A Baton Rouge man’s second-degree murder conviction in the 2013 shooting death of his brother-in-law was reinstated Wednesday by a state appeals court that called a local judge’s reversal of the unanimous jury verdict “clear legal error” and an “injustice.”
A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed state District Judge Trudy White, who last summer threw out the East Baton Rouge Parish jurors’ March 2015 verdict and found Derrick Bland guilty of negligent homicide. The panel also sent the case back to her for sentencing.
Bland, 50, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison for second-degree murder in the slaying of 40-year-old James “Mucci” Stockton on July 28, 2013, outside Stockton’s North Lobdell Boulevard apartment during a family gathering. Negligent homicide carries up to five years behind bars.
Stockton’s relatives had decried White’s decision, writing letters to her and calling her reversal of Bland’s conviction a “slap in the face.”
“Wow!!! Thank God for the great news today,” Dianne Williams Johnson, one of Stockton’s aunts, said in an email Wednesday after learning of the 1st Circuit ruling.
“The family knew that Bland was guilty of second-degree murder,” she added, “and we prayed for Judge White and her thinking as it appeared that she didn’t care about James’ life and it appeared also that she owed Bland some favor.”
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said second-degree murder was the appropriate verdict.
“Following the trial court’s ruling reversing the jury’s verdict, we were obligated to seek review to protect the jury’s decision and restore justice to the victim’s family and our community,” he said.
Bland’s appellate attorney, Mark Plaisance, said consideration is being given to asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the 1st Circuit’s unanimous decision.
“The evidence demonstrated that Derrick Bland was unable to form specific intent to commit second-degree murder because of his intoxication, a defense the law recognizes,” Plaisance said in an email. “We believe Judge White properly granted the post-trial judgment of acquittal in reducing the verdict to negligent homicide.”
Two witnesses and Bland all testified he drank a large amount of alcohol at the party.
Circuit Judges Mitch Theriot, Mike McDonald and Page McClendon disagreed with Plaisance. McDonald said it is “hard to understand” how White concluded that Bland did not have the required specific intent to kill Stockton.
“The trial judge’s decision in this case was an injustice to the victim, to the citizens of the state of Louisiana, and to our criminal justice system,” McDonald wrote.
“The judge lists 12 so-called ‘undisputed facts’ but fails to mention other facts that plainly prove the intent of the defendant to kill the victim,” he added. “To ignore the facts does not change the facts.”
Theriot, who authored the appellate court’s ruling, noted that voluntary intoxication is a defense to a second-degree murder prosecution only if the circumstances indicate the intoxication prevented the presence of specific criminal intent. In Bland’s case, he said, a “substantial amount” of circumstantial evidence supports the jury’s finding that he specifically intended to kill his brother-in-law.
Bland shot him six times, including three times after Stockton had fallen to the ground after being hit by the initial three bullets, Theriot stated.
“Deliberately pointing and firing a deadly weapon at close range are circumstances which will support a finding of specific intent to kill,” he wrote.
White responded in an email Wednesday, saying: “I have the utmost respect for all of the judges on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Prosecutors said Bland waited underneath a tree outside Stockton’s apartment and shot Stockton after he left the apartment. A short time earlier, Stockton had cursed Bland and kicked him out of the apartment.
Theriot said Bland admitted he was angry with Stockton following an argument with him and began to shoot simply upon hearing Stockton’s voice as he exited the apartment. The decision to shoot Stockton with no provocation “is also strong evidence of a specific intent to kill,” the circuit judge said.
The appeals court, which heard arguments in the case in February, called the evidence of Bland’s intoxication the day of the shooting “not insignificant” but said the jury’s rejection of his defense could have been based on Bland’s ability of remember a substantial portion of the day’s events, his accurate firing of three shots from a distance and his immediate recognition of his criminal act.
Bland ran to a friend’s apartment after the shooting and unsuccessfully attempted to secure a ride, then disposed of the gun and fled farther away from the scene, Theriot pointed out.