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State v. Hancock

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 12, 2014


Session Date September 9, 2014

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Putnam County No. 11-0125 David Patterson, Judge

Robert T. Marlow, Shelbyville, Tennessee (on appeal and at trial), and James A. Simmons, Henderson, Tennessee (on appeal), for the appellant, Billy Jason Hancock.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Andrew C. Coulam, Assistant Attorney General; Randall York, District Attorney General; and Mark Gore, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

James Curwood Witt, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.



A Putnam County Criminal Court jury convicted the defendant of one count of premeditated murder, one count of felony murder, one count of especially aggravated kidnapping, and one count of abuse of a corpse for his brutal attack on the victim, Jennifer Cornell. The trial court merged the jury verdicts of premeditated murder and felony murder into a single first degree murder conviction, and the jury imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The trial court imposed a sentence of 20 years' incarceration for the conviction of especially aggravated kidnapping and ordered that it be served consecutively to the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The court imposed a sentence of two years' incarceration for the conviction of abuse of a corpse, to be served consecutively to the sentence of life without the possibility of parole but concurrently with the 20-year kidnapping sentence.

The evidence adduced at trial established that in August 2008, the victim informed the defendant and his wife, Emily Hancock, that the defendant was the father of her 16-year-old daughter. After he initially expressed a desire to establish a relationship with the child, the defendant denied that he was the child's father. Shortly thereafter, the victim went to the district attorney's office seeking a child support order. Deoxyribonucleic acid ("DNA") testing performed in conjunction with that action established that the defendant was the child's father. The revelation about the child's parentage as well as the potential of a money judgment for child support prompted Ms. Hancock to file for divorce. Ms. Hancock testified that she and the defendant were experiencing financial difficulties at that time and that she did not want any part of the defendant's income to go toward the support of the daughter he shared with the victim. The defendant's pastor testified that the defendant and his wife had been experiencing marital difficulties for sometime and that the child support action added to that stress.

The victim went missing on the morning of October 30, 2008. After learning that the victim had failed to arrive at work as scheduled and after he was unable to contact the victim, the victim's husband asked her employer to go to their home and check on her because it was extremely out of character for her to be late for work or not answer her telephone. Her employer found the victim's car sitting near the stop sign at the end of Vaughn Lane, approximately 150 feet from her driveway. The car's engine was running, the driver's side door was open, and the victim's purse was in the passenger's seat.

The defendant's cousin, Wayne Hancock, testified that the defendant borrowed his 1990 Dodge pickup truck on the morning of October 30, 2008, and that the truck was outfitted at that time with wooden stock racks. Witnesses reported having seen a truck matching that description on Vaughn Lane near the time of the victim's disappearance. Another witness saw the same truck drive down Colson Lane toward the sinkhole where the victim's body was later discovered. A coworker of the defendant's testified that the defendant once said, "[W]ell if I was going to kill somebody, I know a place I'd put them and nobody would ever find them. I said that hole over there and he said yeah and just laughed it off, you know." That same coworker was among the search party that discovered the victim's body in the sinkhole, which was located approximately 1, 800 feet from the defendant's residence.

The defendant admitted to both his pastor and his wife that he had seen the victim on the morning she disappeared. He told his pastor that he had picked the victim up so that the two could discuss the child support action and that he had left her, alive, near the Standing Stone bridge.

The victim's body was discovered nude from the waist down with sticks protruding from her vagina and rectum. She had been brutally beaten with what appeared to be "a large wooden dowel rod or like a handle that you would use in a shovel." Splinters from the dowel rod were recovered from the scene and reconstructed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI"). Wayne Hancock testified that a dowel rod consistent in appearance to the one reconstructed by the TBI had been in the bed of the pickup truck he loaned to the defendant. He was unable to locate the rod after the defendant returned the truck. Forensic testing revealed the presence of the defendant's DNA on the dowel rod reconstructed by the TBI.

The medical examiner testified that the victim died from "blunt force injuries to the head." The victim suffered a number of significant blunt force injuries to her head, including some that were "consistent with" the victim's having been struck with a rod similar to that reconstructed by the TBI. One blow above the victim's eye was significant enough to break her skull, causing the "skull bone" to protrude "through the skin tear." An "[o]pen complex skull fracture" to the back of the victim's head penetrated "all the way through to the brain." In fact, her skull was fractured in "multiple places, both in the front and in the back, " significantly enough to make her brain visible. Due to the trauma of some of the blows, "a portion of the brain tore off and actually came out one of these open fractures and lacerations." Pieces of the victim's brain were recovered from the crime scene. The medical examiner noted that the victim's face had "the appearance of a deflated basketball. And the reason that's so is because the facial bones are fractured, her nose, the bone supporting her eyes, her forehead, the center of her lower jaw bone. . . . [H]er facial bones have been crushed." Several of her teeth had been knocked out, and she had bitten nearly all the way through her tongue. The medical examiner stated that, "to a reasonable degree of medical certainty . . . all these blows to the head [occurred] when she's living."

The medical examiner also noted a secondary diagnosis of "blunt trauma injuries to the torso" because the blows to the victim's anterior abdomen and the back were also lethal. He observed that the parallel-line pattern of the bruises on the victim's back and abdomen indicated that they were caused by blows from "a long hard object, a baseball bat, a table leg, a branch of a tree, you know, a stick, a pole." He opined that the blows were consistent with having been caused by the wooden rod reconstructed by the TBI. The victim suffered multiple rib fractures, multiple vertebral fractures, and "[m]ultiple small lacerations of the lower lobe of the right lung." One vertebra "fractured so significantly" that "it actually tore into the space next to it and several of the ribs in that area that attach that area were also broken. And when the ribs broke, the pieces went forward and they punctured the bottom of the right lung." That single blow was so significant, in fact, that it "stretched the adjacent aorta and there are little lacerations, there were tears that you can see on the inside of the aorta. We typically see those in car crashes where there's rapid decelerations." He indicated that the most significant fracture "occurred after death, " as indicated by the fact that the wound produced very little bleeding.

The victim also suffered "[s]mall abrasions in the vaginal mucosa" that were "related to" the "foreign bodies protruding, there were dried vine branches that were in the rectum and that were in the vagina." The medical examiner retrieved two sticks from the victim's vagina and one from her rectum, which stick was placed in her rectum with such force that it "went through the rectal mucosa" into the victim's abdomen. He testified that the insertion of the sticks occurred "peri-mortem or possibly even post-mortem."

The medical examiner opined that all of the blows to the victim's body could have been administered ...

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