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State v. Steele

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 4, 2014


Assigned on Briefs November 18, 2014

Direct Appeal from the Criminal Court for Monroe County No. 12-137 Amy A. Reedy, Judge

Jeanne L. Wiggins, Madisonville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Joshua Lee Steele.

Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Senior Counsel; Steven Bebb, District Attorney General; and A. Wayne Carter, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.



I. Facts

This case arises from the Defendant and three co-defendants, Lorenz Freeman, Coty Smith, and Jessica Payne, robbing, binding, and beating the victim, Mr. Vineyard. The victim died from his injuries. For these offenses, a Monroe County grand jury indicted the Defendant for one count of aggravated robbery, one count of conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, and one count of first degree felony murder.

The Defendant pleaded guilty to second degree murder and agreed that the trial court would determine his sentence.[1] At the guilty plea submission hearing, the State offered the following recitation of the facts in support of the trial court's acceptance of the guilty plea:

[The State] would prove that on March the 4, 2012, that Mr. Freeman and Mr. Smith and Ms. Payne had an attempt to go and rob the victim in this case . . . . That they went to [the victim's] place of residence, that [] Ms. Payne stayed in the vehicle and [Mr. Freeman and Mr. Smith] get out. That they approached [the victim's] residence when another vehicle shows up and they get spooked and leave and so there's no event that happens at that point. They go to a residence where they get hold of [the Defendant]. At that point, sometime later on, and Ms. Payne does not return with them, but Mr. Freeman, Mr. Smith and [the Defendant] go back to [the victim's] residence, and at that point they go in and it is Mr. Freeman and [the Defendant] who are the ones that hold on to the victim [] and he's hit in the head with a piece of iron, a piece of wrought iron, and he eventually dies . . . .
. . . Mr. Smith was present, Mr. Smith was involved in the planning, Mr. Smith goes through the house, the house is ransacked looking for what we expect [was] cash, there were some rumors going around that the victim [] had large amount of cash that was there. After this happens, they leave, go back, and there's some other conversations that goes on. . . . . [T]he defendants that went into [the victim's] residence all put on masks . . . . [T]he detectives and the agents advised me that at least, [the Defendant] and Mr. Freeman were very cooperative in their statements and forthcoming . . . .

At the sentencing hearing, the parties presented the following evidence: The State offered the presentence report, which the trial court admitted into evidence. Doug Brannon, chief detective for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, testified that he was the lead investigator for this homicide case. He stated that in March of 2012, law enforcement responded to a call from the victim's neighbor. The neighbor reported that he had found the victim dead in the victim's home. Detective Brannon stated that law enforcement investigated the crime scene, a "log cabin type home[.]" He stated that the victim's home had been "ransacked" and that the interior walls were "ripped apart, furniture overturned, mattresses shredded, sheetrock busted through." Detective Brannon testified that it was clear "someone had been searching for something."

Detective Brannon testified that investigators found the victim on the floor with his wrists bound by "flexible handcuffs." The victim had a visible injury to his head. Detective Brannon stated that he later learned the victim had died from a head wound and that the victim had been struck on the head and body with a hard object. Detective Brannon stated that investigators interviewed neighbors and witnesses who provided "direct information" that led to the Defendant and the co-defendants.

Detective Brannon stated that he located the Defendant first and that, initially, the Defendant denied any role in the crime. The Defendant later acknowledged his involvement. The Defendant "expressed remorse" about the victim's death. The Defendant explained to the investigators that he was not part of the original plan devised by Mr. Freeman, Mr. Smith, and Ms. Payne but that he "agreed to participate" in their plan. The Defendant stated that he, Mr. Freeman, and Mr. Smith went to the victim's residence and gained entry by kicking open the door. The Defendant stated that the three men held down the victim and assaulted him with a piece of "rebar" about two feet long. Detective Brannon explained that "rebar" is a piece of steel "normally used to reinforce concrete" and is very sturdy. The Defendant described the events "step by step, " including the assault, tearing apart the walls, and stated that the three men ...

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