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Mathew Clayton Helget v. The State of Texas
Case Number: 05-18-00263-CR
Judge: Amanda L. Reichek
Court: Court of Appeals Fifth District of Texas at Dallas
Plaintiff's Attorney: John Creuzot
Defendant's Attorney: Nanette Hendrickson
In September 2016, appellant and his adult siblings had a barbecue to celebrate the life of
their father, who had died two months earlier. Tables and chairs were set up in the backyard of
the home of one of appellant’s sisters; food and drinks, including alcohol, were served. Guests
began arriving in the late afternoon and included family members and friends.
By 11 p.m., most of the guests had left, and the few remaining were sitting in the backyard
talking. Appellant was at a table with his older brother, John Helget; brother-in-law Travis Jones;
and two long-time family friends, Kevin Skinner and Cathy Bureau. The group was talking,
laughing, and joking, and the mood was described as “jovial.” Appellant, who had been drinking
throughout the night, casually pulled out a pocketknife and opened it. Smiling, he asked John,
“Are you ready to die?” John, also smiling, replied, “I’m always ready to die, Brother.” Seconds
later, appellant “popped up out of his chair” and began stabbing John in the neck. Travis grabbed
appellant’s hand, pulled him back, and told him to drop the knife. Appellant threatened to stab
Travis before dropping the knife.
John fell out of his chair face down on the ground. Cathy, who had first-responder training,
immediately began applying pressure to his wounds to stop the bleeding while waiting for the
police and emergency personnel to arrive. As she did so, she kept an eye on appellant because she
feared he was going to attack John again or attack her. She said appellant watched what was
happening but did not show any emotion. Despite the efforts to save John, he died that night. An
autopsy showed he sustained eight stab wounds to the neck, chest, and forearm.
After Cathy, Travis, and Kevin testified about the events surrounding the stabbing,
appellant announced he wanted to change his plea from not guilty to guilty. Once the trial judge
determined that appellant’s desire to change his plea was voluntary, he brought the jury back into
the courtroom and appellant entered his guilty plea before the jury. The trial judge then charged
the jury and instructed it to find appellant guilty as charged in the indictment. After brief
deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
At punishment, the State offered State’s Exhibit 20, a video recording from a responding
officer’s body camera depicting the attempts at the scene to save John’s life. The first minute of
the video is dark and the images are difficult to see, but Cathy Bureau can be heard loudly talking
to John, trying to keep him awake. She told the officer she was a former first responder, and the
officer told her an ambulance was on the way. Someone shone a light, and the images became
clearer. John was lying on his back on the ground with blood on his face and arms. Blood was
also on the ground. An officer applied chest compressions as Cathy applied pressure to his neck
wounds. Cathy and the officers repeatedly told John to “stay with” them. At one point Cathy beat
John on the chest, and an officer told her to stop. She replied that hitting him on the chest revived
him earlier. Three minutes into the video, emergency personnel arrived and took over.
Appellant’s counsel objected to admission of the video, arguing its probative value was
outweighed by the prejudicial effect of the details on the video. He argued the video was “basically
a compilation of a thousand pictures when you watch four minutes of it happening” with sound
and full color. The State responded that it was important for the jury to be aware of the “details”
and the video was the “best evidence of that.” The trial court overruled the objection, and the
video was admitted and played for the jury.
In addition to the body cam video, several witnesses testified about appellant’s verbally
and physically abusive nature, generally when he had been drinking heavily. For example, a sister
testified appellant pushed her over a coffee table after she intervened in an incident where he was
“verbally aggressive” with his wife. A niece recounted two incidents of violence. In the first
incident, she was six years old when she saw appellant choke her mother. In the second incident,
appellant put a friend of hers in a headlock, pulled out a knife, and threatened to kill him. Another
witness, who was John’s nephew, testified that when he was thirteen years old, appellant put him
in a choke-hold position, touched his “butt hole with his finger” over his clothes, and whispered
in his ear, “Have you ever been raped, boy?” Finally, another family member testified that when
she and appellant were both children, appellant physically and sexually abused her.
After hearing the evidence, the jury sentenced appellant to sixty years in prison.
ADMISSION OF BODY CAMERA VIDEO
In his first issue, appellant contends the trial court abused its discretion by admitting body
camera video showing the attempts to save John’s life. He argues the video’s probative value was
substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect and was therefore inadmissible under Texas Rule
of Evidence 403.
We review a trial court’s decision on the admissibility of evidence under an abuse of
discretion standard. Johnson v. State, 490 S.W.3d 895, 908 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016). A trial judge
abuses his discretion when his decision falls outside the zone of reasonable disagreement. Id.
During the punishment phase, both the State and defense may offer evidence as to “any
matter the court deems relevant to sentencing,” including the circumstances of the offense for
which he is charged. See TEX. CODE CRIM. PROC. ANN. art. 37.07, § 3(a)(1). Relevancy, in the
context of punishment, is different than that contemplated by Texas Rule of Evidence 401 because,
unlike the guilt/innocence phase where “facts of consequence” are narrowly drawn by the
applicable statutes, there are no discrete factual issues to be determined at punishment. See Rogers
v. State, 991 S.W.2d 263, 265 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999). Determining what is relevant then should
be a question of what is helpful to the jury in determining the appropriate sentence for a particular
defendant in a particular case. Id.
Even so, rule 403 still applies to evidence offered at punishment. See id. at 266. Evidence
may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair
prejudice. Id. Unfair prejudice does not mean the evidence injures the opponent’s case, which is
the central point of offering evidence. Id. Rather, it refers to “an undue tendency to suggest
decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.” Id. (quoting
Cohn v. State, 849 S.W.2d 817, 820 (Tex. Crim. App. 1993). Evidence might be unfairly
prejudicial if, for example, it arouses the jury’s hostility or sympathy for one side without regard
to the logical probative force of the evidence. See Gigliobianco v. State, 210 S.W.3d 637, 642
(Tex. Crim. App. 2006).
In determining whether the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs the probative
value of photographic evidence, we consider the length of the video, whether it is color or black
and white, whether it is gruesome, whether any bodies are clothed or naked, the availability of
other means of proof, and other circumstances unique to the individual case. See Davis v. State,
313 S.W.3d 317, 331 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010) (setting out factors for analyzing still
photographs); see also Fields v. State, 515 S.W.3d 47, 56 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2016, no pet.)
(using same factors in rule 403 analysis of crime scene video).
Here, the video is in color. The relevant portion is less than four minutes in length and was
discussed in only three pages of testimony. The video showed the efforts by Cathy and police to
to revive John, who was clothed and lying on his back on the ground. Blood was on the ground.
John did not appear to be conscious, and his face and arm were bloody. At one point, Cathy
pounded John’s chest to revive him and was told to stop by the police. Appellant argues these
images offered a “very emotional scene” that would only “inflame the minds of the jurors.”
The video depicted what happened immediately after appellant stabbed John. As such, it
was an additional piece of evidence related to the commission of the crime that jurors could use in
assessing appellant’s punishment, and nothing in the record suggests it was offered solely to
inflame the minds of the jury. Although the video offered an emotional scene following appellant’s
actions in fatally stabbing his brother, it depicted no more than the reality of the brutal crime
committed and its immediate aftermath. See Ripkowski v. State, 61 S.W.3d 378, 392 (Tex. Crim.
App. 2001) (video showing close-ups of decomposing body was not unfairly prejudicial; it simply
reflected “gruesomeness” of crime). To the extent appellant argues the evidence was cumulative
of other evidence presented by the autopsy report, autopsy photographs, and medical examiner’s
testimony, we disagree. None of that evidence addressed what happened at the scene in the
moments after appellant stabbed his brother.
Based on the record before us, we cannot conclude that the prejudicial effect of the video
substantially outweighed its probative value. Accordingly, we conclude the trial court did not
abuse its discretion in admitting it as evidence. See Luna v. State, No. 05-17-01188-CR, 2018 WL
3490875, at *2 (Tex. App.—Dallas July 20, 2018, no pet.) (mem. op.) (not designated for
publication) (concluding body cam video at crime scene of efforts to revive gunshot victim was
admissible at guilt-innocence phase over rule 403 objection that it was inflammatory and highly
prejudicial); Brown v. State, No. 02-16-00484-CR, 2018 WL 1755248, at *4 (Tex. App.—Fort
Worth Apr. 12, 2018, pet. ref’d) (mem. op.) (not designated for publication) (concluding probative
value of body cam video of attempts to render aid to man shot in neck was not substantially
outweighed by unfair prejudice and was admissible as punishment evidence); Castillo v. State, No.
14-15-00753-CR, 2016 WL 7177729, at *1–2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 8, 2016, pet.
ref’d) (mem. op.) (not designated for publication) (concluding body cam video at crime scene
depicting body of victim shot after robbery admissible over rule 403 objection). We overrule the
DEADLY WEAPON FINDING
In his second issue, appellant contends the trial court erred in entering a deadly weapon
finding in the judgment because the jury made no such express finding.
An affirmative deadly weapon finding is the trier of fact’s express determination that a
deadly weapon was actually used or exhibited during the commission of the offense. LaFleur v.
State, 106 S.W.3d 91, 94 (Tex. Crim. App. 2003). Generally, an affirmative finding of a deadly
weapon may be made when (1) the indictment includes an allegation of a “deadly weapon,” and
the verdict states the defendant is guilty as charged in the indictment, (2) the indictment does not
allege “deadly weapon,” but does allege a weapon that is per se a deadly weapon, and the verdict
states the defendant is guilty as charged in the indictment, or (3) the jury has affirmatively
answered a special charge issue on “deadly weapon” use or exhibition. Polk v. State, 693 S.W.2d
391, 396 (Tex. Crim. App. 1985). Alternatively, if the application paragraph of the charge
adequately describes the use or exhibition of a deadly weapon, then the verdict of “guilty”
combined with the application paragraph constitute the “affirmative finding.” LaFleur, 106
S.W.3d at 98. The process of looking to the application paragraph, the indictment, and the verdict
for the purpose of ensuring an “express finding” should not exalt form over substance to no
discernible jurisprudential purpose. See id. However, a trial court cannot make an implied deadly
weapon finding based solely upon its own assessment of the evidence and a general guilty
verdict. Id. at 95.
Here, the indictment against appellant alleged he intentionally and knowingly caused the
death of John Helget by inflicting stab wounds with a knife, “a deadly weapon.” This indictment
was read to the jury. After the State presented a portion of its case, appellant changed his not
guilty plea and pleaded guilty to the charge before the jury. Thereafter, the trial court instructed
the jury to find appellant “guilty as charged in the indictment.” There were no objections to the
trial court’s jury instruction. The jury returned a general verdict of “guilty.”
We conclude the combination of the indictment, appellant’s plea of guilty, the trial court’s
instruction to the jury to find appellant guilty “as charged in the indictment,” and the jury’s verdict
of guilty constituted an express finding that appellant used a deadly weapon to cause John’s death.
Thus, the trial court did not err by including a deadly weapon finding in its judgment. See LaFleur,
106 S.W.3d at 96; Gasper v. State, No. 05-09-01133-CR, 2011 WL 1900520, at *4 (Tex. App.—
Dallas May 17, 2011, pet. ref’d) (not designated for publication). We overrule the second issue.
MODIFICATION OF JUDGMENT
In his third issue, appellant requests that we modify the judgment to reflect his plea of
guilty. The trial court’s judgment reflects a plea of not guilty, but the record shows appellant
changed his plea to guilty during trial. This Court has the authority to correct the judgment of the
court below to make the record “speak the truth” when we have the necessary data and information
to do so. Asberry v. State, 813 S.W.2d 526, 529 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1991, pet. ref’d). We sustain
the third issue and modify the trial court’s judgment to correct the error.
Outcome: We affirm the judgment as modified.