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Hearing in Shoshoni homicide hinges on phone call

Oct 27, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

A recording of 911 call clearly was crucial to the prosecutors' case in a Shoshoni man's trial for murder, as it was the only concrete evidence connecting the accused killer to the alleged murder weapon.

Whether the tape was admissible in court was trickier to sort out and was the subject of an Oct. 25 hearing in Lander District Court.

Charles Darrell Laster, 65, of Shoshoni, made the recorded call, which is about seven minutes long. Prosecutors believe Laster called 911 after Shey Elan Bruce struck him in the head with a beer bottle the evening of May 14 but before Laster was found dead May 15 from bleeding in his skull caused by the blows.

Bruce faces a second-degree murder charge and one count of misdemeanor domestic violence in relation to the death of Laster and a count of domestic violence battery against Lavena Sue Laster, who was Charles Laster's wife and in a romantic relationship with Bruce.

In the call, Charles Laster stated a man named Shey hit him and his wife in the head with a beer bottle.

"If the state is prohibited from introducing this evidence, the state will have no direct evidence and little indirect evidence that the defendant used a weapon, a beer bottle," Fremont County deputy attorney Pat LeBrun said.

Two obstacles could make the call inadmissible.

First, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him," but Laster cannot appear in court for cross examination.

If, however, Laster's statements on the 911 call are not legally ruled to be testimony, the "confrontation clause" would not apply.

Second, Laster's statements during the call were made outside of a courtroom, and would be offered to show what Laster said is true, that Bruce hit him with a bottle. Such statements are hearsay, and normally prohibited from being entered as evidence.

The tape could fall under an exception to the "hearsay rule" and be admissible.

District Court Judge Norman E. Young did not decide if prosecutors overcame those two obstacles and asked for written arguments by Monday regarding a hearsay exception neither side addressed at the hearing. Young is to make a decision regarding the recording ahead of Bruce's Nov. 18 trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court in several cases has established that statements in 911 calls are not testimonial if their primary purpose is to handle an ongoing emergencies, LeBrun said. In Laster's call, the dispatcher primarily is concerned about resolving the dangerous situation, LeBrun argued.

"I understand the defendant probably doesn't like the statements the decedent made, but the Constitution doesn't care. It only cares why (they were made)," the deputy county attorney said.

Petersen argued that the emergency was over by the time Laster called 911, so the statements were testimonial.

"There's no imminent danger of physical threat," he said.

In each Supreme Court case LeBrun cited, such a danger still existed, Petersen argued.

The defense attorney said some of Laster's statements were about ongoing events, however, such as some saying he was all right and that his wife was having headaches. He suggested the judge could allow those statements in but exclude those regarding Bruce and the beer bottle.

LeBrun argued four exceptions to the hearsay rule applied to Laster's call. First, it fit under the "present sense impression" exception, that Laster was describing what he saw as he saw it.

It was also was an utterance made while under the effect of a startling event, and one about an "existing mental or emotional condition," both categories of statements which would be excepted, LeBrun said.

Finally, an exception allows statements by a person who is unavailable and which are "more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence which the proponent can procure through reasonable efforts."

Petersen argued the first exception did not apply because Laster's statements that Bruce hit him with a beer bottle are not about something occurring in front of him.

Petersen also said the alleged assault happened at least 24 minutes before the call, so Laster would not still have been startled by it, nor were statements about the attack describing Laster's mental or emotional condition.

Finally, prosecutors could have had more significant evidence connecting Bruce to a beer bottle, Petersen argued.

A Fremont County Sheriff's detective previously testifed he did not collect any of the more than 20 beer bottles on the scene to test them for evidence.

"Mr. Bruce would propose the state is trying to send him to prison fro 20 years with this case and they're saying the 20 beer bottles are too many to collect and do some fingerprints on or DNA on?" Petersen said.

After the arguments, Young pointed out a hearsay exception for "statements made for purposes of medical services or treatment" could apply to the situation.

The lawyers agreed to submit briefs on that issue by Monday, after which Young would make a decision to let in the whole call, part of the recording or none of it.

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