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State v. Jones

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

January 17, 2017


          Session June 7, 2016

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 13-06162 J. Robert Carter, Jr., Judge

         The defendant, Christopher Jones, was convicted of the first degree premeditated murder of his estranged wife, Heather Palumbo-Jones, and the abuse of her corpse, for which he was sentenced, respectively, to life imprisonment and two years to be served concurrently. On appeal, he argues that the trial court erred by allowing statements made by his wife as an exception to the hearsay rule, by allowing evidence of his prior abuse of the victim, and by admitting into evidence photographs of his wife's charred body. Additionally, he argues that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his conviction for first degree murder. Following our review, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal Court Affirmed

          Stephen C. Bush, District Public Defender; Harry E. Sayle, III (on appeal), Kindle E. Nance and Robert C. Felkner (at trial), Assistant Public Defenders, for the appellant, Christopher Jones.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Jonathan H. Wardle, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Theresa S. McCusker, Carla L. Taylor, and Danielle M. McCollum, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Alan E. Glenn, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Robert W. Wedemeyer and J. Ross Dyer, JJ., joined.


          ALAN E. GLENN, JUDGE


         At the time of her disappearance on April 16, 2013, the victim, Heather Palumbo-Jones, and the defendant had been married for over eight years and had two children. They had been separated since January 1, 2013, and had ongoing disputes as to custody of their children. Germantown police officers contacted the defendant shortly after the victim failed to show up at her employment at Frayser Achievement Elementary School. As officers questioned him again on April 23, 2013, a cadaver dog, which they had released by his vehicle, detected the smell of a dead body. The defendant then told the officers that he and the victim had been arguing, she fell and hit her head, and he transported and burned her body, later burying it at a location he led them to in rural Shelby County. Subsequently, he told officers that, actually, he found her dead body after she had hung herself.

         At the trial, Diane Perry, the State's first witness, testified that she was the victim's cousin. She said that they had lived together when both were students at the University of Memphis. During that time in 2000, the victim met the defendant, who was about ten years older; and he moved into the apartment with them. His living there was "contentious, " and Ms. Perry gave an ultimatum that either he, or the two of them, would have to move from the apartment. The two moved out in March of that year. Ms. Perry learned from the victim in April 2004 that she was pregnant with the defendant's child, and they were married in August of that year. Ms. Perry and the victim then renewed their friendship. The victim worked full-time while attending college and took about ten years to obtain her bachelor's degree. She said that, during this period, the defendant "never established a career." The victim talked with her several times about leaving the defendant because of "infidelity in the marriage or things like that." During this time, the victim gained 150 pounds and became obese. However, following her graduation from college, the victim began to exercise and there was "a huge change" in her. In 2012, she helped the victim plan to leave the defendant, but their minister began counseling them, and the victim did not leave.

         Some of the victim and defendant's marriage problems were caused by the defendant's not following through on jobs he had talked about getting. In the summer of 2012, the victim "did some safety things, " changing her bank account and preparing to leave the defendant. On the following New Year's Day, she moved to another house, and Ms. Perry talked to her "daily." The victim told her that "she was very fearful of [the defendant], but she was . . . so happy." The victim further told her that the defendant knew where she lived, was coming and seeing her, was surprised and "very angry" because she had left; and the victim "was very scared for her safety." Following her move, the victim filed for divorce from the defendant.

         As for their children, the victim and the defendant had a split-custody arrangement, by which their son would live with the defendant and their daughter would live with the victim. However, because of the victim's work hours, she dropped off their daughter, who was autistic, at the defendant's house on school mornings and then picked her up after school. The defendant told the victim about a job he had applied for, and the victim was concerned that "the order of protection would show up" in his background check.

         Ms. Perry testified that she received an email from the victim on Friday, April 12, 2013, which she read aloud in court:

I woke up this morning and my phone was missing. I sleep with my phone. Like I use an app for white noise and an alarm. I asked [my daughter] if she had my phone and she said no. I heard some creaking around at four to five a.m. this morning, but I thought it was [my daughter] and I rolled back over.
I'm totally creeped out. I know I forgot to set my alarm last night. I was so tired from three hours of dance that I think I forgot. I don't know how he would have gotten in and me not notice.
So I look around everywhere for my phone. I always unplug it after my shower and poke around it while I air dry. It was not there after my shower. I know I woke up on time, but I don't remember much else. So I looked everywhere around my house and didn't see it.
I got to work and checked my e-mails. My G-mail had been messed with. All my e-mails to [my attorney] were erased and all from my mom, so I think he has my phone. I had it turned off. OMG. I am still so creeped out if he snuck in and got my phone while I was sleeping.
Have I just lost it? How would he hack my G-mail? Weird shit. I need your cell number. I am going by C-Spire to get another phone after work and drop the paperwork off if you are able or I can get it from you this weekend.

         Ms. Perry said that she then sent her telephone number to the victim by return email and, later that evening, was telephoned by the victim, who said the defendant's "behavior had deteriorated and she was very fearful." On Tuesday, April 16, Ms. Perry received a phone call from the school where the victim taught and was told that the victim had not shown up for work that day. Ms. Perry then checked and found that the victim's children were in their classrooms at the school where Ms. Perry taught. The school security officer drove Ms. Perry to the victim's home, where she found the victim's car in the driveway and the house locked. A key was obtained from the victim's mother, and officers entered the residence. Ms. Perry described the victim's bed, saying that "the covers were thrown back and there was an indentation in the pillow from her head[, ]" making it appear that "she had gone to bed and just gotten out of bed."

         Officer Joshua Vest of the Germantown Police Department testified that on April 16, 2013, he received a telephone call from Riverdale Elementary School asking him to meet a school resource officer at the victim's residence regarding a missing person. At her home, her car was in the driveway and the front door was locked. He got a description of the victim and directed that a BOLO, or be on the lookout alert, be made by the police dispatcher. Officer Vest also went to the defendant's apartment, where there was no response to his knocking on the door or window. About two hours later, he returned to defendant's residence, who, this time, responded to a knock on his door by asking if the victim had been found. Officer Vest testified that, later, inside the defendant's residence, he found the defendant to be "[v]ery, very off-putting almost. No concern . . . that his wife was missing." The defendant was asked to come to the Germantown Police Station, which he did, following the detectives in his own vehicle.

         Detective Michael Cook with the General Investigations Division of the Germantown Police Department testified that, on April 16, 2013, he went to the defendant's residence. He spoke with the defendant, who invited the officers into his apartment. Detective Cook said the defendant told them he had received an email from the victim, saying, "Come get [our daughter]. I cannot face everyone with this. Please forgive me. It is too much. Please raise them to remember me as their loving mommy." The email bore the date April 15, 2013, at 23:52:34 hours. Detective Cook described the defendant's demeanor as "calm. I mean, pretty nonchalant, I guess. I mean, didn't appear to be worried."

         Detective Ryan Carter testified that he was present at the initial interview with the defendant and later went to the victim's residence to take photographs. He said that, during this first interview, the defendant claimed to have no knowledge of what had happened to his wife. Following the interview, the defendant left the Germantown Police Station.

         Detective Amanda Hollin with the Germantown Police Department testified that she interviewed witnesses Jesika Moxley and Edward Raulerson, as well as prepared the search warrant for the defendant's vehicle. During the defendant's first interview with officers, he gave permission to search his cell phone, and Detective Hollin performed the search. One text message was sent from the defendant's phone on April 16, 2013, at 1:36 a.m. to the victim's phone and said, "[P]lease call me, I'm freaking out. I can't and never wanted to do this alone. I only want 50/50. Please don't do something foolish."

         Detective Hollin next described a text message sent from the defendant's phone at 1:49 a.m. to the victim saying, "[P]lease call me. I love you do (sic) much. I didn't want this. I only wanted to let you know I wasn't going to protect your secret and let my kids be taken from me. We can stop this and come together." Another message was sent from the defendant's phone at 2:25 a.m., which said, "I'm begging you please, for the love of God, don't do this. The kids need you, I need you. I will do anything so long as I can stay in their lives." A message sent from his phone at 2:28 a.m. said, "I promise I won't tell anybody. As far as I'm concerned, it never happened. I just want equality. Please, my love. Please call me." The next message sent at 1:32 p.m. said, "[Y]ou have the police interviewing me because I gave you the benefit of the doubt."

         Detective Hollin testified as to the outgoing calls from the defendant's phone to that of the victim, saying that a call lasting one minute and twenty-four seconds was made at 2:09 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16; another call at 2:51 a.m. the same day lasting one minute and thirty-nine seconds; a call at 3:01 a.m. lasting two seconds; and a final call at 7:37 a.m. lasting fifty-seven seconds.

         The next witness, Dr. James Latta, a licensed professional counselor testified that the victim had been a patient of his, as had her two children. He said that the defendant came to his office on April 8, 2013, and asked how his children were doing. Dr. Latta said it appeared that the defendant wanted his wife to be encouraged to continue in the marriage.

         Dara Newberry testified that she and the victim were good friends, as were her children with the victim's children, and she had lived in the same townhouse complex as the victim and defendant. Ms. Newberry said that the victim worked, while the defendant remained at their home. In January 2013, the victim told Ms. Newberry that, in the fall of 2012, the defendant had "thrown her on the ground and choked her." Previously, the victim had told her that she was leaving the defendant because he had had one or more affairs. The victim had a plan to leave and had located another place to live. Also, they discussed the victim's hiring a lawyer. Ultimately, the victim moved out of the townhouse on January 1, 2013.

         Blair Jones testified that that she was acquainted with both the victim, who had taught her children in school, and the defendant, whom she had met through the victim. The victim lost a "significant amount" of weight in 2010, before she and Ms. Jones became closer friends. She invited the victim and her family to a Thanksgiving-type dinner at her house in 2011, and they came and had a "wonderful time." They returned the following year, although uninvited, and the victim came back to her house the following day to say she was going to move to a rented house, but the defendant would not be doing so. Ms. Jones last saw the victim on April 13, 2013, just before she disappeared, at Rock and Romp, a family music festival. The victim was by herself at the time and told Ms. Jones that her children and the defendant were there also. The victim said that the defendant was there "stalking" her. Also, the victim said that she knew the defendant had been inside her house, and she believed he had broken into her house the night before and taken her telephone.

         Jesika Moxley testified that she and the victim were teachers at Frayser Achievement Elementary School. She said that, in the fall of 2012, she went into the victim's classroom, and the victim was not excited and happy as usual but was "collapsed at her desk, crying about something." The victim was "devastated[, ] and she decided that she was going to leave her marriage" but "didn't know how she would do that because she was afraid of him." She said that, if she left, "he'll take my kids from me." Ms. Moxley advised her to begin removing the defendant's name from their accounts and credit cards. In October 2012, after school, they went to the victim's house to pick up her children and go to the gym. Inside, the defendant began "screaming" at the victim, saying she was a "bitch for making him have to do everything" and "just complaining about being the Mr. Mom in the house." Ms. Moxley said that the defendant's demeanor "changed" when he saw that she was in the house. She told of a work holiday party in December 2012, attended by the victim and the defendant, where the victim was "dancing and having a great time just being herself" but not "really intermingling with" the defendant. Ms. Moxley saw the defendant "grab[] [the victim] by the arm and . . . h[o]ld her . . . [k]ind of like you do a child when you're scolding them in the grocery store." He told the victim, "[Y]ou're embarrassing me, you're not around me at all, I'm here by myself. You know, you're dancing with all these other people. Why aren't you with me[?]"

         Ms. Moxley saw text messages and heard voicemails sent by the defendant to the victim after she moved out in January 2013. Some were "pleading with her to not leave him, " while others were "very aggressive, " typed in all capital letters, saying "[Y]ou're a heartless bitch for doing this to us, our kids are going [to] hate you, I'm not going to let you get away with leaving me." According to Ms. Moxley, the victim received texts and voicemails from the defendant "[m]ultiple times a day." The defendant showed up uninvited at the victim's classroom on Valentine's Day 2013, and she told him to leave. On a later day, when Ms. Moxley and the victim left the school together, the defendant was standing behind the victim's car. As the victim put her cell phone to her ear, the defendant walked to the driver's side of her car, and she quickly backed out. The Thursday or Friday before the victim disappeared, she told Ms. Moxley that, when she had awakened the previous night, her cell phone was gone; and, around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., she thought she heard footsteps in her house and assumed it was her daughter. Earlier she had told Ms. Moxley that a hearing was scheduled in her divorce proceeding that would formalize the custody arrangement. The victim wanted custody of both children.

         The defendant did not show up for the scheduled court date; so another one was set, and the victim anticipated she would be awarded custody of both children. The victim had in her email account a file containing all correspondence between her and her lawyer, Bill Bruce; and, finding that it had been deleted, she became certain that the defendant had taken her cell phone.

         Ms. Moxley said that on Monday, April 15, the victim's demeanor at school was "[s]toic . . . [v]ery bland and almost scared, " which was unlike her. The victim told Ms. Moxley that the previous weekend, the defendant came to her house and tapped on one of the windows, calling for the children to let him in. The victim was furious and screamed at the defendant to leave. The victim told Ms. Moxley about the court date set for Friday, April 19, and said she did not want to report the defendant's coming to her house because she did not want "to wake a sleeping beast" and wanted "to play it calm." The victim believed that she would be awarded at least temporary primary custody of her children at the hearing.

         On Tuesday, April 16, Ms. Moxley noticed that the victim's car was not in the school lot when she arrived at 7:30 a.m. and thought it was unusual for the victim not to have arrived by that time. She telephoned the victim's cell phone, but the calls went to her voicemail "over and over." Using the victim's Facebook account, she sent a message at 8:30 a.m. to Melissa Smith, one of the victim's friends listed on her account, asking that she call Ms. Moxley regarding an emergency. Ms. Smith sent a response at 8:36 a.m., containing her office telephone number.

         James Dennis testified that he was the principal at Frayser Achievement Elementary School, where the victim was a teacher at the time of her death. Because of her need to take time off from work resulting from her ongoing divorce, the victim kept him informed regarding it and the child custody dispute. She said she wanted to get full custody of her children at the next hearing. The victim told him, "[I]f anything ever happens to me, if I ever come up missing, I want you to know that [the defendant] did it." She also said that the defendant had put his hands on her before, and it was "not going to happen again." Also, they had financial problems, and she said that money had come up missing a few times.

         The morning that the victim went missing, two of the teachers asked Mr. Dennis if the victim had called about not being at work. They first called her emergency contact number, her mother, who had no explanation, and then contacted the police to report that the victim was missing.

         Melissa Smith testified that she became friends with the victim at their neighborhood gym, and their daughters were friends as well. She learned in the fall of 2012 that the victim wanted to divorce the defendant on the "friendliest grounds possible." The victim's plan was to tell the defendant in an email on January 1, 2013, where she and the children would be living; and Ms. Smith believed the victim sent the email to the defendant. She said that the defendant wanted to reconcile with the victim, who did not want to do so. The defendant came to the victim's new residence and embarrassed her by serenading her, appeared at her school with flowers and gifts, and showed up, unexpectedly, at various places.

         The Thursday before the victim disappeared, Ms. Smith, the victim, and others were exercising at the Germantown Athletic Club and decided to record a video with a dance instructor who was leaving. The victim told Ms. Smith that her phone was missing from the table by the bed and that emails between her and her lawyer had been deleted from her computer. The following Saturday, Ms. Smith and the victim went together to the Rumba Room, a Latin dance place, and the victim was wearing "a beautiful dress" she had been given. On Monday, April 15, 2013, just before their 5:30 p.m. exercise class, the victim sent a text message to Ms. Smith saying she was not coming to the class. After the class, at 6:34 p.m., Ms. Smith texted the victim, saying that she missed her at the class, and the victim responded, "Had to nap. I am getting no sleep. Afraid [the defendant] is lurking. Lawyer says it is stalking." The next day, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, around 8:15 a.m., Ms. Smith received a Facebook message from the victim's account asking her to call the phone number listed in the message and stating that it was an emergency. Ms. Smith then sent a return message giving her office phone number. Ms. Moxley called her and said the victim had not shown up for work.

         Edward Raulerson testified that he first met the victim in 1993 when he was in the ninth grade and the victim in the seventh grade, and they dated for two years. He then moved with his family to Richmond, Virginia, and kept in touch with the victim through letters, phone calls, and, later, emails. In 2003, as he and his girlfriend were coming through Memphis, they had dinner with the victim and the defendant. Afterwards, he and the victim kept in occasional contact. In March 2013, with the victim's birthday approaching, he contacted her through Facebook and learned what had been happening in her life. They continued to stay in touch through Facebook, text messaging, and telephone calls. On March 14, 2013, he received a Facebook message from the victim saying that the defendant had threatened her, "came over in the middle of the night, woke [the victim] up, cried and marched off toward the train tracks with the train coming." Mr. Raulerson was living in Johnson City at the time and kept in daily touch with the victim. Two or three weeks before she disappeared, they became "flirtatious" and discussed meeting in May 2013. The victim told him that, just before she left the defendant, she had examined his cell phone while he was taking a shower and found text messages from a person named "Max." The defendant saw her looking at his cell phone and "tackle[d] her to the ground. And as she described to me, damn near broke her arm trying to get the phone from her hand." On the Thursday or Friday before she disappeared, the victim told Mr. Raulerson that her cell phone was missing. That morning, he sent her a text message saying, "Good morning" and received a return message "that was more sexually explicit than previous messages from her" and "went along with it." He later learned from the victim that her phone was missing and that she had not sent the messages to him. The Saturday before the victim disappeared, he spent "[m]ost of that day" talking with her on the phone.

         During their conversations, the victim told Mr. Raulerson that the defendant had shown up at her son's karate class, so she had to end their conversation. Later that day, she sent Mr. Raulerson a photograph taken at Rock and Romp and said that the defendant had shown "up there and was following her around the whole area." The victim also told him of a previous day during which the defendant had shown up unannounced at her residence and "shove[d]" a box of "Christmas stuff" into her hands and then walked in. Also, she told him of an incident which occurred around 3:00 a.m. on the Sunday before she disappeared, when the defendant had shown up and awakened her as he was tapping on the window of her son's room, and she told him to "get out of here right now." The following evening, on April 15, 2013, Mr. Raulerson was speaking with her and, about 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, texted her to say goodnight and received a response that said "shot, " and he presumed that she had intended to type the word "shit." Because he did not understand this message, he responded with a question mark and almost immediately telephoned her and heard her "screaming" at the defendant, saying, "Chris, get out. Chris, get out. You need to go." He heard the defendant tell her that he needed two minutes of her time, and she responded "[I]t's always two minutes with you. Two minutes is never enough. You need to go. You need to get out now." Finally, she told the defendant that he had "two minutes" and told Mr. Raulerson to call her back in two minutes, which he did. The tones of the victim's and the defendant's voices were angry, and the victim told Mr. Raulerson that she would talk to him later, but she did not call him again. He received a message from the victim's Facebook account at 11:37 p.m. that night, Monday, April 15, 2013, which he read aloud:

He knows everything. I can't believe I was such a fool. I'm taking the money I have and I'm leaving. I can't bear this. It's too much. All my friends and family are going to realize the truth and I will never be able to get them to trust me again. I am so sorry I did this to you. I . . . should have backed out with you when I had the chance. You have been wonderful during ...

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