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State v. Stratton

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

April 17, 2015

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
JUSTIN ALLEN STRATTON

Assigned on Briefs January 22, 2015

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Washington County No. 37485 Robert E. Cupp, Judge.

Larry R. Dillow, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellant, Justin Allen Stratton.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Senior Counsel; Anthony W. Clark, District Attorney General; and Dennis Brooks and Erin McArdle, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr., J., joined.

OPINION

ROBERT H. MONTGOMERY, JR., JUDGE.

This case relates to the July 30, 2011 homicide of Gary A. Couch, Jr., who was found dead in a public road. He had multiple gunshot wounds, as well as injuries to his face and head. Along with the Defendant, Ashley Harold, Ginger Holtsclaw, and Anthony Phillips were charged with the victim's homicide, and the codefendants testified for the State at the Defendant's trial. At the time of their testimony, Ms. Holtsclaw and Mr. Phillips had received plea offers that included dismissal of the murder charges in exchange for their guilty pleas to robbery-related offenses and their truthful testimony at the Defendant's trial, but Ms. Harold had not.

Johnson City Police Officer Robert McCurry testified that as a result of a 9-1-1 call, he responded to Quarry Road around 4:00 a.m. on July 30, 2011. He described Quarry Road as being short, infrequently traveled, and with foliage on the sides. As he came onto Quarry Road, he saw a body in the road. Officer McCurry said that although the person was deceased, it was obvious the body had not been there long because it had not turned cold. Spots of blood were still wet. The chest and abdomen had what appeared to be bullet holes. The face was distorted, the jaw appeared to have been run over by a vehicle, tire tracks were on the body, and teeth were strewn around the body.

Johnson City Police Investigator Bobby Odom described the scene using photographs he took on the morning of July 30. He said that a pistol's rear sight was found near the victim's head and that it was not rusted, which indicated it had not been there long. He said the victim wore a white tank top, jeans, and one shoe. Another shoe was off the body, and a cap was off the body near the back of the head. He said bullet holes in the victim's tank top were encircled by a black burn, which indicated a gun had been fired while in contact with the shirt. He said the victim had a black smudge or grease mark on the right side of his face that extended to his chin. The victim's upper lip was torn, his right eyelid was cut, and some of the teeth were missing or broken.

Dr. Dawn Lajoie, an expert in forensic pathology, performed the autopsy of the victim. She said the victim suffered eight gunshot wounds and blunt force injuries that included deep and superficial lacerations, abrasions, jaw fractures, and jaw dislocation. Based upon the color of the victim's injuries, she said evidence existed that the victim's heart was still beating when the blunt force injuries were sustained. She said the injuries to the victim's face and jaw were consistent with his having been run over or struck by a vehicle tire. Although she said the injuries could have been from a different source, she said an alternative source was unlikely. When asked about "pistol whipping, " she did not think a person could produce enough force to inflict injuries as severe as those the victim sustained. In addition to the severity of the injuries, she noted the presence of black and gray foreign material supported her opinion the victim had been run over by a vehicle. She stated that the victim's cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the aorta, and that the manner of death was homicide.

Regarding the hours before the victim's body was discovered in Quarry Road, the evidence showed that Ms. Harold, Ms. Holtsclaw, and Mr. Phillips drank liquor with the Defendant in the afternoon or evening of July 29, 2011, at the Defendant's mother's house. They rode around in Ms. Harold's white Chevrolet Impala and ended up at Numan's Bar. When they arrived, Mr. Phillips and the Defendant went to the bar, and Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw stayed in the car for ten to fifteen minutes.

Ashley Harold testified that she changed clothes in the car before going inside Numan's with Ms. Holtsclaw. She said she did not see the Defendant or Mr. Phillips inside the bar. She said she and Ms. Holtsclaw met the victim, whose nickname was "Goob" and whom she had not known previously, inside Numan's. She thought the victim was interested in her. She said that the victim was looking for money, that he had lost money playing pool, and that she did not remember if she saw him with money. She said that the victim asked her for a ride. She did not recall when they left but said it was late and thought it was after "last call." She said she was intoxicated and let Ms. Holtsclaw drive her car. She said the victim offered to buy gas, and they went to Sunoco.

Ms. Harold testified that she and the victim went inside Sunoco. The victim went in the bathroom, and at some point, she asked through the bathroom door if he wanted to share a pack of cigarettes. She said he was on the phone and rudely told her, "Shut up." She said that she went to the car and that she saw Mr. Phillips outside talking to his sister by the sister's car. She said she did not talk to Mr. Phillips. She did not know if Ms. Holtsclaw contacted Motel 6 before they left Sunoco.

Ms. Harold testified that when they left Sunoco, Ms. Holtsclaw drove, she was in the passenger seat, and the victim was in the back seat. She said they were nervous about going to the victim's house because of the distance, and Ms. Holtsclaw said they could go to Ms. Holtsclaw's house to get clothes and "sober up." Ms. Harold said Ms. Holtsclaw talked on a cell phone, but Ms. Harold did not remember to whom or the content of the conversation. She said they turned onto Quarry Road, and a large, white vehicle came upon them quickly. She said the vehicle had bright, blinking lights. She said Ms. Holtsclaw stopped the car. Ms. Harold said she and the victim were in shock. She saw the Defendant come from the other vehicle and approach the driver's side of her car. She said that the Defendant told the victim to get out of the car and that as soon as the victim did, she saw gunfire. She identified the Defendant as the person holding the gun. She said she closed her eyes, panicked, and screamed for Ms. Holtsclaw to drive away. She did not think she saw anyone else in the other vehicle.

Ms. Harold testified that Ms. Holtsclaw pulled away quickly and that they went to the Defendant's mother's house. She said that the Defendant and Mr. Phillips pulled in behind them and that she had not seen Mr. Phillips previously. She said that the Defendant said something to his mother, which she thought pertained to what he had done, and that the Defendant told Ms. Harold to "chill out, " "straighten up, " and stop crying. She said the Defendant stated, "This wasn't my first, this wasn't my first or second, don't be my third, fourth or fifth." She said the Defendant told them they needed to keep their mouths shut because he knew where they lived and where their children attended school. She said she was scared and did not want to go home and lead someone to her house and children. She said she took the threat seriously and did not notify the authorities.

Ms. Harold testified that the Defendant wanted Ms. Holtsclaw and her to follow him in her car to a motel. She said they went to the motel and stayed a couple of nights. She acknowledged that she used her cell phone to check on her family and to keep them from wondering where she was but that she did not call the police. She said she, Ms. Holtsclaw, Mr. Phillips, and the Defendant had gone to Perkins Restaurant after arriving at the motel but said she was unable to eat or sleep while they were at the motel.

Ms. Harold testified that she, Ms. Holtsclaw, and the Defendant were in her car and were stopped by the police a couple of days after the shooting. She said the Defendant cautioned Ms. Holtsclaw and her to remember what he had said. She said she told the police when questioned that they stopped at a park to smoke marijuana, that they dropped off the victim at the park near Sunoco, and that she did not know anything else. She said that the false statement was in accord with the Defendant's instructions and that she did not tell the truth because she did not know if the Defendant would be allowed to leave the police station. She said that the police contacted her a few days later, that she told the truth, and that telling the truth was easy because the Defendant had been arrested by this time.

Ms. Harold testified that at the time of the crime, she had been associating with the Defendant for about two months, although she had known him when they were younger. She agreed she had known Ms. Holtsclaw and Mr. Phillips since high school and said she was thirty-one years old. She said that at one time, she and Mr. Phillips had an intimate relationship. She said she had been with him earlier in the day before they went to Numan's with Ms. Holtsclaw and the Defendant. She said she and Mr. Phillips had a disagreement before they went to Numan's but denied the reason she did not talk to Mr. Phillips's sister at Sunoco was related to her being with the victim that night. She denied having an intimate relationship with the Defendant.

Ms. Harold testified that she did not have a plea agreement with the State. She thought her case would go to trial and said she was not guilty of anything. She said she did not know what was going to happen to the victim. She said she had no criminal record and had a juvenile adjudication for theft.

Anthony Phillips testified that he and the Defendant had been acquaintances for about fifteen years and that he thought they were friends on July 30, 2011. He had been a childhood friend of the Defendant's brother. He said he had known Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw since they had attended high school together over ten years earlier, but he had not been friends with them until later. He said he had an "on and off" boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Ms. Harold. He thought he had been spending time with Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw before he met the Defendant about four to five weeks before the shooting.

Mr. Phillips testified that on July 29, 2011, he, Ms. Harold, Ms. Holtsclaw, and the Defendant were riding around in Ms. Harold's car and drinking Wild Turkey. He said they stopped at Numan's. He said that he and the Defendant went into Numan's, that he entered through the front door, and that the Defendant entered through the back door. He said that sometime later, he saw the Defendant outside and that the Defendant told him about an altercation between the Defendant and Robert "Mookie" Racanelli regarding a stolen PlayStation game console. The Defendant told Mr. Phillips to leave him alone for a while, and the Defendant walked toward Main Street. Mr. Phillips said he stayed at some tables outside Numan's after the Defendant left. He said he had "a good buzz" when the Defendant pulled up in a white sport utility vehicle (SUV) about one to one and one-half hours later. Mr. Phillips had seen the car previously at a car lot and had noticed it because of its wheels. He said that the Defendant sometimes drove cars from the car lot in exchange for crack cocaine the Defendant gave to the lot's owner. Regarding a black Mercedes-Benz sedan, he said that he had seen the car previously and that he understood the Defendant was its former owner. He said he had not known that night that the SUV and the Mercedes were stolen.

Mr. Phillips testified that he got in the SUV when the Defendant returned to Numan's. He said he and the Defendant rode around drinking one of the two bottles of Maker's Mark the Defendant had. He said that his fingerprints might be on the SUV's license plate because it had fallen off when they rode around and that he had replaced it. He said they were supposed to get pain pills from Goob, although Mr. Phillips did not know whom the Defendant meant by Goob. He said that the Defendant did not tell him anything the Defendant had done and that they did not discuss anything else they would do. He said, "We rode around until up in the middle of the night until Ms. Holtsclaw called us and until we met them." He later said, "We [were] called to meet them [at Sunoco], " and "We ended up there when he got a phone call, that's where we went." He said Ms. Holtsclaw, Ms. Harold, and the victim were in the white Impala at the gas pumps when he first saw them. Mr. Phillips said that when they arrived, the Defendant was talking on a cell phone but that he was not listening to the Defendant's conversation. He said the Defendant pulled into a car wash with a parking lot adjoining Sunoco, parked, and talked on the cell phone. He said the SUV was parked facing Sunoco and that the white Impala was visible from where they were parked. He thought only Ms. Holtsclaw was in the Impala when they pulled up. He said that he got out of the SUV when he saw his sister's car at Sunoco and that the Defendant continued his cell phone conversation. He talked to his sister for a few minutes inside the store and beside her car until Ms. Harold, Ms. Holtsclaw, and the victim started to leave. He said he realized the SUV was leaving and assumed "the deal was done done." He said he had not met the victim but realized at Sunoco who Goob was. He said he did not know anything about Ms. Holtsclaw's calling Motel 6 or about Ms. Holtsclaw, Ms. Harold, and the victim's plans. He said he did not talk to Ms. Harold at Sunoco because he thought she was still mad at him from the disagreement they had earlier. He denied that it bothered him that she was with the victim and said his relationship with Ms. Harold was "just a fling."

Mr. Phillips testified that the Defendant followed the white Impala. He said the Defendant talked to Ms. Holtsclaw by cell phone and told her which direction to go. He said that at Quarry Road, the Defendant flashed the SUV's lights for Ms. Holtsclaw to stop. He said the Defendant acted nervous, got out of the SUV, and went to the driver's side rear door of the Impala. Mr. Phillips that said the victim got out of the Impala and that as soon as the victim stood, the Defendant shot him. He said the victim screamed and asked why "Puff" was shooting him. The evidence showed that Puff was the Defendant's nickname. Mr. Phillips said the Defendant shot the victim three times, shoved the victim down, stood over him, and shot him again. Mr. Phillips said that when the Defendant shoved the victim, the Defendant grabbed the victim's t-shirt. Mr. Phillips said that he had not known the Defendant had a gun that night but that he had seen the gun at the Defendant's mother's house. He said the Impala pulled away as soon as the Defendant started shooting. He said he was in shock.

Mr. Phillips said that after the shooting, the Defendant got into the SUV and said, "That was my third, don't be fourth." He said he understood that if he said anything, the Defendant would kill him. He said the Defendant had a black, long-barrel .22 or .25 revolver in his hand. He acknowledged that he might have testified at the preliminary hearing that the gun looked like a .357 but stated that he never said it was a .357. He said that he was unable to describe how the Defendant acted but that he had "never seen anybody act like that." He said the Defendant drove away from the scene in the same direction as the Impala. He said that one of the women, whom he thought was Ms. Holtsclaw, called him crying and that he told her the Defendant said to go to the Defendant's mother's house. Mr. Phillips said the Defendant stated that the Defendant knew where Mr. Phillips's children went to school, that he knew where Mr. Phillips's parents lived, and that he would "take care" of Mr. Phillips's children. He said that they went to the Defendant's mother's house and that the Defendant said something to his mother like, "Momma, I got me one." Mr. Phillips said Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw were crying. He said that the Defendant had been wearing a black and white striped shirt and shiny, silky pants and that they were at the Defendant's mother's house long enough for the Defendant to obtain other clothes, which he estimated was fifteen to thirty minutes. He said that after the Defendant picked up other clothes, they went to Motel 6 in two vehicles. He said the Defendant and he followed the women, whom he said "left with directions [about] what to do."

Mr. Phillips testified that he checked into the motel under his name but that the Defendant paid. He said that the Defendant always had money and that the Defendant was proud of obtaining money by robbing drug dealers. He said that in the motel room, the Defendant told Ms. Harold, Ms. Holtsclaw, and him that he knew where their children went to school, that he knew where their mothers lived, and that he would kill them if they "snitched" on him. He said that the Defendant's demeanor was "[c]razy" while they were at the motel and that they were with the Defendant between twenty-four and forty-eight hours. He said he did not call the police or 9-1-1 because he had just seen the Defendant take a life and was scared. He did not recall going to Perkins Restaurant during the time they stayed at Motel 6.

Mr. Phillips said that when they checked out of Motel 6, he and the Defendant took a taxi to the Defendant's mother's house. He thought Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw arrived later. He said he called his sister to pick him up, and when he got in her car, the police pulled in behind the car.

Mr. Phillips testified that he did not tell the police the truth the first time he was interviewed because he was scared. He said he did not know where the Defendant was and had not seen the Defendant since the Defendant left the Defendant's mother's house with Ms. Harold and Ms. Holtsclaw earlier. Regarding his first police statement about the night of the offense, he said he falsely told the police that "Samantha" picked him up and took him to Sunoco. He said that after the first interview, he went to Ms. Holtsclaw's house, which was nearby, and spent the night with her. He was "sure" they talked about the incident.

Mr. Phillips testified that he told the truth in the second interview after the police proved the Defendant was in custody. He said he told them where the gun was based upon his having been told it was in a dumpster. He denied that his fingerprints were on the gun, but he later said it was possible his fingerprints were on the gun from a previous occasion he held it at the Defendant's mother's house. He said he helped the police recover the victim's t-shirt, which he had thrown out near the Boys and Girls Club at the Defendant's instruction. He also took the police to the dumpster where he had seen the Defendant go with a black trash bag, which is where he thought the gun might be. He took the police to a dumpster at the motel to look for the liquor bottles. He said he had not been ...


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