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State v. Burnett

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

September 3, 2014


Session Date June 24, 2014

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Knox County No. 95309 Steven Sword, Judge

Mark E. Stephens, District Public Defender, and Robert C. Edwards, Assistant Public Defender, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Appellant, James Cody Burnett.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Deshea Dulany Faughn, Assistant Attorney General; Randall E. Nichols, District Attorney General; and Kenneth F. Irvine, Jr., and Leland L. Price, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Joseph M. Tipton, P.J., and D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., J., joined.



I. Facts

This case arises from a vehicular collision that occurred on December 8, 2009. A Knox County grand jury indicted the Defendant for one count of vehicular homicide by intoxication, one count of vehicular homicide by reckless driving, two counts of driving under the influence ("DUI"), one count of failure to maintain a lane of traffic, one count of failure to provide proper evidence of financial responsibility, one count of violation of the safety belt law, one count of violation of the state registration law, and one count of failure to carry a vehicle certification of registration. Pursuant to a plea agreement, the Defendant entered a guilty plea to one count of vehicular homicide by intoxication, a Class B felony, in exchange for a sentence of eight years and for the other charges against him being dismissed.

A. Guilty Plea Submission Hearing

At the guilty plea submission hearing, the Defendant's counsel noted that, as a result of this accident, the Defendant had sustained serious injuries and was hospitalized for approximately sixty days. The Defendant's injuries included head trauma, which resulted in some short-term memory loss. Counsel stated that the Defendant was competent to enter the guilty plea.

The State informed the trial court that, had the case gone to trial, the evidence would have shown:

That on December 8th of 2009 at around 7:50 in the morning, actually, shortly before that, [the Defendant] was driving northbound on Maynardville Highway. Just before the highway narrows to two lanes, there's a stop light. He had stopped at that stop light. We do have a witness who saw him there. He had fallen asleep at the stop light to the point where the traffic that had backed up behind him began circling around him, [after] the third or fourth car that had circled around him, he woke up and continued to drive northbound on Maynardville Highway.
He proceeded for about half a mile down the road and then appeared to fall asleep again. His car began to drift within his lane and then went into – at this point there's two lanes – the oncoming southbound traffic. The first car was able to avoid him. The second car did not have enough time to get out of his way. That car's driver was named Dawn Reynolds.
Ms. Reynolds' car took the impact on her driver side door of the car driven by [the Defendant], and she died instantly as a result of that car hitting. She essentially took all that force of his car hitting her directly on her side of the car. She did die at the scene as a result of her injuries. They were not able to revive her at the scene.
[The Defendant] gave a blood sample. The results of that blood sample came back as containing methadone in the amount of .13 micrograms per milliliter. This is a drug that [the Defendant] – we were going to prove to you that he has been on for a number of years. He's aware of its side-effects. However, he is also aware or should have been aware that he shouldn't have mixed it with promethazine. There's [sic] a bottle of promethazine next to him in the car. It's actually prescribed to who we believe was his girlfriend. The amount of promethazine in his system was .14 micrograms per milliliter.
As a result of these two drugs mixing – and there are a couple of other drugs, but those were administered by the EMTs. As a result of these two drugs being in his system . . . it caused him to be so sleepy that he fell asleep behind the wheel of a car.

The Defendant testified that he had achieved a GED and that he was twenty-six years old. He had the ability to read and write. The trial court explained to the Defendant his rights and the potential sentences he faced. The trial court then accepted the Defendant's guilty plea.

B. Sentencing Hearing

The State offered the testimony of Maudie Ward, the victim's mother, who said that she was now raising the victim's children since the victim's death. The death of the victim, who was her oldest child, "has almost destroyed [her] life." Ms. Ward said that, additionally, the victim's death had been extremely hard on the victim's children. The victim's son told Ms. Ward that he could not sleep because he kept dreaming about his mother. He further said that he wanted to be with his mother. Ms. Ward said that the victim was the sole provider for her children and that she was on her way to work to provide for them when she was killed. In light of the fact that the Defendant was using controlled substances at the time of the accident, Ms. Ward asked the trial court to sentence the Defendant to the most severe punishment possible.

The victim's father, Sam Ward, testified that the victim's body was so mangled after the accident that the funeral home employees told the family not to touch the body. Mr. Ward said that the victim's hands had to be held together with special gloves. Mr. Ward also said that one of the victim's daughter's birthday was on the day of the accident, and he said that the victim's death had significantly impacted this daughter, hurting her "quite a bit." Mr. Ward said that the family was "making it" and asked that the "best be done."

April Baer, the victim's sister, testified and asked that the trial court give the Defendant the most severe possible punishment for killing her sister. Ms. Baer said that her sister's body was so traumatized, it could not be embalmed. The victim's body had bruising and there were lacerations covering her face. She said that the victim was the mother of three beautiful children. Ms. Baer said that the victim's death had devastated her family.

The State offered the presentence report and the TBI report analyzing the Defendant's blood sample, along with a treatise that helped explain the level of "promethazine" in the Defendant's system. The State also offered records from the methadone clinic where the Defendant was being treated for his addiction issues.

The State asked the trial court to order that the Defendant serve his sentence in confinement. The State noted that there were three substances in the Defendant's system at the time of the accident. The first substance was methadone, which he was using to treat a heroin addiction. The second substance was cough medicine. The third substance was promethazine, which was proscribed to his girlfriend to address her morning sickness. The State noted that the Defendant was aware that the methadone could cause drowsiness. Further, he was aware that the use of methadone in combination with other narcotics or other sedatives could cause undesirable side effects.

The State informed the trial court that one of the exhibits showed that the Defendant had a history of not complying with the methadone clinic. He tested positive for oxycodone in February 2008. He was placed on "relapse prevention, " but he tested positive for oxycodone again in June and August 2009. The Defendant had also failed to show up for his "medication count, " which is a requirement of the methadone program.

The State noted that the Defendant had a long history of drug abuse, dating back to his middle school years. He had used different types of drugs, getting progressively worse, and he had previously failed to comply with a sentence involving release into the community. The Defendant had not paid his fine and costs on a conviction for failing to show his driver's license. The State argued that the Defendant had no hesitation about committing a crime when the risk to ...

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