Laster v. State, PD-1276-07.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas. Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas
Writing for the CourtKeasler, J.
Citation275 S.W.3d 512
PartiesTommy G. LASTER, Appellant v. The STATE of Texas.
Docket NumberNo. PD-1276-07.,PD-1276-07.
Decision Date14 January 2009
275 S.W.3d 512
Tommy G. LASTER, Appellant
The STATE of Texas.
No. PD-1276-07.
Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas.
January 14, 2009.

[275 S.W.3d 515]

Kim Campbell, Fort Worth, for Appellant.

Kimberly Colliet Wesley, Assistant Criminal District Atty., Fort Worth, Jeffrey L. Van Horn, State's Atty., Austin, for State.


KEASLER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which KELLER, P.J., MEYERS, WOMACK, and HERVEY, JJ., joined.

Tommy G. Laster appealed his conviction, claiming that the evidence was legally and factually insufficient. When reviewing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, the Forth Worth Court of Appeals stated that circumstantial evidence of intent is reviewed less rigorously than other elements of an offense.1 This statement is incorrect. We, however, uphold Laster's conviction because the evidence is legally and factually sufficient.

I. Background

After buying eggs for their mother at a convenience store on January 30, 2005, B.T., who was eight, and her brother, who was ten, began to walk home. While walking on the sidewalk, B.T. pushed a bicycle, and her brother walked beside her. The children saw a man, carrying a closed umbrella, walking toward them. To allow the man to pass, the children leaned against a fence next to the sidewalk. Instead of passing by, the man grabbed B.T.'s arm.

275 S.W.3d 516

The man then put his arm around B.T.'s waist and tried to pull her away. B.T. let go of the bicycle and yelled for help. Her brother grabbed her hand, and a tug of war over B.T. ensued. The man abruptly let go of B.T. when a driver honked the car's horn. The man then continued to walk down the sidewalk toward the store. The children ran home and told their mother that a man tried to take B.T.

B.T.'s mother reported the incident to the police. Later that day, B.T.'s mother saw a man walking down the street. The man, Tommy G. Laster, looked like the man that B.T. had described to the police. B.T.'s mother called the police and continued to follow Laster. The police arrived and arrested Laster based, in part, on the children identifying him as the man who grabbed and pulled B.T. After the police arrested Laster, he gave a written statement describing what happened:

While [the children] were coming toward me, the voices in my head started telling me that I would be better off dead. As I got closer to the kids and I was watching them, the voices in my head told me to grab the little girl. The voices were telling me to "Get her, get her." I grabbed her using my right arm around her waist. I saw her long hair and the side of her face. I also saw the little boy next to her. That is when I realized that I needed to let go of her because she was a little girl and I knew how that would look to the cars going by. I was thinking to myself, "Did I actually grab her in the broad daylight with all of this traffic[?] I must be nuts." She looked at me. She looked scared and wide eyed. I let her go and hurried my pace to get to the store....

Laster was charged with injury to a child and attempted aggravated kidnapping. The jury convicted him of both counts, and the trial judge sentenced Laster to twenty years' confinement for injuring a child and forty years' confinement for attempting to kidnap B.T.

On appeal to the Forth Worth Court of Appeals, Laster challenged only his conviction for attempted aggravated kidnapping.2 He alleged that the evidence was legally and factually insufficient to prove that he had the intent to abduct B.T.3 To prove that Laster had the intent to abduct B.T., the State had to show that Laster specifically intended to secrete or hold B.T. "in a place where [s]he [was] not likely to be found; or us[ed] or threaten[ed] to use deadly force."4 The court of appeals agreed with Laster that there was no evidence that he attempted to use deadly force.5 But the court of appeals affirmed Laster's conviction, holding that the evidence was legally and factually sufficient to prove that Laster had the intent to hold or secrete B.T. in a place where she was unlikely to be found.6 Deferring to the jury's finding, the court rejected Laster's argument that grabbing B.T. in a public place showed that he did not intend to take her anywhere.7 Rather, the court held that the "very brazenness and public nature of [Laster's] actions" could lead a reasonable jury to infer that Laster did intend to take B.T.8 The jury was also free

275 S.W.3d 517

to reject Laster's argument that his confession showed his intent only to grab B.T.9 In the court's view, the jury could have reasonably inferred that Laster tried to isolate B.T. from her brother and abandoned his plan only when he realized the risk of being caught.10

In dissent, Justice Dauphinot concluded that there was no evidence of Laster's intent to take B.T.11 She said that there were other reasonable explanations for why Laster grabbed B.T.12 For example, he wanted to steal her bicycle or sexually abuse her on the sidewalk.13 Given these other explanations, Justice Dauphinot criticized the majority for holding that a reasonable factfinder could infer that Laster intended to hold or secrete B.T. in a place that she was unlikely to be found.

Laster filed a petition for discretionary review, contending that the court of appeals applied an incorrect standard of review by affording too much deference to the jury's fact determination when evaluating the circumstantial evidence of intent. Laster also asked us to adopt Justice Dauphinot's view that the evidence was legally and factually insufficient to support his conviction. We granted review and now affirm the court of appeals's judgment.

II. Sufficiency Standards of Review

A. Legal Sufficiency

The Due Process Clause to the United States Constitution requires that a criminal conviction be supported by a rational trier of fact's findings that the accused is guilty of every essential element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.14 This due process guarantee is safeguarded when a court reviews the legal sufficiency of the evidence.15 During such a review, an appellate court must not usurp the role of the factfinder.16 Appellate courts are ill-equipped to weigh the evidence; unlike the factfinder — who can observe facial expressions and hear voice inflections firsthand — an appellate court is limited to the cold record.17 Our role on appeal is restricted to guarding against the rare occurrence when a factfinder does not act rationally,18 and we have final jurisdiction to review the legal sufficiency of the evidence.19 When conducting a legal sufficiency review, a court must ask whether "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt" — not whether "it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."20 In doing so, we assess all of the evidence "in the light most favorable to the prosecution."21 We have said that this same standard

275 S.W.3d 518

applies equally to circumstantial and direct evidence.22 After giving proper deference to the factfinder's role, we will uphold the verdict unless a rational factfinder must have had reasonable doubt as to any essential element.23

B. Factual Sufficiency

A verdict must also be supported by factually sufficient evidence. But unlike a legal sufficiency review, which is a federal due process requirement, a factual sufficiency review is a creature of state law.24 On direct appeal, a court must begin its factual sufficiency review with the assumption that the evidence is legally sufficient under Jackson.25 Evidence that is legally sufficient, however, can be deemed factually insufficient in two ways: (1) the evidence supporting the conviction is "too weak" to support the factfinder's verdict, or (2) considering conflicting evidence, the factfinder's verdict is "against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence."26 When a court of appeals conducts a factual sufficiency review, it must defer to the jury's findings.27 We have set out three "basic ground rules" implementing this standard.28 First, the court of appeals must consider all of the evidence in a neutral light,29 as opposed to in a light most favorable to the verdict.30 Second, the court of appeals may only find the evidence factually insufficient when necessary to "prevent manifest injustice."31 Although the verdict is afforded less deference during a factual sufficiency review, the court of appeals is not free to override the verdict simply because it disagrees with it.32 Third, the court of appeals must explain why the evidence is too weak to support the verdict or why the conflicting evidence greatly weighs against the verdict.33 This requirement serves two related purposes. First, it supports the court of appeals's judgment that a manifest injustice has occurred.34 And second, it assists us in ensuring that the standard of review was properly applied.35

Unlike our jurisdiction over legal sufficiency decisions, our jurisdiction over the court of appeals's factual sufficiency decisions is limited.36 The Factual Conclusivity Clause gives final appellate jurisdiction to the court of appeals on questions of fact brought before the court.37 We review the court of appeals's factual sufficiency analysis to ensure that the court applied the correct legal standard and considered all of the relevant

275 S.W.3d 519

evidence.38 We do not conduct a de novo factual sufficiency review.39 If we determine that the court of appeals applied the wrong standard or misapplied the correct standard, the case must be remanded to the court of appeals to conduct a proper factual sufficiency review.40

With the proper roles of the factfinder, the court of appeals, and our Court put into perspective, we now evaluate the court of appeals's legal and factual sufficiency analyses.

III. Analysis

Laster claims that the court of appeals erred by finding that the evidence was legally and factually sufficient to show...

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