonably could infer from this evidence that Wilson participated in the murders of Tilley and T.J.
        Wilson also contends that the State “must exclude every reasonable hypothesis by the evidence that tends to exculpate the accused.” He then points to several pieces of evidence that he implies exculpate him. For example, Wilson contends that the State never produced evidence showing how it would be possible for him to leave his work in Mesquite, drive to the scene of the crime in Lancaster, assault and murder the two victims, visit a Taco Bell, and return to work without any of his co-workers noticing anything unusual about his appearance or behavior-all in the time frame that the State suggests the crime took place. Wilson also suggests an alternative explanation for how the victim's blood got on his clothing. According to him, the tape of the 911 call shows that Wilson was instructed by the 911 operator to look around the scene for a weapon. He contends that at this time blood could have been deposited on his shoes and shirt and later transferred to his other clothing when he was asked to remove his clothing for photographs or when all his clothes were placed in the same bag by police officers. Wilson also points out that none of his blood was found on any piece of evidence, including the knife linked to the murders. While the State introduced cell phones records that suggested Wilson had returned home during the morning the murders took place, Wilson asserts that the phone records neither establish who was using the phone nor give a definitive position of where the phone was at a certain time.
        By reciting these facts and arguing that the State “must exclude every reasonable hypothesis by the evidence that tends to exculpate the accused,” Wilson is asking us to apply the reasonable hypothesis construct, a standard of review long ago rejected. See Laster v. State, 275 S.W.3d 512, 522-23 (Tex. Crim. App. 2009). This standard of review, which required reversal of cases based on circumstantial evidence unless the defendant's guilt is the only reasonable hypothesis, was overruled in Geesa v. State, 820 S.W.2d 154, 160-61 (Tex. Crim. App. 1991), overruled on other ground by Paulson v. State, 28 S.W.3d 570, 573 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000). As a result, courts and juries no longer face the difficult task of excluding every reasonable hypothesis other than the defendant's guilt. Laster, 275 S.W.3d at 521. While Wilson's brief provides a litany of facts that he implies tends to exculpate him, these arguments are directed to the weight and credibility of the evidence, matters which fall within the jury's province. Under the Jackson standard, this Court must defer to the jury's credibility and weight determinations, and we will not disturb those findings here. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319. Wilson's first point of error is overruled.
Point of Error Two: Jury Selection
        Jury selection in Wilson's trial began on December 13, 2010. Before the jury panel was brought into the courtroom, Wilson's counsel asked the trial court to allow the public, including members of Wilson's family, to be present during voir dire. The following exchange occurred:
THE COURT: Well, we have 65 people ordered up. And that - when you have 65 people, that takes up all the seats here in the gallery so the only place we could have people observe is up here on this side of counsel table. For security we can't do that. The way that the courtroom was designed it is designed. They wouldn't fit for this type of a trial.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: As the Court is aware, I have been put on notice that people want to watch the voir dire. They have an interest for the defendant and, in light of the Supreme Court decision saying that all Courts must provide a public room for other citizens to watch the jury selection process, then I must object to preserve that issue and to protect myself from any complaint later on.
THE COURT: There is a window they can look through, look in, to observe.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Right. We feel that that's inadequate to look through a window through a closed door. We object to that process.
THE COURT: Okay. Let's go ahead and bring them in.
        After a recess, Wilson's counsel again objected to closure of the courtroom during voir dire proceedings, and the court again denied the request. Later, Wilson's counsel advised the trial court that a group had tried to observe the voir dire proceedings but could not hear or see the proceedings through the door. The trial court made no further comments or findings regarding the courtroom closures.
        In his second of nine issues, Wilson challenges the trial court's denial of his request to provide public access to jury selection in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and the public's First Amendment right to open court trials.
Right to Public Trial
        The Sixth Amendment guarantees in criminal prosecutions that “ the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial.” U. S. Const. amend. VI. States must assure this right is preserved in state court criminal prosecutions. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 148 (1968). The right to a public trial also extends to the voir dire of prospective jurors. Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 724; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 504-05.
        A trial court cannot exclude the public from any stage of a criminal trial unless (1) the party seeking to close the hearing presents an “overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,” (2) the closure is “no broader than necessary to protect that interest,” (3) the trial court considers reasonable alternatives to closure, and (4) the trial court makes “findings adequate to support the closure.” Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 724 (quoting Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 48 (1984)). Findings that are too “broad and general” are insufficient to justify closing criminal trials. Waller, 467 U.S. at 48; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 504. Circumstances justifying closure are “rare,” and the trial court has the burden to consider reasonable alternatives to closure even when no alternatives are offered by the parties. Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 724; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 505.
        The cases of Presley and, most recently Steadman, are controlling authority for our decision in this case. The defendant in Steadman complained that his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial had been violated because four members of his family were not allowed to be present during voir dire. Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 500. Two areas of concern were advanced as justifying closure of the courtroom during jury selection: jury-panel contamination and courtroom security. The trial court made numerous findings to support its ruling, including “security concerns” in allowing the public to sit or stand in various areas of the courtroom, interference “with access” to the defendant as needed by the bailiff and security personnel, and a “heightened” security concern in the case, which “was expected to be 'emotionally-charged.'” Id. at 501-02. Reversing and remanding the case for a new trial based on a Sixth Amendment violation, the court of criminal appeals determined the trial court's findings were too generic because there was no showing of a “specific threat or incident” and the trial court failed to consider “every reasonable alternative to closure that would have obviated the threat.” Id. at 506.
        The trial court's reasoning for excluding the public from jury selection in this case is quoted in its entirety above: “[W]hen you have 65 people, that takes up all the seats here in the gallery so the only place we could have people observe is up here on this side of counsel table. For security we can't do that.” While security is a valid concern, and security concerns alone may justify closure, the trial court must identify for the record “specific concrete facts” demonstrating that security is an area of concern in this particular case. Id. (citing Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 725). The particular interest and threat to that interest must “be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.” Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 725. Other than stating that closure was needed for “security,” the trial court identified no concrete facts to support its concern. Nor does the record suggest that security was a particular concern in this case.         Even assuming the record here revealed a threat to security sufficient to justify closure of the proceedings, the trial court failed to consider reasonable alternatives to closure that would have averted that threat. Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 506. One alternative considered by the trial court was allowing observers to sit near the counsel table, but the trial court stated this was not viable “[f]or security.” The other alternative offered was for the public to observe through a window in a closed courtroom door. Wilson's counsel objected to this alternative as inadequate.
        Under both Presley and Steadman, the trial court must consider “all reasonable alternatives” before closing the courtroom during voir dire. Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 725; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 505-06. As identified in Presley and Steadman, other alternatives were available but not considered by the trial court, including dividing the venire panel and moving prospective jurors to the jury box to make room in the gallery for Wilson's family. See Presley, 130 S. Ct. at 725; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 509. We therefore conclude Wilson has shown a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial by closure of the voir dire proceedings. Presley, 130 S.W.3d at 725; Steadman, 360 S.W.3d at 504-05. We sustain Wilson's second issue. Because our resolution of this issue is dispositive, we do not address his remaining issues. Tex. R. App. P. 47.1.
        We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case to the trial court for a new trial.         
                                                          MARY MURPHY
Do Not Publish
Tex. R. App. P. 47
Court of Appeals
Fifth District of Texas at Dallas
No. 05-11-00176-CR
THE STATE OF TEXAS, AppelleeAppeal from the Criminal District Court No. 2 of Dallas County, Texas. (Tr.Ct.No. F08- 39144-I).
Opinion delivered by Justice Murphy, Justices Moseley and Lang-Miers participating.
        Based on the Court's opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is REVERSED and the cause REMANDED for a new trial.
Judgment entered June 14, 2012.
                                                          /Mary Murphy/
                                                          MARY MURPHY