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Hall v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 17, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/15/2017






          WESTBROOKS, J.

         ¶1. On July 14, 2015, a Tate County grand jury indicted Antonio Hall for one count of conspiracy to commit murder in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-1-1 (Rev. 2014), and for one count of murder in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(1)(a) (Rev. 2014). Following a jury trial, which began on May 1, 2017, Antonio was acquitted of the conspiracy charge, and the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on May 5, 2017. Following his conviction, Antonio filed a motion for recusal, which the circuit court denied. Antonio also filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, alternatively, a new trial. After a hearing on his post-trial motion for a JNOV or a new trial, the circuit court rendered final judgment on August 15, 2017, and sentenced Antonio to life imprisonment in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). Antonio appealed, and, finding no error, we affirm.


         ¶2. On February 8, 2015, James Shorty and Antonio Hall visited Cauthen Circle (Newton), a housing community located in Senatobia. The men claimed they were there to visit the mother of James Hall's daughter. For unclear reasons, the men stopped the vehicle outside of the home of Ludean Carter, an elderly resident. Ms. Carter testified that she did not know the men and told them to move out of her yard. Ms. Carter claims that one of the men yelled back an expletive and instructed her to return to her home; she acquiesced. Shortly after the exchange, eight eyewitnesses testified that a physical altercation ensued between Darrius "Dee" Brooks (Ms. Carter's nephew) and James Shorty. Testimony indicated that during the fight, Antonio retrieved a handgun from the vehicle and shot an undetermined number of bullets at a bystander named Travis Roberts.[1] Roberts was shot in the chest and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. When law enforcement arrived, a host of eyewitnesses agreed to review photographic lineups and identified Antonio as the shooter.

         ¶3. On July 14, 2015, the Tate County grand jury indicted Antonio Hall, along with James Hall and James Shorty, for one count of conspiracy to commit murder and one count of deliberate-design murder in connection with the death of Travis Lamar Roberts. Arrest warrants were subsequently issued for all three men.

         ¶4. After negotiations, James Shorty and James Hall pled guilty to a reduced charge of accessory-after-the-fact on May 22, 2017. On June 1, 2017, they were sentenced, respectively, to twenty years in the custody of the MDOC with ten years to serve, and placed on ten years of post-release supervision. Antonio moved forward with a jury trial.

         ¶5. Prior to trial Antonio filed a host of motions, including a motion to change venue, which was filed on April 13, 2017, and a discovery request. Antonio asserted that he could not get a fair trial in Tate County, citing media coverage of the case and violent threats against the defendants' families. On April 19, 2017, the court held a hearing to address pre-trial motions and ultimately deemed it best to hold the "Motion for Change of Venue" in abeyance until after the jury was impaneled. During the hearing, the court inquired as to whether there were any discovery issues it needed to address. Antonio's attorney responded that there were not.

         ¶6. Dissatisfied, Antonio filed a second "Request for a Change of Venue" on April 25, 2017, again citing violence against the defendants' families along with purported familial connections among the jurors, the defendants, and the victim. The court ultimately determined these issues were insufficient to warrant a change of venue and denied Antonio's motions. Accordingly, the case proceeded in Tate County.

         ¶7. On April 25, 2017, five days before trial, Antonio also filed a second "Request for Discovery" and a "Motion for an Omnibus" hearing, making several evidentiary requests and alleging the State provided him with incomplete discovery. Antonio further requested funding for a ballistic expert and noted that the State had not provided the full pathology report for the deceased, Travis Roberts. As a part of his numerous discovery requests, Antonio requested "any and all police reports, investigative reports, evidence and supplemental reports or the like made in conjunction [to] reports of violence that occurred in Newton on February 6, 2015, February 7, 2015, and February 8, 2015." Although citing the reports as irrelevant, the State provided Antonio with the requested activity logs. Antonio also requested NCIC reports[2] on fourteen of the State's potential witnesses. The State provided NCIC reports for Antonio's co-defendants James Shorty and James Hall but responded that it did not have reports for the other twelve potential witnesses listed. The court addressed the motions on May 1, 2017, prior to the commencement of the trial.

         ¶8. On May 1, 2017, Antonio's trial ensued. The jury heard sworn testimony from over thirty witnesses over the course of the proceedings-including Antonio. At the conclusion of the State's case in chief, Antonio motioned the court for a directed verdict. The court denied the motion and allowed the trial to proceed. A unanimous jury acquitted Antonio of conspiracy to commit murder (Count I) but convicted him of murder (Count II) on May 5, 2017. On May 30, 2017, Antonio filed a motion for JNOV or, alternatively, a new trial, which the court denied after a hearing on the matter. Additionally, Antonio filed another post-trial motion for recusal, which the court also denied. On August 15, 2017, the court rendered a final judgment and sentenced Antonio to life imprisonment in the custody of the MDOC. Aggrieved, Antonio Hall now appeals.


         ¶9. In his appeal, Antonio assigns a total of eighteen errors related to the denial of pre-and post-trial motions, as well as voir dire and perceived evidentiary violations. Given the myriad of issues raised in the case sub judice, we have categorized and reorganized Antonio's assignments of error as necessary to facilitate clarity and efficiency. Likewise, each issue is restated within its respective category for ease of reference.

         I. Venue

         Issue 1: Whether the circuit court erred in denying Antonio's requests for a change of venue.

         ¶10. "A change of venue is at 'the discretion of the trial court, and its ruling thereon will not be disturbed on appeal unless it clearly appears that there has been an abuse of discretion or that the discretion has not been justly and properly exercised under the circumstances of the case.'" Davis v. State, 196 So.3d 194, 198 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting Beech v. Leaf River Forest Prods., 691 So.2d 446, 448 (Miss. 1997)).

         ¶11. "The accused has a right to a change of venue when it is doubtful that an impartial jury can be obtained." Davis v. State, 767 So.2d 986, 993 (¶16) (Miss. 2000).

         ¶12. Mississippi law sets forth a procedure for defendants to establish a requisite presumption that an impartial jury is beyond reach in their current venue. "[A] motion for change of venue must be in writing and supported by affidavits of two or more credible persons showing that the defendant cannot receive an impartial and fair trial in that particular county because of prejudgment of the case or grudge or ill will to the defendant in the mind of the public." Gray v. State, 799 So.2d 53, 62 (¶33) (Miss. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Davis, 767 So.2d at 993 (¶15)); see Miss. Code Ann. §99-15-35 (Rev. 2015).

         ¶13. This presumption, however, may be rebutted by the State upon proof that an impartial jury was impaneled during voir dire. Holland v. State, 705 So.2d 307, 336 (¶97) (Miss. 1997).

         ¶14. In his first assignment of error, Antonio argues that the court erred in denying his pre-trial "Motion for Change of Venue." In his motion, Antonio cited several local news outlets reporting the murder. Consistent with the procedure outlined above, Antonio provided supporting affidavits from his mother (Arbedella Armstrong) and James Shorty's mother (Ruthie Lee Hall). Antonio's supporting affidavits and arguments at the motion hearing, much like those on appeal, rely primarily on anticipated gang retaliation and threats of violence made against Antonio's family. The court concluded that a change of venue would not "cure or prevent alleged retaliation" and reiterated that the purpose of a venue change is to "be certain that the defendant can obtain a fair and impartial jury." At the venue hearing, though seemingly unpersuaded by Antonio's arguments, the court, out of an "abundance of caution," held the motion in abeyance until after voir dire.

         ¶15. Antonio now argues that the court erred by waiting until after voir dire to grant a ruling on the venue motion, citing the State's alleged failure to "rebut the assertion of violent threats and actual violence against the family member of [Antonio]." Antonio relies on Davis, 196 So.3d at 199 (¶22), where this court found that "the trial court erred in denying the motion for change of venue in light of the fact that the State failed to rebut the presumption that arose upon Davis's application for a change of venue." In Davis, the defendant was a public official entangled in a scandal involving the misuse of public funds. Id. Davis was able to establish that there had been a plethora of news coverage related to his arrest, conviction, divorce, sexual orientation, and even an unrelated lawsuit; the stories were heavily televised and run in the local newspapers. Id. Antonio's request based on threats against third parties does not compare.

         ¶16. When "reviewing whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying a change of venue, 'we look to the completed trial, particularly including the voir dire examination of prospective jurors, to determine whether the accused received a fair trial.'" Id. at 198 (¶19) (quoting Lutes v. State, 517 So.2d 541, 546 (Miss. 1987)). In the present case, the court did not err by determining whether a fair and impartial jury could be impaneled before making a determination with regard to venue. Antonio failed to provide a sufficient basis for his motion, and voir dire ultimately amassed an adequate cross-section of fair and impartial Tate County jurors for impanelment. Some people were indeed removed for cause while others were deemed capable of fairness and impartiality despite their loose affiliations with the victim or other relevant parties.

         ¶17. "[O]ur supreme court has identified several factors that, when present, make the presumption for a change of venue irrebuttable," including the following:

(1)capital cases based on considerations of a heightened standard of review;
(2)crowds threatening violence toward the accused; [or]
(3)an inordinate amount of media coverage, particularly in cases of
(a) serious crimes against influential families;
(b) serious crimes against public officials;
(c) serial crimes;
(d) crimes committed by a black defendant upon a white victim; [or]
(e) where there is inexperienced trial counsel.

Id. at 198 (¶18).

         ¶18. Antonio also argues that there was an irrebuttable presumption that a change of venue was warranted based on the news coverage of the murder and the portrayal of Antonio and his co-defendants as gang members.[3] However, the record does not support this assertion. During the hearing on the motion for a venue change, Antonio's trial counsel admitted that with regard to media coverage, "there [had] not been anything recent" but anticipated that the impending trial date would "garner further media attention." In fact, the story had not been covered in the media at all since the initial incident, two years prior to the venue hearing. Based on the above facts, we find the circuit court did not abuse its discretion and affirm the court's denial of Antonio's motion for a change of venue.

         II. Alleged Discovery Violations

         ¶19. The Court deems it appropriate to address issues 2 and 3 collectively.

         Issue 2: Whether the State's failure to comply with the rules of discovery requires reversal.

         ¶20. In his second assignment of error, Antonio alleges the State failed to comply with basic discovery requests for (a) police crime logs, (b) witness NCIC reports, (c) Travis Robert's GSR kit, and (d) gang activity reports. Antonio argues the information was potentially exculpatory and withheld in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).[4]

         ¶21. "A trial court's judgment is presumptively correct and the appellant must demonstrate reversible error to this Court. Lenard v. State, 812 So.2d, 1097, 1102 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (citing Branch v. State, 347 So.2d 957, 958 (Miss. 1977)). Part of the appellant's burden is to support the argument of the issues with reasons and authorities." Id. (citing Pate v. State, 419 So.2d 1324, 1325-26 (Miss. 1982)). Antonio's brief raises a number of other lone, alleged discovery violations. The additional issues are comprised of mere assertions. Absent the required reference to any supporting authority, statutes, or portions of the record that Antonio relied on, we decline review of the purported errors. M.R.A.P. 28(a)(7).

         A. Daily Police Crime Logs

         ¶22. Antonio's second discovery request asked the State to provide "any and all police reports, investigative reports, evidence and supplemental reports or the like made in conjunction reports of violence that occurred in Newton (Cauthen Circle) February 6, 2015, February 7, 2015, and February 8, 2015, that was referenced as being a part of the incident occurring on February 8, 2015 resulting in the death of Travis Roberts." Citing Brady, Antonio alleges that although the state provided activity logs for the specified dates, some possibly exculpatory logs were intentionally excluded and prejudiced Antonio's theory of self defense.

         ¶23. In agreement with the State's response, we find the record reveals this issue is without merit. As an appellate court, we are bound to "matters contained in the official record and not [mere] assertions in briefs. 'Facts asserted to exist must and ought to be definitely proved and placed before the Court by a record, certified by law; otherwise, we cannot know them.' The Court 'does not act upon innuendo and unsupported representation of fact . . . .'" McDonald v. State, 807 So.2d 447, 451 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (quoting Colenburg v. State, 735 So.2d 1099 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)).

         ¶24. Daily logs provided in response to Antonio's request were admitted through the testimony of Lieutenant Billy Burrow of the Senatobia Police Department. Lieutenant Burrow testified that the shooting of Travis Roberts was the only shooting incident reported in the Newton area on the dates requested. Antonio's request specifically asked for reports related to the death of Travis Roberts, and Antonio fails to point to any evidence or testimony that relevant records existed and were not turned over. Antonio's first Brady claim fails.

         B. NCIC Reports

         ¶25. On May 1, 2017, Antonio filed a motion to compel the production of NCIC reports containing the criminal and juvenile histories of each of the State's witnesses. Antonio alleges that by denying his motion, the circuit court and prosecution deprived him of "material evidence" affecting the credibility of the State's witnesses in violation of Brady and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 154 (1972).[5]

         ¶26. "It is well established that the State ha[s] [a] duty to turn over all exculpatory material relevant to [a defendant's] case." Howell v. State, 989 So.2d 372, 378 (¶13) (Miss. 2008). "There is little dispute that a government witness's prior criminal conduct may be used for impeachment purposes and should be disclosed by the State." Minor v. State, 89 So.3d 710, 714 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). In Minor, we addressed a very similar issue regarding a defendant's motion for the production and disclosure of criminal records of the State's witnesses. Id. at 714 (¶8). This Court held that "even where impeachment material exists, nondisclosure by the State does not necessarily establish that the outcome was unjust." Id. at 714 (¶11). Minor's Brady claim failed because he failed to show any evidence that the witness in question had any felony convictions, thus there was no showing that the State suppressed evidence. Id. at 714 (¶12).

         ¶27. The State contends it obtained and provided NCIC reports for the accused and his co-defendants and further argues that Antonio provided no evidence that any of the State's witnesses had criminal histories that should have been disclosed. Antonio provided nothing to counter the State on this issue. Again, Antonio's Brady claim fails.

         C. GSR Kit

         ¶28. Antonio cites King v. State, 656 So.2d 1168, 1174 (Miss. 1995) (restating the duty of the prosecution to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants as required by Brady and Giglio), once more alleging the State withheld exculpatory evidence by failing to submit the decedent's GSR kit for gun-residue testing. Again, the record does not support Antonio's claim. At trial, forensic expert David Whitehead of the Mississippi Forensics Lab testified that it is standard procedure to collect GSR samples during autopsies, but since 1998 the agency policy has been not to perform tests on victim kits. With gunshot victims in particular, the test only reveals the obvious; to be shot, the victim had to be in the environment of a discharged weapon. Whitehead further explained that victims' GSR kits are only worked up upon special request. Antonio presented no evidence that the GSR kit would have had any evidentiary or exculpatory value; in fact, according to Antonio's own testimony, no one else at the scene brandished a weapon. Although futile, Antonio was still free to request the test by motion to the court. Antonio made no such request, and, accordingly, this claim was waived and fails.

         D. Gang Activity Reports

         ¶29. Additionally, Antonio, for the first time on appeal, argues that the State improperly denied his request for "any and all police reports, investigative reports, evidence and supplemental reports or the like made in conjunction [with] reports of violence that occurred from February 1, 2015 in Newton through February 10, 2015, as it relates specifically to violent actions of gang activity." In response, the State asserted the request was "overly broad and irrelevant." A review of the record reveals that during a hearing on pending ...

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