Hernandez v. State

Decision Date31 May 2022
Docket Number08-19-00152-CR
PartiesLEONEL HERNANDEZ, Appellant, v. THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee.
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Do Not Publish

Appeal from the 168th Judicial District Court of El Paso County Texas (TC#20160D03827)

Before Rodriguez, C.J., Palafox, and Alley, JJ.


JEFF ALLEY, Justice.

This is a murder case. A jury found Appellant, Leonel Hernandez guilty of the murder of Richard Madrigal. A few things are clear from the record. Madrigal was killed in his apartment from a gunshot wound to the head. Appellant and his romantic interest-Miranda Palacios-were in the apartment at the time of the murder. Palacios, with varying degrees of certitude in her description, implicated Appellant as the trigger man. Appellant tried to hide the murder weapon after the shooting. But the major contested issue was Appellant's claim presented through an expert witness, that the physical evidence made it impossible for him to have fired the gun leaving Palacios as the other possible assailant.

In three issues, Appellant contends that: (1) the trial court erroneously allowed a detective to testify about Appellant's post-interrogation, off-camera, statements about the location of the murder weapon; (2) the evidence was legally insufficient to support the jury's verdict because expert testimony interpreting the physical evidence precludes him as the shooter; and (3) the trial court improperly allowed the State to impeach Appellant's expert witness with an appellate opinion that concluded the expert had perjured himself when testifying in an out-of-state civil case. Because the heart of Appellant's defense was the expert's opinion that it would have been physically impossible for Appellant to have been the shooter, and the impeachment evidence used by the State against the expert was improperly admitted, we reverse the trial court's judgment of conviction, and remand for a new trial.

I. Background

On June 11, 2016, one of Richard Madrigal's neighbors heard a quick succession of "bang bang" sounds coming from Madrigal's apartment but dismissed the noise as fireworks. The next morning, a friend concerned about Madrigal, used a spare key to gain entrance to his apartment. The friend found Madrigal dead with blood on his legs and a puddle of blood by his head. The coroner would later conclude that Madrigal suffered two gunshot wounds. One gunshot had grazed Madrigal's right cheek, leaving a wound with visible gun powder stippling. Based on the stippling, the coroner believed that the gun was fired between two inches and four feet from Madrigal. The second gunshot was fatal. That bullet entered Madrigal's inner left eye in a forward-to-back, left-to-right, and slightly upward track, penetrated his brain, and lodged in his skull.

Physical evidence from the crime scene offered more clues to the crime. The bullet that grazed Madrigal's right cheek left a bullet hole in a window, and then ricocheted off an exterior wall of the apartment building. The location of the mark on the wall, the bullet hole in the window, and location of Madrigal's body lined up to provide the trajectory of the bullet and likely location of the gun at discharge. The State's blood spatter expert, Officer Ludovico Granillo, interpreted crime scene photographs. From those, he testified that Madrigal was likely standing when he was shot, and then sat down on his buttocks and slumped over on his left side. As he went down, he turned in a sweeping motion. An arc of blood drops can be seen on the carpet near Madrigal's body.

Based on the initial investigation the police quickly focused on Appellant and the trial record develops the following timeline of events.

A. Timeline of Events

Miranda Palacios had separated from her husband but was still living with him. Appellant lived in the same apartment complex as Palacios and was dating her. Palacios had met Richard Madrigal four or five years earlier at school, and she testified that they were friends, but not lovers.

On June 10, 2016, Madrigal was celebrating some occasion and asked Palacios to accompany him to a local bar. That same day, and because she needed a ride, Palacios sent Appellant a text message, asking whether he wanted "to go with Rick [Madrigal]." When Appellant did not respond, Palacios got a ride from Madrigal who took her to the bar that evening. She returned with Madrigal and stayed the night with him in his apartment, but she claims they did not sleep together.

On the morning of June 11th, Alexis Dominguez, who was a close acquaintance of Madrigal, texted and spoke with Madrigal, and learned that Palacios-who Dominguez considered to be bad news-was still at Madrigal's apartment. Also on the morning of June 11, Appellant texted Palacios that he wanted to come over. Palacios and Madrigal swam and then went shopping that day. They also drank beer, took whiskey shots, and smoked marijuana together.[1] Later that afternoon or early evening, Appellant arrived at Madrigal's apartment. While there, Palacios and Appellant went out to Appellant's truck and ingested cocaine. Palacios did not remember any fight or argument between Appellant and Madrigal.

Sometime that evening while back at Madrigal's apartment, Palacios testified that she heard two shots, saw Madrigal on the floor, and saw Appellant pointing the gun. Palacios testified at trial that she knew that Appellant kept a small gun under the seat of his pickup truck. Palacios testified that she called her husband right after the shooting and left voice messages when he did not answer. Phone records placed these calls at 7:02 and 7:04 p.m. She did not have a car and Appellant was her only means of transportation. Palacios testified that she was afraid that if she called 911, Appellant would find out and she "would be next," so she stayed with him. They left the apartment and checked into a local Hyatt hotel.

The police later obtained Palacios's phone which contained a series of text exchanges the evening of the murder and the next day. At 10:43 p.m., Palacios's daughter, Isis Lozoya, texted Palacios asking "Are you okay mom? Been trying to get ahold of you." She texted again at 11:39 p.m. "Mom are you okay??" Palacios responded at 1:12 a.m. with "Sorry babe!!! My stupid phone died!!! Fml"[2] and then "R u ok???!!!"

Between 2:51 a.m. and 10:12 a.m., Palacios sent a series of 12 text messages to her husband, stating in substance that she was scared, that a person referred to only as "he" killed Rick, that she needed help, but that she could not talk on the phone.

Palacios's next texts to her daughter were at 6:45 a.m., stating that "I'm so scared Babe!!!! -I think Leo killed Rick-I'm not joking-I don't know what to do-I'm so scared." When Palacios's daughter sent a message at 6:51 a.m. asking Palacios to go home, Palacios replied, "He's my ride, babe....... I'm so scared. I saw the whole shit." Her daughter then texted, asking her to calm down and go home, but Palacios responded that she could not, she was scared and urged her daughter not to tell anyone. Lozoya and Palacios then spoke by phone, but the background was quiet and Palacios spoke as if she were hiding. Palacios cried, said, "her goodbyes," and also told Lozoya that she had seen Appellant kill Madrigal. Palacios told Lozoya that she did not know what to do and explained that she was too scared to leave her location because she feared that Appellant would do something to her. Palacios declined Lozoya's offer to pick her up. Palacios explained that it was too dangerous and that she only could speak by phone because Appellant had left to wipe down everything at the apartment.

Palacios's husband finally responded by a text at 10:12 a.m. and for an hour, the two exchanged a series of text messages where the husband was trying to find out who the "he" was in her messages, where she was, and what was going on. Palacios continued to respond that she was scared but that she was "trying to keep it cool." She claimed that she could not provide her location because she did not know where she was. Just before 11:00 a.m., her husband, not getting any substantive answers to his questions, texted that he would contact the police, which prompted Palacios to respond: "I asked you to please not do shit." After another fifteen minutes of not getting a response to where she was, her husband said he was going to the police, garnering her response that he was "stupid" and "he can kill me." By 1:13 p.m., the husband was at the police station.

Appellant and Palacios checked out of the hotel and Appellant took her back to their apartment complex. When Palacios arrived, her husband was not home, and she later learned that he was at the police station. That afternoon, Palacios spoke with police at her apartment and informed them that Appellant had shot Madrigal. Palacios allowed police to search and gave them her phone and the clothes that she had been wearing.

As detailed below, that same day the police located Appellant driving in his vehicle. Following a pretextual traffic stop, he was taken to the central station and questioned by detectives. He was then arrested for the murder. While being taken from the central station to the jail, he disclosed the location of the gun to the detectives, which they then retrieved.

B. Procedural Background

A single count, two-paragraph indictment charged Appellant with the offense of murder for the death of Richard Madrigal. Following a series of hearings on a motion to suppress, the trial court suppressed the statements that Appellant gave while being interviewed at the police station. But the trial court declined to suppress Appellant's statement made afterwards while en route to booking where he disclosed the location of...

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