Second Court of Appeals Holds that Satanic Cell Phone Photos Were Relevant Character Evidence in Punishment Phase for Attempted Capital Murder Case
Pantoja v. State (2nd Court of Appeals – Fort Worth, 2016)
A Cocaine-Fueled Binge Leads to an Attack
During an alcohol and cocaine-fueled binge, nineteen-year-old Rigoberto Pantoja attacked a group of friends in Mansfield, Texas one evening in September of 2014. After watching the Floyd Mayweather fight, Pantoja began talking to himself. Eventually, he pulled a gun and fired two times, hitting Pantoja’s friend in the face. Pantoja put the gun to the head of a second friend, but when the gun would not fire, Pantoja pulled a knife, stabbing the friend three times. He also stabbed a third friend. All of the victims survived the injuries. Pantoja was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and attempted capital murder.
At trial, Pantoja pled guilty to the aggravated assault and attempted capital murder charges before a judge. Pantoja requested a jury for the punishment phase of his trial, asking that the jury grant him community supervision (probation). At the punishment phase, the State called twelve character witnesses; Pantoja’s defense counsel called four, including his father who was set to testify about Pantoja’s Catholic upbringing and religious way of life.
Just before the defense called Pantoja’s father to the stand, and out of the presence of the jury, the State indicated to the Court that it intended to cross-examine Pantoja’s father about satanic images found on Pantoja’s cell phone, confiscated the night he was arrested. The Judge told the State to proceed with calling witnesses and that “whenever you are ready to ask question [regarding the satanic photos], approach up here and then I’ll make a ruling at that time.” After that conversation, the jury returned to the courtroom.
Cross-Examination Regarding the Defendant’s Cell Phone Images
The defense called Pantoja’s father who testified to Pantoja’s good nature. He said that his son helped around the house and helped out with the family’s living expenses. Pantoja’s father also spoke of his son’s strong Catholic faith and upbringing. The defense admitted photos from the father of Pantoja’s first communion, photos of Pantoja’s bedroom with a Virgin of Guadalupe poster on the wall, and photos of Pantoja’s car depicting a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. The State cross-examined Pantoja’s father, asking, “Were you aware that your son kept pictures of satanic worship on his cell phone?” The father responded, “no.”
The jury assessed Pantoja’s punishment at eighty years’ confinement for both offenses, denying Pantoja’s request for community supervision. Pantoja timely appealed to the Second Court of Appeals, arguing that the satanic photos shown to the jury were highly prejudicial, had no probative value whatsoever, did not establish a material fact that related to any element of his offenses, and ultimately were not relevant to his case and sentencing.
Did the Trial Court Err By Allowing the Satanic Images to Go Before the Jury?
The Second Court of Appeals had to determine whether the trial court should have stopped the State’s cross-examination of Pantoja’s father regarding the Satanic images found on Pantoja’s cell phone. Did the photos have relevance to the case under the Texas Rules of Evidence? If so, were the photos highly prejudicial to the jury?
The Texas Rules of Evidence
Article 37.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that, “evidence may be offered by the State and the defendant as to any matter the court deems relevant to sentencing, including…his character [and] an opinion regarding his character…” Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 37.07, § 3(a)(1) (West Supp. 2015). Evidence is relevant to a punishment determination if that evidence will assist the fact-finder in tailoring an appropriate sentence. Henderson v. State, 29 S.W.3d 616, 626 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.]2000, pet. ref’d.
When a defendant requests community supervision, a trial court may reasonably deem any character trait that pertains to the defendant’s suitability for community supervision to be a relevant matter for the sentencer to consider. Sims v. State, 273 S.W.3d 291, 295 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).
Character Evidence and Opinion Testimony
When character evidence is admissible—as in a community supervision request during the punishment phase—such character traits may be proven by testimony in the form of an opinion. Tex. R. Evid. 405(a); Wilson v. State, 71 S.W.3d 346, 349-51 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). An opinion witness is generally to be asked “did you know” questions. Id. at 350.
Cross Examination of Character Witnesses
On cross-examination of a character witness, inquiry may be made about specific incidents of a person’s conduct, subject to the following limitations. Id. at 351.
- The incident must be relevant to the character traits at issue. Burke v. State, 371 S.W.3d, 252, 261 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. ref’d, untimely filed).
- The alleged Bad Act must have a basis in fact. Id.
- Before the questions are asked, the foundation for asking the question should be laid outside of the jury’s presence, so that the judge will have an opportunity to rule on them. Id.
The Second Court of Appeals Finds No Error
Here, the Court says that the father’s testimony about Pantoja’s strict Catholic upbringing and religious faith constituted “opinion” character testimony. Additionally, the Court says, his testimony was relevant under the Texas Rules of Evidence, pertinent to the request made for community supervision, as “a sentencer might rationally want to take into account testimony of his good character and that he had a stable home life…and that he possess an indicia of a religious upbringing.”
Further, this character testimony was provided by the defense. Because the defense called the father as a character witness, the State had the right to cross-examine the father “through did-you-know questions” about Pantoja’s character. “The State had the proper predicate for it’s ‘did you know’ question by establishing outside the presence of the jury the factual basis for the specific instances of Pantoja’s conduct (the satanic cell phone photos).” The Court overruled Pantoja’s appeal, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.