Texas Stamp


PD-0053-17 06/07/2017

  1. "The Eighth Court erred in holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in requiring, and placing the burden upon, the State to establish that jail-recorded telephone conversations Villegas seeks to exclude pretrial are: (1) relevant to an elemental or evidentiary fact of consequence to be litigated at trial, (2) not unfairly prejudicial under rule 403, and (3) not inadmissible hearsay, where such determinations necessarily require the ever-changing context of a trial and the party claiming the protection of exclusionary rules of evidence bears the burden of proving his case in a pretrial motion." 
  2. "The Eighth Court misapplied the standard for reviewing relevance determinations where its analysis for determining whether the trial court abused its discretion in excluding relevant evidence looked to whether, based on the trial court's personal evaluation of competing or available inferences, it is reasonable to reject the State's proffered inferences, when the proper standard looks to whether an appellate court can state with confidence that by no reasonable perception of common experience could it be determined that the proffered inference is one that is reasonably available from the evidence."

In a pretrial order related to Villegas' retrial for capital murder, the trial court suppressed statements between Villegas and his family and friends that were recorded while he was imprisoned. The State appealed. First, it argued that the ruling should not have been made pretrial because there is insufficient evidence from which to rule. Next, it argued that the statements are admissible to show consciousness of guilt, that he conspired to tamper with witnesses, and that he attempted ex parte communication with a habeas judge.

The court of appeals applied an abuse of discretion standard and affirmed. The court held that the pretrial determination was proper. It observed that this case is unique because it was tried twice and the subject of involved habeas proceedings. While the State cannot be forced to put on a "mini-trial," it does have the burden to establish admissibility.

It then ruled on the merits. Regarding a statement in which Villegas mentioned "actual innocence," the court assumed it was relevant but held that its prejudicial effect substantially outweighs its probative value. Without context, it would be given undue weight. And providing context would risk exposing Villegas' previous incarceration for this offense. As to a statement the State characterized as an admission of guilt, the court held its probative value is minimal because the statement is actually ambiguous. Because of this, Villegas' statements that are predicated on it are irrelevant, and the statements predicated on those are also irrelevant. Next, Villegas' statement about other inmates generally being guilty is irrelevant because it cannot be construed as an admission of guilt. The statements related to witness tampering were properly excluded because the State failed to establish any hearsay exception or exclusion. Further, any alleged adoptive admissions were truly a demonstration of ambivalence, and the State failed to establish any agency or co-conspirator relationship. Alternatively, the trial court could have rejected any inference of an insidious explanation or found no logical connection for the purpose offered. Finally, Villegas' statements allegedly made to tamper with the habeas judge are equivocal and thus can reasonably support the opposite conclusion.

The State contends that the admissibility issues here require substantial evidentiary development that goes well beyond matters usually addressed pretrial (i.e., search and seizure and scientific reliability). The past proceedings are not helpful because the State could not proffer them to establish admissibility. And the prosecution will start anew, making it impossible to forecast how the case will be litigated. The State also contends that the court applied the wrong burden; because Villegas sought exclusion, the State should not have to satisfy all evidentiary predicates.

On the merits, the State contends the court applied a wrong standard of review in its relevancy and prejudice analyses. Relevancy only requires a small nudge toward proving or disproving a fact. Further, its piece-meal approach to evaluating relevancy is wrong. The statements the court identified as inadmissible hearsay are not hearsay because the State sought to use them to show consciousness of guilt. Finally, the State claims the court erred to hold that the statements were inadmissable as adoptive admissions and on agency and co-conspirator grounds.

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