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Louisiana Supreme Court: Jury May Not Speculate on Guilt When Evidence Is Lacking

by Dale Chappell

Where the evidence was lacking and the jury could only speculate as to the defendant’s guilt, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed the defendant’s conviction and entered a judgment of acquittal, holding that a jury may not “speculate” on a person’s guilt.

Darryl Jones and two co-defendants were found guilty by a jury of the second-degree murder of one of their drug associates, after the victim was found on the side of a road with two gunshot wounds.

A witness who heard the shots said a vehicle matching Jones’ was seen speeding from the scene, and a local gas station video showed one of the co-defendants with Jones’ vehicle around the same time as the shooting.

Jones denied any involvement. He told police the victim had been at his house earlier that evening, but never returned after he left.

Jones’ girlfriend and another friend of his corroborated his story that the two co-defendants had taken Jones’ car, but Jones stayed at home all night.

Jones’ friend had loaned a phone to one of the co-defendants, and cellphone records showed that phone was near the crime scene and was used to call Jones and the victim. That phone was then returned to the area where Jones lived.

Jones’ girlfriend, however, testified that Jones’ phone rang that night, but he was in bed. Records showed that his phone went unanswered. Jones was charged with being a principal in the murder and was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder. He appealed.

The court of appeal upheld Jones’ conviction, finding that the jury “could have” interpreted the cellphone records as Jones’ participation in the murder and that Jones’ instruction for the borrowed cellphone to be returned to him, rather than to the police, was proof he was involved in the murder.

Jones appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which reversed his conviction.

To prove second-degree murder under La.R.S. 14:30.1 (A)(1 ), the State must prove that Jones had intended to kill or inflict great bodily harm on the victim. In order to show Jones was a “principal,” or someone who directed others to commit the crime, the State, under La.R.S. 14:24, had to show that he “aided and abetted” the murder or “directly or indirectly counseled” another person to commit the crime.

In Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court held that after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, due process is satisfied if “any trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, this does not allow a court of appeal “to substitute its own appreciation of the evidence for that of the fact finder,” the Louisiana Supreme Court held in State v. Calloway, 1 So.3d 417 (La. 2008). This standard applies equally in cases, such as Jones’ that are based on circumstantial evidence, the Court said.

Jackson, however, does not allow jurors to “speculate” if the evidence was sufficient to support guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When the prosecutor’s evidence merely invites the jury to speculate on a number of reasonable probabilities — some consistent with guilt, others with innocence — a jury must entertain a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt, the Court said.

“The record is void of evidence that defendant gave any counsel to [his codefendants] directly or indirectly, in the commission of the crime,” Circuit court of appeals Judge Mitch Theriot wrote in his dissenting opinion. First, a witness testified that Jones told the co-defendants to leave the victim alone. Next, the calls to Jones’ phone went unanswered. Finally, while Jones became an accessory after the fact for trying to obtain the borrowed phone before the police got it, that crime is not directly connected to the murder, Theriot said.

The Supreme Court agreed with Judge Theriot: “Based on the evidence presented, the jury could only speculate defendant was guilty as a principal to the second degree murder.” A jury’s conclusion that a defendant was a principal in a crime “cannot be mere speculation based on guilt by association,” the Court concluded, reversing Jones’ conviction and entering a judgment of acquittal. See: State v. Jones, 2018 La. LEXIS 187 (2018). 

 

Related legal case

State v. Jones




 

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