State v. LaRock, No. 22979

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtCLECKLEY
Citation196 W.Va. 294,470 S.E.2d 613
PartiesSTATE of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. Jeffrey Scott LaROCK, Defendant Below, Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 22979
Decision Date20 March 1996

Page 613

470 S.E.2d 613
196 W.Va. 294
STATE of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Appellee,
v.
Jeffrey Scott LaROCK, Defendant Below, Appellant.
No. 22979.
Supreme Court of Appeals of
West Virginia.
Submitted Feb. 27, 1996.
Decided March 20, 1996.

Page 618

[196 W.Va. 299] Syllabus by the Court

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 reviewing 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." Syllabus Point 1, State v. Guthrie, 194 W.Va. 657, 461 S.E.2d 163 (1995).

2. When a criminal defendant undertakes a sufficiency challenge, all the evidence, direct and circumstantial, must be viewed from the prosecutor's coign of vantage, and the viewer must accept all reasonable inferences from it that are consistent with the verdict. This rule requires the trial court judge to resolve all evidentiary conflicts and credibility questions in the prosecution's favor; moreover, as among competing inferences of which two or more are plausible, the judge must choose the inference that best fits the prosecution's theory of guilt.

3. It is presumed a defendant is protected from undue prejudice if the following requirements are met: (1) the prosecution offered the evidence for a proper purpose; (2) the evidence was relevant; (3) the trial court made an on-the-record determination under Rule 403 of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence that the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice; and (4) the trial court gave a limiting instruction.

4. A trial court has discretionary authority to bifurcate a trial and sentencing in any case where a jury is required to make a finding as to mercy.

5. The burden of persuasion is placed upon the shoulders of the party moving for bifurcation. A trial judge may insist on an explanation from the moving party as to why bifurcation is needed. If the explanation reveals that the integrity of the adversarial process which depends upon the truth-determining function of the trial process would be harmed in a unitary trial, it would be entirely consistent with a trial court's authority to grant the bifurcation motion.

6. Although it virtually is impossible to outline all factors that should be considered by the trial court, the court should consider when a motion for bifurcation is made: (a) whether limiting instructions to the jury would be effective; (b) whether a party desires to introduce evidence solely for sentencing purposes but not on the merits; (c) whether evidence would be admissible on sentencing but would not be admissible on the merits or vice versa; (d) whether either party can demonstrate unfair prejudice or disadvantage by bifurcation; (e) whether a unitary trial would cause the parties to forego introducing relevant evidence for sentencing purposes; and (f) whether bifurcation unreasonably would lengthen the trial.

7. An unpreserved error is deemed plain and affects substantial rights only if the reviewing court finds the lower court skewed the fundamental fairness or basic integrity of the proceedings in some major respect. In clear terms, the plain error rule should be exercised only to avoid a miscarriage of justice. The discretionary authority of this Court invoked by lesser errors should be exercised sparingly and should be reserved for the correction of those few errors that seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.

Dawn E. Warfield, Deputy Attorney General, Charles T. Berry, Law Student, Charleston, for Appellee.

Michael E. Froble, Wooton, Wooton & Fragile, Beckley, for Appellant.

Page 619

[196 W.Va. 300] CLECKLEY, Justice:

The defendant, Jeffrey Scott LaRock, appeals the June 16, 1994, order of the Circuit Court of Fayette County which denied his motion for judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The defendant was convicted by a jury of first degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment without mercy for the killing of his nineteen-month-old son, Joshua LaRock. The defendant does not deny that his actions caused his son's death; instead, at trial, the defendant primarily argued there was insufficient evidence to establish the requisite premeditation and intent for a conviction of first degree murder. On appeal, the defendant raises this issue along with numerous other assignments of error which we will address as warranted.

I.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Ordinarily, we sketch the background, reserving more exegesis treatment of facts pending our discussion of specific issues. We give the facts of this case more detailed consideration because this appeal centers around the insufficiency of the trial evidence. The testimony at trial demonstrated the defendant subjected Joshua to a continued pattern of outrageous and atrocious acts of physical and mental abuse. The defendant allegedly hit Joshua in the stomach and face with his hands, he beat Joshua on the head and buttocks with a square stick that was two-feet, seven-inches long, and he would tie a rope or rag around the child's neck and would walk around with the child over his shoulder calling him names as a form of discipline.

The defendant's wife, Stephanie LaRock, testified that the family moved to West Virginia from Kansas the summer before Joshua died. 1 While in Kansas, Mrs. LaRock stated the defendant hit Joshua and their daughter, Renee, so the welfare department placed them on a six-month trial period. When they moved to West Virginia, they lived with relatives for a few months, but Mrs. LaRock said they were forced to leave when the defendant and his sister got into an argument over the defendant hitting Joshua too hard. 2 The LaRocks then moved into the house where Joshua died.

To explain the possible cause of a skull fracture which Joshua suffered about ten to fourteen days prior to his death, Mrs. LaRock testified the defendant threw the child from the living room into the bathroom causing Joshua to hit his head on the bath tub. Mrs. LaRock stated that after the incident Joshua would "just lay around [and] ... wouldn't do nothing." Mrs. LaRock said they did not take Joshua to the doctor because the defendant insisted there was nothing wrong with him.

On the night Joshua was killed, the defendant, his wife, Joshua, and Renee, 3 were at their house. Mrs. LaRock testified the defendant was attempting to get Joshua to eat and walk but he became furious apparently because Joshua would not cooperate. The defendant then began picking Joshua up "midway--to over his head" and dropping him from this height causing the child to hit his back and the back of his head against the floor. He dropped Joshua four or five times while calling him "a mother fucker[.]" Mrs. LaRock stated her husband stopped dropping Joshua when the child stopped crying.

The defendant testified the first thing he did after he stopped dropping Joshua was light up a cigarette, 4 but he"went over to do

Page 620

[196 W.Va. 301] what [he] could for him" after he realized the child was not moving. Mrs. LaRock said they both began CPR. Mrs. LaRock further stated that when she got up to go to a neighbor's house to call an ambulance, 5 the defendant stopped her before she left the house and told her to move the high chair into the living room and say Joshua fell out of the chair.

Two neighbors came to help the LaRocks while they were waiting for the ambulance. When the first neighbor arrived on the scene, he stated Joshua was lying on a bed and the defendant was kneeling down beside him. The neighbor immediately began CPR, and the defendant assisted him. The neighbor recalls the defendant saying "come on, Josh, a couple of times" and telling his wife to pray. At some point, the neighbor remembers both the defendant and Mrs. LaRock standing beside the bed smoking cigarettes while he was giving Joshua CPR. The second neighbor testified that he helped keep "air out of the stomach" while the CPR was being performed and he drove the defendant to the hospital after the ambulance took Joshua.

The EMT who arrived on the scene with the ambulance stated that Joshua was in cardiac and respiratory arrest when she assessed him. At the hospital, the EMT asked what happened to Joshua, and the defendant told her "the baby was sitting in a high chair without a tray, and he [the defendant] was taking pictures to send to the grandparents. He said the baby was fidgeting around in the high chair, and he pitched forward, turned over in the air, and landed on his back." A paramedic who met the ambulance en route to the hospital testified that Mrs. LaRock told him a similar account of Joshua falling from the high chair.

Dr. John M. Johnson, the emergency room physician, examined Joshua and found he suffered a "massive skull fracture, which was recorded to be a three millimeter distraction and had several bruises to the torso and to the arms, which in [his] experience were inconsistent with a fall from a high chair." After resuscitation efforts failed, Joshua was pronounced dead. Dr. Johnson's "final diagnosis was traumatic arrest secondary to a closed head injury."

Shortly after Joshua arrived at the hospital, Janet Turner, a Social Service Supervisor for the Department of Health and Human Resources, was contacted to investigate suspected child abuse. She contacted the West Virginia State Police, and she and Corporal Mike Spradlin of the State Police went together to the hospital. After Ms. Turner spoke with Dr. Johnson, she went to the chapel area of the hospital to discuss the...

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595 practice notes
  • State v. Trail, No. 14–0887.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • October 7, 2015
    ...the sufficiency of the evidence.” State v. Juntilla,227 W.Va. 492, 497, 711 S.E.2d 562, 567 (2011)(per curiam) (citing State v. LaRock,196 W.Va. 294, 304, 470 S.E.2d 613, 623 (1996)). Accord State v. Minigh,224 W.Va. 112, 124, 680 S.E.2d 127, 139 (2009)(per curiam).With due regard for these......
  • Coleman v. Sopher, No. 23943.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 20, 1997
    ...objection requirement serves an important purpose in promoting the balanced and orderly functioning of our adversarial system of justice. 196 W.Va. 294, 316, 470 S.E.2d 613, 635 While the record indicates that Sopher presented a motion in limine for the exclusion of the evidence herein comp......
  • State v. Allen, No. 25980.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 17, 1999
    ...the problem before irreparable harm occurs." State v. Salmons, 203 W.Va. 561, 569, 509 S.E.2d 842, 850 (1998) (quoting State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 316, 470 S.E.2d 613, 635 (1996)). For this reason, "[a]s a general rule,... errors assigned for the first time in an appellate court will no......
  • State v. Corey, No. 13–0769.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 23, 2014
    ...may be deemed by this Court to be waived.” Syl. pt. 6, Addair v. Bryant, 168 W.Va. 306, 284 S.E.2d 374 (1981). See State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 302, 470 S.E.2d 613, 621 (1996) (“Although we liberally construe briefs in determining issues presented for review, issues which are ... mention......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
595 cases
  • State v. Trail, No. 14–0887.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • October 7, 2015
    ...the sufficiency of the evidence.” State v. Juntilla,227 W.Va. 492, 497, 711 S.E.2d 562, 567 (2011)(per curiam) (citing State v. LaRock,196 W.Va. 294, 304, 470 S.E.2d 613, 623 (1996)). Accord State v. Minigh,224 W.Va. 112, 124, 680 S.E.2d 127, 139 (2009)(per curiam).With due regard for these......
  • Coleman v. Sopher, No. 23943.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 20, 1997
    ...objection requirement serves an important purpose in promoting the balanced and orderly functioning of our adversarial system of justice. 196 W.Va. 294, 316, 470 S.E.2d 613, 635 While the record indicates that Sopher presented a motion in limine for the exclusion of the evidence herein comp......
  • State v. Allen, No. 25980.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 17, 1999
    ...the problem before irreparable harm occurs." State v. Salmons, 203 W.Va. 561, 569, 509 S.E.2d 842, 850 (1998) (quoting State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 316, 470 S.E.2d 613, 635 (1996)). For this reason, "[a]s a general rule,... errors assigned for the first time in an appellate court will no......
  • State v. Corey, No. 13–0769.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 23, 2014
    ...may be deemed by this Court to be waived.” Syl. pt. 6, Addair v. Bryant, 168 W.Va. 306, 284 S.E.2d 374 (1981). See State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 302, 470 S.E.2d 613, 621 (1996) (“Although we liberally construe briefs in determining issues presented for review, issues which are ... mention......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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