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State v. Thomas

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 1, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Leonard Thomas, Defendant Below, Plaintiff

         Kanawha County 15-F-186

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Leonard Thomas, by counsel Edward L. Bullman, appeals his February 3, 2016, conviction for the offense of murder in the first degree. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel David A. Stackpole, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner argues that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to rebut his assertion that he acted in self-defense. Further, petitioner argues that the State failed to proffer evidence of malice and premeditation sufficient to sustain his conviction.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, we find that there is sufficient evidence in the record to sustain petitioner's conviction for murder in the first degree. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21(d) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         On November 18, 2014, petitioner was an overnight guest at an apartment in Rand, West Virginia. In addition to petitioner, several others were also staying in the apartment, including Gerald Maxwell. Petitioner contends that some of those staying in the apartment were using illicit drugs; that Mr. Maxwell was selling illicit drugs; and that several females staying in the apartment were trading sex for illicit drugs.

         Petitioner does not dispute that on the morning of November 18, 2014, he shot the decedent in the head at close range. However, petitioner's description of the facts surrounding the shooting and the description provided by other witnesses are drastically different. Petitioner contends that on the evening prior to the shooting, he and the decedent argued over whose turn it was to engage in sex with a certain female. Petitioner testified that he and the decedent argued, and when the decedent made a move to pull a gun, such action prompted petitioner to shoot the decedent in self-defense.[1] The State argues that petitioner shot the decedent as he laid, unarmed, upon a couch with his eyes closed. An eyewitness to the shooting, a woman sitting on a nearby couch, testified that at the time of the shooting, the decedent was unarmed and laying down with his eyes closed. Aside from petitioner, none of the other trial witnesses recalled the decedent having possession of a firearm at the time of the shooting or the evening prior.

         In support of his claims of self-defense, petitioner argued that the decedent constantly belittled him and had previously made threats of physical harm against him.[2] However, the testimony of other trial witnesses describes petitioner as someone eager to commit murder. At trial, a witness present in the apartment testified that petitioner had been agitated the night prior to the shooting and had told her that it did not bother him to take a life. This witness described petitioner as being aggravated and testified that petitioner stated that the decedent was "treating him like he was a punk" and that the decedent was "going to force him to do something he didn't want to do." Similarly, another witness testified that on the morning prior to the shooting, petitioner was sitting at a table in the apartment "popping shells in and out of a gun." When questioned about what he was doing, petitioner responded, "I'm going to kill me a mother f***er this morning."

         Another witness testified that in the days leading up to the shooting, petitioner was "acting more withdrawn and more hateful" and was being "snappy." The witness described an incident that occurred the same night of the shooting wherein she had to step in and break up an altercation between petitioner and one of her male friends. Further, the witness testified that on the evening of the shooting, she observed petitioner counting on his fingers. When she asked petitioner what he was doing, petitioner responded, "I need to know how many bullets I need because I'm going to kill every one of you mother f***ers before the night's up."

         In May of 2015, petitioner was indicted by the Kanawha County Grand Jury and charged with the decedent's murder. Following a jury trial, petitioner was convicted of the offense of murder in the first degree. Further, the jury found that no mercy in sentencing should be afforded to petitioner. On March 9, 2016, the circuit court entered an order formally sentencing petitioner to life in prison. It is from his February 3, 2016, jury conviction that petitioner now appeals.

         On appeal, petitioner alleges three assignments of error. While independently argued, in each of these assignments of error petitioner contends that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain his conviction. First, petitioner alleges that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to rebut his testimony that he acted in self-defense. Second, petitioner alleges that the State failed to present sufficient evidence of malice and premeditation to sustain his conviction of murder in the first degree. Third, petitioner contends that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to support a charge of murder in the second degree against him.

         We have long held that

1. The function of an appellate court when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction is to examine the evidence admitted at trial to determine whether such evidence, if believed, is sufficient to convince a reasonable person of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the relevant inquiry is whether after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. A criminal defendant challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction takes on a heavy burden. An appellate court must review all the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must credit all inferences and credibility assessments that the jury might have drawn in favor of the prosecution. The evidence need not be inconsistent with every conclusion save that of guilt so long as the jury can find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Credibility determinations are for a jury and not an appellate court. Finally, a jury verdict should be set aside only when the record contains no evidence, regardless of how it is weighed, from which the jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To the extent that our prior cases are inconsistent, they are expressly overruled.

Syl. Pts. 1 and 3, State v. Guthrie, 194 W.Va. 657, 461 S.E.2d 163 (1995).

         In addressing claims of self-defense, we have found that "[o]nce there is sufficient evidence to create a reasonable doubt that the killing resulted from the defendant acting in self-defense, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense." Syl., State v. Clark, 171 W.Va. 74, 297 S.E.2d 849 (1982). Here, petitioner argues that he presented sufficient evidence that he was acting in self-defense at the time of the shooting. Such evidence included the fact that the decedent had a ...


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