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Fletcher v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

September 20, 2018

CHRISTOPHER FLETCHER APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 35CR-15-191] HONORABLE ALEX GUYNN, JUDGE

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE.

         A jury in the Jefferson County Circuit Court found appellant Christopher Fletcher guilty of capital murder, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole plus an additional fifteen years for using a firearm in the commission of the crime. Fletcher's attorney filed a no-merit brief pursuant to Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 4-3(k) (2017) and Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), asserting that there are no nonfrivolous issues for appeal. Specifically, counsel argues that (1) the trial court did not commit reversible error in denying Fletcher's motions for a directed verdict, (2) the sentence imposed was allowed pursuant to the capital-murder statute, and (3) the trial court did not commit reversible error in allowing the introduction of testimony from two witnesses and a drawing from a third witness. For reversal, Fletcher has filed pro se points disputing the points counsel argued and also alleging that his appellate counsel was ineffective. The State has responded. In compliance with Rule 4-3(i), because this is a life-imprisonment case, the State has certified that all adverse rulings have been abstracted and evaluated and that no other issues warrant briefing. Our jurisdiction is pursuant to Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 1-2(a)(2). After having reviewed the record, briefs, and pro se points, we affirm and grant counsel's motion to withdraw.

         I. Factual Background

         By an amended felony information, the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney charged Fletcher with capital murder in the shooting death of Laronda McElroy.[1] The record reflects that Officer Sylvester Davis of the Pine Bluff Police Department was dispatched to 708 West 27th Street in Pine Bluff on April 13, 2015, to respond to a reported shooting. At trial, Davis testified that when he arrived, he found McElroy in a nearby yard, unresponsive, with gunshot wounds to her leg, neck, and head. Davis could not find a pulse. However, EMTs arrived, found a pulse, and transported McElroy to a hospital. McElroy later died as a result of her wounds. Detective Scott Norton testified that Fletcher was arrested in Amarillo, Texas, the day after the shooting.

         Four children testified at the trial, and all four testified that they knew the difference between the truth and a lie. Two of the children, G.F. and C.F., were children McElroy had with Fletcher. G.F., who was five years old at the time of trial, identified Fletcher as his father and testified that "[w]hen my momma was running, my daddy shot her in the leg. And he walked up on my momma and shot her in the head." C.F. was six years old at the time of the trial. C.F. identified Fletcher as his father and testified that Fletcher shot McElroy and then fled. Ten-year-old D.M., one of McElroy's children by another father, testified that he and his siblings were preparing to go to school when Fletcher approached McElroy and pointed a gun at her while she was in the car. D.M. testified that when McElroy exited the vehicle and ran, Fletcher shot her in the leg and then "came up and shot her in the face." T.H., a twelve-year-old neighbor, testified that he witnessed Fletcher point a gun at McElroy and shoot her when she ran away. C.F. and D.M. both testified that Fletcher did not live with them and McElroy.

         Dr. Charles Kokes, the state medical examiner, testified that he performed an autopsy on McElroy on April 14, 2015. Kokes's autopsy revealed that McElroy sustained gunshot wounds to the neck, leg, and head. Kokes testified that an individual with only the neck or leg wounds he observed would likely recover, but in his opinion, the head wound would almost always be fatal. Kokes's final report indicates that the cause of McElroy's death was gunshot wounds to the head and leg.

         The murder weapon was not found, but investigators did find .357 magnum ammunition at Fletcher's residence. Rebecca Mullen, the chief firearm-and-tool-marks examiner for the Arkansas State Crime Lab testified that the bullets found in Fletcher's home were of the same caliber class as the one used in McElroy's murder.[2]

         Based on this and other testimony, the jury found Fletcher guilty and he was sentenced as previously stated in this opinion. Counsel has outlined each adverse ruling and explained why none presents a meritorious ground for reversal. See Ark. Sup. Ct. R. 4-3(k) (stating that counsel's brief must contain an argument section that explains why each adverse ruling "is not a meritorious ground for reversal.") We also conclude that Fletcher's pro se points provide no grounds for reversal.

         II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Fletcher first argues that the trial court erred by denying his motions for a directed verdict. At trial, Fletcher moved for a directed verdict and argued that the State failed to prove the premeditation and deliberation necessary to support a capital-murder charge. Fletcher argues in his second pro se point that the trial court was without authority to impose a life-without-parole sentence because the State failed to prove the premeditation and deliberation elements required to support his capital-murder conviction.

         An appeal from the denial of a motion for a directed verdict is treated as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. Taffner v. State, 2018 Ark. 99, 541 S.W.3d 430. Thus, Fletcher's first two pro se points are challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence. In reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we determine whether the verdict is supported by substantial evidence. Howard v. State, 2016 Ark. 434, 506 S.W.3d 843. Substantial evidence is evidence that is of sufficient force and character that it will, with reasonable certainty, compel a conclusion one way or the other, without resorting to speculation or conjecture. Id. In reviewing a sufficiency challenge, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, considering only evidence that supports the verdict. Id.

         Pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated § 5-10-101(a)(4) (Repl. 2013), a person commits capital murder if "with the premeditated and deliberated purpose of causing the death of another person, the person causes the death of any person." Premeditated and deliberate murder occurs when the killer's conscious object is to cause death, and he forms that intention before he acts and as a result of weighing the consequences of his course of conduct. Brooks v. State, 2016 Ark. 305, 498 S.W.3d 292. Premeditation need not exist for any particular length of time and may be formed in an instant. Id. Premeditation is rarely capable of proof by direct evidence but usually must be inferred from the circumstances of the crime. Id. A jury can infer premeditation and deliberation from circumstantial evidence, such as the type and character of the weapon used; the nature, extent, and location of wounds inflicted; and the conduct of the accused. Id.

         Fletcher does not dispute that he caused McElroy's death, but only argues that the State failed to prove that he acted with premeditation and deliberate purpose. However, substantial evidence supports the verdict. Testimony at the trial indicated that Fletcher did not live with McElroy and that he waited outside her home with a firearm to confront her when she left the home to transport her children to school. Four witnesses, two of whom were Fletcher's own children, testified that Fletcher shot McElroy. One of Fletcher's children testified that after McElroy was on the ground, Fletcher approached her and shot her in the head. The eyewitness testimony was consistent with the testimony of the medical examiner, who testified that McElroy sustained gunshot wounds to her neck, leg, and head, and that the shot to McElroy's head came from behind and at a downward angle. The evidence was sufficient to allow the jury to reach its conclusion without resorting to speculation or conjecture, and the trial court did not err in denying Fletcher's motions for a directed verdict.

         Our conclusion that substantial evidence supports the jury's verdict necessarily means that Fletcher cannot prevail on his second point in which he argues that the trial court was without jurisdiction to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole because the State failed to prove premeditation and deliberation. For offenders over the age of eighteen, capital murder is punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole. Ark. Code. Ann. § 5-10-101(c)(1). Because the evidence was sufficient to establish the premeditation and deliberation required to convict Fletcher of capital murder, and because the sentence he received is provided for by statute, the trial court did not exceed its authority in sentencing Fletcher to life imprisonment without parole.

         III. Evidenti ...


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