Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

HOUSTON — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday an accused killer’s MySpace pages were properly used as evidence by prosecutors to help convince a jury to convict the Dallas-area street gang member of murder.

Ronnie Tienda Jr. appealed his conviction and 35-year prison term for the slaying of 23-year-old David Valadez in a 2007 shootout on a Dallas freeway.

In the appeal, Tienda’s attorney argued the judge at his 2008 trial in Dallas County was wrong to allow MySpace entries into evidence because it was questionable whether Tienda was responsible for entries that referred to the killing on his pages on the social networking site.

The appeals court said the content of Tienda’s postings, which included photos, comments and music, was sufficient to show he created and maintained it and the trial judge wasn’t wrong to allow it as circumstantial evidence for prosecutors to show Tienda was involved in the slaying.

Tienda’s attorney, Leslie McFarlane, said Wednesday she wasn’t sure where the case could go now. The Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest criminal court in the state.

“I think it’s fair to say it’s troubling,” she said.

Valadez, from Grand Prairie, died at a Dallas hospital of wounds suffered when gunfire erupted from at least two of three vehicles during a confrontation on Interstate 30 that began earlier at a club. Valadez was driver of one of the cars.

Court records indicate Tienda was present during the gunfire but testimony at his trial was inconsistent as to who fired first. Bullets from Valadez’s body never could be matched to a weapon and no firearms ever were recovered.

Valadez’s sister told prosecutors as they were preparing for trial about three MySpace pages featuring Tienda boasting about the killing. They also included entries of him complaining about wearing an electronic monitor while awaiting trial.

“I kill to stay rich!!” according to one of the entries. Another features a photo of a tattoo of the Roman numeral for 18 on the back of Tienda’s head, which a detective testified referred to the North Side 18th Street gang in Grand Prairie.

Tienda’s trial lawyer unsuccessfully argued the evidence wasn’t credible and couldn’t be authenticated.

Responding to the appeal, prosecutors said the social network pages contained “sufficiently distinctive information” to justify their admission into evidence.

The appeals court agreed, saying it also was aware electronic writings can sometimes be open to question.

“Computers can be hacked, protected passwords can be compromised, and cell phones can be purloined,” the judges wrote. But the court said in this case an email address and subscriber name used Tienda’s nickname, “Smiley,” his home zip code, tattoos, photos, even a link to a song played at Valadez’s funeral, to tie him to the MySpace pages.

“This is ample circumstantial evidence — taken as a whole with all of the individual, particular details considered in combination — to support a finding that the MySpace pages belonged to [Tienda] and that he created and maintained them,” the court said.

Tienda, 26, already had a conviction on three counts of robbery when he was arrested for Valadez’s murder. He doesn’t become eligible for parole until August 2026.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the latest appeal of a former UT student convicted of tampering with evidence in the 2005 murder and mutilation of Austin resident Jennifer Cave.

The Court refused to accept Laura Ashley Hall’s latest appeal to her 10-year sentence for the crime. The court issued the rejection of the appeal without comment on Jan. 11. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has the discretion to grant or refuse a review based on certain criteria laid out in the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure, said deputy clerk Mark Adams.

“Hall has 15 days [until Jan. 26] to file a motion for rehearing,” Adams said.

As of Tuesday, Hall’s attorney, Tim Copeland, had not filed such a motion Adams said. Copeland was not available to comment on Hall’s future plans.

Copeland filed Hall’s first appeal to her conviction and punishment in the Third Court of Appeals in Texas on Nov. 1, 2007. Hall was originally convicted in 2007 of the misdemeanor offense of hindering apprehension of a suspect by helping Colton Pitonyak flee to Mexico. Pitonyak was later convicted of murder and sentenced to a 55-year prison term. Hall was also convicted at the time of the felony offense of tampering with physical evidence, by dismembering Cave’s body, and was sentenced a five-year prison term.

In 2009, at the second trial for Hall’s punishment, the jury raised Hall’s sentence from a five-year term to a 10-year term, Justice Bob Pemberton said in an Aug. 24, 2011 court opinion. Pemberton issued an opinion on May 1, 2009, which stated that the Third Court of Appeals had overruled Hall’s challenge to her conviction. However, Pemberton also wrote that Hall’s points were sustained “to the extent they challenge[d] her punishment.”

“During the punishment trial on remand, the jury considered voluminous testimony and numerous exhibits from 26 witnesses for the state and four witnesses for Hall,” Pemberton wrote. “Following its deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 for the tampering offense.”

In August of 2011, the Third Court of Appeal overruled Hall’s motion for a new trial. Pemberton said Hall’s motion was based on an allegation that the Austin Police Department Forensics lab had done substandard or shoddy work while analyzing evidence. She based this claim off of a complaint by Cecily Hamilton, a former APD employee, that the forensics lab had done incomplete DNA analysis in numerous cases since 2005, Pemberton said.

Bill Gibbins, spokesman for APD and the forensics lab said Hamilton’s claims have since been overturned.

“The chief of police requested that the Texas Rangers look into Ms. Hamilton’s allegations,” said Gibbins, “An investigation was conducted by the Texas Rangers that resulted in the lab being cleared of the allegations.”