In the late afternoon hours of August 1, 2015, Christopher Rion was driving his Dodge Challenger in Dallas, Texas, when he collided with a Toyota Highlander. The collision left the Highlander driver, Claudia Loehr, and a passenger, Claudena Parnell, seriously injured. Parnell succumbed to her injuries several days later.
A Dallas County grand jury indicted Rion for manslaughter related to Parnell’s death and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for Loehr’s injuries. Rion’s defense team sought a single trial on both offenses, but the trial court denied the single-trial motion after the prosecution’s formal opposition.
Rion was tried first on the manslaughter charge. His defense at trial was that he suffered from severe mental health issues for which he had been prescribed the drugs Adderall, Ambien, Lexapro, and Valium. He had taken prescribed dosages of Adderall and Valium earlier in the day of the collision. No doctor had ever instructed him not to drive while medicated.
The prosecution presented a case that Rion was reckless in driving under the influence, and it was that criminal recklessness that caused the death of Parnell. The state’s case rested exclusively on the legal premise that voluntary intoxication is not a defense against the recklessness element of a manslaughter charge.
Not Guilty Verdict Prompts Prosecutor to Try Second Case
The trial court gave the jury an instruction charge that included both manslaughter and the lesser included offense of negligent homicide.
The jury acquitted Rion on both charges.
The prosecution of this case, we believe, should have ended at that point. But that is not what happened.
The prosecution sought to try Rion on the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. Rion’s defense team sought to prevent this prosecution through Texas’ Collateral Estoppel Doctrine by filing a pretrial writ of habeas corpus. The defense argued that since the jury rejected the manslaughter case based on the issue of recklessness, the prosecution was collaterally estopped from using recklessness to try Rion on the assault charge because that charge also has a recklessness element.
The Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals agreed.
The prosecution sought and secured, discretionary review before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) on the issue of whether the appeals court was correct in its finding. The CCA opened its analysis with an explanation of the collateral estoppel doctrine:
“Embodied in the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against double jeopardy, the doctrine of collateral estoppel is an ‘extremely important principle in our adversary system’ and ‘means simply that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties’… Confronted with the issue of whether collateral estoppel applies to bar a subsequent trial, courts must determine: (1) what facts were necessarily decided in the first proceeding; and (2) whether those necessarily-decided facts constitute essential elements of the offense in the second trial.”
Legal Distinction Causes Logical Inconsistency
The CCA reversed the appeals court on October 27, 2021, finding there is a legal distinction between recklessness causing death and recklessness causing injury. The CCA explained the difference this way:
“… through its ‘not guilty’ verdict, the jury in the manslaughter trial indicated that it had reasonable doubt that Appellant was reckless. As defined, correctly, by the charge, the jury’s determination on recklessness meant that it had reasonable doubt that Appellant was aware of a risk that death would occur as result of his conduct. In the aggravated assault case, while the jury would be similarly asked to decide whether Appellant was reckless, that is a different question for the purposes of aggravated assault causing bodily injury. The jury in the second trial would be asked to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Appellant was aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that bodily injury would occur as result of his conduct. The recklessness issues are not precisely the same. “
The CCA, however, left the collateral estoppel door open in other cases with this statutory caveat:
“But this is not to say that collateral estoppel can never apply where one trial is for manslaughter and the other trial is for reckless aggravated assault causing bodily injury. Because death itself is a form of bodily injury, a jury determination on recklessness with respect to awareness of a risk of death could say something about whether the defendant was aware of a risk of bodily injury, and a jury determination on recklessness with respect to awareness of a risk of bodily injury could say something about whether the defendant was aware of a risk of death.
“What if Appellant’s trials were reversed, and the reckless aggravated assault causing bodily injury case was tried first? If the jury decided that Appellant was not reckless, that is, he was not aware of but consciously disregarded a risk that his conduct would cause bodily injury to another, that would also be a determination that he was not aware of but consciously disregarded a risk that his conduct would cause the death of another. If a person is not aware that he could injure someone by his conduct, he inherently must be not aware that his conduct could also cause death to someone—death being the ultimate form of bodily injury.”
The CCA found within this legal analysis resided the distinction between two standards of recklessness. In other words, the prosecution can get the first bite of the apple if it prosecutes the manslaughter offense first and gets a second bite with an aggravated assault offense if the manslaughter jury acquits. The distinction made by the CCA strains logic, but that’s the current state of the law.
The issue remains open as to what an aggravated assault jury will decide based on the same facts and circumstances presented in the manslaughter trial.