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FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SEVENTH DIVISION [NO.
60CR-17-3015], HONORABLE BARRY SIMS, JUDGE
Law Firm, by: Michael Kiel Kaiser and Bobby R. Digby II, for
Rutledge, Atty Gen., by: Karen Virginia Wallace, Asst Atty
Gen., for appellee.
S. HIXSON, Judge
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.
Estrada was murdered. Naomis 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).
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."
pretrial hearing on the motion, Ms. Wooten, appellants
former girlfriend and the mother of appellants 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.
State argued that Ms. Wootens testimony was admissible
pursuant to Rule 404(b) because it went to appellants
knowledge, intent, and absence of mistake and not to prove
appellants character in order to show that he acted in
conformity therewith. The State explained that Ms. Wootens
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. Wootens testimony
indicated that he had specific knowledge of the force and
length needed to strangle someone. Although the State
generally argued that Ms. Wootens testimony was also
evidence of appellants 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. Wootens 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 appellants motion in
limine without comment. A jury trial was held on December
trial, the timeline of events surrounding Naomi Estradas
disappearance, the eventual discovery of her body, and
appellants connection to the murder was established through
the testimony of Naomis mother, Jessica Estrada; her sister,
Dorcas Estrada; her brother, Elias Estrada; and her friend,
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. Naomis and her sons bedrooms were
downstairs, and the door to the basement crawlspace was in
her sons 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.
evening of June 30, 2017, Naomi borrowed her mothers car and
left the Estrada house. Only Jessica and Naomi had keys to
the car. Naomi also borrowed her mothers 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 Phoebes 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 (Naomis sister)
to pick her up and take her home, where she arrived between
5:00 and 5:30 p.m.
Jessica arrived home, she observed her car in the driveway.
Appellant was coming out of the house holding Jessicas 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,
Naomis 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.
meantime, according to Briannas 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 Naomis 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.
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,
Naomis 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 appellants 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
Naomis bed. She also saw appellant (who Brianna had dropped
back at the house by that point) go from Naomis 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 childs 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.
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 Jessicas 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 Naomis set. According to the Estrada family,
appellant never contacted them again after he stole the car.
appellant left, Jessica called Naomis 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 ...