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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Father's Day-Related Case Results in Affirmance of Trial Court's Evidentiary Ruling, But On Different Grounds

The Court of Appeals of Texas' recent opinion in Cooks v. State, 2008 WL 313050 (Tex.App.-Texarkana 2008), deals with a strange set of facts and contains a strange ruling, with the court affirming the trial court's opinion despite finding fault in its reasoning.  The brief facts of Cooks are as follows:

On the night of June 11, 2005 and in the early morning hours of June 12th, it became apparent that Kenneth Cooks might have done something to James Millis.  Cooks was riding ATVs and motorcycles with his brother and another person near the place that Cooks was living, which in turn was close to Millis' residence.  Cooks then disappeared for a while before being found by the other two men, sitting on a trailer at Millis' residence and making claims that Millis had instructed him to wait there for him to return.

In the wee hours of the next morning, Cooks appeared at the Kyle's Quick Stop convenience store three times. The first visit was at about 1:30 a.m., with Cooks acting "excited" and "fidgety" as he related to the attendant at one time that Jethro Bodine (of the Beverly Hillbillies television show) was in his family and at another time that he (Cooks) was either Bodine or that he was Robocop.  The attendant called the sheriff's office, but Cooks left before the deputies arrived. On the second visit, Cooks maintained that it was not he who had previously been at the convenience store, but rather, it had been his identical twin brother. who was Robocop, and whom Cooks killed in self defense.  The attendant again called the sheriff's department, but Cooks again left before the deputies arrived.

On Cooks' third visit, he was dressed in a blue and white striped shirt, which was later identified as either the same one or very similar to the one which Millis' daughter had just recently given him for a Father's Day present.  This time, the attendant called the sheriff's department, and a deputy promptly arrived and noticed a substantial amount of blood in the bed of the old pickup truck Cooks was driving; Cooks, however, indicated that he had hauled the body of a dead dog in the truck earlier and that the blood had come from the dog, an explanation which placated the deputy.

At around 7:00 A.M., two men saw Cooks driving a truck that belonged to Millis.  Then, at about 8:30 A.M. Reggie Lawler saw Cooks driving Millis' truck and followed him to Millis' mobile home, whereupon Cooks rapped on the side of Millis's mobile home and began to call out excitedly, "Hey, man, come here, blood."  This frightened Lawler, who went to a local police station which ended up being closed.  In the end, it was Cooks who called the police and reported that he found blood at Millis' mobile home.  A deputy sheriff subsequently arrived and found blood all over the premises, the mobile home, and the truck

The deputy sheriff read Cooks the Miranda warnings, and Cooks eventually admitted that he choked Millis, although he claimed that he did not kill Millis and that he was acting in self-defenseCooks was then taken to the emergency room of a hospital for a specialist to take samples from under his fingernails and to garner other forensic evidence. While he was waiting there, Cooks fell asleep, and, when he was awakened by the nurse, he inquired, "Did you find the body?"  The body was indeed found; Millis was dead, heaving been stabbed, choked, and beaten.  Cooks was eventually convicted of murdering Millis and sentenced to 70 years' imprisonment after the jury rejected his insanity defense despite evidence that he suffered from advanced schizophrenia.

On appeal, he claimed that the trial court erred by, inter alia, admitting his question to the nurse as an excited utterance.  The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that his question did not meet the requirements of the excited utterance exception to the rule against hearsay contained in Texas Rule of Evidence 803(2), which allows for the admission of "[a] statement relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition."  While the court did not explain its conclusion, it seems clear to me that it (1) could have found that being awoken by the nurse was not a startling event and/or that Cooks was not stressed/excited upon being awoken; and/or (2) must have found that even if being awoken was startling, Cooks' statement did not relate to being awoken by the nurse but instead related to the alleged murder of Millis.

The Court of Appeals, however, noted that even when the trial judge gives the wrong reason for his decision, if the decision is correct on any theory of law applicable to the case, it will be sustained.  The court then implicitly concluded that Cooks' statement was admissible as an admission under Texas Rule of Evidence 801(e)(2)(A) and explicitly found that it was not objectionable under Article 38.22 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure because the statement was spontaneously made and not made as the result of a custodial interrogation, which had ended when Cooks dozed off.  I agree with the Court of Appeals' opinion and find that it's consistent with both Texas precedent (see, e.g., Ruth v. State, 167 S.W.3d 560, 571 (Tex.App.-Houston 2005), and precedent from across the country on custodial interrogations.    

-CM 

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