In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.
Rodriguez v. State, No. 13-16-00022-CR (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Contreras; Panel Members: Justices Benavides and Longoria)
In this direct appeal from a conviction for aggravated kidnapping, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether the evidence was factually sufficient to support the trial court’s finding that the defendant did not voluntarily release the victim in a safe place.
On the night of September 12, 2013, L.F. drove from San Marcos to Huntsville to meet her boyfriend and friends at a nightclub. L.F. arrived at 12:30 a.m. and drank five shots of tequila before the nightclub closed at 2:00 a.m. L.F. walked to her car before realizing that she did not have her keys, wallet, or phone. She then found herself in a car with a stranger, who identified himself as “Alex” but was in fact the defendant, Robert Daniel Rodriguez. L.F. asked Rodriguez to let her out or take her to her boyfriend’s apartment, but Rodriguez refused. L.F. then started banging on the dashboard and yelling for help. Rodriguez electrocuted L.F. with a taser to force her to stop. Rodriguez then stopped the car, walked to the passenger side, and sexually assaulted L.F. After driving for approximately another ten minutes, L.F. began to recognize her surroundings and escaped from the car when Rodriguez slowed to make a turn. L.F. ran to her boyfriend’s apartment, which was approximately three blocks away.
Rodriguez was indicted for aggravated kidnapping. At trial, the defense played a police video recorded on the night of the incident. In the video, L.F. stated that Rodriguez drove her back to the area of her boyfriend’s apartment and let her out. L.F. testified at trial that the statement was correct but that by “let her out” she meant that Rodriguez did not pull her back into the car.
The jury found Rodriguez guilty and the trial court assessed punishment. During the punishment phase, Rodriguez testified that his encounter with L.F. was consensual and that he gave her a ride to her boyfriend’s apartment. He denied tasing her or kidnapping her. The trial court found that Rodriguez did not release L.F. in a safe place and sentenced him to thirty years’ confinement.
Rodriguez appealed, arguing that the trial court’s finding that he did not voluntarily release L.F. in a safe place was not supported by the evidence.
Held: The evidence was factually sufficient to support the trial court’s finding that Rodriguez did not voluntarily release L.F. in a safe place. The judgment was affirmed.
During the punishment phase of an aggravated kidnapping trial, a defendant may attempt to downgrade the first-degree felony to a second-degree felony by proving the affirmative defense that he voluntarily released the victim in a safe place. This requires an obvert act that demonstrates to the victim that she has been released in a location where aid is available. The act must be voluntary; a rescue or escape does not qualify as “voluntarily” releasing the victim in a safe place. In considering this affirmative defense, the court must consider the remoteness of the location, the proximity to aid, the time of day, the climatic conditions, the victim’s condition, the character of the location, and the victim’s familiarity with the location.
The Thirteenth Court of Appeals thus examined the record to determine whether the trial court’s finding that Rodriguez did not release L.F. in a safe place was so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be manifestly unjust.
L.F. initially stated that Rodriguez brought her to where she wanted to go—i.e., her boyfriend’s apartment—and let her out. However, L.F. later testified that the car was still moving when she escaped, she was three blocks from her boyfriend’s apartment and still intoxicated, the area was dark as it was 4:00 a.m., and there were no sources of aid nearby. Rodriguez, in turn, insisted that he stopped the car and voluntarily allowed L.F. to exit. However, the trial court was entitled to believe L.F.’s testimony over Rodriguez’s testimony.
Rodriguez argued however, that by driving away—an action L.F. confirmed—Rodriguez committed an obvert act demonstrating that L.F. had been released. The Thirteenth Court held that Rodriguez’s action in driving away was immaterial because Rodriguez did not voluntarily release L.F. in the first place. Thus, the evidence factually supported the trial court’s finding that Rodriguez did not voluntarily release L.F. in a safe place.