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State v. Ratliff

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 15, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
LARRY DEANDRE RATLIFF JR, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, William P. Kelly, Judge.

         Larry Ratliff Jr. appeals his convictions of murder in the first degree, willful injury causing serious injury, and assault with intent to inflict serious injury.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender (until withdrawal), and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         A jury convicted Larry Ratliff Jr. of first-degree murder, willful injury causing serious injury, and assault with intent to inflict serious injury. On appeal, Ratliff challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. He also asserts his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to faulty jury instructions. Ratliff also contends the district court abused its discretion in admitting cumulative and unduly prejudicial photographs into evidence.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Upon the evidence presented at trial, a reasonable jury could make the following factual findings. During the late evening hours of April 11, 2017, police responded to a call of shots fired in the 4000 block of Fagen Drive in Des Moines. When officers arrived, they discovered a vehicle in a parking lot with two injured individuals, Antonio Quinn and Michael James Jr. James was shot in the arm but able to walk around and speak with officers. Quinn was seated in the vehicle's driver's seat and covered in blood from gunshot wounds to his chest, arm, and neck. Officers noted three bullet holes to the vehicle in the driver's side windshield, rear-view mirror, and A-pillar. Quinn ultimately succumbed to his injuries. During their investigation, police determined Molly Peter drove Ratliff to the parking lot where he was to meet Quinn for a drug transaction. Ratliff took an AK-47 type semiautomatic rifle with him. The trial testimony differs as to what occurred after the two vehicles arrived at the parking lot.

         During the initial police investigation, Ratliff provided multiple and inconsistent accounts of his whereabouts on the night of the shooting, initially claiming no knowledge of the shooting or the gun, and he was out of town that entire evening. Once police confronted Ratliff that the gun believed to be the murder weapon was found hidden in his vehicle and his phone records did not match his account of his whereabouts, Ratliff changed his version of events several times. His versions included claiming the person who actually committed the crime gave him the gun after the shooting in order to dispose of it and he only acted as a lookout for the actual shooter. At trial, Ratliff admitted he had received the gun prior to the shooting and took it along with him to the parking lot for a drug transaction where he was to sell cocaine and ecstasy. He asked Peter to drive him and, after arriving at the parking lot, he exited the vehicle and went to speak with Quinn, who sat in the driver's seat of his vehicle. Ratliff and Quinn discussed the drug transaction, and Ratliff asked Quinn to pay him in smaller bills. Ratliff then claimed he believed Quinn was reaching for a weapon so he grabbed his gun and pointed it at Quinn. Quinn then grabbed for the gun and wrestled with him for it, which Ratliff claimed caused the gun to accidentally fire. He then left the scene. After his arrest, Ratliff attempted to send a note to Peter asking for witnesses to prove another person committed the shooting and a letter telling her "don't let them bully you into saying nothing. Remember the best comment is no comment."

         James's version was that he and Quinn went to the parking lot in order for Quinn to sell ecstasy that James had obtained for him. He saw Ratliff exit the passenger side of the vehicle that pulled up alongside Quinn's vehicle and walk over to the driver-side window, where Quinn was located. James recognized and was familiar with Ratliff but Quinn was not. After a discussion about the money and the drugs, Ratliff did ask for change, after which Ratliff claimed he needed to get something from the other vehicle. James saw Ratliff reach into the passenger- side window and turn back with a rifle. Ratliff pointed the gun at Quinn and stated "Let me get all of that." Quinn then grabbed the gun barrel and tried to wrestle it away from Ratliff. At that point, James reached for the door handle on his side of the vehicle and heard a shot. After looking back, he saw Quinn lying in his seat, holding his body and gasping for air. Quinn told James he could not move. James then saw Ratliff at the front of the vehicle where he shot again. At that point, James exited the vehicle and ran away. When he turned around, he saw Ratliff get in the other vehicle and leave the scene. James ultimately admitted to police that he knew who Ratliff was and knew there was going to be a drug transaction.

         The State charged Ratliff and Peter in a joint trial information with first-degree murder, first-degree robbery, and attempt to commit murder.[1] A jury trial was held in December 2017, during which Ratliff testified on his own behalf. The jury returned verdicts finding Ratliff guilty of first-degree murder and two lesser-included charges: willful injury causing serious injury to Quinn and assault with intent to inflict serious injury to James. The court subsequently sentenced Ratliff to life in prison on the murder charge. As noted, Ratliff appeals.

         II. Analysis

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Ratliff contends the jury verdicts were not supported by sufficient evidence. We review sufficiency-of-evidence challenges for correction of errors at law. State v. Ramirez, 895 N.W.2d 884, 890 (Iowa 2017). "[W]e will uphold a verdict if substantial evidence supports it." Id. "Evidence is considered substantial if, when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, it can convince a rational jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. (quoting State v. Reed, 875 N.W.2d 693, 704-05 (Iowa 2016)). "The evidence must do more than raise 'suspicion, speculation, or conjecture' regarding defendant's guilt." State v. Randle, 555 N.W.2d 666, 671 (Iowa 1996) (quoting State v. Barnes, 204 N.W.2d 827, 829 (Iowa 1972)). "We consider all the record evidence, not just the evidence that supports the verdict." State v. Biddle, 652 N.W.2d 191, 197-98 (Iowa 2002).

         Ratliff focuses his challenges on the intent element of each offense, arguing the State failed to establish the requisite intent.

         1. First-Degree Murder-Malice Aforethought

         To convict Ratliff of first-degree murder, the instructions required the jury to find: (1) Ratliff shot Quinn; (2) Quinn died as a result of being shot; (3) Ratliff acted with malice aforethought; and (4) Ratliff "acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent to kill [Quinn]." Ratliff argues the evidence is insufficient to prove he acted with the requisite malice aforethought and specific intent.

         As an initial matter, the State argues Ratliff did not preserve error on his claim of insufficient evidence on this element. Ratliff urges us to consider the challenge as a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in the alternative.

         Ratliff orally moved for judgment of acquittal after the State completed its case-in-chief, arguing:

Specifically our client is charged with three different counts: First-degree murder, attempted murder, and robbery in the first degree. And the State's evidence has failed to establish the requisite intent that is needed for each of those crimes. Each of those crimes has a ...

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