Session June 7, 2016
from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 13-06162 J.
Robert Carter, Jr., Judge
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.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal
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,
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.
E. Glenn, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
Robert W. Wedemeyer and J. Ross Dyer, JJ., joined.
E. GLENN, JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 ...