Dontae Terrell Moore v. The State of Texas--Appeal from 177th District Court of Harris County

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Affirmed and Memorandum Opinion filed August 28, 2008

Affirmed and Memorandum Opinion filed August 28, 2008.

In The

Fourteenth Court of Appeals

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NO. 14-07-00366-CR

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DONTAE TERRELL MOORE, Appellant

V.

THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee

On Appeal from the 177th District Court

Harris County, Texas

Trial Court Cause No. 1061081

M E M O R A N D U M O P I N I O N

Appellant Dontae Terrell Moore appeals his conviction for capital murder, claiming (1) factual insufficiency of the evidence, (2) the trial court erred in allegedly failing to offer findings of fact as to the voluntariness of appellant=s statement to police, (3) harmful error in that the trial court failed to give sua sponte instructions in the jury charge regarding the voluntariness of appellant=s statement, (4) the State failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that appellant waived his Miranda rights, and (5) his statement was made involuntarily by virtue of law enforcement officers overbearing his will. We affirm.


I. Factual and Procedural Background

Appellant and an acquaintance, Warren Payne, met complainant Jonathan Finkelman at a park for the purpose of purchasing narcotics. Some of Payne=s friends had arranged to rob Finkelman in retribution for an earlier narcotics transaction in which Finkelman allegedly shorted Payne=s friends a pill. Appellant and Payne arrived at the park with a mutual friend, Jeffery Lopez. They were aware of a plan to rob Finkelman. Appellant and Payne got into Finkelman=s vehicle and negotiated a price for the narcotics. Different accounts of the events that followed emerged at trial.

Payne testified that when Finkelman asked for the money, appellant brandished a silver gun. Appellant pointed the gun at Finkelman=s head and demanded the narcotics. Payne recalled seeing Finkelman and appellant struggle for control of the gun and how the gun discharged once, but this shot missed Finkelman. Payne backed out of the vehicle and heard two to three more gunshots. He saw Finkelman=s body Ajerk@ forward, and Payne fled the vehicle. Payne heard a fourth shot fired as he ran from the vehicle, and Payne realized that he, too, had been shot.

Finkelman=s friend, Mark Taormina, was also in the vehicle during the events. Taormina testified that appellant aimed the gun in the vicinity of Finkelman=s head and demanded the drugs. According to Taormina, Finkelman and appellant struggled for control of the gun. The gun discharged once in the struggle, but that shot missed Finkelman. Taormina heard two to three more shots in quick succession, and one of these shots hit Finkelman. Taormina fled from the vehicle, but he saw appellant exit the vehicle and open Finkelman=s driver-side door. Taormina saw appellant rummage through Finkelman=s clothing. According to Taormina, appellant saw Taormina, pointed a gun at him, and told him to keep walking. Taormina recalled hearing several more shots.


Payne=s friend, Matthew Prall, sat with some friends in stadium bleachers at the park in anticipation of watching the robbery or a fight. Prall testified that Payne and appellant were in Finkelman=s vehicle for five to ten minutes when Prall heard a gunshot from within the car. Prall described seeing Payne and Taormina flee the vehicle. Prall testified that appellant pointed a gun at Taormina and Taormina begged appellant not to shoot him. Prall heard three to four more gunshots outside of the vehicle and saw appellant shoot at Payne.

Appellant testified that after entering Finkelman=s vehicle, he and Finkelman negotiated a price for the narcotics. He did not have enough money to complete the transaction. Appellant left Finkelman=s vehicle, and he returned with a gun he had borrowed from Lopez. Appellant pointed the gun at Finkelman=s head, intending to scare Finkelman. Appellant claimed that Finkelman grabbed the gun and the two struggled for the gun. Appellant admitted his finger was pressed against the gun=s trigger, and the gun discharged in the struggle. Appellant testified that this was the only shot fired inside the vehicle. Appellant saw Payne and Taormina run from the vehicle. Appellant also fled the vehicle. Appellant testified that as he ran he heard gunshots, and he returned fire, emptying the gun. Appellant fled the scene.

Autopsy reports indicate Finkelman died of a contact gunshot wound to his head with the weapon placed against his skin. Finkelman=s wallet was never found. Appellant was arrested and charged with capital murder for causing Finkelman=s death during a robbery.

A police detective conducted two videotaped interviews with the appellant. In the first video, appellant admitted to using narcotics twice in the hours preceding the interview. The detective terminated this interview and conducted the second videotaped interview twenty-four hours later after appellant had been in police custody and free from access to narcotics or alcohol. In each interview, appellant denied recollection of the events. In his testimony at trial, he admitted to lying to the detective in both interviews in an effort to cover up his role in the crime.


The jury found appellant guilty as charged, and the trial court assessed punishment as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

II. Issues and Analysis

 A. Is the evidence factually sufficient to support appellant=s conviction?

In his fifth issue, appellant challenges the factual sufficiency of the evidence to prove appellant had specific intent to kill Finkelman.[1] When evaluating a challenge to the factual sufficiency of the evidence, we view all the evidence in a neutral light and inquire whether we are able to say, with some objective basis in the record, that a conviction is Aclearly wrong@ or Amanifestly unjust@ because the great weight and preponderance of the evidence contradicts the jury=s verdict. Watson v. State, 204 S.W.3d 404, 414B17 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006). It is not enough that this court harbor a subjective level of reasonable doubt to overturn a conviction that is founded on legally sufficient evidence, and this court cannot declare that a conflict in the evidence justifies a new trial simply because it disagrees with the jury=s resolution of that conflict. Id. at 417. If this court determines the evidence is factually insufficient, it must explain in exactly what way it perceives the conflicting evidence greatly to preponderate against conviction. Id. at 414B17. Our evaluation should not intrude upon the fact finder=s role as the sole judge of the weight and credibility given to any witness=s testimony. See Fuentes v. State, 991 S.W.2d 267, 271 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999). In conducting a factual sufficiency review, we discuss the evidence appellant claims is most important in allegedly undermining the jury=s verdict. See Sims v. State, 99 S.W.3d 600, 603 (Tex. Crim. App. 2003).


A person commits the offense of capital murder if he intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual while in the course of committing a felony. Tex. Penal Code Ann. '' 19.02(b), 19.03(a)(2) (Vernon 2003 & Supp. 2007). The indictment in this case charged appellant with intentionally causing the death of the complainant by shooting the complainant with a firearm, a deadly weapon, while in the course of committing or attempting to commit a robbery. A robbery is a second-degree felony. Tex. Penal Code Ann. ' 29.02(b) (Vernon 2003).

Intent is a fact question for the jury and is almost always proven through evidence of the circumstances surrounding the crime. See Childs v. State, 21 S.W.3d 631, 635 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2000, pet. ref=d). Intent may be inferred from words and conduct of the accused. Id. The jury may infer the intent to kill from the use of a deadly weapon unless it would not be reasonable to infer that death or serious bodily injury could result from the use of the weapon. See Staley v. State, 887 S.W.2d 885, 889 (Tex. Crim. App. 1994); Ross v. State, 861 S.W.2d 870, 873 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992); Childs, 21 S.W.3d at 635. Furthermore, when a deadly weapon is fired at close range and death results, the law presumes an intent to kill. Childs, 21 S.W.3d at 635.


The State presented testimony from Payne and Taormina, both of whom testified that appellant pointed the gun at Finkelman=s head or in the general vicinity of Finkelman=s head when appellant demanded the narcotics. Appellant, himself, testified that he held the gun against Finkelman=s temple. However, appellant testified that in holding the gun to Finkelman=s head, he intended only to scare Finkelman and that the gun discharged in the ensuing scuffle. Autopsy reports indicate that Finkelman suffered a gunshot wound to his head resulting from a gun being discharged when placed against Finkelman=s skin. Intent to kill may be presumed from the evidence because Finkelman=s death occurred from the weapon fired at close range. See Childs, 21 S.W.3d at 635. Furthermore, specific intent to kill may be inferred from appellant=s use of the gun, a deadly weapon, unless it is reasonably apparent from the manner of its use that death or bodily injury could not result. See Ross, 861 S.W.2d at 873; Godsey v. State, 719 S.W.2d 578, 580B81 (Tex. Crim. App. 1986). Therefore, appellant=s admitted use of the gun, by placing it against Finkelman=s head, and evidence indicating Finkelman died of gunshot wounds at close range are sufficient to demonstrate specific intent to kill. See Childs, 21 S.W.3d at 635; Ross, 861 S.W.2d at 873; Godsey, 719 S.W.2d at 580B81.

Viewing the evidence in a neutral light, we cannot say with some objective basis in the record that appellant=s convictions are clearly wrong or manifestly unjust because the great weight and preponderance of the evidence contradicts the jury=s verdict. See Watson, 204 S.W.3d at 417; Martin v. State, 246 S.W.3d 246, 264 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2007, no pet.). In light of the testimony and autopsy evidence, we hold that the evidence is factually sufficient to prove specific intent for appellant=s conviction of capital murder. Accordingly, appellant=s fifth issue is overruled.

 B. Did the trial court err in failing to make findings of fact as to the voluntariness of appellant=s videotaped statements to police investigators?


In his first issue, appellant contends the trial court erred in failing to make findings of fact regarding the voluntariness of appellant=s videotaped statements to police investigators. When the voluntariness of a statement is challenged, the trial court is obligated under Article 38.22, section 6 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to make written fact findings and conclusions of law as to whether the challenged statement was made voluntarily. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.22, ' 6 (Vernon 2005); Urias v. State, 155 S.W.3d 141, 142 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004). Because the record contained no findings, on February 7, 2008, this court abated the appeal for the trial court to supply written findings of fact and conclusions of law on the voluntariness of appellant=s videotaped statements. Appellant=s first issue was rendered moot on February 19, 2008, when the trial court filed the appropriate findings and conclusions in which the trial court determined appellant=s videotaped statements to investigators were voluntary. See Rocha v. State, 16 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000); Allen v. State, 795 S.W.2d 15, 16 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 1990, no pet.). A trial court should file its findings of fact and conclusions of law as soon as possible after admission of the confession irrespective of whether the accused objects to the trial court=s failure to follow Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 38.22, section 6. See Allen, 795 S.W.2d at 16. However, the fact that the trial court did not file its findings and conclusions until after abatement does not constitute reversible error. See id. Therefore, appellant=s first issue is overruled as moot.

 C. Did the trial court err in failing to sua sponte instruct the jury under Articles 38.22 and 38.23 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure as to the voluntariness of appellant=s statements?

In his second issue, appellant claims egregious harm because the trial court did not sua sponte instruct the jury as to the voluntariness of appellant=s videotaped statements under Articles 38.22, section 6, and 38.23 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Appellant points to evidence that he smoked marijuana laced with the contraband substance known as APCP@ twice in the hours preceding his arrest and first interview as affecting the voluntariness of his videotaped statements. Appellant complains that as a result of the trial court=s error in failing to instruct the jury as to the voluntariness of his statements, his trial testimony was rendered less credible because it conflicted with his two prior statements to the police investigator.

A trial judge has the absolute duty to sua sponte to prepare a jury charge that accurately sets out the law applicable to the case. Oursbourn v. State, ___ S.W.3d ___, ___, No. PD 1687-06, 2008 WL 2261744, at *11 (Tex. Crim. App. June 4, 2008); see Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 36.14 (Vernon 2007). When statutes such as Articles 38.22 and 38.23 require an instruction under certain circumstances, that instruction is Alaw applicable to the case,@ and the trial court must instruct the jury of what is required under the statute. Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *11B12.


1. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 38.23

Article 38.23 provides if evidence raises a fact issue as to whether the admitted evidence, such as the videotaped statements in this case, was obtained in violation of the United States Constitution or Texas laws, then Athe jury shall be instructed that if it believes, or has a reasonable doubt, that the evidence was obtained in violation of the provisions of this Article, then and in such event, the jury shall disregard any such evidence so obtained.@ Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.23(a) (Vernon 2005); see Mendoza v. State, 88 S.W.3d 236, 239 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). Article 38.23 is the Alaw applicable@ in a case in which a specific, disputed factual issue is raised concerning the constitutional voluntariness in the making of a defendant=s statement. See Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *12. However, evidence does not raise a constitutional voluntariness issue unless the evidence involves police coercion or other official over-reaching. See id. at *13; Perry v. State, 158 S.W.3d 438, 446 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004). Therefore, a jury instruction under Article 38.23 is not required unless the evidence raises a factual dispute as to whether the evidence was illegally obtained. See Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *12; see Garza v. State, 126 S.W.3d 79, 85 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004).

In this case, evidence did not raise a specific, disputed factual issue under Article 38.23 as to as to whether the investigator illegally obtained appellant=s statements. See Oursbourn , 2008 WL 2261744, at *13; Perry, 158 S.W.3d at 446; Williams v. State, No. 01-04-00639-CR, 2005 WL 1415353, at *3 (Tex. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] June 16, 2005, pet. ref=d) (mem. op., not designated for publication). Though appellant points to evidence that he smoked marijuana laced with PCP before appellant first interview with detectives, this evidence does not raise a factual dispute as to whether appellant=s statement was illegally obtained by virtue of police misconduct. Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *13; Williams, 2005 WL 1415353, at *3.


Because the evidence does not raise a factual dispute as to whether appellant=s statements were illegally obtained, the evidence did not warrant an instruction under Article 38.23. See Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *13; Garza, 126 S.W.3d at 85; Butler, 872 S.W.2d 227, 236 (Tex. Crim. App. 1994); Perry, 158 S.W.3d at 443. Therefore, the trial court did not err in failing to sua sponte submit jury instructions under Article 38.23. See Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *13.

2. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 38.22

Article 38.22, section 6 of the Code of Criminal Procedure governs the admissibility of an accused=s custodial and non-custodial statements, providing that only voluntary statements may be admitted. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.22, ' 6 (Vernon 2005); see Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *6. Under Article 38.22, section 6, once the voluntariness of a statement is raised, the trial judge is required to (1) make an independent determination that the statement was made under voluntary conditions, and (2) instruct the jurors that they shall not consider any statement for any purpose unless they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the statement was made voluntarily. Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *12; see Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.22, ' 6.


Claims of youth, intoxication, and mental retardation, by themselves, are rarely sufficient to render a statement inadmissible; however, a jury, armed with a proper jury instruction, may consider these factors. See Oursbourn, 2008 WL 2261744, at *7. Entitlement to an instruction pursuant to Article 38.22, section 6 does not require a factual dispute, and similarly, a defendant need not request the jury instruction. See id. at *9. Even if evidence is undisputed that a defendant was Ahigh@ on narcotics at the time he gave his statement, as in this case, Aif a reasonable jury could find that the facts, disputed or undisputed, rendered him unable to make a voluntary statement, he is entitled to a general voluntariness instruction when he has raised a question of the voluntariness of his statement.@ Id. In this case, evidence as to voluntariness, as brought to the trial court=s attention in appellant=s motion-to-suppress hearing, raised a general voluntariness question under Article 38.22, section 6.[2] See id. At trial, appellant claimed that he was under the influence of narcotics in the first interview even though the investigator did not observe signs of intoxication in either interview.[3] Article 38.22, section 6 is the Alaw applicable@ to this case. See id. The issue of voluntariness should have been submitted to the jury under Article 38.22, section 6 because the question as to general voluntariness was raised to the trial court and a reasonable jury could have concluded based on the evidence that the statements were not voluntary. See id. at *13.

3. Harm Analysis


When, as in this case, appellant fails to request an Article 38.22 instruction, or fails to object to the lack of one, a reviewing court must consider the trial court=s failure to instruct the jury pursuant to this article as a jury-charge error. See id.; Madden v. State, 242 S.W.3d 504, 513 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). Under this standard, jury-charge error in the absence of an objection or request results in reversal only when egregious harm ensued. Pickens v. State, 165 S.W.3d 675, 680 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005). Egregious harm occurs when appellant has not received a fair and impartial trial. See Almanza v. State, 686 S.W.2d 157, 171 (Tex. Crim. App. 1984) (op. on reh=g). Appellant must have suffered actual, rather than merely theoretical harm from the jury-instruction error. See Almanza, 686 S.W.2d at 174. We consider whether an appellant has suffered egregious harm stemming from a non-objected-to instruction on a case-by-case basis in light of (1) the entire jury charge, (2) the state of the evidence, including contested issues, (3) arguments of counsel, and (4) any other relevant information. Hutch v. State, 922 S.W.2d 166, 171 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996). Errors that result in egregious harm affect Athe very basis of the case,@ Adeprive a defendant of a valuable right,@ or Avitally affect a defensive theory.@ See id.

Appellant complains that there was Ano mechanism for the jury to disregard appellant=s video statement@ if the jury were to believe the statements were involuntary. When considering the record as a whole, particularly in light of the autopsy reports that Finkelman died of contact gunshot wounds and appellant=s own trial testimony that corroborated that of Payne=s and Taormina=s in that he pointed a gun at Finkelman=s head and that the gun discharged in a struggle for control of the gun, appellant has not suffered actual egregious harm. See Gomez v. State, No. 07-07-0051-CR, 2008 WL 2917592, at *5 (Tex. App.CAmarillo July 30, 2008, no pet. h.) (mem. op., not designated for publication). We conclude that the trial court=s failure to include an instruction as to voluntariness did not impair appellant=s right to have a fair and impartial trial. See id. Therefore, we overrule appellant=s second issue.

 D. Did the State prove appellant=s waiver of his Miranda rights in making the statements and were such statements obtained by law enforcement officers overbearing his will?

In his third and fourth issues, appellant complains that (1) the State failed to prove that he knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his Miranda rights in making the videotaped statements; and (2) under a totality of circumstances, law enforcement officials obtained appellant=s statements by overbearing his will so as to render the statements involuntary. Appellant points to evidence of his educational background in reaching only the tenth grade, his physical appearance and demeanor in the video, his Aacquiescence to police suggestions that he waive his rights,@ and appellant=s admission of narcotics ingestion as evidence weighing against a finding that appellant=s decision to waive his rights and make a statement was voluntary and the product of unconstrained choice.


Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the two videotaped statements. The trial court denied this motion. A motion to suppress is nothing more than a specialized objection to the admissibility of evidence. See Galitz v. State, 617 S.W.2d 949, 952 n.10 (Tex. Crim. App. 1981). When a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence is overruled, as in this case, the defendant need not subsequently object at trial to the same evidence to preserve error on appeal. See Moraguez v. State, 701 S.W.2d 902, 904 (Tex. Crim. App. 1986). However, at trial appellant affirmatively stated that he had Ano objection@ to the admission of the two videotaped statements. By doing so, appellant waived any error, despite the pre-trial ruling. See Norris v. State, 902 S.W.2d 428, 439 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995); Jones v. State, 833 S.W.2d 118, 126 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992); Moody v. State, 827 S.W.2d 875, 889 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992); Gearing v. State, 685 S.W.2d 326, 329B30 (Tex. Crim. App. 1985); Hardin v. State, 951 S.W.2d 208, 210 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 1997, no pet.). Thus, by affirmatively stating he had no objection at trial, appellant waived his complaint to the inadmissibility of the challenged evidence. See Moody, 827 S.W.2d at 889. Accordingly, we overrule appellant=s third and fourth issues.

Having overruled appellant=s five issues, we affirm the trial court=s judgment.

/s/ Kem Thompson Frost

Justice

Judgment rendered and Memorandum Opinion filed August 28, 2008.

Panel consists of Justices Frost, Seymore, and Guzman.

Do Not Publish C Tex. R. App. P. 47.2(b).


[1] Because a factual-sufficiency review begins with the presumption that the evidence supporting the jury=s verdict is legally sufficient, and because appellant challenges only the factual sufficiency of the evidence, appellant effectively concedes the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain the conviction. See Santellan v. State, 939 S.W.2d 155, 164 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997); Clewis v. State, 922 S.W.2d 126, 134 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996).

[2] The trial court denied appellant=s motion to suppress the statements. As discussed above, the trial court filed its findings of fact after this court abated the appeal for the appropriate findings.

[3] On appeal, appellant does not distinguish whether the second interview is affected by his drug use twenty-four hours before.