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Bruce v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

March 26, 2015

SHEY ELAN BRUCE, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff)

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Appeal from the District Court of Fremont County. The Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge.

Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender: Diane Lozano, State Public Defender; and Tina N. Olson, Chief Appellate Counsel. Argument by Ms. Olson.

Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Jenny L. Craig, Senior Assistant Attorney General; and MacKenzie Williams, Senior Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr. Williams.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

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HILL, Justice.

[¶1] A jury convicted Appellant Shey Bruce of manslaughter and battery of a household member. Mr. Bruce appeals his manslaughter conviction, claiming that the district court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal in relation to the charge of second degree murder and his post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal in relation to the manslaughter conviction. He also alleges error in the district court's denial of his motion for new trial, its refusal to instruct the jury on his claim of self defense, and its admission of the deceased victim's 911 call. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Bruce states the issues on appeal as follows:

I. Did the trial court err in denying the motions for judgment of acquittal with regard to the charge of second degree murder and in denying the motion for judgment of acquittal, post-trial, of Appellant's conviction of manslaughter?
II. Did the trial court err in denying Appellant's motion for new trial, based upon undisclosed statements of the deceased, which the jury heard?
III. Did the trial court err in refusing to instruct the jury as to self-defense?
IV. Did the trial court err in admitting the 911 call made by the decedent?

FACTS

[¶3] Charles Darrell Laster and Lavena Laster were originally married in 1996, divorced in 2004, remarried in 2007, and separated again, though not divorced, in 2010. In 2010, the Lasters were living in Shoshoni, Wyoming, and when they separated, Mrs. Laster moved to Mesa, Arizona. Mrs. Laster lived in Arizona until March 2013, when Mr. Laster bought her a bus ticket so she could return to Shoshoni. When Mrs. Laster returned to Shoshoni, she stayed with her daughter, Teri Hughes. Mr. and Mrs. Laster did not reunite, but they remained good friends.

[¶4] While living in Arizona, Mrs. Laster met and began dating Mr. Bruce. The two were still dating when Mrs. Laster returned to Shoshoni, and Mr. Bruce joined Mrs. Laster in Shoshoni about a month after her return. Mrs. Laster and Mr. Bruce initially stayed with Mrs. Laster's daughter, Teri Hughes, and then eventually moved into a one-bedroom home. Mrs. Laster and Mr. Bruce could not afford to rent the home, so Mrs. Laster asked Mr. Laster to rent the home for them, which he agreed to do. Mrs. Laster and Mr. Bruce did odd jobs around Mr. Laster's place to help work off the rent.

[¶5] On May 14, 2013, Mrs. Laster was at Mr. Laster's home drinking. She had been drinking for several days and described herself as a " blackout drinker." At about 9:00 or 9:30 that morning, Mr. Bruce had coffee at the home of Mr. Laster's next door neighbor, Norman Hughes, who is also the father-in-law of Teri Hughes. Mr. Hughes reported that Mr. Bruce was intoxicated, and angry and distraught, because Mr. Laster had put his hand on Mrs. Laster's leg. Mr. Bruce spent the day at Mr. Hughes' home and went back and forth between the homes of Mr. Laster and Mr. Hughes several times throughout the day.

[¶6] At one point, Mr. Bruce told Mr. Hughes that he was going to return to Arizona and he had a check that Mr. Laster had given him to pay for his return trip. Mr. Bruce left Mr. Hughes' home at about 5:00 or 6:00 on the evening of May 14th, and Mr. Hughes described his departure:

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Q. Tell us about that. Tell us about him leaving, if you would.
A. Well, like I said, I kept telling him, you're not going to get a bus ticket. The best thing you can do is, intoxicated, you can always go home and sleep it off. If you feel like you still want to leave in the morning, then by all means, do it.

Q. And did he leave?

A. Yes, he did.

Q. Tell us about that.
A. He got into Darrell's [Mr. Laster's] bright blue Mustang, spun gravel as he was leaving, and then he left.

[¶7] At some point after Mr. Bruce left, Mrs. Laster looked outside Mr. Laster's home and saw that Mr. Laster's blue Mustang was gone. Mrs. Laster reported this to Mr. Laster, and in response, Mr. Laster loaded two rifles and two handguns. When Mrs. Laster asked Mr. Laster why he was preparing the firearms, Mr. Laster replied that he was " not going to take an ass whooping from a young man." [1] The Lasters placed the firearms in Mr. Laster's truck and drove over to the home that Mrs. Laster and Mr. Bruce shared. Once there, Mrs. Laster saw that the keys were in the Mustang, so she did not go in the home and instead got in the car and followed Mr. Laster back to his home.

[¶8] Upon their return to Mr. Laster's home, the Lasters carried the firearms into the home and into the back bedroom. Mr. Laster unloaded the firearms, leaving the ammunition in a pile on the floor. At some point, while the Lasters were in the back bedroom, Mr. Bruce entered the home and came to the back bedroom. Mr. Bruce had a beer bottle in his hand, and he and Mr. Laster talked about something that Mrs. Laster could not recall. Mr. Bruce then struck Mrs. Laster on the left side of her head with the beer bottle, rendering her unconscious.

[¶9] When Mrs. Laster awoke, Mr. Laster was on the telephone speaking to a 911 dispatcher. During Mr. Laster's conversation with the 911 dispatcher he reported that he needed medical assistance for his wife. Mr. Laster also reported to the 911 dispatcher that he also was hit a couple of times on the head with a beer bottle, that " Shay something" was the person who assaulted him, and that the assailant was no longer in the home.

[¶10] EMTs and a deputy sheriff responded to the call for emergency assistance. The deputy reported that both the Lasters were intoxicated, with slurred speech, but Mr. Laster was not at a " high level" of intoxication for him. Mrs. Laster was unwilling to speak with the sheriff's deputy, and when the deputy began to interview Mr. Laster, she told him not to tell the deputy anything. The deputy separated the Lasters, and Mr. Laster then cooperated and answered the deputy's questions, speaking with him for about ten or fifteen minutes. Mrs. Laster initially refused any medical treatment, but then when the deputy threatened to take her into protective custody, she agreed to be examined by the EMTs but refused transport to the hospital.

[¶11] Teri Hughes arrived at Mr. Laster's home about ten minutes after the sheriff's deputy. Ms. Hughes went to the home because she was worried about her mother (Mrs. Laster) and her stepfather (Mr. Laster). Ms. Hughes reported that she was worried because at about 10:30 that evening, Mr. Bruce had called her from the Fast Lane convenience store and asked her to pick him up. When Ms. Hughes arrived to pick up Mr. Bruce, he was upset, intoxicated, and had a beer in his hand. Mr. Bruce told Ms. Hughes that Mr. Laster hit him with a Maglite flashlight, and he had her feel the lump on the back of his head. Ms. Hughes testified:

Q. Okay. All right. So he's upset. He tells you that your dad hit him with a Maglite flashlight. Did you notice -- did you notice anything else about him? A. He had bloody knuckles.

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Q. Okay. Do you remember if it was his right hand or his left hand?
A. No, I don't.
Q. Okay. Is he talking about anything else besides that at this point?
A. He says he's -- I knew he was mad at my mom.
Q. Okay. How did you know he was mad at your mom?
A. Because she's over at my dad's.
Q. Okay. How do you know that?
A. Because he said.
Q. Okay. So did you just drop him off at his house?
A. No.
Q. Okay. Why not?
A. He wanted me to go inside.
Q. Why did you go inside with him if he was upset?
A. I thought I could calm him down.
Q. So what happens when you get inside?
A. He starts hollering about my mom and dad.
Q. What did he say?
A. He said that they -- that they fucked him, and that he hurt them.
Q. Besides -- in addition, did he say anything else besides that he had f'd them and he had hurt them?
A. He said that they got what they deserved.
Q. Okay. Did he say -- did he say where -- did he say where they were at when he hurt them and he f'd them?
A. He said he walked into dad's house and didn't see mom and dad nowhere, and that he walked into the back bedroom and that he thought my mom and dad were having sex.
Q. What else did he say?
A. He just kept repeating that he was mad and kept ranting.

[¶12] When Ms. Hughes arrived at Mr. Laster's home, she checked on both of her parents. Mrs. Laster would not let Ms. Hughes look closely at her, but she was able to closely check over Mr. Laster. She found no blood, no bruises, and no scratches, and she found that he looked and seemed fine. She then returned home.

[¶13] After the EMTs, the deputy sheriff, and Ms. Hughes left Mr. Laster's home, Mrs. Laster fell asleep on a futon in Mr. Laster's home. When she awoke in the morning, the morning of May 15, 2013, she found Mr. Laster face down on the floor and unresponsive. EMTs eventually arrived and confirmed that Mr. Laster was deceased. An autopsy revealed that Mr. Laster died of a right subdural hemorrhage caused by blunt force trauma.

[¶14] On May 16, 2013, the State filed a criminal information charging Mr. Bruce with second degree murder in the death of Mr. Laster and domestic violence battery for the injury to Mrs. Laster. Mr. Bruce was bound over to the district court, where he pled not guilty to both charges.

[¶15] On October 10, 2013, the State filed a motion requesting a pretrial ruling on the admissibility of the 911 call Mr. Laster made on the evening of May 14, 2013. Mr. Bruce responded with a motion in limine to exclude the 911 call on the ground that admitting the evidence would violate his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. Following a hearing on the issue, the district court ruled that the 911 call was admissible hearsay and that admission of the call would not violate Mr. Bruce's Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

[¶16] A jury trial was held on November 18-22, 2013. At the close of the State's case, Mr. Bruce made a motion for judgment of acquittal on the second degree murder charge, and the district court denied the motion. Mr. Bruce renewed his motion at the close of all evidence, and the court again denied the motion. The jury returned a verdict finding Mr. Bruce not guilty on the second degree murder charge, guilty on the lesser included offense of manslaughter, and guilty on the domestic violence battery charge. On December 6, 2013, Mr. Bruce filed a written motion for judgment of acquittal and for a new trial based on the jury's exposure to inadmissible hearsay testimony and on the district court's failure to instruct

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the jury on self defense. The court denied Mr. Bruce's motion.

[¶17] On March 14, 2014, the district court entered its Judgment and Sentence. The court sentenced Mr. Bruce to a prison term of four to ten years on the manslaughter count and 180 days on the domestic violence battery count, both sentences to be served concurrently. Mr. Bruce thereafter timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

DISCUSSION

[¶18] Mr. Bruce challenges his manslaughter conviction on several grounds: 1) the district court's denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal on the second degree murder charge; 2) sufficiency of the evidence to support his manslaughter conviction; 3) the district court's denial of his new trial motion based on the jury's exposure to inadmissible hearsay; 4) the district court's failure to give the jury a self defense instruction; and 5) the district court's admission of Mr. Laster's 911 call. Mr. Bruce presents the district court's ruling on the 911 call as his last assignment of error, but because our resolution of that issue may affect our consideration of the other alleged errors, we will address the ruling on the 911 call first and then turn to Mr. Bruce's remaining arguments.

A. Admissibility of 911 Call

[¶19] In arguing that the district court erred in admitting Mr. Laster's 911 call, Mr. Bruce contends that the evidence was admitted in violation of his Sixth Amendment right of confrontation and was inadmissible hearsay. Whether an evidentiary ruling violates a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. Counts v. State, 2012 WY 70, ¶ 31, 277 P.3d 94, 104 (Wyo. 2012); Hannon v. State, 2004 WY 8, ¶ 11, 84 P.3d 320, 328 (Wyo. 2004). We review rulings on the admissibility of evidence for an abuse of discretion:

This Court reviews alleged errors relating to the admission of evidence for an abuse of discretion. Marquess v. State, 2011 WY 95, ¶ 12, 256 P.3d 506, 510 (Wyo.2011). " Determining whether the trial court abused its discretion involves the consideration of whether the court could reasonably conclude as it did, and whether it acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner." Lancaster v. State, 2002 WY 45, ¶ 11, 43 P.3d 80, 87 (Wyo.2002) (citing Trujillo v. State, 2 P.3d 567, 571 (Wyo.2000)). A trial court's evidentiary rulings " are entitled to considerable deference," and will not be reversed " so long as there exists a legitimate basis for the trial court's ruling...." Armstrong v. Hrabal, 2004 WY 39, ¶ 10, 87 P.3d 1226, 1230 (Wyo.2004) (internal quotes and citations omitted).

Ortiz v. State, 2014 WY 60, ¶ 67, 326 P.3d 883, 897 (Wyo. 2014).

[¶20] While Mr. Bruce's arguments are directed at particular isolated statements within Mr. Laster's 911 call, the context of those statements is important in our consideration of both of Mr. Bruce's arguments. We therefore set forth the entire text of the call against which we will consider Mr. Bruce's confrontation clause and hearsay arguments.

Shey Bruce Criminal No. 6912
911 call on assault
Dispatcher: 911 what's the address of the emergency?
C. Laster: My Wife (sic) has been assaulted, and she was hit real hard in the temple lobe. I don't know if we need an ambulance or if I should just bring her in, but I'll let you talk to her and then she can explain it.
Dispatcher: Okay.
L. Laster: Hello.
Dispatcher: Hi this is the 911 Center, What's the address that you're at?
L. Laster: 115 Main Street.
Dispatcher: Okay and what is your name?
C. Laster: We live in the alley.
L. Laster: Lavena Laster.
Dispatcher: What was your name again?
L. Laster: Lavena Laster.
Dispatcher: Lavena, Okay.
C. Laster: Hello.
Dispatcher: Okay what's the phone number your (sic) calling me from Lavena?

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C. Laster: A guy was over here and hit her temple lobe and she's having severe headaches now.
L. Laster: My head hurts.
C. Laster: And I think we might need to get her to a hospital.
Dispatcher: Okay, what's the phone number that you're calling me from?
C. Laster: I'm calling from [telephone number redacted].
Dispatcher: Okay, now is the person that assaulted her, are they still there?
C. Laster: Beg your pardon?
Dispatcher: The person that assaulted her, are they still there?
C. Laster: No, I got hit a couple times in the head with a beer bottle, but they have left ...
(L. Laster repeatedly yelling her head hurts in background)
C. Laster: Hun, [we're] gonna try to get you to the hospital here as quick as we can.
Dispatcher: Okay, how old is your wife?
C. Laster: 49.
Dispatcher: Okay. Is her ...

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