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Watts v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 27, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs December 14, 2016

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Davidson County No. 2007-D-3224 Cheryl A. Blackburn, Judge

         The 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 court.

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

          Laural 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.

          J. Ross Dyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.


          J. ROSS DYER, JUDGE.

         Facts and Procedural History

         A. Trial Proceedings and Direct Appeal

         According 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.

         On 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.

         Dr. 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.

         After 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. Id.

         The 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.'" Id.

         Nicole 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.

         According 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.

         The 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.

         Ms. 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.

         Around 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.

         Dr. 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.

         Dr. 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.

         In 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, 2007. Id.

         At the 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 ...

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