JUAN ANTONIO CORNEJO v. THE STATE OF TEXAS

Reset A A Font size: Print

Court of Appeals of Texas, El Paso.

JUAN ANTONIO CORNEJO, Appellant, v. THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee.

No. 08-15-00039-CR

Decided: May 04, 2018

Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Hughes, JJ.

OPINION

Juan Antonio Cornejo appeals his conviction for capital murder in the 34th District Court of El Paso, Texas. In two issues, Appellant argues: (1) the trial court abused its discretion in admitting hearsay testimony from a co-defendant because the statement shifted blame, thus negating its reliability; and (2) the evidence was insufficient to allow a jury to rationally find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of capital murder. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

This case concerns the reliability requirements for the hearsay exception for statements against penal interest where a co-defendant implicates the defendant in capital murder. Santos Gonzalez, a resident of Socorro, TX, came home in the early afternoon after spending time at the Speaking Rock Casino. His neighbor, who was out in her front yard, told him she had heard gunshots coming from a canal behind her residence, and the two went to investigate. The pair noticed three men out in the canal, and Gonzalez recognized one of the men as Appellant. Gunshots were common in the area, however, and thinking nothing of it, Gonzalez returned to his home.

The next day, crime-scene investigator Michelle Flahive-Leifebvre was called to the scene of a double homicide in Socorro. Two bodies were found in a canal behind a residential area, and multiple 9 mm and .22 mm shell casings were located nearby. Another crime scene technician, Richard Pryor, sketched the scene and attended the autopsies of the two victims, who were later identified as Luis Fierro and Roberto Renteria. Pryor collected multiple 9 and .22 mm bullets and bullet fragments from the autopsy. The autopsy revealed Fierro and Renteria died of multiple gunshot wounds. Fierro's vehicle, a green Chevy Tahoe, was subsequently located near the scene.

Police began interviewing witnesses at the Socorro police station. Among those interviewed was Mr. Gonzalez. Gonzalez did not initially tell the police he recognized Appellant because he knew Appellant was a member of a gang, the Barrio Aztecas. However, at a subsequent interview at Gonzalez's home, he positively identified Appellant as one of the men he had seen in the canal that day.

Once Renteria's body had been identified, detectives were given a home address and went to notify his next of kin. While at the home, the detectives made contact with Veronica Cera, Renteria's mother-in-law and Fierro's wife, who agreed to give a statement and provide evidence only if she could do so to the FBI. Cera subsequently gave a statement implicating Appellant in the homicides. Appellant was twice brought in for questioning, and after his second interview, was arrested and charged with the murders of Fierro and Renteria.

At trial, Cera testified regarding her personal knowledge of the command structure of the Barrio Azteca gang from having worked for them and having dated several members over the years. She testified she handled the accounting for the gang's activities, including paying member salaries, lawyer fees, and expenses for gang members in prison. She said Fierro and Appellant disliked each other and arguments were common between the two men. At some point, Fierro was made acting lieutenant of El Paso, placing gang members Espino, Noriega, Rodriguez, and Appellant under his authority. The four men were unhappy with his appointment, and Appellant began openly displaying disrespect towards Fierro. Because Noriega and Appellant made complaints to higher ups, Fierro was “parked,” meaning he was temporarily stripped of authority to act on the gang's behalf. Sometime after he was parked, Fierro received a letter from one of the acting Barrio Azteca bosses telling Fierro his authority had been reinstated. Fierro called Rodriguez to inform him of his return to the position of acting lieutenant of El Paso. While on the phone with Rodriguez, Appellant told Fierro to bring the letter to Noriega's house so they could see the letter themselves. Fierro then left the house with Renteria to meet up with Appellant and the other gang members. Cera testified she did not learn of the murders until detectives arrived the following day.

Detective Andres Sanchez from the El Paso gang unit testified Fierro was a rising member of the Barrio Azteca gang at the time of his death. Sanchez testified Fierro had been under surveillance as part of a RICO investigation and that his home was under video surveillance at all times. Sanchez stated a video taken from the surveillance camera on the day of the murders showed Fierro opening a letter, walking into his home, and coming back out and leaving with Renteria and in a green Tahoe. Sanchez also identified Appellant, Espino, Rodriguez, and Noriega as Barrio Azteca members. He testified Renteria was not a member of the gang.

Rodriguez's girlfriend at the time, Irma Lara, also testified. She stated Rodriguez had come home around 5:30 p.m. on the day of the murders and was nervous and jittery. He told her “Quebramos al Chuco y al Chavalon,” which she stated meant in English “we killed Chuco and Chavalon,” those being the nicknames of Fierro and Renteria, respectively. Rodriguez told her that Fierro's Tahoe had run out of gas, and Rodriguez, Noriega, “Garfield,” and Appellant met up with Fierro and Renteria and drove them to a canal. Once in the canal, they searched Fierro and Renteria for wires, cell phones, and guns. After patting them down, they shot them. Specifically, Rodriguez said he and Garfield shot and killed Renteria, and that Noriega and Appellant shot and killed Fierro. Further, Rodriguez told her Appellant had grabbed Fierro to prevent his escape and Noriega shot him while he was being held. Once Fierro was dead, Appellant yanked the gold chain off of Fierro's neck and took it with him. Rodriguez said the four men then hid the guns. Appellant obtained a running hearsay objection to Lara's testimony. Lara testified Rodriguez had been picked up earlier in the day by Appellant and Noriega and had taken his .22 caliber handgun with him. She stated he did not have his gun with him when he returned home and that he was anxious when he told her his story. Lara also testified she had seen Appellant wearing Fierro's gold chain after the murders. Lara said Rodriguez told her the four men had orders to kill Fierro because he was an informant, but that Renteria was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Crime Scene Technician Danny Garcia testified he obtained a security video from a McDonald's in Las Cruces, NM showing Appellant and Noriega on the day of the murders. Appellant is shown wearing a gold chain in the video. Cera testified she recognized the gold chain as belonging to Fierro, and stated she had given it to Fierro as a gift for Valentine's Day.

Appellant moved for a directed verdict of acquittal after the State rested its case, claiming there was insufficient credible evidence to support a finding of guilt by the jury. The motion was denied. The jury found Appellant guilty of capital murder of multiple persons. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

Hearsay

In his first issue, Appellant contends the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Rodriguez's girlfriend, Irma Lara, to testify regarding Rodriguez's confession to her because the testimony was hearsay. Specifically, Appellant claims the testimony should not have been permitted because Rodriguez “blame shift[ed]” when giving details about the murders, thereby violating the requirement that statements against penal interest be self-inculpatory or “blame sharing” to be admissible under the hearsay exception provided by Texas Rules of Evidence 803(24).

Standard of Review

We review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence for abuse of discretion. Torres v. State, 71 S.W.3d 758, 760 (Tex.Crim.App. 2002); Green v. State, 934 S.W.2d 92, 101-02 (Tex.Crim.App. 1996). A reviewing court should not reverse a trial court's ruling that falls within the “zone of reasonable disagreement.” Montgomery v. State, 810 S.W.2d 372, 391 (Tex.Crim.App. 1990)(op. on reh'g).

Analysis

Texas Rules of Evidence 803(24) provides an exception to the hearsay rule when a statement is against the declarant's interests, based on the theory that a reasonable person would only make such a statement if he believed it was true. TEX.R.EVID. 803(24); Walter v. State, 267 S.W.3d 883, 890 (Tex.Crim.App. 2008). In the criminal context, the statement must have been against the declarant's penal interests—that is, the statement would have exposed the declarant to criminal liability. TEX.R.EVID. 803(24). When offered in a criminal case, the statement must also be corroborated by circumstances clearly indicating its trustworthiness. Walter, 267 S.W.3d at 891. Statements against interest are categorized into three types: (1) self-inculpatory statements, subjecting only the declarant to criminal liability; (2) “blame sharing” statements, equally subjecting the declarant and a third-party to criminal liability; and (3) “blame shifting” statements, subjecting the declarant and a third-party to criminal liability but attempting to minimize the role of the declarant. Id., at 891-92. Self-incriminating statements cannot be mixed with blame-shifting statements because the attempt to shift blame diminishes its trustworthiness, and it is the court's responsibility to separate the blame-shifting statements from the neutral blame sharing and self-inculpatory statements. Id., at 897.

Here, Appellant challenges the nature of the statement, claiming Rodriguez's account was a clear example of blame shifting and the trial court therefore abused its discretion in admitting it over his hearsay objection. The specific testimony complained of in Appellant's brief is as follows:

Q. And did he tell you what had happened?

A. Yes.

Q. What did he say?

A. He said “Quebramos al Chuco y al Chavalon.”

Q. And what does that mean in English?

A. That they killed [Fierro]1 and [Renteria].

Q. And did you know [Fierro] and [Renteria]?

A. Yes.

Q. And what else did he say?

A. Like --

Q. What did he say? Who did what? Or how did they kill [Fierro] and [Renteria]?

A. Well, he said that him and Garfield 2 killed [Renteria] and that [Appellant] and [Noriega] killed [Fierro].

Q. How did he say that he killed [Renteria]?

A. He said they just shot him. [Emphasis added].

Appellant contends this testimony represents a clear example of blame shifting, and as such should not have been admissible. The language quoted does not bear out this allegation. Rodriguez states in Spanish “we killed [Fierro] and [Renteria].” He then states that he and Garfield shot Renteria and that Appellant and Noriega killed Fierro. Later in the testimony, Rodriguez claimed the men jointly “got rid of the guns.” At no point in the testimony was Rodriguez's role in the murder deemphasized; all of his statements were self-inculpatory or “blame sharing” in that he takes full responsibility for the murders and uses “we” extensively, never minimizing his own role in the killings. If anything, Rodriguez's testimony could be seen as deemphasizing Appellant's role by saying Appellant only grabbed Fierro and held him while Noriega shot him. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Rodriguez's statement to Lara because a reasonable person would have known the statement to be against his penal interest, and the statement equally inculpated Rodriguez and Appellant. Accordingly, Appellant's first issue is overruled.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

In his second issue, Appellant asserts the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to allow a jury to rationally find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each element of the offense. He claims that other than hearsay testimony and a “dubious identification,” no other evidence was put forth identifying him as one of the persons who actually murdered either of the victims.

Standard of Review

In a sufficiency challenge, the reviewing court does not act as a thirteenth juror, reweighing the evidence and substituting its judgment for that of the jury. Dewberry v. State, 4 S.W.3d 735, 740 (Tex.Crim.App. 1999), holding modified by Guidry v. State, 9 S.W.3d 133 (Tex.Crim.App. 1999). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, and will uphold the conviction if there is sufficient evidence to justify a jury to rationally find the appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all essential elements of the offense. Salinas v. State, 163 S.W.3d 734, 737 (Tex.Crim.App. 2005). The evidence is measured against the hypothetically correct jury charge. Villarreal v. State, 286 S.W.3d 321, 327 (Tex.Crim.App. 2009). A hypothetically correct jury charge lists all elements of the offense, is consistent with the indictment, and doesn't unnecessarily increase the prosecution's burden of proof. Id.

Analysis

A person commits the offense of capital murder when he commits murder as defined under Section 19.02(b)(1) of the Texas Penal Code and commits one of a number of aggravating acts listed under Section 19.03(a) of the Texas Penal Code. TEX.PENAL CODE ANN. § 19.03 (West Supp. 2017). A person commits murder under Section 19.02(b)(1) when he intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual. TEX.PENAL CODE ANN. § 19.02(b)(1)(West 2011). The offense is elevated to capital murder when the person kills more than one person during the same criminal transaction. TEX.PENAL CODE ANN. § 19.03(a)(7)(A).

The State concedes there is nothing in the record to establish Appellant himself murdered both men. Rather, it argues Appellant is guilty of murder under the law of parties, and that, because both men were killed during the same criminal transaction, a jury could have rationally concluded he was guilty of capital murder under Section 19.03(a)(7)(A). To charge a defendant under the law of parties, a defendant must (1) be physically present at the commission of the offense, and (2) encourage its commission by words or other agreement. Ransom v. State, 920 S.W.2d 288, 302 (Tex.Crim.App. 1994). Agreement can be shown by events before, during, and after the commission of the offense showing understanding and common design. Salinas, 163 S.W.3d at 739-40. That each party was doing some part of the common purpose is sufficient to show the parties were acting together. Cordova v. State, 698 S.W.2d 107, 111 (Tex.Crim.App. 1985). Circumstantial evidence may be used to prove a defendant acted as a party to the offense. Id. For a jury to rationally conclude two murders were carried out during the same criminal transaction, we “look to see whether the jury could rationally conclude appellant engaged in a continuous and uninterrupted process over a short period of time, of carrying on or carrying out murder of more than one person.” [Emphasis in orig.]. Coble v. State, 871 S.W.2d 192, 198-99 (Tex.Crim.App. 1993).

The evidence showing Appellant was physically present when Fierro and Renteria were murdered and that he participated in a common purpose to commit the murders is substantial. Though no eye-witness testified to seeing Appellant actually pull the trigger, Appellant was placed at the scene of the murders by Lara's testimony of Rodriguez's account of the murders. Lara testified Rodriguez confessed to her that he, Noriega, Garfield, and Appellant met with Fierro and Renteria on the day of the murders, drove them to the canal, and once in the canal patted them down for wires, cell phones, or guns, and then shot them. Rodriguez further claimed that Appellant grabbed and held Fierro as he tried to flee and Noriega shot him. Rodriguez stated after Fierro had been shot, Appellant snatched Fierro's gold chain off of his neck. A McDonald's security-camera video showed Appellant wearing the chain at McDonald's later that day. Gonzalez testified he saw Appellant at the crime scene on the afternoon of the shooting. Cera testified there was animosity between Appellant and Fierro. She also testified Fierro and Renteria had gone to meet up with Appellant, Rodriguez, and Noriega on the day of the murder to show them a letter allegedly giving Fierro authority over gang activities in the area, and the two were found dead the next day. Detective Sanchez testified a video from a surveillance camera showed Fierro opening a letter, walking into his home, and then leaving in a green Tahoe with Renteria on the day of the murder. The Tahoe was found abandoned near the scene later the following day. Cera testified the gold chain Appellant was wearing in the security video was Fierro's and that she had given it to him for Valentine's Day. Lara also testified she had seen Appellant wearing the chain after the murder. Based on this evidence, a jury could have rationally concluded that; (1) Appellant, (2) acting with the intent to promote or assist Rodriguez, Noriega, or Garfield to murder both Fierro and Renteria, (3) encouraged, directed, aided, or attempted to aid, (4) Rodriguez, Noriega, or Garfield, (5) to intentionally or knowingly cause the deaths of Fierro and Renteria, (6) during the same criminal transaction. See TEX.PENAL CODE ANN. § 19.03(a)(7)(A); Coble, 871 S.W.2d at 198-99. Accordingly, the evidence was sufficient for a jury to rationally find Appellant guilty of capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Appellant's second issue is overruled.

CONCLUSION

Having overruled both of Appellant's issues, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

Hughes, J. Not Participating

FOOTNOTES

1.   In her testimony, Lara refers to Fierro and Renteria by nicknames. Fierro was called Chuco, Renteria was called Chavalon, Appellant was called Kiddo, Rodriguez was called Silent, and Noriega was called Wicked. For the sake of clarity, in testimony where actors are referred to by nicknames, the nicknames have been replaced with their surnames in brackets.

2.   It is never clarified who “Garfield” is, but his identity is not relevant to the disposition of this case.

YVONNE T. RODRIGUEZ, Justice

Copied to clipboard