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Collins v. State

Supreme Court of Nevada

November 22, 2017

LESEAN TARUS COLLINS, Appellant,
v.
THE STATE OF NEVADA, Respondent.

          Appeal from a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict, of one count of murder and one count of robbery. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Kathleen E. Delaney, Judge.

          David M. Schieck, Special Public Defender, and JoNell Thomas, Chief Deputy Special Public Defender, Clark County, for Appellant,

          Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, and Steven S. Owens, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.

          BEFORE DOUGLAS, GIBBONS and PICKERING, JJ.

          OPINION

          PICKERING, J.

         A jury convicted Lesean Collins of robbery and first-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On appeal, Collins argues that his constitutional rights were violated on the first day of trial when the district court barred him from the courtroom for disruptive conduct for a two-hour period, during which it excused individual jurors for hardship, statutory ineligibility, and language barrier reasons. Collins also raises claims of evidentiary and instructional error and challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his convictions. Because none of these issues requires reversal, we affirm.

         I.

         Four days after Brandi Payton went missing, two ATV riders discovered her decomposed body in a ravine. Drag marks led through the dirt and brush to the body. No purse, wallet, cell phone, or means of identification or transportation were found. Brandi's shirt was pulled up over her head, and she was shoeless. Three of her acrylic fingernails had broken off-two were found at the scene-and one of her pockets was inside out. Some nearby rocks had blood on them.

         Brandi's sister identified her body. Although identifiable, the body had decomposed too much for the coroner to definitively state the cause of death. The autopsy established that before she died Brandi sustained three blows to her head from a rod-like instrument. While the blows did not fracture Brandi's skull, they were strong enough to render her unconscious. The coroner deemed Brandi's death consistent with asphyxiation or being locked in the trunk of a car in southern Nevada's late summer heat, Circumstantial evidence tied Collins to Brandi and to her robbery and death. Collins and Brandi knew one another. Brandi occasionally dealt drugs and used cell phones and rental cars to conduct business. Cell phone records showed that Collins and Brandi exchanged numerous calls and texts the day she disappeared. Brandi's phone received its last call at 3:38 p.m., then shut off. Earlier, both Collins's and Brandi's phones sent signals through a cell phone tower close to Collins's girlfriend's house, where Collins often stayed during the day. That night, Collins's cell phone signals placed him in the remote area where Branch's body was found.

         Collins's girlfriend testified that Collins picked her up from work the day Brandi disappeared. He had jewelry with him he didn't have before, including a necklace he later asked his girlfriend to pawn and a Rolex bracelet (at trial the State proved both pieces of jewelry had been Brandi's). When they got home, the girlfriend found a gold Hyundai parked in the garage. The carpet in the house was soiled and something had spattered on the laundry room walls. Collins told his girlfriend that Brandi rented the car for him and that he had spilled oil on the carpet, which he tried to clean with bleach. That night, Collins left in the Hyundai, returned, washed the Hyundai, and fell asleep outside in the car. At some point, the North Las Vegas police came by to check on the car and its occupant. Rather than get out as asked, Collins sped off, eluding the police. Collins's girlfriend found a long acrylic fingernail in her home, which Collins admitted to her was Brandi's.

         As part of their investigation, the police interviewed Brandi's boyfriend, Rufus. They ruled him out as a suspect and focused on Collins. Several weeks after finding Brandi's body, the police found the gold I Hyundai, minus its tires. Tests showed traces of blood belonging to Brandi on the Hyundai's trunk mat. The police also tested the spatter on the walls of Collins's girlfriend's home and confirmed it was Brandi's blood.

         Collins was arrested for, charged with, and convicted of robbery and first-degree murder. He appeals.

         II.

         A criminal defendant has the right under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment and the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to be present at every stage of the trial. Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 338 (1970); United States v. Gagnon, 470 U.S. 522, 526 (1985); see Nev. Const, art. I, § 8. Collins complains that the district court deprived him of this right when it excused him from the courtroom for the last two hours of the first day of trial.

         A.

         While a defendant has the right to be present at every stage of trial, that right is not absolute. Allen, 397 U.S. at 342-43. A defendant may lose the right to attend trial if, after being warned, he persists in disrupting the proceedings by engaging in conduct inimical to the dignity and decorum required in a court of law. Id. at 343; see NRS 175.387(1)(c). A district court's decision to remove a defendant from the courtroom for disruptive behavior is reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard. United States v. Hellems, 866 F.3d 856, 863-64 (8th Cir. 2017); cf. Tanksley v. State, 113 Nev. 997, 1001-02, 946 P.2d 148, 150 (1997) (holding in an analogous context that "[a] defendant may be denied his right of self-representation if he or she is unable or unwilling to abide by rules of courtroom procedure" and that, because the trial court judge has "the opportunity to observe" the defendant's "demeanor and conduct" first-hand, "[t]his court will not substitute its evaluation for that of the district court judge's own personal observations and impressions").

         "[C]ourts must indulge every reasonable presumption against the loss of constitutional rights." Allen, 397 U.S. at 343 (citing Johnson v. Zerbst,304 U.S. 458, 464 (1938)). But district court judges "confronted with disruptive, contumacious, stubbornly defiant defendants must be given sufficient discretion to meet the circumstances of each case. No one formula for ...


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