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Cook v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 22, 2015


Assigned on Briefs November 12, 2014.

Direct Appeal from the Criminal Court for Sumner County No. 886-2013 Dee David Gay, Judge.

James J. Ramsey (on appeal) and Roger A. Sindle (at trial), Gallatin, Tennessee, for the appellant, Billy Jack Cook.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General & Reporter; Brent C. Cherry, Senior Counsel; Lawrence Ray Whitley, District Attorney General; and Jayson Criddle, Assistant District Attorney 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.



I. Factual Background

On August 8, 2013, the petitioner pled guilty to fifty counts of especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, ten counts of rape of a child, and seventeen counts of aggravated rape of a child in exchange for a total effective sentence of seventy years. During a recitation of the factual basis for the pleas, the State recounted that the petitioner had engaged in "digital penetration, oral sex and slight penile-vaginal penetration and penile-anal penetration" of his three-year-old daughter and his five-year-old son. The acts were witnessed by the petitioner's co-defendant, Ashley Wright, who informed the police that the petitioner had photographed the abuse and had uploaded the photographs to the internet. The police ultimately recovered sixty or seventy sexually explicit images of the victims. The police interviewed the victims, who revealed that the abuse had gone on for "quite some time" and that they were encouraged to engage in sexual activity with the petitioner and with each other.

At the guilty plea hearing, the petitioner said that he was twenty-eight years old and had attended some college courses. He acknowledged that he signed the guilty plea agreement after reviewing the document with his trial counsel and agreed that he signed the document of his own free will. The petitioner said that he was taking Benadryl and Vistaril "for [his] nerves" but that the medication did not impact his ability to understand or to make decisions. The petitioner maintained that he understood the charges to which he was pleading guilty and the accompanying sentences. The petitioner expressed his satisfaction with the performance of trial counsel. The trial court said that the petitioner appeared responsive, alert, well-oriented, and level-headed and that he appeared to understand the proceedings and the plea agreement. Upon questioning by the trial court, trial counsel asserted that the petitioner appeared to understand what he was doing.

Thereafter, on November 20, 2013, the petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective and that his guilty pleas were not knowingly and voluntarily entered. At the post-conviction hearing, the petitioner testified that prior to the entry of his guilty pleas, he was examined by the staff at Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute (MTMHI). When asked if he understood that the examination was to determine his competency to stand trial, the petitioner said, "I thought it was the same thing as when they were trying to see what my diagnosis was." The petitioner said that within one hour of his arrival at the facility, he was beaten by six staff members and that when he informed a doctor about the beating, the doctor told the petitioner that he deserved it. The petitioner asserted that by the time he arrived at MTMHI, the doctors had already formed an opinion of him based upon the evidence against him. The petitioner said that during the forensic examination, the doctor informed him that he was being tested for pedophilia.

The petitioner said that previously he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia "in a therapeutic group home . . . and in a mental hospital." He informed employees of the Sumner County Jail that he needed medication for schizophrenia and was told that he could not get the medication until he was in prison. The petitioner also told his trial counsel that he needed medication, and trial counsel said that it was not his responsibility to insure the petitioner got medication and was able to assist in his defense.

The petitioner acknowledged that at the guilty plea hearing, the trial court asked if he was taking any medication that would affect him mentally and that he advised the court he was taking Benadryl and Vistaril, an anxiety medicine that did not affect his ability to understand the proceedings. He complained, however, that the trial court did not ask if he needed any additional medication. The petitioner said that without his medication for schizophrenia, he was unable to comprehend what transpired at the guilty plea hearing. The petitioner contended that he accepted the effective seventy-year sentence in order to get his medication. The petitioner said that he could not recall everything that happened at the hearing, explaining that he occasionally experienced blackouts and that he thought he experienced such a blackout during the hearing.

On cross-examination, the petitioner acknowledged that someone with schizophrenia potentially could be competent to stand trial. He did not recall being evaluated by Dr. Keith Caruso.

Upon questioning by the post-conviction court, the petitioner said that he did not recall telling the trial court that he had some college education. The petitioner said he was unsure at what point he blacked out during the plea process. He maintained that he blacked out multiple times a day and that he had suffered blackouts since he was a child.

The petitioner said that trial counsel visited him only two or three times. Trial counsel did not show him evidence but told the petitioner that the State had DNA evidence and incriminating photographs. The petitioner did not recall trial counsel conveying the State's offer of settlement or discusing the potential sentences the petitioner faced. The petitioner also did not remember abusing his children or taking explicit photographs of them. ...

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