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Gonzales v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions II & III

December 11, 2019

JOSE GONZALES APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SEVENTH DIVISION [NO. 60CR-17-3015] HONORABLE BARRY SIMS, JUDGE

          James Law Firm, by: Michael Kiel Kaiser and Bobby R. Digby II, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Karen Virginia Wallace, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

         Jose Gonzales appeals after he was convicted by a Pulaski County Circuit Court jury of murder in the second degree and was sentenced as a habitual offender to serve 660 months' imprisonment. On appeal, appellant contends that (1) there was insufficient circumstantial evidence to support his conviction, (2) the trial court abused its discretion by allowing prior bad-act evidence that was not independently relevant and was unduly prejudicial, and (3) the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for mistrial. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Relevant Facts

         Naomi Estrada was murdered. Naomi's family found her naked body underneath a flattened cardboard box in the crawlspace of their home on July 2, 2017. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was strangulation. A belt was found near the body, and although the belt buckle contained hair samples from the victim, the medical examiner could not conclusively determine that the belt was used in the murder. After an investigation, appellant was arrested and charged with capital murder in violation of Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-10-101 (Supp. 2017) and as a habitual offender under Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-4-501(b).

         The State indicated that it was going to call Mary Wooten as a witness at the trial. Appellant filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of prior alleged acts of domestic violence that involved Ms. Wooten and appellant pursuant to Arkansas Rules of Evidence 404(b) and 403. Rule 404(b) provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident." (Emphasis added.) Rule 403 states as follows: "Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence."

         At the pretrial hearing on the motion, Ms. Wooten, appellant's former girlfriend and the mother of appellant's children, testified that appellant had choked her on a few prior occasions when they were in a relationship together. The last incident was two years earlier in 2015. She explained that on those few occasions, when they would argue, appellant would choke her using only his hands until she lost consciousness. When she would wake up, her wrists would be twitching. The blood vessels in her eyes never ruptured, and she stated that she would only lose consciousness for a second or two. Ms. Wooten stated that appellant never used a belt and that the incidents were never anything sexual. She was never naked when these events occurred, and they happened only during an argument after she had initiated physical contact.

         The State argued that Ms. Wooten's testimony was admissible pursuant to Rule 404(b) because it went to appellant's knowledge, intent, and absence of mistake[1] and not to prove appellant's character in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith. The State explained that Ms. Wooten's testimony describing that appellant had previously choked her showed that he had the practice and knowledge of how to strangle a person, and it contended that the evidence at trial would show that Naomi had been strangled to death. Appellant countered that this was not the type of case that the knowledge exception applied and that there were insufficient similarities between the two allegations. Appellant explained that nothing in Ms. Wooten's testimony indicated that he had specific knowledge of the force and length needed to strangle someone. Although the State generally argued that Ms. Wooten's testimony was also evidence of appellant's intent and the absence of mistake, appellant disagreed. Appellant alleged that his defense was not that the death was a mistake but rather that he did not do it. Moreover, the State did not charge appellant with an offense in which mistake would be an appropriate defense, as in manslaughter or an unintended consequence from a sex act. Instead, the State charged him with capital murder. Finally, appellant argued that Ms. Wooten's testimony was inadmissible under Arkansas Rule of Evidence 403 even if it was admissible under Rule 404(b). After hearing oral argument, the trial court agreed with the State and denied appellant's motion in limine without comment. A jury trial was held on December 4-5, 2018.

         At trial, the timeline of events surrounding Naomi Estrada's disappearance, the eventual discovery of her body, and appellant's connection to the murder was established through the testimony of Naomi's mother, Jessica Estrada; her sister, Dorcas Estrada; her brother, Elias Estrada; and her friend, Brianna Young.

         Naomi and her two-year-old young son were living in the home of her parents, Jessica and Juan "Johnny" Estrada, in the summer of 2017. The house was a split level with exterior entrances on both levels. Naomi's and her son's bedrooms were downstairs, and the door to the basement crawlspace was in her son's bedroom.

         Appellant was homeless, and the record is unclear how the appellant and Naomi met each other and became friends. However, in June and July 2017, appellant visited the Estrada house several times. Appellant would sometimes enter through the lower-level exterior door and spend the night. The record is also unclear of the extent of the relationship between Naomi and appellant and whether it was intimate or just as friends. Although the Estrada family indicated Naomi and appellant were just friends, appellant refers to Naomi as his "current girlfriend" in one part of his brief. Regardless, testimony was presented that appellant was homeless and that Naomi was trying to help him. There was further testimony that appellant and Naomi would sometimes use recreational drugs together.

         On the evening of June 30, 2017, Naomi borrowed her mother's car and left the Estrada house. Only Jessica and Naomi had keys to the car. Naomi also borrowed her mother's cell phone. No one heard from Naomi the remainder of that evening. Jessica testified that the following morning around 11:00 a.m., Naomi called her at work and told her that she had spent the night at her Aunt Phoebe's house and that she was going to go hiking that afternoon. They agreed that Naomi would pick Jessica up from work at 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. However, Jessica testified that Naomi did not arrive at her workplace as previously arranged. When Naomi did not arrive, Jessica made a few calls to the cell phone that she had loaned to Naomi, but Naomi did not answer. Jessica got Dorcas (Naomi's sister) to pick her up and take her home, where she arrived between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m.

         When Jessica arrived home, she observed her car in the driveway. Appellant was coming out of the house holding Jessica's phone that Naomi had borrowed. Jessica asked appellant why he had her phone, and he replied that he was waiting for a call from his sister in Houston who was sending him money so that he could visit. Jessica asked him where Naomi was, and appellant told her that Naomi was sick and sleeping downstairs. Jessica took her phone from appellant.

         Jessica entered the upper level of the home and saw that her husband, Johnny, was there. She also saw Brianna Young, Naomi's friend, who was standing by the door leading to the lower level of the house. Appellant reentered the house, went downstairs, came back upstairs, and then left with Brianna.

         In the meantime, according to Brianna's testimony, Brianna had sent Naomi a message on Facebook around 4:15 p.m. that day asking if Naomi was home and if she could come over. Brianna got a "thumbs up" emoji in return at 4:49 p.m., and Brianna went to the Estrada home, arriving about fifteen minutes later. Upon arriving at the Estrada home, Brianna went downstairs with appellant. When she did not find Naomi downstairs, she asked him where Naomi was. Appellant told her that Naomi had gone somewhere with her aunt. When Brianna told appellant about her recent Facebook message to Naomi and the "thumbs up" she received in reply, appellant adamantly told her that it did not happen. Brianna saw clothes on Naomi's bed, but it did not look like there was a person sleeping in the bed. The two then went upstairs, where Jessica saw them when she arrived home from work.

         After appellant told Jessica that Naomi was downstairs asleep, he asked Brianna to take him to get some beer. Brianna agreed, and appellant went back downstairs to retrieve his tablet computer, which he used to communicate with people on Facebook. When he returned, he and Brianna left. A short distance from the house later, appellant told her he did not have enough money and asked her to take him back to the house. Brianna testified that she saw that he had some cash and heard change rattling in his pockets. However, she drove him back to the house and dropped him off; she never heard from either Naomi or appellant again.

         Meanwhile, when appellant was gone with Brianna to buy beer, Naomi's brother, Elias, came to the house to drop off something for Jessica. Elias left without going inside. Dorcas also came to the house that evening to drop off some laundry downstairs for Jessica to do for her, and Jessica (apparently relying on appellant's statement) told Dorcas to be quiet because Naomi did not feel well and was downstairs asleep in her room. Dorcas testified that when she went downstairs, she saw what looked like the body of a person in Naomi's bed. She also saw appellant (who Brianna had dropped back at the house by that point) go from Naomi's room to the bathroom, and she said he was kind of dirty looking. She subsequently went back upstairs and left.

         Jessica explained that it was later that night that she first went downstairs to check on Naomi, but she found only pillows in the bed with the covers pulled over them to look like someone was in the bed. Frightened, Jessica called out to her husband, Johnny, and told him Naomi was not there. A few minutes later, as Jessica was about to go upstairs, appellant rushed out of the child's bedroom and sat on the stairs "hollering and screaming." Jessica stated that although she had not seen appellant come back after leaving with Brianna, he must have entered the house through the exterior back door on the lower level. Jessica asked appellant where Naomi was and what he had done with her, and appellant told her they had gone out to the woods hiking to look for some of his clothes he had left in the woods. Jessica testified that after she asked appellant again what he had done with her daughter, appellant would not look at her. Instead, he continued to holler and scream, said something about sex, and looked "like an animal." Appellant finally told Jessica that Naomi left on foot with a black man to buy marijuana. Jessica was able to get past appellant and go upstairs, where she told her husband what appellant had said.

         At that point, Jessica gave Johnny her car keys, and Johnny and appellant left to go looking for Naomi. However, they returned without finding her. After Jessica and Johnny had just started downstairs to look for Naomi, appellant fled the house and sped off in Jessica's car without her permission. Jessica explained that she still had her set of car keys at that point. Thus, the only other set of keys appellant could have used was Naomi's set. According to the Estrada family, appellant never contacted them again after he stole the car.

         After appellant left, Jessica called Naomi's siblings, Elias and Dorcas, to come to the house. Jessica called the police around 8:00 p.m. and waited for an officer to arrive to take her statement. In the meantime, Elias looked through the lower level of the house for Naomi, and he entered the crawlspace during his search. Elias stated that the crawlspace was dark, so he used his cell phone for light. He saw a flattened cardboard box on the floor of the crawlspace, but he did not look under it because it was flat and did not appear to have anything under it. Elias saw the purse Naomi always carried in her room. Dorcas testified that it was empty. The contents normally included Naomi's diabetic medication, her makeup pouch, her wallet, and her keys. Dorcas testified that it was not normal for Naomi to just disappear or fail to call to check on her son.

         Jessica said that because no police officer came to the house to take her statement, the family eventually went to the police station to report Naomi's disappearance and the stolen car. When they returned home, they locked the house and left, leaving their pit bulldog there alone for the night. Jessica and Johnny spent the night at Dorcas's house. No one received a call from Naomi.

         The next morning, on July 2, 2017, Jessica and Johnny returned to their house with Dorcas and looked for Naomi. Johnny ultimately found Naomi's dirty body in the basement crawlspace wrapped in plastic in a hole in the dirt floor under the flattened cardboard box. Jessica called 911 around 8:15 a.m.

         The Little Rock Police Department Crime Scene Search Unit worked the crime scene. They collected as evidence a black trash bag at the end of the driveway, which the family suspected had been placed there by appellant. It contained some trash and other items, including an empty prescription pill bottle for Naomi's diabetes medication and an empty syringe that appeared to match two syringes found by her body. Naomi's bed looked as though it had been disturbed, and a dirt-like substance was found on the sheet. In the area where Naomi's body was found, there was a belt with hairs in the buckle and the large cardboard box that had covered her body. Photographs of Naomi's body just after its discovery showed that she had blood or an injury on one knee and dirt on her body, including her legs and feet.

         Dr. Adam Craig, a forensic pathologist, testified that he performed the autopsy on Naomi Estrada on July 3, 2017. He confirmed that her body had dirt on it. Craig determined that her cause of death was strangulation. He testified that in the process of strangulation, a person would lose consciousness after around fifteen seconds and that it would take a minute or two before the person would be brain dead. He noted that the person would shake during the process and that there probably would be at least two episodes of the person bringing her arms up and shaking, then letting go.

         Dr. Craig testified that Naomi's head had very prominent purple-red coloration, showing blood congestion in her head, and there was hemorrhaging in the whites of her eyes, both signs of strangulation. There were some abrasions on her neck. He testified that it was possible that a belt was used at some point during the strangulation, but there was no definite pattern. Dr. Craig noticed that there were two almost horizontal abrasions that may have been from the edges of the belt. However, he ...


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