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, Att'y Gen., by: Karen Virginia Wallace,
Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.
KENNETH 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. 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).
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 ...