Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville
Assigned on Briefs Date: November 12, 2014
Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Coffee County No. 39, 271 L. Craig Johnson, Judge
Douglas D. Aaron, Manchester, Tennessee, for the appellant, Connie Sue Messick.
Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General & Reporter; Ahmed A. Safeeullah, Assistant Attorney General; C. Michael Layne, District Attorney General; and Felicia B. Walkup and Marla R. Holloway, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.
Norma McGee Ogle, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Camille R. McMullen and Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., JJ., joined.
NORMA McGEE OGLE, JUDGE
I. Factual Background
On January 12, 2012, the Coffee County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging the appellant with reckless vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide by intoxication, four counts of vehicular assault, and reckless aggravated assault. On August 26, 2013, the appellant entered into a plea agreement whereby the charge of reckless vehicular homicide would be dismissed in exchange for her guilty pleas to the remaining charges.
At the guilty plea hearing, the State recited the following factual basis for the pleas, which was stipulated to by the appellant:
[O]n or about November 25th, 2011, the [appellant] had picked up her two children, Nora Cheney, approximate age 15, and Sean Cheney, approximate age 14, from the [appellant's] parents' home in Coffee County to spend time with the children. The [appellant] had driven in from out of state earlier that same day. The [appellant's] son, Sean, remained with the [appellant] throughout the evening up until the crash. The [appellant] dropped off her daughter, Nora, with friends for a previously arranged outing prior to the crash.
. . . .
According to Nora Cheney, the [appellant's] driving was scaring her on the way into town from Highway 280 so she asked the [appellant] if she could drive. Nora drove the [appellant] and Sean into town. Nora further stated that the [appellant] was smoking marijuana on the drive into town and repeatedly offered Nora vodka. After Nora left the [appellant] and Sean to go with friends, the [appellant] and Sean continued to Tullahoma to Taco Bell to talk with the [appellant's] friend. The [appellant] was driving. Sean stated that he knew that the [appellant] was drinking. The [appellant] told Sean that she had mixed some kind of drink with vodka on her way from out of state that very same day. Sean further stated that the [appellant] drank several shots of vodka straight from the bottle while they were headed toward Tullahoma from Manchester.
When they left Tullahoma, the [appellant] mixed vodka with a Sonic drink, and the [appellant] drove back toward Tullahoma (sic). At this point, the proof would show that the [appellant's] speech was so slurred that Sean could not understand her, and as she drove back to Manchester, the [appellant ] began to vomit. Sean tried to get the [appellant] to stop and also tried to get the [appellant's] cell phone to call 911 but was unsuccessful. Sean stated that the [appellant] was driving approximately 100 miles per hour and almost wrecked a couple of times prior to the crash. Sean stated that his mother passed cars in the turning lane to the left at times.
Meanwhile, Mr. Stanley George and his mother, Mrs. Ruby George, as well as Ms. Heather George, Ms. Layla George, and Mr. Jordan Meeker were all riding together in Ms. Ruby George's white Nissan Rogue. Mr. Stanley George, Mrs. Ruby George, and Ms. Layla George had ridden out to the vicinity of Rutledge Falls to pick up Ms. Heather George and Mr. Jordan Meeker who had a minor single-car accident in which they were not injured. Mr. George was the driver. Ms. Ruby George was in the front passenger seat. Mr. Jordan Meeker was in the back seat behind the driver. Ms. Heather George was in the middle position in the back seat, and Ms. Layla George was seated in the rear far right seat.
According to the witnesses, the Rogue driven by Mr. Stanley George was stopped at a red light on Highway 55 at Oak Drive in Manchester headed toward town. The Rogue was in the left lane of the two-lane highway. It was the first car at the light in that lane. There was a car stopped beside the Rogue in the right lane. The light was red at the time of the crash. Several witnesses, in addition to Sean Cheney who was in the vehicle with [the appellant], had noticed her dangerous driving prior to the crash. Several people called 911 before and after the crash. Witnesses to the [appellant's] driving prior to the crash reported the [appellant] was driving at a high rate of speed. One witness even described how the sedan sounded like an 18-wheeler when it went by him and shook his doors, and that the vehicle was rushing up behind vehicles, as well as passing dangerously, in that the [appellant] would utilize the turn lane to pass vehicles. This information is corroborated by Sean's statements.
A witness was actually on the phone with 911 when the crash occurred. The crash occurred at approximately 7:40 [p.m.] at the intersection of Highway 55 and Oak Drive in Manchester, Coffee County, Tennessee. The [appellant] crashed her vehicle into the rear of the vehicle driven by Stanley George. Witnesses who saw the crash described what they saw from several vantage points. Witnesses are consistent that the vehicle driven by the [appellant] was going way over the speed limit, and the [appellant] did not brake before striking the Rogue driven by Mr. George. There was no sound of squealing tires described by anyone. In fact, they reported the absence of squealing tires. The witnesses also state that Stanley George's vehicle was completely stopped for the red light at the time of the crash.
After the horrific crash, several witnesses stopped and remained at the scene. These witnesses observed that none of the occupants of the Rogue were able to get out of the vehicle on their own. More than one witness describes Sean Cheney getting out of the [appellant's] vehicle and laying on the ground and being very upset and saying over and over that "She wouldn't stop. I tried to get her to stop. She's drunk. I tried to get her to stop." More than one witness describes how the [appellant] refused to get out of her vehicle when law enforcement made contact with her. Local media was able to take a few photographs at the scene. One photograph depicts a near empty vodka bottle on the roof of the [appellant's] vehicle that had been removed from the vehicle by law enforcement.
Sean Cheney was injured in the crash, and this is referring to Count Six, Your Honor, of the indictment which is vehicular assault, a D felony. He was injured in the crash in that his collarbone was broken. He was transported by ambulance to receive medical care. He continued to say in the ambulance that the [appellant] would not stop and that he was trying to get her to stop. The injuries to the five victims trapped in the Rogue varied, but all were trapped, and had to be either assisted or extricated from the vehicle. Ms. Layla George, age 11, and this refers to Count Seven, Your Honor, reckless aggravated assault, a D felony, received only minor injuries, but she was transported to Harton Hospital. Her injuries included contusions to her left knee, lower leg, and foot, as well as an acute lumbar strain. Although the night of the crash, her medical records reported no broken bones, family has stated that later, a broken bone in her foot was discovered. She left the emergency room with crutches and instructions for follow-up care.
Ms. Heather George, age 17, and this refers to Count Four, Your Honor, vehicular assault, suffered a fractured pelvis in the crash, as well as severe back and pelvic pain. Witnesses describe Ms. Heather George as utilizing a wheelchair to get around for weeks after the crash. Follow-up care was required. Ms. George still suffers pain today as a result of the crash.
Mr. Jordan Meeker, 18 years of age, and this refers to Count Five of the indictment, vehicular assault, suffered a very painful separated pelvis in the crash. Evidence shows that Mr. Meeker was in severe pain at the accident scene and local hospital. Mr. Meeker was transported to the local hospital in the same ambulance as Sean Cheney, and Mr. Meeker remembers him stating over and over in the ambulance that he had tried to get the [appellant] to stop the vehicle, so much so that a medical provider in the ambulance had to calm Mr. Cheney down. Mr. Meeker was transported by helicopter to Vanderbilt University Hospital. Mr. Meeker remained in the hospital for several days, including two days in the critical care unit. After discharge, Mr. Meeker was confined at home and unable to walk for an extended amount of time. Witnesses describe Mr. Meeker being immobile in a chair at his parents' home. Mr. Meeker utilized a walker for months after the accident and underwent much aftercare. Mr. Meeker still suffers pain from the crash today. Mr. Meeker started college after the accident as had been planned, but he was unable to finish the first semester of classes because he was having mental trauma caused by the crash.
Mrs. Ruby George, and this is Count Three, Judge, vehicular assault, [Mrs.] Ruby George is the mother of Stanley George, the deceased. She was 78 at the time of the crash, and she suffered 17 rib fractures as well as a punctured, collapsed lung in the crash. All of the ribs that were fractured were ribs in her back, and she suffered extreme pain in her back. She was transported to Vanderbilt Hospital by helicopter where she remained for several days. Upon discharge from Vanderbilt, she was moved to a rehab facility and then continued her rehabilitation upon her return home. Mrs. George was conscious at the scene. She described her son, Stanley George, as being conscious at the scene as well, and that the crash caused him to go up under the steering wheel in his seat in a reclining position. She remembers him needing air and being unable to breathe. She described that as the emergency personnel were going to attempt to help Stanley George, he expelled a breath and went unconscious and that she knew that she had watched her son take his last breath. Mr. Stanley George was still restrained by his seat belt when Officer Alberto Garza with the Manchester Police Department got to him. His air bag did not deploy. Your Honor, this is Count One. He was in a reclined position and trapped under the steering wheel. Another witness, a nurse, removed the head rest from the seat so that Mr. George might be more comfortable. Mr. George became unresponsive while he was still in the vehicle. Emergency personnel found no signs of life while in transit to United Regional Medical Center. Mr. George was pronounced dead by Dr. David Florence at 8:53 [p.m.]. An autopsy revealed that Mr. George's cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries to the torso, including injuries to his lung, vertebrae, ribs and pancreas. The impact of the crash inflicted multiple tears to his aorta. Mr. George was 58 years old at his death.
The [appellant] was transported by law enforcement to United Regional Medical Center. The officer stated that the [appellant] had a very strong odor of alcohol about her person. She had suffered injuries to her lower extremities. While there, the officers asked for and obtained a blood specimen for analysis by TBI. According to the TBI analysis, the [appellant's] blood alcohol level at the time the specimen was drawn at 8:37 [p.m.] was .27. In addition, TBI ran toxicological analysis, which revealed that the [appellant] had marijuana in her system as well, which corroborates what Nora, the [appellant's] daughter, stated about the [appellant] smoking a joint prior to the crash.
The plea agreement provided that the trial court would determine the length and manner of service of the sentence; therefore, a sentencing hearing was held. At the hearing, Timothy David Bishop testified that he lived in Clarksville and that on November 25, 2011, he and his wife were in Tullahoma visiting his grandmother, who was in the hospital. When he and his wife left the hospital, it was nighttime. Bishop drove in the left-hand lane on Highway 55 toward Manchester. As he was driving, he saw headlights behind him; the vehicle appeared to be traveling "[w]ell over the speed limit." Bishop moved into the right-hand lane, and the vehicle passed him, shaking the sport utility vehicle (SUV) that he was driving. Bishop saw the vehicle "dodging in and out, switching lanes and back ...