Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville
Assigned on Briefs December 14, 2016
from the Criminal Court for Davidson County No. 2007-D-3224
Cheryl A. Blackburn, Judge
petitioner, Christopher Earl Watts, appeals the denial of
post-conviction relief from his convictions for aggravated
child abuse and aggravated child neglect, for which he
received an effective sentence of seventy-five years. On
appeal, the petitioner argues trial counsel provided
ineffective counsel by failing to fully explain the nature
and consequences of waiving his right to testify, failing to
call certain witnesses, and failing to file a motion in
limine to exclude evidence regarding living in the
"projects" and "on the streets." Due to
the cumulative effect of this allegedly ineffective
representation, the petitioner requests a new trial.
Following our review, we affirm the judgment of the trial
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Criminal
Hemenway, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant,
Christopher Earl Watts.
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Sophia
S. Lee, Assistant Attorney General; Glenn Funk, District
Attorney General; and Katrin Miller, Assistant District
Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.
Ross Dyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.
ROSS DYER, JUDGE.
and Procedural History
Trial Proceedings and Direct Appeal
to our opinion following the petitioner's direct appeal,
in April 2007, the petitioner was in a romantic relationship
with Lakeisha Watkins. State v. Christopher Earl
Watts, No. M2009-02570-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 1591730, at *5
(Tenn. Crim. App. May 3, 2012). The petitioner lived with Ms.
Watkins and the victim, Ms. Watkins' then
fifteen-month-old child, in an apartment rented by Ms.
Watkins. Id. The petitioner periodically babysat for
the victim. Id. at *10.
April 16, 2007, the petitioner babysat the victim while Ms.
Watkins went to the dentist. Id. at *5. According to
a statement later given by the petitioner to the police and
played for the jury at trial, while babysitting, the
petitioner brought the victim with him while he took the
trash outside to the dumpsters. Id. The victim let
go of the petitioner's finger, began running, and fell
down a nearby hill. Id. The victim injured his lip,
and a knot eventually appeared on his head. Id. The
petitioner denied there were bruises on the victim's
face. Id. The fall occurred around 11:00 a.m., but
the petitioner and Ms. Watkins waited until 7:00 p.m. to take
the victim to the hospital. Id.
Lawrence Stack, an emergency medicine physician at Vanderbilt
Hospital, and a resident examined the victim on April 16,
2007. Id. at *6. The petitioner identified himself
to the doctors as the victim's stepfather and said the
victim fell "'flat on his face'" while he
and the victim were walking down the hill to take out the
trash. Id. The petitioner further reported that
after falling, the victim slept for most of the day.
Id. Dr. Stack noted the victim was fussy,
unresponsive to attempts to open his eyes, and had multiple
bruises on his forehead, face, upper arms, and shoulders.
Id. Dr. Stack diagnosed the victim with a concussion
and admitted him to the hospital so the Care Team, a
consultation service responsible for evaluating children
suspected of being abused, could evaluate his bruises and
home environment. Id. at *6-7.
being discharged from the hospital, the victim lived with Ms.
Watkins' father for approximately three weeks.
Id. at *3. The victim subsequently lived with Ms.
Watkins' mother for another three weeks. Id. at
*4. Eventually, Ms. Watkins asked if the victim could return
to her home. Id. at *11. After a site visit from a
case worker during which Ms. Watkins lied and said she was no
longer in a relationship with the petitioner, the victim
began living with Ms. Watkins and the petitioner again.
petitioner and Ms. Watkins continued to reside together in
June 2007. Id. at *5. According to the
petitioner's statement, the morning of June 13, 2007, the
victim had a seizure while the petitioner changed his diaper.
Id. at *5. It was hot in the apartment, so the
petitioner thought the victim was having a heat stroke.
Id. The petitioner put the victim in front of a fan,
and the victim "'snapped out of it.'"
Riley, the petitioner's cousin, testified that on the
afternoon of June 13, 2007, the petitioner brought the victim
to a birthday party at her house. Id. at *7. The
victim "'just stood there'" and did not
move, talk, or play. Id. Ms. Watkins later arrived,
and the victim began to cry. Id.
the petitioner's statement and Ms. Watkins' trial
testimony, somebody named Michael spent the night in the
apartment on June 14, 2007. Id. at *5, *12. The
petitioner did not think Michael hurt the victim.
Id. at *5. Ms. Watkins testified that Michael never
had contact with the victim. Id. at *12.
petitioner further indicated in his statement that on the
morning of June 15, 2007, he woke up to find the victim had
gotten out of his playpen, gone downstairs, and was
"leaning on the couch." Id. at *5. At some
point, the victim began screaming, and Ms. Watkins gave him
Tylenol. Id. Later that day, Ms. Watkins fed the
victim and exited the apartment, leaving the petitioner alone
with the victim. Id. Shortly thereafter, the
petitioner noticed the victim's lips were blue, and he
appeared lifeless. Id. The petitioner ran outside
and called for help. Id. The petitioner, who did not
know how to perform cardio pulmonary resuscitation
("CPR"), blew into the victim's mouth and
"'pressed'" on the victim. Id. A
female neighbor then performed CPR on the victim, and he
began to breathe. Id.
Watkins offered a slightly different version of the events
occurring June 15, 2007. Id. at *11. According to
Ms. Watkins' trial testimony, around 9:00 a.m., she heard
the victim screaming and got out of bed to check on him.
Id. The petitioner was holding the victim and told
Ms. Watkins that he found the child downstairs,
"'asleep standing up.'" Id. About
five minutes later, the victim had a seizure that lasted five
to ten minutes. Id. The petitioner did not want to
call an ambulance, so she gave the victim Tylenol and let him
sleep. Id. The victim remained weak and sleepy for
the remainder of the day. Id.
9:45 p.m., Ms. Watkins left the apartment to get something to
eat while the petitioner watched the victim. Id.
When she left, the victim appeared to be breathing normally.
Id. When she returned about five minutes later, the
victim was not breathing. Id. One neighbor performed
CPR, while another called 911. Id.
Sandra Moutsios, a pediatrician and internist at Vanderbilt
Hospital, testified at trial as an expert in pediatric
medicine and child abuse. Id. at *7. According to
Dr. Moutsios, after coming to the emergency room on June 15,
2007, the victim was treated for continuous seizures,
stabilized, and admitted to the hospital. Id. Dr.
Moutsios was part of the Care Team to subsequently evaluate
the victim. Id.
Moutsios testified extensively about the injuries sustained
by the victim and indicated "'it was his mental
status that was most concerning.'" Id. Dr.
Moutsios opined the victim sustained multiple injuries to his
brain, one of which was acute and occurred within a couple
days of June 15, 2007. Id. at *9. The other brain
injuries were older. Id. Because the brain injuries
were different ages, they were not the result of a single
fall down the stairs. Id. at *9-10. According to Dr.
Moutsios, had Ms. Watkins and the petitioner sought medical
treatment for the victim prior to the seizure occurring June
15, 2007, the later seizure may have been prevented.
Id. at *9.
addition to brain injuries, the Care Team discovered that the
victim suffered a fracture to his left arm bone near the
wrist. Id. at *8. Dr. Moutsios described the
fracture as a "'buckle fracture'" meaning
"'there was some force that caused the outside layer
of the bone to actually buckle.'" Id.
Significant force would have caused the fracture and could
have been the result of a "'twisting
mechanism.'" The fracture had started to heal, and
Dr. Moutsios estimated the victim's arm was broken one to
two weeks before he was brought to the hospital on June 15,
petitioner's trial, the State made reference to Ms.
Watkins living in the "projects" and Mr. Watkins
living "on the streets" in its opening statement.
Trial counsel did not object. The State then called the
following witnesses as part of its case-in-chief: Janell
Driver, a paramedic with the Nashville Fire Department; Bryan
Jones, a paramedic with the Nashville Fire Department;
Falonda Tolston, a case manager for Child Protective
Services; Detective Woodrow Ledford of the Metropolitan
Nashville Police Department ("MNPD"); John Watkins,
Lakeisha Watkins' father; Pamela Watkins, Lakeisha
Watkins' mother; Detective Faye Okert of the MNPD; Dr.
Lawrence Stack, an ER physician at Vanderbilt Hospital;
Jessica Mitchell, Ms. Watkins' next door neighbor; Nicole
Riley, the petitioner's cousin; Latoya Starks, a neighbor
of Ms. Watkins; Dr. Sandra Moutsios, a pediatrician and
internist at ...