Appellate court says circumstantial evidence enough for guilty verdict

Steve Korris Apr. 21, 2009, 4:59am

Vera Johnson didn't live long enough to testify that Joe Frank Horace beat her, bound her, gagged her, robbed her and stole her car, but neighbors supplied enough circumstantial evidence to put Horace away for 88 years.

On April 8 the Ninth District appeals court in Beaumont affirmed a

Jefferson County jury verdict finding Horace guilty of burglary of a habitation.

"Circumstantial evidence is as probative as direct evidence in establishing an actor's guilt," wrote Justice David Gaultney.

He wrote that "circumstantial evidence alone can be sufficient to establish guilt."

Justices Charles Kreger and Hollis Horton agreed.

Horace earned a stiff sentence as a repeat offender.

Johnson's neighbors made the case easier than most for Beaumont police.

On Aug. 13, 2005, around 6 p.m., neighbor Terrence Eaglin saw Johnson's four-door maroon 1980 Pontiac Phoenix traveling fast.

He had never seen Johnson drive so late in the day or so fast. He grabbed friend Jeremy Keil and they hurried to her home.

They saw that someone had broken the garage door. Inside they found Johnson in her living room, bound and in shock. Keil called 911 and they untied her.

Beaumont policeman Edward Cormier Sr. arrived, and Johnson described the burglar.

Eaglin told Cormier he saw a man matching the description around noon. Eaglin said the man asked for money, but he didn't give him any.

Eaglin's grandmother, Sabil Washington, rushed over. She said the garage door wasn't broken when she drove past it earlier. She said she would have noticed.

Officer Clint Weir spotted the Phoenix in a driveway the next day.

He found Horace asleep in the back seat.

Weir arrested him. In a lineup Eaglin picked him as the man who asked for money.

Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens set trial, but Johnson died of cancer before proceedings could begin.

The state called her daughter, Carroll Ann Smith, who told jurors her mother left the house in her car only to go to church, the store or the doctor.

She said her mother never mentioned knowing anyone named Horace and never let anyone drive her car.

Eaglin identified Horace as the man on the street. He told jurors Horace used to live in the neighborhood.

Washington identified him as someone she had seen visiting former neighbors.

Witness Eugene Harmon Jr. testified that Horace drove to his home that night in the Phoenix. He said he hadn't seen Horace in about 15 years.

He said Horace told him he argued with his girlfriend's father and needed to stay over. Horace said he had just bought the car, and Harmon let him sleep in the car in his driveway.

Nurse Patricia Murphy testified that blunt force trauma caused Johnson's injuries.

Jurors found Horace guilty, and Stevens sentenced him.

On appeal, lawyer Douglas Barlow argued that no one connected the burglary to the car theft, placed Horace at Johnson's home or found stolen property in her car.

The Justices decided that the jury made no mistake.

"The evidence is legally and factually sufficient to support the verdict," Gaultney wrote. "The jury could draw rational inferences from the testimony."

He wrote, "In a circumstantial evidence case, it is unnecessary for every fact to point directly and independently to the guilt of the accused."

Cumulative force of incriminating evidence is enough for a finding of guilt, he wrote.

"When there is independent evidence of a burglary, the defendant's unexplained personal possession of the recently stolen property in a burglary may permit an inference that the defendant is the one who committed the burglary," he wrote.

Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney Rodney Conerly represented the state.

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