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State v. Carpenter

Supreme Court of West Virginia

January 8, 2018

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Rodney A. Carpenter, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Webster County 16-F-9

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Rodney A. Carpenter, by counsel Daniel R. Grindo, appeals the Circuit Court of Webster County's January 3, 2017, order denying his post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal and sentencing him following his convictions for operating or attempting to operate a clandestine drug laboratory and conspiracy. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Robert L. Hogan, filed a response. On appeal, petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal because there was insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions.

         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.

         On January 12, 2016, petitioner was indicted on one count of operating or attempting to operate a clandestine drug laboratory and one count of conspiracy. The indictment also charged Virginia Lee Davis, Billy W. Green, and Allen R. Garner Jr. with these same crimes. Mr. Green, who is Ms. Davis's son, entered into a plea agreement with the State prior to trial. The charges against petitioner, Ms. Davis, and Mr. Garner proceeded to a jury trial on September 14, 2016. The evidence at trial showed that, on August 6, 2015, Deputies Vandevender and Cogar of the Webster County Sheriff's Department were dispatched to Ms. Davis's home following a report that petitioner was "there screaming and yelling at next-door neighbors [and] passing cars[.]" When Deputy Vandevender arrived at Ms. Davis's residence, Ms. Davis, who was on the porch, stepped inside the home and then back outside. Deputy Vandevender asked her where petitioner was, and petitioner came to the front door. As Deputy Vandevender was walking toward the porch and petitioner was exiting the front door, Deputy Vandevender noted a chemical odor consistent with the operation of a methamphetamine laboratory, specifically, that of Coleman fuel, and he saw a bottle being thrown "off the back porch, and [it] flew across and hit the outbuilding [beside the house]." Deputy Vandevender observed liquid coming out of the bottle, and, once he got closer to it, noticed a white, granular substance in it. At this point, additional law enforcement was called to the scene, including Trooper Baier and Trooper Hebb of the West Virginia State Police. Trooper Baier obtained consent from Ms. Davis to search her property.

         During the search of Ms. Davis's home and property, the officers obtained and photographed additional evidence. The photographs, which were shown to the jury, depicted a partially-burned Zephrin-D pack; lithium battery pack; a bottle cut in half with a still-wet filter in it; a bag with liquid in it; tin foil, salt, and coffee filters on the kitchen countertop; pieces of ripped tin foil in a kitchen drawer; Liquid Fire; a metal "snort straw, " which had been concealed over a doorway; a sweatshirt found in Mr. Green's room with a coffee filter in the front pocket; a gun rack from Mr. Green's room containing drug paraphernalia; a container from Ms. Davis's room containing lithium batteries; tubing from Ms. Davis's bedroom; Coleman fuel; and a filter commonly used in smoking devices. Deputy Vandevender testified that the items depicted in the photographs were commonly used for manufacturing, smoking, or snorting methamphetamine.

         Rebecca Harrison, a forensic analyst in the drug identification section of the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory, testified that the evidence obtained, based upon its condition, suggested that the methamphetamine-making process was "toward the end." Trooper E.E. Bostic, who is certified in sampling and testing methamphetamine labs, also testified that the condition of the evidence obtained suggested that the methamphetamine-making process was nearly complete.

         Mr. Green testified at trial for the defense. Mr. Green claimed responsibility for the methamphetamine operation and attempted to exonerate his codefendants. Mr. Green testified that he was operating the methamphetamine laboratory outside, behind the house, alone when petitioner and another codefendant arrived at Ms. Davis's house. Mr. Green testified that petitioner was not near him while he was making methamphetamine.

         Petitioner moved for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the State's case-in-chief and again at the conclusion of the trial. Both motions were denied, and the jury found petitioner and his codefendants guilty of operating or attempting to operate a clandestine drug laboratory and conspiracy. On November 3, 2016, petitioner moved to set aside the verdict arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. On November 7, 2016, the parties appeared for a hearing on post-trial motions and sentencing. Upon finding that sufficient evidence was presented to convict petitioner, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion and sentenced him to not less than two nor more than ten years of incarceration for his operating or attempting to operate a clandestine drug laboratory conviction and not less than one nor more than five years of incarceration for his conspiracy conviction. These rulings were memorialized by an order entered on January 3, 2017. It is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the State failed to present any evidence to support his convictions other than petitioner's presence at the location of the methamphetamine laboratory, and that mere presence is insufficient to support a conviction. Petitioner argues that there was no indication that he lived at the residence at which the methamphetamine laboratory was found, nor was any connection made between petitioner and the evidence found at Ms. Davis's residence. Although certain of petitioner's codefendants had purchased pseudoephedrine, there was no evidence that petitioner had ever made such purchases. Petitioner also highlights Mr. Green's testimony that Mr. Green had been making methamphetamine unbeknownst to petitioner, who had arrived unexpectedly during the manufacturing process. In sum, petitioner argues that, not only was there no evidence upon which a jury could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but the only evidence presented either could not be specifically linked to him or exonerated him.

         This Court applies a de novo standard of review to appeals from rulings on a motion for judgment of acquittal:

The trial court's disposition of a motion for judgment of acquittal is subject to our de novo review; therefore, this Court, like the trial court, must scrutinize the evidence in the light most compatible with the verdict, resolve all credibility disputes in the verdict's favor, and then reach a judgment about whether a rational jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 304, 470 S.E.2d 613, 623 (1996). Regarding a claim that the evidence at trial was insufficient to convict, this Court has stated 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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