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State v. Phillips

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 15, 2015


Assigned on Briefs January 22, 2015

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Sullivan County No. S60, 851 Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., Judge

Randall D. Fleming, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellant, Sharon Donella Phillips.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Clarence E. Lutz, Assistant Attorney General; Barry P. Staubus, District Attorney General; and Lewis Combs and Kaylin Render, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

James Curwood Witt, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Norma McGee Ogle and D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., JJ., joined.



In July 2012, the Sullivan County Criminal Court grand jury charged the defendant with one count of attempted first degree murder and two counts of aggravated arson arising out of an incident in which the defendant threw a cup of gasoline on the victim, Larry Maines, and then set the victim on fire within his residence. The trial court conducted a jury trial in April 2013.

The State's proof at trial showed that on the afternoon of October 1, 2011, the defendant visited the victim's residence and asked if she could stay there overnight because her father had just thrown her out of his house. The victim explained that he was related to the defendant through marriage and that she would, on occasion, visit his home. The victim told the defendant that she could not stay at his house overnight because he was expecting company. The defendant was unhappy about the refusal, but she left.

That evening, the victim's friends, Whalen "Marty" Carpenter and Johnny Mae Nash, visited him at his home. Mr. Carpenter testified that he had known the defendant for most of his life and that he had been a friend of the victim's for over 20 years. Ms. Nash, who had passed away by the time of trial, was an elderly woman who breathed with the assistance of an oxygen tank. The victim and his friends spent the evening playing cards and watching a football game. At some point, the defendant arrived. The victim asked her to leave, but the defendant refused. According to Mr. Carpenter, the defendant was acting "[k]ind of pushy." The defendant then threw a can of beer at the victim, striking the victim on the side of the head. Mr. Carpenter stated that the defendant and the victim then engaged in a physical altercation, wrestling on the floor. The victim denied that he struck the defendant with his fist or with a golf club. The victim then forced the defendant out of his house because of her aggressive behavior. The victim stated that the defendant "had a little tantrum outside" but then left.

The victim's next-door neighbor, Jessica Roberts, testified that around 10:00 p.m. on October 1, she heard screaming and looked outside to see two men pulling the defendant away from the victim's house. Ms. Roberts saw the defendant wielding a three-foot pole, screaming that she was going to kill the victim and that she would be back. According to Ms. Roberts, the two men eventually managed to get the defendant to walk away.

The victim testified that the defendant returned to his house sometime later that evening. She walked into his residence and hurled a brick at the victim, hitting him in the arm. The defendant then fled from the residence before the victim could confront her. Later still, the defendant returned to the victim's house a third time. Mr. Carpenter noticed that the defendant was holding both a cigarette and a cup. The defendant walked straight to the victim; the victim was seated on a loveseat in his living room and speaking with Ms. Nash, who was seated approximately one to two feet away from him. The victim then threw the liquid contents of her cup onto the victim and used a cigarette lighter to set him on fire. The victim described hearing the click of the lighter and immediately thereafter, "poof and I was on fire."

The defendant fled from the house as Mr. Carpenter and Ms. Nash attempted to extinguish the flames from the victim's upper body. Mr. Carpenter's hand was scorched in the process. Mr. Carpenter noticed that the loveseat, the wall, and the floor were on fire as well. The victim, who was in shock, made his way to the bathroom where he climbed into the bathtub and turned on the water in an attempt to put out the flames.

Kingsport Police Department ("KPD") Officers Craig Dunworth and Brandon Metcalf were the first to respond to the scene, arriving between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on October 2. Upon arrival, the officers noticed heavy smoke coming through the front door of the victim's residence. When they entered the house, Officer Dunworth noticed that the loveseat in the living room was on fire and that flames were forming on the wall directly behind the loveseat. Officer Metcalf could hear someone screaming for help. The officers eventually located the victim and coached him out of the house; Officer Metcalf explained that they were afraid to touch him for fear of further injuring him. As the victim made it to his front yard, he exclaimed, "My skin is falling off." The officers found a chair for the victim to sit in until emergency medical personnel could arrive and transport him to the hospital.

KPD Detective Steve Summey responded to the scene on October 2. The loveseat had been removed from the residence by the time he arrived. Detective Summey collected the clothing that had been removed from the victim's body as well as two cups that were found at the scene. Detective Summey took a number of photographs of the scene, which photographs were admitted into evidence and depicted, among other things, the charred wallpaper and sheetrock behind the area where the loveseat had been located. Detective Summey testified that evidence of the fire and the ensuing damage were evident throughout the residence. Other photographs ...

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