Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / COMMONWEALTH OF VA v. PRESLEY (59789)





November 6, 1998
Record No. 980325




Present: All the Justices


In this appeal, we consider whether the
evidence was sufficient to support the defendant’s conviction for
voluntary manslaughter.

Tried in Loudoun County by a jury and convicted
of voluntary manslaughter, William Alan Presley was sentenced to
one year and six months imprisonment. Presley appealed his
conviction to the Court of Appeals. He asserted that the evidence
was insufficient to support his conviction because the
Commonwealth purportedly failed to prove that he killed the
victim, Sandra D. Laing. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished
opinion, agreed with the defendant, reversed the judgment of the
trial court, and set aside the conviction. Presley v. Commonwealth,
Record No. 2265-96-4 (January 20, 1998). We awarded the
Commonwealth an appeal.

We have enunciated the following principles of
appellate review which are pertinent here. When a defendant
challenges on appeal the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain
his conviction, it is the duty of an appellate court to examine
the evidence that tends to support the conviction and to permit
the conviction to stand unless the conviction is plainly wrong or
without evidentiary support. Commonwealth v. Jenkins,
255 Va. 516, 520, 499 S.E.2d 263, 265 (1998); Tyler v. Commonwealth,
254 Va. 162, 165-66, 487 S.E.2d 221, 223 (1997). If there is
evidence to support the conviction, an appellate court is not
permitted to substitute its own judgment for that of the finder
of fact, even if the appellate court might have reached a
different conclusion. Jenkins, 255 Va. at 520, 499 S.E.2d
at 265; Tyler, 254 Va. at 165-66, 487 S.E.2d at 223; Cable
v. Commonwealth, 243 Va. 236, 239, 415 S.E.2d 218, 220

Additionally, upon appellate review, the
evidence and all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom must
be examined in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the
prevailing party in the trial court. Any evidence properly
admitted at trial is subject to this review. Jenkins, 255
Va. at 521, 499 S.E.2d at 265.

The following facts are relevant to our
disposition of this appeal. Presley, Laing, and William P.
Rossbach resided together in a house in Loudoun County. Each of
the occupants used a separate bedroom. Presley and Laing were
described as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend,"
and they had a sexual relationship.

On July 31, 1995, about 4:30 p.m., Rossbach
drove Laing in his car to visit a physician. Laing had complained
of having "the flu or something" and feeling
"really sick." Laing and Rossbach returned from the
doctor’s office between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.

Earlier that day, before Rossbach took Laing to
the doctor’s office, she stumbled and hit her head on a doorknob.
In response to Rossbach’s question "[a]re you all right up
there?", Laing said, "Yeah. I just kind of

About midnight on July 31, 1995, Sandra
Everhart arrived at the house. She went to Rossbach’s bedroom,
removed her clothing, and attempted to have sexual intercourse
with him. Rossbach, who had "too much to drink," was
unable to have sexual relations with Everhart. Presley entered
Rossbach’s room and told Everhart, in Rossbach’s presence, that
Presley wanted to have sexual intercourse with her. Presley and
Rossbach began to argue, and Laing, who had heard the
conversation, appeared at the door to the room.

Laing was upset, and she told Presley to leave
the room. She also directed Everhart to leave. Rossbach, in an
effort to humiliate Presley, told Laing that he had not forgotten
about a sexual affair that Laing had with a man named Tom.
Presley had not known about this relationship. Laing denied the
relationship, but Presley became enraged.

Sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m., after
Everhart left the house, Rossbach heard "banging and stuff
going on." Presley and Laing were in her bedroom arguing
about the affair she purportedly had with Tom. Rossbach entered
the bedroom, told Presley and Laing to "[c]ut it out,"
and went downstairs to the kitchen. While he was in the kitchen,
Rossbach heard "a bunch of yelling," and he heard Laing
say, "[p]lease don’t hit me."

While Rossbach was walking up the stairs to
return to his room, he heard Presley call Laing a "fucking
bitch." Rossbach went to Laing’s bedroom. She was on the
floor naked, and Presley had "his hand around her
throat." Rossbach said, "[w]hat the hell?"
Presley, who was choking her, stopped. Presley "was pretty
much just kind of yelling in grief, and [he] let [Laing] go as
soon as [Rossbach] said ‘what the hell is going on?’"
Presley stated, "[s]orry, God. I really messed up."
After Rossbach saw Presley with his hand around Laing’s neck, she
did not move. Later, when Rossbach entered Laing’s room, he
observed that she was clothed, lying on her bed, snoring.

Alvin D. Blankenship, a Virginia State Trooper,
spoke with Presley by telephone sometime between midnight and
2:00 a.m. on August 1, 1995. Presley told Blankenship that
Presley wanted the State Police to remove Laing from his house
because she "was a whore" and was "using
drugs." Presley also stated that "sometimes he [got] so
mad that he just [felt] like knocking [Laing] in the head."
Blankenship warned Presley that if he committed any acts of
violence, he would be arrested. Presley responded that the
Loudoun County Police always arrested him when the police
officers went to his home.

About 1:46 a.m. on August 1, 1995, Sergeant
Eric Noble, a deputy sheriff with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s
Department, responded to a call from the defendant’s home
regarding an unconscious female. Sergeant Noble arrived at the
house, Presley met him at the front door, and permitted him to
enter. When Sergeant Noble entered Laing’s bedroom, she was lying
on the floor, her breathing was extremely "ragged and
labored, and [she] appeared to be in [a] very serious

After Sergeant Noble used his radio to request
medical help, he asked Presley what had happened. Presley stated
that "he beat the hell out of her on the floor, that he had
hit her with the chair." Sergeant Noble saw pieces of a
broken chair above the victim’s head. He also observed a large
tear on the right side of her shorts, a small amount of blood on
the victim’s left thigh, and small spots of blood on the carpet
adjacent to her body.

Another deputy sheriff, Clete Kresge, arrived
at Presley’s residence. Presley stated to Deputy Kresge twice,
"I’ll admit I did hit her tonight." Presley also told
Deputy Kresge later that morning, "[s]he had pissed me off
tonight . . . I tore her to shreds." Kresge
observed that the victim’s blouse was torn, and her eye was

Everhart testified at trial that she did not
notice any bruises or physical marks on the victim’s face when
she had been at Presley’s house on July 31. Rossbach also
testified that Laing’s eye was not discolored, and she did not
have bruises on her body before her altercation with the

Laing was transported to the Loudoun Hospital
Center where she died at 4:14 a.m. Dr. Frances P. Field, an
assistant chief medical examiner for the Northern Virginia
District Medical Examiner’s Office, performed an autopsy on
Laing’s body. Field observed that Laing’s body had a bruise on
the right eye and a small reddish abrasion or scrape mark on the
left forehead. Her tongue was bruised, and numerous bruises were
found on Laing’s legs, back, arms, and elbow.

Dr. Field determined that Laing had a large
subdural hematoma on the left side and top of her head. A
subdural hematoma is an accumulation of blood between the
covering and surface of the brain. Dr. Field performed a
microscopic examination on blood taken from Laing’s subdural
hematoma. The absence of inflammatory cells on the dura indicated
to Dr. Field that the hemorrhage was the result of "very
recent bleeding in the head, within several hours of death, or
minutes . . . ." Dr. Field conducted a microscopic
examination of the tissue around the victim’s eye, and she
concluded that the presence of intact red cells and a small
infiltration of white blood cells or inflammatory cells indicated
that this injury occurred within four hours of death. Dr. Field
testified that the bruise on the back of the victim’s left thigh
and left elbow were received within several hours before death.

Dr. Field opined within a reasonable degree of
medical certainty that the victim’s subdural hematoma was caused
by blunt force trauma. Dr. Field stated that the victim’s history
of chronic alcohol abuse, her extensive use of prescription
drugs, the victim’s malformed brainstem, and the curvature of her
spine did not contribute to her death. Dr. Field testified that
the victim’s fall, which occurred before 4:30 p.m. on July 31,
1995, did not contribute to her death.

Presley adduced evidence at trial that the
victim’s death was attributable to causes other than his acts.
Several factual witnesses testified that the victim had poor
motor skills, that she fell frequently, and that she had bruises
on her legs. Nicholas T. Lappas, who qualified as an expert
witness on the subjects of toxicology and pharmacology, testified
that in his opinion, Laing’s death was consistent with a drug
overdose caused by the prescription medication that she had
ingested. Dr. John E. Adams, a forensic pathologist, testified
that Laing’s death was related to a congenital deformity of her
spine and skull combined with her chronic liver disease. Dr.
Adams also opined that the cause of Laing’s death was a
"head injury with subdural hematoma, combined with drugs and
alcohol." Dr. John H. Lossing, a neurologist, testified that
Laing died of suffocation because the "doctors in the
emergency room were unable to successfully intubate her."
Finally, during the defendant’s cross-examination of Dr. Field,
she testified that the subdural hematoma occurred within 24 hours
of the victim’s death.

The Commonwealth must prove, as an essential
element of its case, that the victim’s death resulted from the
criminal agency of the defendant. Opanowich v. Commonwealth,
196 Va. 342, 355, 83 S.E.2d 432, 439-40 (1954). We stated in Bowie
v. Commonwealth, 184 Va. 381, 390, 35 S.E.2d 345, 348
(1945), that "[d]eath must be proved either by direct
testimony or by presumptive evidence of the strongest kind; but
the existence of the criminal agency as the cause of the death
and the identity of the agency may be established by
circumstantial evidence."

We hold that there is sufficient evidence of
record which would have permitted the jury to find beyond a
reasonable doubt that Presley’s acts caused Laing’s death. The
jury, which considered all the evidence, was entitled to find
that Presley hit Laing with a blunt object and that the resulting
trauma produced the large subdural hematoma which caused her
death. Field’s medical testimony, the substantial physical
evidence, and Presley’s admissions that "he beat the hell
out of [Laing] on the floor" and that he had "tor[n] [Laing] to shreds" are facts which would support the jury’s
finding that Presley’s acts caused the victim’s death.
We do recognize that the defendant presented evidence that the
victim’s death may have been attributable to other causes.
However, it is the province of the jury, rather than an appellate
court, to weigh the facts and to judge the credibility of the
various lay and expert witnesses.

For these reasons, we will reverse the judgment
of the Court of Appeals, and we will reinstate Presley’s
conviction in accordance with the trial court’s judgment order.

Reversed and final judgment.