State v. Thomas

Citation428 S.W.3d 99
Decision Date21 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. PD–0121–13.,PD–0121–13.
PartiesThe STATE of Texas v. Jeremy THOMAS, Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas. Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Sarah V. Wood, Harris County Public Defender's Office, Houston, Lisa C. McMinn, State's Attorney, Austin, TX, for Appellee.

David C. Newell, Assistant District Attorney, Houston, TX, for The State.

KELLER, P.J., delivered the opinion of the unanimous Court.

The question in this case is whether a new trial may be granted in the interest of justice upon a claim that defense counsel failed to call an exculpatory witness who was known to him and available at trial, if the claim is not based on ineffective assistance of counsel. We hold that it may not. We therefore affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.1

I. BACKGROUND
A. Trial

Vernon Keith Moses was shot and killed in an apartment complex in Houston. Multiple witnesses gave statements to police; some of the witnesses testified at trial. Among those who testified was appellee's girlfriend, Ciarra Vallery. Ciarra stated that her sister, Shelita, was at the apartment complex on the night in question and told Ciarra about the shooting, though Shelita said she “didn't see too much of it.” During a bench conference after Ciarra's testimony, the prosecutor asked defense counsel, “Are you going to put on [Shelita]?” Defense counsel responded,“No.” Although Shelita did not testify at trial, she had given the police a statement, which appellee reviewed before giving his own statement to the police. Shelita's statement was made known and available to defense counsel months before the trial.2 A jury convicted appellee of murdering Moses, and the trial court assessed punishment at confinement for life.3

Appellee filed a motion for a new trial.4 He urged that it be granted “in the interest of justice” because there was compelling evidence that was not presented at trial.5 With the motion for new trial, appellee included an affidavit from Shelita, wherein she claimed that she saw Carnell Meredith, not appellee, shoot Moses.6

Shelita was not present at the hearing on the motion for new trial, but defense counsel from trial was sworn in and took the witness stand. The State offered, and the trial court admitted into evidence, the statement that Shelita gave to the police. The trial court noted that Shelita's statement to the police and the affidavit accompanying the motion for a new trial were essentially the same.7 Appellate counsel stated that they were not pursuing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to call Shelita, nor any other ground listed in the statute.8 When the State attempted to ask trial counsel, who testified at the motion for new trial, whether he had a strategy for not calling Shelita as a witness, appellate counsel objected and asserted attorney-client privilege.9

Nevertheless, the trial court granted the new trial, stating in the order:

First, I do believe that testimony of [Shelita] could have made a difference in the outcome of the trial during guilt/innocence phase and if not during the guilt/innocence phase, certainly during the punishment phase. I'm the one that assessed punishment. I was not privy to this information.

Secondly, immediately upon sentencing and leaving the bench, I seriously questioned whether or not and still believe that my punishment in this case was excessive given the facts and circumstances or given the evidence that I heard from the witness stand and the questions that remain.

I understand the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder against this defendant. However, if I'm to assess punishment, I must consider all the facts and circumstances. All facts and circumstances and the evidence as I saw it.

I believe there was a question as to the actual gunman. I believe there could have been another gunman, and I believe that the sentence I assessed was excessive.10

B. Court of Appeals Decision

The State appealed, contending that there was no legal basis for a new trial or a new punishment hearing.11 The First Court of Appeals in Houston reversed and remanded, holding that the trial court abused its discretion by granting a new trial, that Thomas did not demonstrate a valid legal reason for granting a new trial “in the interest of justice,” and that defense counsel's failure to call Shelita Vallery as a witness justified a new trial on neither guilt nor punishment.12 Appellee petitioned this Court for review, which we granted to consider whether the court of appeals erred in holding that the trial court abused its discretion by granting a motion for new trial in the interest of justice and, in the alternative, whether the case should be remanded for a new punishment hearing.

II. ANALYSIS
A. Standards for granting a new trial

The standard of review when a trial court grants a motion for a new trial is abuse of discretion.13 The test for abuse of discretion is not whether, in the opinion of the appellate court, the facts present an appropriate case for the trial court's action, but rather, “whether the trial court acted without reference to any guiding rules or principles.” 14 The mere fact that a trial court may decide a matter differently from an appellate court does not demonstratean abuse of discretion.15 Appellate courts view the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling, defer to the court's credibility determinations, and presume that all reasonable fact findings in support of the ruling have been made.16 A trial court abuses its discretion if it grants a new trial for a non-legal or a legally invalid reason.17 The trial court cannot grant a new trial based on mere sympathy, an inarticulate hunch, “or simply because he personally believes that the defendant is innocent or ‘received a raw deal.’ 18

Appellee argues that a trial court does not abuse its discretion when it grants a new trial in the “interest of justice.” Noting that the list of grounds for granting a new trial in the Rules of Appellate Procedure is “illustrative, not exclusive,” he points to a long history of trial courts exercising their discretion to grant new trials “in the interest of justice.” 19 This argument stems primarily from oft-quoted language in State v. Gonzalez:

For more than one hundred and twenty years, our trial judges have had the discretion to grant new trials in the interest of justice. In Mullins v. State, the Supreme Court, which at that time had criminal jurisdiction, held: ... The discretion of the District Court, in granting new trials, is almost the only protection to the citizen against the illegal or oppressive verdicts of prejudiced, careless, or ignorant juries, and we think the District Court should never hesitate to use that discretion whenever the ends of justice have not been attained by those verdicts.20

In State v. Herndon, the Court answered the question whether “in the interest of justice” is an independent ground for granting a new trial. 21 In that case, we affirmed the trial court's grant of a motion for new trial on a ground not specified in the Rules of Appellate Procedure. In Herndon, the motion for new trial was based on the court stenographer not recording a portion of the proceedings as required.22 Though this particular error was not objected to at trial and is not one listed in Rule 21.3, the Court held that “a trial judge may, but need not, grant a motion for new trial on the basis of unpreserved trial error if that error is sufficiently serious that it has affected the defendant's substantial rights.23

We held that it was not an abuse of discretion to grant a new trial in Herndon, but we also provided guidance for when a trial court is authorized to do so. Though the trial court may grant a motion for new trial on a basis not listed in Rule 21.3, the court cannot grant a new trial “unless the defendant shows that he is entitled to one under the law.” 24 The trial court's discretion to grant a motion for new trial “in the interest of justice” is not “unbounded or unfettered.” 25 Instead, “justice” means “in accordance with the law.” 26 Without a showing that substantial rights were affected, a defendant should not be granted a new trial or else “the phrase ‘interest of justice’ would have no substantive legal content, but [would] constitute a mere platitude covering a multitude of unreviewable rulings.” 27 We said, in summary:

We need not today set out bright-line rules concerning appellate review of a trial court's discretion in this area, but we do conclude that a trial court would not generally abuse its discretion in granting a motion for new trial if the defendant: (1) articulated a valid legal claim in his motion for new trial; (2) produced evidence or pointed to evidence in the trial record that substantiated his legal claim; and (3) showed prejudice to his substantial rights under the standards in Rule 44.2 of the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure.28

Appellee contends that there are numerous instances in which an appellate court has upheld a trial court's decision to grant a new trial. The State responds that, in each of these cases, there was some sort of valid legal basis in each claim, even if there was not a specific ground as enumerated in Rule 21.3. We agree. There must be some legal basis underpinning the grant of a new trial, even if it is granted in the interest of justice. We turn to the determination of whether there is a valid legal claim in this case.

B. A known, exculpatory, but uncalled witness as a valid legal claim.

Herndon made clear that for a trial court to grant a motion for new trial in the interest of justice, the movant must have articulated a valid legal claim.29 Generally, if there is a “valid legal claim” in a motion for new trial, a court will not abuse its discretion by granting it. 30 Here, appellee claims that the absence of Shelita Vallery's testimony at trial resulted in appellee being “deprived of direct exculpatory evidence that would have worked to...

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  • Hernandez v. State
    • United States
    • Texas Court of Appeals
    • September 22, 2020
    ...by operation of law. We review the trial court's ruling on a motion for new trial for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Thomas , 428 S.W.3d 99, 103 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). The test for abuse of discretion is not whether, in our opinion as an appellate court, the facts present an appropri......
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    ...when he argues that his sentence should be overturned because his counsel was constitutionally ineffective. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 106 (Tex.Crim.App.2014). The rationale behind this rule was best explained by the Texas Supreme Court in Ginsberg v. Fifth Court of Appeals, 686 S.W.2d......
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    ...There are several grounds on which the absence of a witness at trial can form the basis for granting a new trial. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 106(Tex. Crim. App. 2014). For example, the absence of witness testimony may support a Brady claim, id.; see Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963......
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11 books & journal articles
  • Post-Trial Issues
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2015 Contents
    • August 17, 2015
    ...2007). However, the court cannot grant a new trial unless the defendant shows that he is entitled to one under the law. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 104 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). A defendant must show that his substantial rights have been violated in order to show that he is entitled to a ......
  • Post-Trial Issues
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2017 Contents
    • August 17, 2017
    ...2007). However, the court cannot grant a new trial unless the defendant shows that he is entitled to one under the law. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 104 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). A defendant must show that his substantial rights have been violated in order to show that he is entitled to a ......
  • Post-Trial Issues
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2019 Contents
    • August 16, 2019
    ...2007). However, the court cannot grant a new trial unless the defendant shows that he is entitled to one under the law. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 104 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). A defendant must show that his substantial rights have been violated in order to show that he is entitled to a ......
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    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2016 Contents
    • August 17, 2016
    ...2007). However, the court cannot grant a new trial unless the defendant shows that he is entitled to one under the law. State v. Thomas, 428 S.W.3d 99, 104 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). A defendant must show that his substantial rights have been violated in order to show that he is entitled to a ......
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