Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville
Session Date: January 21, 2015
Appeal from the Circuit Court for Bledsoe County No. 2009-CR-10 Thomas Graham, Judge
Elizabeth G. Adams, Dayton, Tennessee (on appeal); and James C. Smith, Jr., Rockwood, Tennessee (at trial), for the appellant, Lonnie Lee Angel, Jr.
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Assistant Attorney General; J. Michael Taylor, District Attorney General; and James W. Pope, III, and Steven Strain, Assistant District Attorneys 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 Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., JJ., joined.
JAMES CURWOOD WITT, JR., JUDGE
The conviction in this case arose from the beating death of the victim, Donnie L. Lawson, in February 2009.
On February 21, 2009, the defendant hosted a cookout inside the barn at his residence in Bledsoe County. The victim came to the cookout with the defendant's father, Lonnie Lee Angel, Sr., who passed out in his truck shortly after arriving at the fete due to his having consumed a significant amount of alcohol and several prescription medications. At some point, an argument erupted over the details of the death of Clyde Angel, the defendant's uncle who had died in a house fire. One of the attendees, Preston Parker, who was a "fourth cousin or something" to the defendant, became so enraged when the victim implied that he might have had a hand in Clyde Angel's death that he "grabbed [the victim], and jerked him down, and . . . hit him . . . as he went down, and . . . kicked him a few times" in the head as he lay on the ground. Because he believed the victim to be "a pretty rough feller" who had "whooped two or three, shot one or two, " Mr. Parker struck the victim again as the victim attempted to regain his feet.
Following this initial beating of the victim, the six-foot-seven-inch, 350-pound defendant declared that no one would be permitted to leave the residence. Mr. Parker ordered the four children who were present, Mr. Parker's nephew and son and the defendant's sons, back to the defendant's mobile home.
After approximately 15 minutes, the defendant allowed Virgil "Tiny" Eller to leave after Mr. Eller convinced the defendant that he needed to pick up his girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, Ray Tullos and Mark Sherman arrived, and Mr. Parker relayed to the men "what went on." Mr. Tullos, indignant at the victim's implication regarding the death of Clyde Angel, attacked the unconscious victim, striking him with a "big beer bottle, " "a pair of boots, " and a post driver. Later, Mr. Tullos boasted to Mr. Parker that he had urinated on the victim. Mr. Sherman recalled that when he and Mr. Tullos arrived, the victim lay on the ground, unconscious and bleeding from several wounds on his face. Mr. Sherman told the defendant that the victim needed medical attention, and the defendant responded, "Preston, that's enough. The man's in a coma now."
Following the savage attack, the men began to discuss what should be done with the victim, and one of the men suggested "[h]auling [the victim] off to the rock crusher" while the defendant aimed a gun at the victim and threatened to shoot him. Before any action could be taken, Mr. Angel, Sr., awoke and demanded to know what had transpired. Mr. Angel, Sr., told the men that the victim had played no role in Clyde Angel's death and ordered the men to leave the victim alone. Mr. Angel, Sr., asked to leave, and although he had initially refused to allow anyone to leave, the defendant eventually asked Mr. Sherman to drive Mr. Angel, Sr., home.
Both Mr. Parker and his 12-year-old nephew, D.P.,  testified that the defendant struck or kicked the victim more than one time. Mr. Parker and D.P. each testified that the defendant aimed a gun at the victim and threatened to kill him. Mr. Sherman testified that another attendee, Allen Watson, rather than the defendant, threatened to shoot the victim. P.J.P., Mr. Parker's son, testified that he did not see the defendant hit or strike the victim.
Mr. Angel, Sr., telephoned 9-1-1 at 9:30 p.m. and asked that an ambulance be sent to the defendant's residence because the victim had been beaten "to death."
When the ambulance arrived, the victim was barely alive. The victim was "unresponsive" and "[b]arely breathing." His face was swollen and covered in dried blood, and his eyes were "swollen shut." He had a "[l]arge knot on the backside of his head where it appeared he was hit with something" and "a lot of bruising on his chest and on his side." Weather conditions thwarted attempts to arrange air transport for the victim, and the victim was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:00 p.m.
An autopsy established that the victim had died as a result of multiple blunt force injuries to his head. The victim suffered multiple head injuries, including a number of abrasions and lacerations, two black eyes, and a broken jaw. The victim also suffered bleeding beneath his scalp and around his brain. As a result of the multiple blunt force injuries inflicted on his head, the victim's brain swelled, putting pressure on the "vital structures of the brain that control" breathing and heart rate, which eventually led to the victim's death.
Forensic testing confirmed the presence of the victim's blood on a boot found in the bed of the defendant's truck, on a post driver found in the defendant's barn, on a beer bottle found in the defendant's barn, and on the legs of the defendant's blue jeans. Blood found on the front left pocket area of the defendant's blue jeans "was consistent with a DNA mixture" of the defendant and the victim. A short-sleeved gray t-shirt recovered from the defendant's house had two blood stains, one with a DNA profile that belonged to the victim and one that contained a mixture of DNA from the victim, the defendant, and an unknown minor contributor.
The trial court granted the defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal on the counts charging the defendant with aggravated kidnapping and felony murder in the perpetration of kidnapping, and the jury acquitted the defendant of first degree premeditated murder but convicted him of the lesser included offense of second degree murder. Following a sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed a sentence of 23 years' incarceration.
The defendant filed a timely but unsuccessful motion for new trial,  followed by a timely notice of appeal. In this appeal, the defendant contends that the trial court committed plain error by improperly commenting on the testimony of P.J.P., that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of second degree murder, that the trial court erred by providing jury instructions on second degree murder as a lesser ...