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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Superman Didn't Become Superman: Tennessee Court Finds Evidence That Defendant Bought And Wore Superman Shirt Admissible

A defendant is charged with facilitation of first degree murder and the defendant claims as part of his defense that he was "surprised" and "scared" after the subject shooting. If the defendant brags to his friends about the shooting, it is indisputable that the defendant's words could be used against him to rebut his defense and prove his intent. But what about if the defendant purchased and wore a Superman shirt after the shooting. Should such evidence be similarly admissible? I don't think so. In its recent opinion in State c. Garcia, 2010 WL 3766942 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2010), the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee disagreed.

In Garcia, nineteen-year-old Orlando Garcia and his childhood friend, Alejandro Gauna, both residents of Austin, Texas, purchased marijuana in Texas, transported it to Tennessee, and planned to sell the drugs for a profit. While Garcia was driving in Tennessee with the drugs in his car, he

was speeding, and Trooper Jenks proceeded to initiate a traffic stop. According to the defendant, he initially considered trying to outrun the officer because he knew there were marijuana and weapons in the car. Moreover, the defendant had lost his driver's license during the trip. Gauna asked the defendant what he wanted to do, and the defendant replied, "Let's see what happens." The defendant stopped the car on the side of the road. Trooper Jenks approached the car and was informed that the defendant had no license. At this point, he requested that the defendant exit the car and proceed to the rear of the vehicle. While there, Trooper Jenks told the defendant that he smelled marijuana and asked if there were drugs or weapons in the car. After initially denying the presence of either, the defendant, in response to the trooper's further questioning and urging to "do this the easy way," eventually informed the trooper that there was a blunt in the center console. When Trooper Jenks proceeded to the driver's side door and leaned into the car, Gauna shot him twice in the head. Gauna began yelling for the defendant to "Get him out. Get him out." The defendant then walked to the driver's side of the car, pulled the trooper's body from the car, and tossed it onto the roadway. The two men then sped off in the rental car. These events were all captured on video by Trooper Jenks' in-car camera, which activated when he turned on the blue lights

Thereafter,

the defendant and Gauna had gone to a local convenience store where Gauna entered and asked if they had Armor All wipes. Upon learning that they did not, he requested driving directions to the local Walmart. Video surveillance of the Walmart parking lot shows them driving into the parking lot and shows Gauna entering the store where he purchased the wipes. The two men then proceeded to use the wipes to clean inside of the car and to throw away two empty shells, as well as Trooper Jenks' flashlight. The defendant entered the store and purchased a shirt with a Superman logo on it. He then changed into the new shirt in the restroom and disposed of his blood-stained shirt in the trash. Gauna also entered the store and purchased new clothing. Surveillance video captured both men exiting the store, returning to the car, and leaving the parking lot.

Garcia and Gauna were later apprehended, and Garcia was eventually charged with facilitation of first degree murder and possession of a Schedule VI controlled substance with intent to deliver. As part of his defense, Garcia claimed that he did not intend for Gauna to shoot the trooper and that "he was 'surprised' and 'scared' after the shooting but...too scared to say anything or turn Gauna in to law enforcement."

At trial, the prosecution rebutted this defense with, inter alia, evidence that Garcia purchased and wore a Superman shirt soon after the shooting. Garcia did not object to this evidence on appeal, but, after he was convicted, he claimed on appeal that

the fact that the jury was allowed to hear that he purchased and wore this Superman shirt and the State's references to the shirt in closing suggests decision on an improper basis and were "clearly designed to appeal to the jury's basest instincts." He further argues that "[t]he shirt cast the Defendant as a cop-killer with a sense of invulnerability and power, inviting the jury to speculate as to the character of the Defendant.”" He continues that "[t]he evidence of the Superman logo shirt was immaterial, unfairly prejudicial and should have been excluded from evidence."

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee 

disagree[d] with his assertion that the fact that the defendant entered Walmart and purchased a Superman shirt is not relevant to any issue before the jury. As pointed out by the State, it could certainly been seen as going to the defendant's intent with regard to the crime. There is no dispute that a defendant's actions after committing a crime are relevant for the purposes of proving intent....The State bore the burden in this case of negating the defendant's statement that he was "surprised" and "scared" following the shooting. The fact that he purchased this particular shirt, along with his subsequent actions, could support an inference to the contrary. The State likens the defendant's choice of shirt in this case to a defendant's braggadocio to his friends regarding his criminal exploits, which has previously been held relevant to show intent....As pointed out by the defendant, the shirt suggested "a sense of invulnerability," which would definitely belie his assertions of surprise and fright which he placed before the jury.

Or maybe the shirt was a security blanket (like Superman's actual outfit) that he used to cover up his fear. Or maybe Garcia was one of the few people who like Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns," which is why he bought and worse the shirt. Maybe he had recently seen the Donner Cut of "Superman II." Maybe there was a good episode of "Smallville" on the previous night.

I think you get my point. If a defendant brags about a shooting, that's fairly probative of his state of mind regarding the shooting. If a defendant buys and wears a Superman shirt after a shooting, that could be probative on the issue of whether the thinks he's a Man of Steel, but it could also be probative of a million other things, meaning that I think that the court should have found the evidence inadmissible.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/10/superman-state-v-garciaslip-copy-2010-wl-3766942tenncrimapp2010.html

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