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State v. Christie

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 30, 2016


          Session October 4, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Madison County No. 14-461 Donald H. Allen, Judge

         Defendant, Edythe Christie, appeals her conviction of tampering with evidence. The trial court denied judicial diversion, sentencing Defendant to four years and six months, with all but 150 days of the sentence to be served on probation. On appeal, Defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, the jury instruction on tampering with the evidence, and the denial of judicial diversion. Defendant also argues that juror bias violated her right to a fair trial and impartial jury. After a review of the issues, we determine that Defendant is not entitled to relief. Consequently, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Harold E. Dorsey, Alamo, Tennessee, for the appellant, Edythe Christie.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Lacy Wilber, Assistant Attorney General; Jerry Woodall, District Attorney General; and Brian Gilliam, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Timothy L. Easter, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Alan E. Glenn and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.



         Defendant, a lawyer, was indicted by the Madison County Grand Jury in September of 2014 for tampering with evidence. The case against Defendant arose in conjunction with the investigation into the death of Brittany Christie, who was found dead in a motel room in Jackson, Tennessee, in early December of 2013 from an apparent overdose of heroin and Klonopin. John Christie, Defendant's son, was the estranged husband of the victim.

         During the investigation into the death of the victim, the police interviewed Mr. Christie, and learned that he was with the victim at a hotel on December 5-6, 2013. Mr. Christie provided the victim with heroin. Shortly after she ingested the heroin, the victim got sick and passed out. Mr. Christie left the hotel because he was afraid to be caught there because he had outstanding arrest warrants against him. He called 911 from his cell phone. Mr. Christie was arrested on the outstanding warrants on December 6, 2013. He gave a statement to police about the victim's death. In April, after autopsy results confirmed that the victim died from "too many drugs, too soon, " Mr. Christie was eventually indicted for second degree murder.

         Mr. Christie was held in jail on the outstanding warrants. While in jail, he called Defendant nearly every day. The telephone calls were recorded[1] and eventually monitored and listened to by Investigator Daniel Long beginning some time in January of 2014.

         On or around December 19, 2013, Mr. Christie called Defendant and told her that the police took his cell phone from his person when he was arrested. Mr. Christie wanted Defendant to come to "the property" at the jail and get his cell phone. Defendant expressed concern over what Mr. Christie was asking her to do, saying "something about [him] getting her mixed up in a mess, " but indicated a willingness to do what Mr. Christie instructed. Mr. Christie asked Defendant to "delete everything" from the phone and destroy the "SD"[2] card. Defendant told Mr. Christie, "Ok, I will, " but informed him that anyone could retrieve the data from the phone even if it was erased. Mr. Christie told Defendant it was a pre-paid phone so there would "be no record." Defendant told Mr. Christie she would get the phone the next day because visiting hours were already over for the day. On December 20, 2013, Defendant came to the jail and took possession of Mr. Christie's cell phone. At the time, police had not designated the phone as evidence.

         During a call from Mr. Christie to Defendant on December 20, Defendant again cautioned Mr. Christie that the police monitored and recorded the phone calls placed from the jail. Mr. Christie became angry with Defendant and expressed frustration over the fact that she had not yet hired an attorney or contacted any of Mr. Christie's friends to help with his defense. Defendant explained to Mr. Christie that he had not been charged with anything. Mr. Christie urged Defendant to delete items from his phone.

         The same day, Mr. Christie called his mother a second time. Defendant again told Mr. Christie that all of the jail house phone calls were recorded. Defendant told Mr. Christie that she "got what [he] released to [her]." Mr. Christie asked if Defendant "freed up any space, " and Defendant told Mr. Christie that the battery to the phone was dead when she picked it up from the jail. The next day, Mr. Christie called Defendant to ask if she had done "it, " and Defendant responded that she had deleted the content on the phone.

         An attorney was appointed to represent Mr. Christie on the probation violation charge. Defendant eventually retained the same attorney to represent Mr. Christie with regard to charges he might face in connection with the victim's death. At the time, he had not been charged in connection with the victim's death. In early May, Defendant gave Mr. Christie's cell phone to the attorney. Defendant mentioned that there could be "some exculpatory material on there that would benefit [Mr. Christie's] case." The attorney tried "once or twice" to access the phone, eventually deciding she would "worry about that later." The attorney recalled that the evidence pertained to Facebook messages that might indicate the victim contacted Mr. Christie to obtain the drugs which eventually led to her death. Once the warrant was served, the attorney withdrew from representation of Mr. Christie due to a potential conflict of interest.

         About ten days after Defendant gave the phone to the attorney, law enforcement officers issued a search warrant for the attorney's office, specifically looking for a notebook and the cell phone. The attorney turned over the phone and informed officers that she did not access the phone while it was in her possession. The attorney later testified at trial that Defendant informed the attorney in an email that she "[d]eleted some photos and video" from the phone "when she first got it" from the jail "but she did not consider it to be relevant to the investigation at that time." Defendant deleted "pictures of and video of [Mr. Christie and the victim] having intercourse in what looked like a motel bathroom." Defendant wrote in the email that she "had no idea that the phone would ever be evidence."

         Officer Jay Stanfill processed the cell phone using Photorec recovery software, a computer program designed to recover deleted files, and discovered five photographs and a video that had been deleted from the phone. The photographs depicted the victim in what appeared to be a hotel bathroom while the video recording depicted Mr. Christie and the victim having intercourse in the same location. The original time and date stamp placed Mr. Christie in the hotel room with the victim on the day of her death. Officer Stanfill explained at trial that photographs and video are usually stored on an S.D. memory card inside a cell phone. Items that are deleted from the phone by hitting the "delete" button can usually be recovered from the S.D. card using recovery software.

         Mr. Christie testified at trial. He admitted that he asked Defendant to "clear everything" off his phone because he was under investigation. Mr. Christie admitted that the deleted video was "sexual in nature" and claimed it was taken on December 5, the day before the victim died. Mr. Christie claimed that he actually did not intend for Defendant to erase the video and photographs of the victim. Instead, he wanted Defendant to erase anything on the phone dealing with drug usage. He thought that he asked Defendant to "get rid of the S.D. card." Mr. Christie testified that he was under the impression that Defendant knew what he was asking her to do and that she never gave any indication that she was unwilling to help him.

         Lieutenant Phillip Gibson of the Union City Police Department testified for Defendant at trial. He recalled that she attended three days of a training seminar for the West Tennessee Criminal Investigator's Association. One of the classes at the seminar was about internet crimes against children. Investigator Terry Buckley of the Jackson Police Department taught the class, part of which was about deleting and recovering items from cell phones. Investigator Buckley taught that deleted data is "recoverable in most instances" by using software that "makes an exact copy of the device's memory." The software can identify if the information has been deleted.

         Defendant testified that, at the time of trial, she had been practicing law for nineteen years. She recalled that her son was "harassing" her daily from jail about getting a lawyer and retrieving his phone from property because he was scared that he might be charged with a crime in connection with the death of the victim. Defendant told her son that she would go get the phone "mainly just to get him to stop harassing [her] about it." At the time she retrieved the phone from the jail, the autopsy results were not complete, and Mr. Christie had not been charged with anything other than probation violations. Defendant claimed that she "never had any intention of doing anything to that cellphone" but eventually charged the phone and "just looked at it." Defendant went on to explain that in January or February she looked through the photographs on the phone. When she saw photographs of the victim, she had a "gut reaction" and "just deleted them." Defendant testified that the pictures "broke [her] heart" because the victim and Mr. Christie had been separated for a long time and she thought that they had "moved on." Defendant did not think it would be good for Mr. Christie to "look at those pictures" or "watch that video." At the time she deleted the photos, she did not think about whether the items she deleted were "evidence." She claimed she deleted them "to protect [Mr. Christie] and his children and [the] mother of his children."

         Defendant did not think that the phone was relevant evidence because the case "hinged on the autopsy report" and Mr. Christie's statement to police that he was with the victim before she died. Defendant also knew from a training class she attended that the pictures could be recovered by the police. She explained that if she wanted to permanently delete the photographs and video, she would have destroyed the S.D. card and "gotten rid of the phone." Defendant admitted that she held on to the phone until after Mr. Christie was indicted for the victim's death but that she eventually gave it to Mr. Christie's attorney. Defendant testified that she "[a]bsolutely" did not delete the photographs with the intent to impair their verity, legibility, or availability as evidence in an investigation or official proceeding. However, Defendant admitted that she knew what Mr. Christie was asking her to do was to commit a crime. Additionally, Defendant testified that, as an attorney, she never instructed clients to delete items off their phones.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Defendant guilty of tampering with the evidence. Prior to sentencing, Defendant introduced an application for judicial diversion. The trial court held a rather lengthy sentencing hearing at which several witnesses testified. The trial court considered the factors in favor of and against the grant of judicial diversion, ultimately concluding that Defendant was not an appropriate candidate for judicial diversion. The trial court sentenced Defendant to a sentence of four years and six months. The trial court determined that a sentence of full probation would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, ordering Defendant to serve a "period of shock incarceration of a hundred and fifty days" prior to release on probation.

         Defendant filed a timely motion for new trial. It was later amended by counsel. The trial court denied the motion after a hearing. A timely notice of appeal followed the denial of the motion for new trial. On appeal, Defendant raises the following issues: (1) whether the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction for tampering with the evidence; (2) whether the trial court properly instructed the jury on the elements of tampering with the evidence; (3) whether Michael Robinson's presence on the jury violated Defendant's right to a fair and impartial jury; and (4) whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying judicial diversion.

         Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Defendant insists on appeal that the evidence was not sufficient to support her conviction for tampering with the evidence. Specifically, she argues that the video and photographs on the cellphone were not evidence and that she did not delete the items "with the intent to destroy or conceal the photographs or video" and the State did not prove ...

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