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Angel v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 29, 2015


Assigned on Briefs November 12, 2014.

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Giles County No. 15702 Robert L. Jones, Judge.

Hershell D. Koger, Pulaski, Tennessee, for the Petitioner, William Charles Angel, Jr.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Sophia S. Lee, Senior Counsel; Michael Bottoms, District Attorney General; and Lawrence R. Nickell, Jr., Assistant District Attorney General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

Camille R. McMullen, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Norma McGee Ogle and Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., JJ., joined.



On January 15, 2010, the Petitioner was indicted for three counts of first degree premeditated murder, three counts of first degree felony murder, one count of aggravated arson, one count of setting fire to personal property, one count of aggravated burglary, one count of misdemeanor theft, and one count of aggravated cruelty to an animal. At the plea submission hearing on January 31, 2011, the Petitioner acknowledged that the following synopsis of facts relating to his charges was mostly true:

On the night of October 22, 2009, Matthew Wood asked to borrow a gun with which to kill Jarrod Thornton, and indeed had previously stated his intent to kill him to friends. Matthew Wood thought Jarrod Thornton was seeing his girlfriend. Jarrod Thornton was not [seeing Wood's girlfriend]; someone else was.
Matthew Wood told [the Petitioner] that they ([the Petitioner] and Wood) were going to burn the Thornton home and together left [the Petitioner's] home taking a gas container with them to do so. When told by Wood that they were going to do this [the Petitioner] replied that he did not care. They stopped on the way and filled the container. At the Thornton home they parked [the Petitioner's] mother's vehicle in a field off the roadway out of sight and two hundred and sixty yards from the house. They then walked to the house carrying the gas. Both walked around the house looking in the windows and observed Desere Thornton to be awake. Wood announced to [the Petitioner, ] "[W]e're going to kill them all."
They entered the residence by going through a window. Wood was armed with a folding knife that had been taken from Richland School. He, with this knife, attacked and mortally wounded Jarrod Thornton (age 16).
He first stabbed the mother (Desere) who managed to run from the home with the younger brother Anthony (age 9) through the yard to their vehicle but they were unable to get away before Wood pulled Desere from the vehicle stabbing her again, also cutting her throat. [The Petitioner] then caught Anthony who had run from the vehicle while his mother was being attacked in the yard. [The Petitioner] held Anthony while Wood stabbed and cut his throat–all the while Anthony was crying "STOP"– "IT HURTS!"–"PLEASE STOP!"–"DON'T KILL ME, I'M JUST A LITTLE BOY!"
Wood carried Anthony from the yard into the house. Wood and [the Petitioner] both carried Desere into the house. As she was being carried she was gasping and trying to breathe. Wood poured gasoline over Jarrod, Desere and Anthony, and then decided that they did not have enough gasoline. After [the Petitioner] loaded an X-Box and DVD's into their vehicle from the house, they went to Richland Market and bought more gasoline using Wood's debit card. Upon returning, they poured gasoline for the second time. They then went into the yard and doused the Thornton['s] vehicle interior with gasoline, along with the family dog who had r[un] to and jumped inside with Desere and Anthony and had been shut up there. The house was then set ablaze by Wood who when doing so was blown off the porch and burned by the exploding gasoline. [The Petitioner] and Wood then set the Thornton's vehicle on fire. The dog managed to get out but died later as a result of burns sustained in the fire.
At autopsy the three victims were determined to have been stabbed. Anthony and Desere's throats were determined to have been cut. This was still discernable even after they had been subjected to the fire. The autopsy established, by Carbon Monoxide levels (29% for Jarrod, 34% for Desere, and 37% for Anthony), that all three victims were burned alive.
During the investigation eleven blood samples were obtained from [the Petitioner's] mother's vehicle. These samples revealed Wood's blood to be co-mingled with victims Jarrod and Desere Thornton's blood (by DNA testing).
Wood, while stabbing or cutting the victims, had cut himself on the inside right wrist and wrapped this cut with one of Jarrod Thornton's soccer socks which was found later at [the Petitioner's] house with Desere and Wood's blood on it (by DNA testing).
Wood's only real statement is in the form of his allocution to the court upon his guilty plea.
In [the Petitioner's] statement he says that he threw his clothes into the fire (house) after they became blood soaked, because he didn't want to get caught. Also in his statement he relates how he held Anthony while Wood killed him and what Anthony said while being killed but then he states that he "didn't do anything, " "Matthew did it all." [The Petitioner] also stated that his answer was "okay" when Wood said "we're going to kill them all" before going in the window. Thus he establishes a degree of culpability approaching that of Wood.

The Petitioner entered a guilty plea to the charged offenses. The plea agreement, which was accepted by the court, merged the three convictions for first degree premeditated murder with the three convictions for first degree felony murder and required the Petitioner to serve an effective sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

On January 30, 2012, the Petitioner filed a pro se post-conviction petition, alleging that his convictions were based on the use of a coerced confession, his guilty plea was involuntary, he was denied effective assistance of counsel, and his convictions violated the protections against double jeopardy. On December 18, 2012, appointed counsel filed an amended petition, alleging that the Petitioner was denied effective assistance of counsel and that the Petitioner was denied his right to counsel and his right against self-incrimination because he was not properly advised of his Miranda rights, because he did not understand his Miranda rights, and because he failed to waive his Miranda rights.

Post-Conviction Hearing.

At the October 14, 2013 post-conviction hearing, the following exhibits were entered into evidence: the transcripts of the Petitioner's interviews with law enforcement, the audio recordings of these interviews, the copy of the Petitioner's handwritten statement, the transcript from the plea submission hearing, the synopsis of the facts underlying the offenses, the three letters from the district attorney to the public defender regarding the State's offer of life without parole, and the video recording of the Petitioner's interview while at the crime scene.

Jennifer Noller, the Petitioner's mother, testified that she and the Petitioner, who was a high school student at the time, first encountered Investigator Michael Chapman at the hospital when the Petitioner was receiving treatment for his burns in the early morning hours of October 23, 2009. At Investigator Chapman's request, Noller and the Petitioner drove to the Giles County Sheriff's Office to talk about whether the Petitioner was involved in the crimes in this case. Upon arriving there, Noller and the Petitioner were interviewed together, and Noller was interviewed separately several times. Noller said Investigator Chapman talked to her about persuading the Petitioner to tell the truth about what happened regarding the offenses, which she agreed to do. The audio recording of Investigator Chapman's interview with Noller and his subsequent interview with Noller and the Petitioner, which began at 8:20 a.m. on October 23, 2009, was played during the hearing.

Prior to the 8:20 a.m. interview, the Petitioner denied being involved in the fire at the victims' property and claimed that he and Matthew Wood had been burned from a bonfire at a different location. At some time before this interview, Noller, the Petitioner, and Investigator Chapman went to the location where the Petitioner claimed the bonfire had been, but there was no evidence of a bonfire. Noller, believing that the Petitioner was merely present when Wood committed the crimes, later tried to convince the Petitioner to tell the truth because she was afraid he would be punished as severely as Wood for Wood's crimes. Noller urged the Petitioner to tell the truth because she "didn't want to lose him to jail or to whatever was happening or whatever could have happened at that time . . . if he was put in for murder."

Noller was allowed to be alone with the Petitioner when she handwrote his statement. She asked the Petitioner what happened the night of the offenses, and she wrote down exactly what he told her. She acknowledged that the Petitioner initially told the story about being burned in a bonfire to deceive law enforcement. At first, Noller believed that Investigator Chapman was going to ask them some questions and then allow the Petitioner to return home. She admitted that Investigator Chapman never told her the Petitioner would not be prosecuted for the offenses in this case.

The Petitioner testified that he was receiving treatment for his second degree burns at the hospital when he first encountered Investigator Chapman. He later went with his mother to the sheriff's office to talk to Investigator Chapman. During the ensuing interviews, the Petitioner initially denied being involved in the crimes in this case. However, he later told Investigator Chapman the truth about what happened after Investigator Chapman informed him that he would be "[a] witness to the case" instead of going to jail for the rest of his life and being convicted of murder. The Petitioner said that his mother, who was crying and telling him that he would have to live in prison for the rest of his life or die if he did not tell the truth, impacted his decision to talk to Investigator Chapman. When he began telling Investigator Chapman what happened, he did not believe he was going to jail and thought he would be able to go home because he was going to be a witness.

The Petitioner said he might have taken a Lortab for the pain from his burns prior to his interviews with Investigator Chapman. He also said he had been awake for approximately twenty-four hours by the time Investigator Chapman interviewed him. The Petitioner stated that although Investigator Chapman read him his Miranda rights, they did not talk about what these rights meant. He did not recall actually agreeing to waive his Miranda rights before talking with Investigator Chapman.

The Petitioner stated that he should have been informed of the possibility of suppressing his statements and that if he had known of this possibility, it would have affected his decision to plead guilty. The Petitioner claimed that appointed counsel, the public defender, never talked to him about suppressing his statements to law enforcement. He said he now understood that his statements potentially could have been suppressed, even though there was no guarantee they would have been suppressed. The Petitioner stated that there were never any discussions with his attorneys about possible appeal issues in the event that he was convicted at trial. Instead, he said it was counsel's position that he could either take the plea and receive a sentence of life without parole or "go to trial and get the death penalty[.]"

The Petitioner acknowledged that counsel, the public defender, met with him "a lot of times" but could not confirm that she met with him forty-six times. He also acknowledged that he met with co-counsel "a couple few times" and met with another attorney in the public defender's office as well. He said counsel told him that she had listened to the statements he made to law enforcement. Although he acknowledged that counsel told him his statements could hurt his case, he claimed she never talked to him about attempting to suppress these statements so they could not be used against him at trial.

The Petitioner did not recall talking to counsel about the video recording of his interview with Investigator Chapman at the crime scene. However, he did remember seeing a copy of his statement that was written down by his mother. He said counsel never discussed with him the circumstances under which he gave those statements. The Petitioner said counsel told him that the State's offer had a deadline, which meant he had a small amount of time to decide whether he wanted to file motions regarding his case. He said he had one month from the date the prosecutor made the offer to decide whether he would proceed to trial or accept the offer of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The Petitioner admitted that he knew enough about what was happening during his interviews to lie and claim that he had received his burns from a bonfire at the creek in an attempt to throw Investigator Chapman off of his trail. He knew he was in serious trouble because of what he had done at the crime scene. Although the Petitioner claimed he thought he would simply be a witness for the State, he admitted that he was a perfect witness because he had seen everything Matthew Wood had done at the crime scene. The Petitioner acknowledged that Investigator Chapman never told him that the State was not going to prosecute him. He further acknowledged that he had said he was satisfied with counsel's assistance at his plea submission hearing. The Petitioner admitted that the State had sought the death penalty in his case and that he had chosen to accept the State's offer of life without parole. He recalled telling the trial court at the plea submission hearing that he understood the rights he was waiving and that he was entering his guilty plea because it was in his best interest. He also recalled signing a synopsis regarding his actions on the night of the offenses and admitting to the trial court that most of the synopsis was true prior to entering his guilty plea. The Petitioner admitted that he never told Investigator Chapman that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of his interviews.

Counsel testified that she was the elected public defender for the district and that her office had been appointed by the general sessions judge to represent the Petitioner. She first met and interviewed the Petitioner at the Giles County Jail on October 26, 2009, just a few days after the crimes occurred. Her notes showed that she had met with the Petitioner a total of forty-six times during the representation. Counsel said that she and two assistant public defenders were specifically assigned to represent the Petitioner. One of these attorneys was co-counsel, who had been an attorney in the public defender's office since approximately 2000. The other attorney, who had since retired from the public defender's office, was the most experienced attorney in the office because he had handled twenty-five death penalty cases and had previously been the public defender in Dickson County. She said that this assistant public defender was first chair and she and co-counsel acted as second chair on this case and that all three of them were qualified to handle death penalty cases under the Supreme Court Rules.

When counsel first met with the Petitioner, she learned that Investigator Chapman had interviewed the Petitioner and that the Petitioner had initially claimed he had received his burns from a bonfire. The Petitioner said he later told the truth about what happened so that he would not be blamed for something he did not do. She said the Petitioner believed he had not done anything wrong because he had not stabbed the victims. Counsel said she remembered telling the Petitioner that his confession to law enforcement would be used against him. They reviewed his statements together. The Petitioner explained that his mother was present during his interviews because he had wanted her there. He said he asked his mother to write his statement because he thought it would be clearer than if he wrote it. Counsel said that she later saw samples of the Petitioner's writing and that "he could write well" and was able to express himself fully whenever she talked to him. She stated that she received transcripts and copies of all the videotaped interviews and that she "read and listened to every word."

Counsel said that the State had filed a notice of its intent to seek the death penalty in the Petitioner's case. However, the State later informed her that it was considering making an offer of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if the Petitioner testified truthfully against Matthew Wood. She personally believed, after knowing the Petitioner for more than a year, that the defense would have been able to avoid the death penalty at trial. However, she said, "[T]he consequences of going to trial are so serious, and you can never take anything for granted." On October 6, 2010, the State gave them a final offer and informed them that the offer would be withdrawn on October 15, 2010. When that date arrived, counsel asked for additional time, and the deadline was extended to October 26, 2010.

Around the time that counsel received this offer, she talked to the medical examiner who performed the victims' autopsies. The medical examiner told her, as was reflected in his report, that the victims could have recovered from their stab wounds if they had received timely medical attention and that the victims' causes of death were smoke inhalation following the stabbings. Counsel said that if the Petitioner and Wood had not ...

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