Appeals Court upholds Crigler in Li murder trial decisions

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tennessee's Court of Criminal Appeals has affirmed rulings during the trial of a Hispanic man now serving life in prison plus 20 years for murdering a man from China who was building a restaurant here.

Jairo Jesus "Kevin" Canales Garcia, 25, was charged with the June 2006 murder of Wing Chiu Li, 57, with Daniel Caluo "Mohawk" Vasquez, 39. Garcia was found guilty in May 2007. Subsequently, Vasquez pleaded guilty.

Li was stabbed to death and found by his son, De Quen "Kevin" Li, in the building that has since opened as Fusion Cuisine. In 2006 the family was building out the interior of the commercial space that backs up to railroad tracks and is visible between a KFC restaurant and Cato's store.

Representing Garcia for his appeal, Pulaski-based attorney Hershell Koger argued three points at which he claimed that Marshall County Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler erred during the trial: insufficient evidence; improper jury selection; and certain testimony should not have been allowed.

"We affirm the judgments" made by Crigler during Garcia's trial, Appeals Court Judge John Everett Williams Jr. wrote for the unanimous opinion by the three-judge panel.

Koger said evidence against Garcia was circumstantial and that Garcia wasn't a party to the crimes of murder, burglary, robbery and auto theft. Garcia was just with Vasquez who went to Li to collect a debt, Koger said. However, Williams wrote that: Garcia said he disarmed Li; Garcia's fingerprints were in Li's blood; and that Li's blood was on the passenger seat of Li's van which Vasquez drove from the crime scene. Furthermore, Garcia closed the door to the building, effectively hiding the crime.

Six jurors should not have been permitted on the panel, Koger said, arguing they knew too much about the case and formed opinions.

However, the jury selection process "is to ensure that jurors are competent, unbiased and impartial," and rulings on that are at the discretion of the trial judge, Williams wrote, citing an established case.

Four of the jurors were not excluded from jury duty even though they'd read about the case in the newspaper.

One of them also saw the police yellow tape at the crime scene and he had personal opinions about illegal aliens, but said that he could be fair and listen to evidence before forming an opinion.

Another read about the case, but couldn't remember many of the details, Williams wrote. She also said she'd listen to the case and then decide.

A woman who sat as a juror said she initially formed an opinion and it would be hard for her to set that aside, but that while she read about the case, "she would be fair because she knew that everything she read in the paper was not true," Williams wrote.

The other juror said, "He knew the role of a juror was to base his decision on what he heard in the courtroom instead of what he read in the newspaper," the appeals court judge wrote.

Two other jurors' service was challenged because one was a former law enforcement officer and the other is related to a law enforcement officer. Again, they said they could be fair and base a decision on what's said in court, Williams wrote,

A seventh juror should have been excused because she needed to go to her granddaughter's graduation, but the appeals court judge again pointed to state standards that give the trial judge discretion since they're seeing the situation and not appeals court judges.

Koger challenged Crigler's decision to permit jurors to be told about streaks of blood on the victim's arms. Koger sought a mistrial, but was denied by Crigler. Koger challenged an assistant medical examiner as an expert witness who said the streaks were probably from wounds suffered before the victim's neck was cut. Williams wrote that Crigler didn't abuse his discretion and that Koger hadn't successfully shown abuse.

The decision by the Criminal Court of Appeals was filed Nov. 18 at Nashville.