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John Franklin Bell, Jr. v. The State of Texas
Case Number: 01-17-00811-CR
Court: Court of Appeals For The First District of Texas
Plaintiff's Attorney: Elton Mathis
Defendant's Attorney: Randy Schaffer
Bell became R.M.’s stepfather when she was five or six years old. R.M., her
mother, and Bell resided in Waller County, and R.M considered Bell her father.
Bell and R.M.’s mother had two daughters together who also lived with the family.
On February 16, 2012, when she was a 15-year-old freshman in high school,
R.M. reported to her school counselor that she was being touched inappropriately
by Bell. The counselor testified at trial that R.M. began by writing a statement that
she had been sexually abused, but as she became more comfortable, she made an
oral disclosure of abuse. R.M. told her counselor that the abuse began when she
was about ten years old. She described specific incidents of abuse that happened
over the years and said that the latest incident occurred the night before. She told
the counselor that this was the first time she was reporting the abuse. Based on the
information, the counselor notified Child Protective Services (hereinafter “CPS”)
of R.M.’s outcry of sexual abuse.
The outcry triggered a criminal investigation. Lieutenant H. Sanders was
assigned to the case and testified at trial. She was employed by the Waller County
Sheriff’s Office as a peace officer who specialized in sexual assault investigations.
After receiving notice that R.M. had made an outcry, Lt. Sanders scheduled a
forensic interview with R.M. that took place the next day. Lt. Sanders monitored
R.M.’s forensic interview via closed circuit television but did not participate in the
interview process. R.M. also had a sexual assault examination.
On the same day that she received the outcry notice, Lt. Sanders contacted
R.M.’s mother, Laura Bell, by phone to get consent to retrieve evidence from
R.M.’s bedroom. Initially, Laura Bell was cooperative and agreed to allow Lt.
Sanders to retrieve items from the home for an investigation. Lt. Sanders retrieved
several items. About a week later, Laura realized that R.M. was having explicit
online communications with a 57-year-old man later identified as Patrick Mason.
Laura phoned Lt. Sanders to report the discovery, and Lt. Sanders scheduled a
second interview with R.M.
During the interview, R.M. admitted that she lied during the forensic
interview when she did not disclose that Mason was the first person she told of her
abuse. Instead, she said her school counselor was the first person because she knew
her online communication with Mason was inappropriate and she did not want to
get in trouble. R.M. also disclosed that it was Mason who encouraged her to tell
someone that she was being sexually abused.
Based on information in the interview, Lt. Sanders obtained a search warrant
on February 21, 2012, seeking information that would corroborate R.M.’s
disclosure of her online communications and outcry to Mason. She obtained
R.M.’s cell phone and computers, and analysts retrieved communications between
R.M. and Mason. Lt. Sanders read the communication and noted that R.M. told
Mason about her abuse on February 15, 2012, the day before she reported it to the
school. He encouraged her to disclose the abuse, just as R.M. had said during her
interview with Lt. Sanders. Lt. Sanders also reviewed photographs recovered from
R.M.’s camera and home computer. R.M told Lt. Sanders she sent pictures to
Mason, described the locations where the photographs were taken, and described
the clothing she was wearing. Lt. Sanders identified the pictures in the materials
recovered. She noted that they were not sexually explicit or suggestive and were
exactly as R.M. described in the interview. Lt. Sanders also confirmed Mason’s
identity and contacted him in Michigan. He corroborated R.M.’s disclosures.
By two weeks into the investigation, R.M.’s mother no longer supported her
and believed she fabricated the story of abuse. After the outcry, R.M. never lived at
home again. She and her two younger half-sisters first went to stay with their
maternal grandmother. R.M.’s grandmother also did not believe her. R.M. stayed
briefly with an aunt before going back to her grandmother’s, and eventually she
lived at the Methodist Children’s Home for four years.
R.M. testified at a jury trial five years later, when she was 20 years old. She
explained that the abuse began when she was 10 or 11 years old and the earliest
she can remember was an incident in the laundry room. She explained that she was
helping Bell do laundry. Bell told R.M. to sit on a deep freezer and instructed her
to pull aside her shorts. Bell approached with a “long metal-like object” that she
later learned was a vibrator and touched it both inside and outside her vagina. He
asked her how it felt. R.M. did not recall her response, only wishing that the event
would end. She did as she was told because she feared a spanking, and she did not
tell her mother because she did not comprehend the nature of the touching at the
She testified to a second incident of abuse in her bedroom when she was in
the seventh grade. She recounted wanting something a child would want, such as
food, a book, a toy, or money, and asking Bell for it. Bell told her to remove her
clothing and sit on her bed. He then conducted an “anatomy lesson,” explaining
various parts of her body as he touched them, including touching her breasts and
penetrating her vagina with his finger. When he was finished, Bell gave R.M. the
item she asked for. She did not disclose the abuse for fear of not being believed
and “losing everything.”
She testified to a third incident in a field in summer of 2011 at 14 years old.
After running errands, R.M. asked Bell to buy her lunch and books. He agreed if
she would “do something” for him. Once she agreed, he purchased books and fast
food. He drove R.M. to a field near their home, parked his truck, and touched her
genitals, penetrating her vagina with his fingers. He also placed his mouth on her
breasts. She did not disclose this incident because she was scared. R.M. verified
the location of the field on a map during her testimony.
R.M. recounted additional incidents of sexual abuse between ages 12 and 14.
These incidents involved Bell touching her breasts and genitals with his fingers
and mouth and penetrating her vagina with his mouth and tongue. They occurred in
her bedroom or in Bell’s pickup truck on the backroads of Waller County. She
described that the abuse occurred monthly in exchange for something she had
asked for. She explained that she did not tell anyone because she feared for her
safety. On one occasion, she threatened to tell someone, and Bell responded that
she “might end up dead” and nobody would blame him.
The final incident of sexual abuse occurred on February 15, 2012, the night
before she reported to her school counselor. She asked for money for a book fair,
and Bell agreed to give it to her if she did something for him. Her mother and
siblings were asleep in their rooms. Bell instructed her to shower and shave her
genital area. She caught him watching her shower, and he left the bathroom when
he realized she had noticed. After the shower, she went to her bedroom. Bell
placed his mouth on R.M.’s genitals and told her that he would give her extra
money for two extra minutes of access. He set a timer for the additional minutes.
He gave her $40 for the book fair, and she purchased books and pens.
R.M. testified that she had to ask permission to use the internet in the home
and accessing the internet required a password key provided by Bell. She testified
that he used internet access to force her to submit to additional acts of sexual
abuse. She explained that she first accessed online chat rooms at school, but then
she accessed them from her computer in her bedroom. She began regularly
communicating with Patrick Mason. Initially, she told him that she was 23 years
old and believed him to be in his 50s. Eventually, she disclosed her real age, and
they continued to communicate online, often in a sexually explicit manner. Mason
was adamant that they would never meet as long as she was under 18, and she
never believed that they would have a relationship beyond online chatting. They
exchanged photographs, but the photographs were not sexually explicit.
R.M. testified that she contacted Mason over the internet after Bell left her
room on the night of February 15, 2012. She told him she was being sexually
abused, and he encouraged her to tell a counselor. This prompted her to tell the
counselor at school the next day.
She continued to have explicit conversations by text and internet with Mason
after she reported the abuse. One incident occurred while she was living with her
grandmother. Her mother found out and punished her with respect to phone and
computer access. The same day, she requested to move to her aunt’s house because
her grandmother did not believe her about the abuse. Her mother also did not
believe her. Eventually she moved into the Methodist Children’s Home.
In addition to testimony from the school counselor and Lt. Sanders, the State
called Fiona Remko, a licensed clinical social worker who conducted a forensic
interview with R.M. She explained the forensic interview process and explained
the dynamics of child abuse, such as grooming behaviors a perpetrator uses with a
child victim to set the stage for sexual abuse. She also explained that in her
experience, when a child discloses abuse, the entire family often blames the child,
directing all their anger at the child and cutting the child out of their lives. Finally,
she explained that children who suffer sexual abuse may engage in inappropriate or
Rachel Bryant, the nurse who performed the sexual assault examination on
R.M., testified about the process of the examination, the information that R.M.
relayed to her about abuse during the examination, and her findings. She explained
that by the time she conducted the exam, R.M. had washed, urinated, ate and
drank, and changed clothes, decreasing any possible DNA sample. She explained
that the fact that R.M. did not have genital injuries was still consistent with having
been sexually assaulted, including that in ten years of conducting between 1,500
and 2,000 exams, it was rare to see an injury.
Bell and his wife testified. Bell denied all allegations of sexual abuse. He
described R.M. as having problems with discipline from the time he came into her
life and acknowledged that he was the disciplinarian. She understood that if she
disobeyed him, she would get in trouble. He referred to specific instances of
spanking because she spoke disrespectfully to her mother. He admitted that he
could restrict her internet access, and he was angry when he found out that R.M.
was communicating with Mason because she had claimed that she was doing
homework on the computer. He believed that Mason and R.M. conspired to falsely
accuse him of sexual assault so that they could be together, but he conceded that to
do so they would have to formulate and discuss a plan. He agreed that none of the
online communication between them discussed a plan to do so.
Bell acknowledged that many details of R.M.’s disclosure were accurate. For
example, R.M. and Bell stayed up later than the other people in the house. Her
bedroom was on the opposite side of the house from her parents’ bedroom. He and
R.M. frequently went places together alone in his truck, such as for fast food and to
buy books. They were alone in a field together more than once, and he woke R.M.
up each morning.
Bell also acknowledged that he spoke with a law enforcement officer on the
day after R.M. disclosed abuse to her counselor. When questioned at trial, he
agreed that when the officer asked if he touched R.M.’s breast when she was ten
years old, he did not deny it but instead asked if she even had breasts at that age.
When the officer confronted him with R.M.’s accusation that he penetrated R.M.’s
vagina with his finger, he did not deny it but instead asked if it would “leave
DNA.” When the officer presented Bell with R.M.’s disclosure of specific details
of the abuse, he stated, “In other words, it doesn’t look good for me.” And at the
end of his interview, Bell reviewed R.M.’s disclosure and responded, “No matter
what, this is a black eye for both of us.”
Bell also acknowledged that he volunteered specific information to the
officer without being questioned about it. Before the officer disclosed that R.M.
had alleged he went in her bathroom while she was showering, Bell told the officer
that he had been in the bathroom with R.M. while she was showering, but then he
explained it was to kill a bug. He also volunteered that he had given R.M. $40 for
the book fair before her outcry, even though the officer had not mentioned R.M.’s
allegation that the $40 was payment for sexual contact.
Laura Bell testified that she did not believe R.M. She testified that she
thought the Methodist Children’s Home would be a safe environment for R.M. to
get counseling for “somebody who is, you know, able to lie about something like
this.” She acknowledged that in five years, R.M. never recanted or changed the
story she told her counselor, the investigating officer, the nurse who examined her,
the State’s attorney, CPS, and the jury.
The jury found Bell guilty. Following a sentencing hearing, the court
sentenced him to 55 years’ imprisonment.
Bell filed a motion for new trial alleging ineffective assistance of counsel
and a motion challenging the constitutionality of the statute underlying his
conviction. A hearing on the motion for new trial was held on October 24, 2017.
Bell’s trial counsel testified. The trial court denied both motions, and this appeal
On appeal, Bell argues that the trial court erred by allowing an improper
commitment question during voir dire and by denying his motion for a new trial
based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He also argues that the statutory scheme
for continuous sexual abuse of a child is unconstitutional and that his sentence is a
result of “judicial vindictiveness.”
Bell argues that the trial court reversibly erred by allowing an improper
commitment question during voir dire because the question did not give rise to a
valid challenge for cause. The State argues that the question was either not a
commitment question or if it was, it was not improper. Even if the question was
improper, we hold that any error was harmless.
A. Question to the Veniremen
During voir dire, the State questioned the venire members about their ability
to judge a child’s credibility. The prosecutor asked the panel what factors they
would consider in determining if a child was being truthful. Panel members listed
several factors. After determining that no one felt incapable of judging a child’s
credibility, the State questioned the panel on why a witness might be reluctant to
testify. Veniremen responded with various reasons, including not wanting to create
conflict in the family. As a follow up question, the State asked, “if a parent is
non-supportive of the child, does that mean the child is lying?” When the venire
indicated no, the State asked, “Is there anyone who, if you find out that there is a
non-supportive parent, that that’s going to affect your determination of that child’s
credibility?” The court overruled Bell’s objection that this was an improper
commitment question. The veniremen answered, one verbally and the others by
silence, that their determination of a child’s credibility would not be affected by
knowledge that a parent did not support the child.
Bell argues that the question is an improper commitment question that did
not give rise to a valid challenge for cause.
B. Legal Standard
We review a trial court’s ruling on an allegedly improper commitment
question during voir dire for an abuse of discretion. Barajas v. State, 93 S.W.3d
36, 38 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002).
A commitment question during voir dire is one that commits a prospective
juror to resolve, or refrain from resolving an issue a certain way after learning a
particular fact. See Hernandez v. State, 390 S.W.3d 310, 315 (Tex. Crim. App.
2012); Standefer v. State, 59 S.W.3d 177, 179 (Tex. Crim. App. 2001). “[A]n
attorney cannot attempt to bind or commit a prospective juror to a verdict based on
a hypothetical set of facts.” Allridge v. State, 850 S.W.2d 471, 480 (Tex. Crim.
App. 1991). Commitment questions are typically impermissible because they serve
no purpose other than to commit the jury to a specific set of facts before the
presentation of any evidence. Sanchez v. State, 165 S.W.3d 707, 712 (Tex. Crim.
App. 2005). Improper commitment questions are prohibited to “ensure that the jury
will listen to the evidence with an open mind—a mind that is impartial and without
bias or prejudice—and render a verdict based upon that evidence.” Sanchez, 165
S.W.3d at 712. Not all commitment questions are improper. Standefer, 59 S.W.3d
Assuming without deciding that the State’s question was an improper
commitment question, any error by the trial court was harmless. We address the
potential harm of the State’s alleged improper commitment question by applying
rule 44.2(b). See Sanchez, 165 S.W.3d at 713; TEX. R. APP. P. 44.2(b). We focus
“upon whether a biased juror—one who explicitly or implicitly promised to
prejudge some aspect of the case because of the State’s improper questioning—
actually sat on the jury.” Sanchez, 165 S.W.3d at 713. The ultimate harm question
is whether the defendant was tried by an impartial jury, or conversely whether the
jury or any specific juror was “poisoned” by the State’s improper commitment
question on a legal issue or fact that was important to the determination of the
verdict or sentence. Id.
Here, no prospective jurors answered that their evaluation of a child
witness’s credibility would be affected by learning that the child’s parent did not
support her. Rather, the potential jurors acknowledged that they could
independently judge a child’s credibility, regardless of parental support. After
reviewing the record, we conclude that the record does not demonstrate that the
jurors who sat on Bell’s jury were partial or biased. Bell does not show harm. The
jurors had the opportunity to consider R.M.’s testimony, her mother’s testimony,
and Bell’s testimony and weigh the credibility of each. Therefore, any alleged error
was harmless. See TEX. R. APP. P. 44.2(b).
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Bell asserts his trial counsel was ineffective because he did not: (1) obtain a
ruling on the admissibility of R.M’s testimony regarding discipline at the
Methodist Children’s Home; (2) make a motion in limine or object to R.M.’s
testimony that her aunt told her that she believed her; (3) make a motion in limine
or object to Lt. Sanders referring to R.M. as “victim”; (4) make a motion in limine
or object that Lt. Sanders, as lead investigator, was not qualified to testify as an
expert on sexual abuse; (5) request a limiting instruction or move for a mistrial
after testimony about the results of a CPS investigation. He argues that each of his
counsel’s errors created a reasonable probability that the outcome of the
proceeding would have been different. Bell raised each of these issues in a motion
for new trial.
We hold that Bell has not established that his counsel’s performance was so
ineffective that there is a reasonable probability the result of the trial would have
been different, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying his motion
for new trial. We address each claim of ineffective assistance in turn.
A. Standard of Review
When, as here, the defendant raises an ineffective assistance claim in a
motion for new trial that is rejected by the trial court and reasserted on appeal, we
“analyze the ineffective assistance of counsel issue as a challenge to the denial of
the motion for new trial.” Starz v. State, 309 S.W.3d 110, 118 (Tex. App.—
Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. ref’d). We review a trial court’s denial of a motion
for new trial for an abuse of discretion. Colyer v. State, 428 S.W.3d 117, 122 (Tex.
Crim. App. 2014). “We do not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court;
rather, we decide whether the trial court’s decision was arbitrary or unreasonable.”
Holden v. State, 201 S.W.3d 761, 763 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006).
“In the absence of express findings, as here, we presume that the trial court
made all findings in favor of the prevailing party.” Okonkwo v. State, 398 S.W.3d
689, 694 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). We presume that all reasonable factual findings
that could have been made against the losing party were made against that losing
party. Colyer, 428 S.W.3d at 122; see also Shamim v. State, 443 S.W.3d, 316, 321
(Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2014, pet. ref’d) (We ascribe to the court “implicit
factual findings that support that trial judge’s ultimate ruling on that motion when
such implicit factual findings are both reasonable and supported by the record.”)
(internal quotation omitted). “Where there are two permissible views of the
evidence, the factfinder’s choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.” Riley
v. State, 378 S.W.3d 453, 456 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012) overruled on other grounds
by Miller v. State, 548 S.W.3d 497 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018).
The trial court is the sole judge of witness credibility at a hearing on a
motion for new trial, whether presented through live testimony or affidavit.
Okonkwo, 398 S.W.3d at 694. We defer to a trial court’s findings of historical facts
as well as mixed questions of law and fact that turn on an evaluation of credibility
and demeanor. Riley, 378 S.W.3d at 458.
To show that the trial court abused its discretion in denying appellant’s
motion for new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel, the record must
reflect that (1) his trial counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of
reasonableness and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s
unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687–88, 694 (1984); Lopez v. State, 343
S.W.3d 137, 142 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011). Appellant has the burden to establish his
claim by a preponderance of the evidence. Jackson v. State, 973 S.W.2d 954, 956
(Tex. Crim. App. 1998). “An appellant’s failure to satisfy one prong of the
Strickland test negates a court’s need to consider the other prong.” Williams v.
State, 301 S.W.3d 675, 687 (Tex. Crim. App. 2009); see also Strickland, 466 U.S.
at 697. “We review de novo the trial court’s decision on the [Strickland] prejudice
prong while giving deference to the trial court’s implied resolution of the
underlying factual determinations supporting denial of the motion. . . .” Straight v.
State, 515 S.W.3d 553, 564 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, pet. ref’d).
To establish the first prong, deficient performance, Bell must prove that his
attorney’s performance “‘fell below an objective standard of reasonableness’ under
prevailing professional norms.” Ex parte Moore, 395 S.W.3d 152, 157 (Tex. Crim.
App. 2013) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688); see also Ex parte Martinez, 330
S.W.3d 891, 900 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011).
To prove harm, Bell “must demonstrate that he was prejudiced by his
attorney’s performance or that ‘there is a reasonable probability that, but for
counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been
different.’” Ex parte Moore, 395 S.W.3d at 158 (footnote omitted) (quoting
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694). “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to
undermine confidence in the outcome [of the proceeding].” Id. at 158 n.3 (quoting
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).
Additionally, “[a]ny allegation of ineffectiveness must be firmly founded in
the record, and the record must affirmatively demonstrate the alleged
ineffectiveness.” Thompson v. State, 9 S.W.3d 808, 813 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999);
accord Burgess v. State, 448 S.W.3d 589, 602 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.]
2014, no pet.). “There is a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within
the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Thompson, 9 S.W.3d at 813.
Therefore, Bell “must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the
challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Ex parte Moore, 395
S.W.3d at 157 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689).
Appellate courts view matters “from the viewpoint of an attorney at the time
he acted, not through 20/20 hindsight.” Ex parte Jimenez, 364 S.W.3d 866, 883
(Tex. Crim. App. 2012); see also Ex parte Overton, 444 S.W.3d 632, 640 (Tex.
Crim. App. 2014). We consider the totality of the representation, not counsel’s
isolated acts or omissions. Ex parte Jimenez, 364 S.W.3d at 883. The mere fact that
another attorney might have pursued a different tactic demonstrate ineffectiveness.
Id. The appellant bears the burden to demonstrate that no plausible reason exists
for an act or omission. Toledo v. State, 519 S.W.3d 273, 287 (Tex. App.—Houston
[1st Dist.] 2017, pet. ref’d).
To establish ineffective assistance of counsel based on a failure to object,
Bell must demonstrate that the trial court would have committed harmful error in
overruling the objection had trial counsel objected. See Vaughn v. State, 931
S.W.2d 564, 566–67 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996); Toledo v. State, 519 S.W.3d at 287.
Bell asserted each of his complaints of ineffective assistance of counsel in a
motion for new trial, and his trial counsel testified regarding each allegation. We
address each complaint in turn.
1. Failure to obtain a ruling on admissibility of testimony regarding R.M.’s discipline at the Methodist Children’s Home
Bell first argues that his counsel was ineffective for failing to obtain a ruling
on whether he could question R.M. about her disciplinary history at the Methodist
Before trial, the court granted the State’s motion in limine and required
defense counsel to obtain a ruling outside the presence of the jury before offering
testimony that R.M. violated rules of the Methodist Children’s Home and was
disciplined. During direct examination, the State elicited testimony that R.M.
earned levels of trust and specific freedoms during her four years at the home.
Before cross-examination began and outside the presence of the jury, Bell’s
counsel argued that this testimony created a false impression that R.M. behaved
well at the home and had no problems. He argued that the State’s questions opened
the door to testimony that she had been disciplined for sending partially clothed
photos of herself from a computer. The photos were taken after R.M. turned
eighteen and many years after her outcry.1 The State argued that this was a
violation of Rule of Evidence 608(b), which prohibits the use of specific instances
of conduct to impeach a witness’s credibility except to expose bias or interest or to
rebut an affirmative representation made on direct examination. See TEX. R. EVID.
1 R.M. lived at the Methodist Children’s Home or in an apartment affiliated with it in Waco until just before she turned 19.
608(b). The State also argued that it was too remote in time from the disclosure of
abuse to be relevant. The court instructed Bell’s counsel to begin cross
examination on topics leading up to the outcry and beginning of the investigation,
and then, counsel could approach again to see if he had laid further foundation to
question R.M. about her conduct after reaching majority. Counsel did not approach
the bench again on this topic.
During the hearing on the motion for new trial, Bell’s trial counsel testified
that he strategically chose not to approach the bench again during cross
examination because he believed he did not meet the foundation that the trial court
asked him to make.
Given trial counsel’s testimony, Bell has not overcome the strong
presumption that counsel’s actions and decisions were reasonably professional and
motivated by sound trial strategy. Thompson, 9 S.W.3d at 813. Counsel testified
that he had a sound strategy for not approaching the bench because he believed he
did not meet the evidentiary standard the court requested. The trial court could
evaluate credibility and demeanor and was present for the testimony during both
the trial and the hearing on the motion. See Riley, 378 S.W.3d at 458 (explaining
we defer to the trial court’s findings of facts as well as mixed questions of law and
fact that turn on credibility and demeanor). The trial court did not abuse its
discretion in rejecting Bell’s claim of ineffective assistance on this ground.
2. Failure to object to opinion testimony
Bell argues that counsel was ineffective for failing file a motion in limine or
object to R.M.’s testimony that her aunt told her she believed her because the
statement was inadmissible hearsay.
At trial, while cross-examining R.M., Bell’s counsel established that R.M.’s
mother punished R.M. by taking her phone and denying her internet access after
she discovered that R.M. was still communicating with Mason. At the time, R.M.
lived with her grandmother. Counsel then asked if R.M. asked Lt. Sanders to move
to her aunt’s house on the same day that she was punished at her grandmother’s.
R.M. responded “yes.” On redirect, the State asked R.M. if she asked to live with
her aunt because her mother caught her chatting online, and R.M. replied that there
was another reason. She explained that her grandmother did not believe her, her
grandfather ignored her, and her aunt, “[S]he said she believes me. She supports
At the motion for new trial hearing, trial counsel stated that he would have
filed a motion in limine if he could have foreseen this testimony, but that he did not
foresee it and he admitted that in retrospect, he should have objected to it. Defense
counsel could not have anticipated that R.M. would have an alternate explanation
to move to her aunt’s residence. Therefore, his failure to file a motion in limine in
advance was not unreasonable. Ex parte Moore, 395 S.W.3d at 157.
Trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to object. Hearsay is a statement
that “[t]he declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing;
and a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the
statement.” TEX. R. EVID. 801(d). R.M.’s explaining that her aunt told her she
believed her was not hearsay. It was not offered to prove the truth of the matter
asserted, that her aunt believed her, but instead, it was offered to explain why R.M.
asked to move. The testimony was not hearsay and was therefore admissible.
Counsel is not ineffective for failing to object to admissible evidence. Ex parte
White, 160 S.W.3d 46, 53 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004).
3. Failure to object to references to R.M. as “victim”
Bell argues that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object when Lt.
Sanders referred to R.M. as “victim” when referencing a letter R.M. had written.2
2 State: And so how do you start your investigation? You’ve got this notice that an outcry of sexual abuse has been made at the school. What do you do?
Lt. Sanders: First we went ahead and sent a deputy to find out what exactly was going on as far as getting the information from the outcry witness. Typically we do not talk to the victims ourselves in the very beginning because we like to get them forensically interviewed. A forensic interview is done by someone who specializes in speaking and doing forensic interviews. So the deputies went to the scene, they actually retrieved a letter that the victim wrote. And they ended up bringing that information back and I received the information from the deputies about the outcry that happened at the school to a counselor.
Bell argues that by referring to R.M. as the “victim,” Lt. Sanders communicated an
inadmissible opinion that Bell sexually assaulted R.M.
At the hearing for the motion for rehearing, Bell’s trial counsel testified that
in retrospect, he could have filed a motion in limine to prohibit law enforcement
from referring to R.M. as “victim,” but he also testified that officers were using the
word in a specific context. He testified that he “probably” should have objected
when Lt. Sanders referred to R.M. as the “victim” but he did not believe that the
reference bolstered R.M.’s credibility for the jury.
The trial court’s decision to deny Bell’s motion for new trial on this ground is
not outside the zone of reasonable disagreement. Colyer, 428 S.W.3d at 122. At
least one court of appeals has held that counsel’s own use of the word “victim” was
not reversible error. See Cueva v. State, 339 S.W.3d 839, 864 (Tex. App.—Corpus
Christi 2011, pet. ref’d). That is because “the term ‘victim’ is relatively mild and
non-prejudicial, especially given that courts have held invocation of far stronger
terms did not amount to reversible error.” Id. (noting the Court of Criminal
Appeals has held that the terms “slaughter,” and “this killer” were not reversible
error and has used the word “victim” in its own writings). Though counsel agreed
that in retrospect he could have objected, from the viewpoint of an attorney at the
time, given that the use of “victim” was in passing and used to describe an
investigative process, it would have been reasonable not to object to avoid drawing
the jury’s attention to the characterization. Ex parte Jimenez, 364 S.W.3d at 883.
Bell has not demonstrated that no plausible reason exists for his counsel’s
omission, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying on this ground.
See Toledo, 519 S.W.3d at 287.
4. Failure to object to officer’s opinion about R.M.’s conduct
Bell argues that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object when Lt.
Sanders testified that R.M.’s behavior was consistent with that of a child survivor
of sexual abuse. Lt. Sanders testified as follows:
State: Based on the years that you have worked on these kind of cases, is it uncommon for a child who has been sexualized at a very young age to then act out in the way that R.M. was behaving online?
Lt. Sanders: It’s very common.
State: Well give us an idea of what you personally have witnessed and observed in your investigations?
The State argues that Lt. Sanders testified based on her 17 years’ experience
as an investigator of sex crimes, and that her testimony rebutted the defense’s
theory that R.M.’s online and texting behavior was consistent with normal teenage
At the hearing on the motion for new trial, counsel testified that he did
object to Lt. Sanders testifying as an expert. He admitted that if he were going to
retry the case, he would file a motion in limine.
Even if counsel’s actions were ineffective, Bell fails to show that he was
prejudiced by counsel’s decision. The same information was presented to the jury
by a later witness. Fiona Remko, an expert in the field of child sexual abuse and
forensic interviewing of children, shared a similar opinion of child survivors of
sexual abuse. She testified to the following:
State: Finally, with children that—that suffer sex abuse and are sexualized at a very young age, is it uncommon for them to engage in inappropriate behaviors or even promiscuous type behaviors?
Remko: That’s not uncommon at all. A lot of kids, especially if abuse has been ongoing for quite a while, they really confuse in their head the sexual part with love and affection and so they start to equate that in order for somebody to show that they love you that there’s a sexual component to it, too. And so kids oftentimes seek that out, especially if their emotional needs aren’t being met somewhere else, so they can become promiscuous because that’s how they’ve been taught to show love and affection obviously in an unhealthy way.
Given that Remko gave a similar opinion, Bell cannot demonstrate that he
suffered prejudice because of Lt. Sanders’s comment. Bell fails to show that the
outcome of the trial would have been different without Lt. Sanders’s testimony. Ex
parte Moore, 395 S.W.3d at 158.
5. Failure to request an instruction to disregard CPS investigation result testimony or move for a mistrial
In his last ineffective assistance of counsel argument, Bell contends that his
counsel was ineffective for failing to request an instruction for the jury to disregard
testimony that CPS found there was reason to believe that abuse occurred. Counsel
objected to the State’s questions that referenced the finding, and the court asked
the State to rephrase the questions. When the State referenced the finding again,
defense counsel objected again, and the objection was overruled. In the motion for
new trial and on appeal, Bell argues that his trial counsel should have requested a
limiting instruction or moved for a mistrial. His trial counsel testified and
explained that in hindsight, there may have been reasons to file a motion in limine
regarding the CPS conclusion, but at the time, he had strategic reasons not to file a
motion in limine regarding the results of the CPS investigation. He wanted the jury
to hear that there was no finding of abuse for the two younger children, and they
were too young to testify themselves. When asked if he was concerned that the jury
would defer to CPS’s judgment that Bell had abused R.M., trial counsel responded
that he was not concerned, and he wanted the jury to credit CPS’s finding that
there had been no abuse of the other children. This fact supported his theory that
R.M. made up the abuse, as the jury might believe that evidence that the other
children were not abused supported a conclusion that no children in the home were
Given counsel’s testimony regarding his strategy, Bell has not demonstrated
that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for new trial
based on this complaint.
We overrule Bell’s ineffective assistance of counsel allegations.
Constitutionality of the Offense Statute
In his third issue, Bell argues that the statute establishing the punishment
range for the offense of continuous sexual abuse of a child is facially
unconstitutional in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. See U.S. CONST. amend. XIV. He argues that there is no set of
circumstances under which the statutory punishment scheme for the offense would
operate constitutionally. The State argues that he attempts to support his facial
challenge with an “as applied” argument and he has not met his burden to establish
that the statute is invalid under all circumstances. We agree with the State.
A. Standard of Review and Applicable Law
A facial constitutionality challenge is an attack on the entire statute itself
rather than a particular application of it. City of Los Angeles v. Patel, —– U.S. —–,
135 S. Ct. 2443, 2449 (2015). A successful facial challenge to a statute’s
constitutionality requires a showing that the statute operates unconstitutionally in
all possible circumstances; in other words, no set of circumstances exists under
which the statute would be constitutionally valid. McGruder v. State, 483 S.W.3d
880, 883 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016). Determining whether a statute is facially
unconstitutional is a question of law that we review de novo. Ex parte Lo, 424
S.W.3d, 10, 14 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013); Toledo v. State, 519 S.W.3d at 279.
The party who challenges a statute bears the burden to establish that it is
unconstitutional. Peraza v. State, 467 S.W.3d 508, 514 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015).
Courts are to consider the statute only as it is written, rather than how it operates in
practice. Salinas v. State, 464 S.W.3d 363, 367 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015). A statute
is presumed to be constitutional. See TEX. GOV’T CODE § 311.021(1); Rodriguez
v. State, 93 S.W.3d 60, 69 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002).
Section 21.02 of the Texas Penal Code is entitled “Continuous Sexual Abuse
of Young Child or Children.” It states that a person commits the offense if:
(1) during a period that is 30 or more days in duration, the person commits two or more acts of sexual abuse, regardless of whether the acts of sexual abuse are committed against one or more victims; and
(2) at the time of the commission of each of the acts of sexual abuse, the actor is 17 years of age or older and the victim is a child younger than 14 years of age, regardless of whether the actor knows the age of the victim at the time of the offense.
TEX. PENAL CODE § 21.02(b).
An offense under 21.02 is a first-degree felony, punishable by life
imprisonment or a term of “not more than 99 years or less than 25 years.” TEX.
PENAL CODE § 21.02(h).
Bell fails to meet his burden to establish a facial challenge to section 21.02.
Instead, he argues that the statute could result in an irrational or unfair result as
applied to a hypothetical defendant. He explains that a hypothetical defendant who
has vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a child over six years old during a less than
30-day period would commit aggravated sexual assault and face a punishment
range of five years to life with the possibility of parole. See TEX. PENAL CODE
§ 22.021 (aggravated sexual assault); TEX. GOV’T CODE § 508.145(d-1) (eligibility
for parole). In contrast, a person who touches a child’s genitals over clothing more
than once in a period that is over 30 days commits continuous sexual abuse of a
child and must serve 25 to 99 years or life in prison without the possibility of
parole. See TEX. PENAL CODE § 21.02 (continuous sexual abuse of a child) and
TEX. GOV’T CODE § 508.145(a) (prohibiting parole for the offense).
Even if Bell has hypothetically demonstrated a circumstance where a
defendant could be charged with an arguably more serious sex offense and serve a
lesser sentence eligible for parole than a defendant who perpetrates an arguably
less severe version of sexual abuse over a longer period, this does not meet the
burden for a facial constitutional challenge. A single hypothetical application of
the statute is irrelevant. See Salinas, 464 S.W.3d at 368. To establish a facial
challenge, Bell must establish that the statute can never be constitutionally applied
to any Texas defendant charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child under any
circumstances. Peraza, 467 S.W.3d at 514. Because courts are to consider the
statute only as written, and not how it operates in practice, it would be improper to
theorize about one defendant versus another. See id. at 515. (explaining in a facial
challenge it would be improper to theorize where funds collected and distributed
pursuant to a statute might be spent). Bell does not demonstrate that the statute is
invalid under all circumstances and has not met his burden for a facial
constitutionality challenge. We overrule Bell’s third issue.
Improper Motive at Sentencing
In his fourth issue, Bell argues that the trial court’s sentence was a result of
an improper motive in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. See U.S. CONST. amend. XIV. He argues that the trial court sentenced
him to a harsher sentence because he chose to reject the State’s plea offer and to
send a message to future litigants. The State argues that the claim is unsupported
by the record. After reviewing the record, we hold that there was no indication of
bias or partiality by the trial court.
A. Standard of Review
Due process requires a neutral and detached hearing body or officer. Brumit
v. State, 206 S.W.3d 639, 645 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006). A trial court denies a
defendant due process when it arbitrarily refuses to consider the entire range of
punishment or imposes a predetermined punishment. Id.; Jaenicke v. State, 109
S.W.3d 793, 796 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, pet. ref’d). Absent a clear
showing of bias, a trial court’s actions will be presumed to have been correct.
Brumit, 206 S.W.3d at 645; Jaenicke, 109 S.W.3d at 796.
The record does not show any partiality or bias in sentencing. After the jury
delivered their verdict, the trial court commented:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, these are among the most difficult cases that I try. I’ve tried murder cases, drug cases, all kinds of cases; this is literally the toughest kind of case, not only for you; but, frankly, for the attorneys, for the Court, for the court staff. They just are. They’re very disgusting. They’re just totally difficult to do.
I appreciate your service. I appreciate all of you sticking around for the entire proceedings; the alternates, as well as the jury panel itself.
The court then released the jurors from the admonishment not to discuss the
case with anyone.
A few months later, a sentencing hearing was conducted. The judge heard
testimony from Bell’s expert witness and character witnesses. Upon the conclusion
of the evidence, the trial court explained that a jury had found Bell guilty and the
trial court, having also heard all of the testimony and evidence, believed that Bell
had done what he was accused of “exactly as charged and exactly as proven.” The
judge then explained the factors he considers in determining a sentence and
So my role is to balance. . . and weigh all of [the factors] and then . . . I consider those against similar offense for the purposes of having some consistency in my sentencing so that there will be a standard within the community that whenever this Court hears cases of a similar nature, there will be an understanding of where this Court is going to go and the decisions that are going to be made.
The sentencing range for continuous sexual abuse of a child was life or no
less than 25 years and no more than 99 years. TEX. PENAL CODE § 21.02(h). The
court sentenced Bell to 55 years’ imprisonment.
On appeal, Bell contends that the judge vindictively sentenced him to a
lengthier sentence for declining a plea bargain to discourage future defendants
from doing the same.3 He relies on North Carolina v. Pearce, which established
that “whenever a judge imposes a more severe sentence upon a defendant after a
new trial, the reasons for his doing so must affirmatively appear [in the record].”
395 U.S. 711, 726 (1969) overruled in part by Alabama v. Smith, 490 U.S. 794,
801 (1989) (holding that Pearce presumption of judicial vindictiveness does not
3 Bell’s counsel put the declined offer on the record at the end of pretrial motions. Court: You had something to put into the record?
Bell’s Counsel: Just, Judge, that an offer was made from the State, and you recall that offer, correct?
Bell: Yes .
Bell’s Counsel: It was ten years deferred and you have elected not to take that offer. The State then clarified that the offer was made before the State could locate R.M. and was on a lesser included offense.
apply when trial judge imposes greater penalty after remand and full trial than was
imposed after prior guilty plea). But this was Bell’s first trial and first sentencing,
and therefore the presumption of judicial vindictiveness does not apply. After
reviewing the record, we find no evidence of partiality, bias, or impropriety in the
assessment of sentence.
Outcome: We affirm the judgment of the trial court.