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State v. Owens

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 25, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Larry Gale Owens, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Wood County 14-F-295


         Petitioner Larry Gale Owens, by counsel Travis Sayre, appeals the Circuit Court of Wood County's March 14, 2016, order sentencing him to forty years of imprisonment following his second-degree murder conviction. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Shannon Frederick Kiser, filed a response. On appeal, petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in failing to grant various motions concerning the sufficiency of the evidence and in failing to admit certain evidence.

         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, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         The evidence at trial showed that, on June 17, 2014, Jeffrey Hughart and five other individuals convened at petitioner's home, which was located along a river, to fish and drink alcohol. Later in the evening, petitioner and Mr. Hughart got in to a physical altercation on the home's dock. Michelle Whitlatch, who was present at the dock, testified to seeing Mr. Hughart "head-butt" petitioner and petitioner punch Mr. Hughart in the mouth. After seeing this, Ms. Whitlatch went to the home to alert another guest, John Gann, to the altercation. As she walked from the dock to the house, she turned around to see Mr. Hughart with a white pipe, later identified to be a lightweight shower rod, and petitioner with a wooden walking stick. Ms. Whitlatch turned back around and headed into the home just as Mr. Hughart started to swing. Ms. Whitlatch informed Mr. Gann that petitioner and Mr. Hughart were fighting and asked him to go outside to break up the fight.

         When Mr. Gann exited the house to attempt to break up the fight, he saw petitioner repeatedly strike Mr. Hughart with the walking stick. Mr. Hughart was unconscious on the ground on his side, not defending himself. Mr. Gann saw petitioner hit Mr. Hughart in the ribs and on the head with the walking stick, which was described as being approximately six feet in length and two and one half inches in diameter. Petitioner, as he was striking Mr. Hughart, said something to the effect of Mr. Hughart was "getting what he deserved." This comment stemmed from a prior altercation between Mr. Hughart and petitioner during which Mr. Hughart knocked several of petitioner's teeth out. Mr. Gann, as he observed petitioner striking Mr. Hughart, testified that he knew that Mr. Hughart "was in trouble." Mr. Gann was able to get to petitioner and take him toward the house. As he took petitioner toward the house, he did not see Mr. Hughart move. To Mr. Gann's knowledge, Mr. Hughart never regained consciousness. At this time, petitioner told Mr. Gann that he hoped Mr. Hughart was dead.

         About thirty minutes after the altercation, Mr. Gann, petitioner, and another guest, Ashley McGrew, placed Mr. Hughart in the bed of petitioner's truck and took him to his home. Once they reached Mr. Hughart's home, Mr. Gann grabbed Mr. Hughart under his arms, pulled him out of the bed of the truck, and placed him in the yard. A neighbor noticed Mr. Hughart on the ground bleeding and called 911. Mr. Hughart was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.

         Dr. James Kaplan performed an autopsy on Mr. Hughart. Dr. Kaplan noted a scalp laceration that extended to the bone, a skull fracture, contusions on Mr. Hughart's back, a fractured rib, and shin injuries. Dr. Kaplan opined that Mr. Hughart's cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, noting that the force of the injury to Mr. Hughart's head "would have been a very, very forceful blow, like swinging a baseball bat at someone." Petitioner, conversely, was observed by Wood County Deputy Sheriff Michael Cochran to have no injury, save for an older, scabbed-over scratch on his arm.

         Prior to trial, petitioner moved to use the statement of Ashley McGrew, a witness to the incident from which petitioner's murder charge stemmed. Ms. McGrew died during the pendency of petitioner's case. The circuit court found that this statement did not meet any hearsay exception, and petitioner was prohibited from introducing it at trial. During trial, petitioner moved to use the complete video of his statement given to law enforcement. This motion was similarly denied on the ground that it lacked relevance. Petitioner also moved for summary judgment following presentation of the State's case-in-chief, for acquittal at the conclusion of his case-in-chief, and for a new trial at the conclusion of trial. All of these motions were denied. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder, and petitioner was sentenced to forty years of incarceration. It is from the sentencing order that petitioner appeals.

         This Court has held that,

[i]n reviewing challenges to findings and rulings made by a circuit court, we apply a two-pronged deferential standard of review. We review the rulings of the circuit court concerning a new trial and its conclusion as to the existence of reversible error under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Vance, 207 W.Va. 640, 641, 535 S.E.2d 484, 485 (2000).

         On appeal, petitioner first contends that the circuit court erred in failing to grant his motion for summary judgment following the State's case-in-chief, motion for acquittal at the end of petitioner's case-in-chief, and motion for a new trial following the conclusion of the trial. Petitioner asserts that the State failed to prove second-degree murder and that petitioner was not acting in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, petitioner claims that the State failed to prove that petitioner acted with malice. Petitioner argues that the evidence establishes that he was first attacked by Mr. Hughart and that, in defending himself, he fatally struck Mr. Hughart. Petitioner also contends that he met his burden of establishing self-defense as there was evidence presented at trial that Mr. Hughart instigated the fight that resulted in his death. Further, petitioner asserts that he had previously been involved in an altercation with Mr. Hughart wherein Mr. Hughart punched petitioner and knocked several of his teeth out. Because of this prior altercation, petitioner claims he had a "rising fear that he himself would be killed[.]"

         With regard to appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial, this Court has held that

[t]he 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 ...

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