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Cauthern v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 24, 2017


          Session December 6, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Gibson County No. 13762 Don R. Ash, Senior Judge.

         Ronald Cauthern ("the Petitioner") filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis in the Gibson County Circuit Court, alleging that he was entitled to a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. The coram nobis court summarily denied the petition after concluding that the petition was untimely. The Petitioner now appeals the denial of coram nobis relief. Upon review, we affirm the coram nobis court's determination that the Petitioner's claim regarding an unedited videotape is time-barred. However, we reverse the judgment of the coram nobis court as to the Petitioner's claim regarding lab bench notes and remand for the coram nobis court to determine whether the Petitioner is entitled to due process tolling on this claim.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part, and Remanded.

          Michael R. Working, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ronnie M. Cauthern.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; James E. Gaylord, Senior Counsel; John W. Carney, District Attorney General; and Arthur F. Bieber and Robert J. Nash, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Stephen Ross Johnson, Knoxville, Tennessee; and Dimitrios T. Drivas, Brendan G. Woodard, and Jayashree Mitra, New York, New York, for amicus curiae, The Federal Republic of Germany.

          Robert L. Holloway, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Norma McGee Ogle and Alan E. Glenn, JJ., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In 1988, the Petitioner and co-defendant Brett Patterson were convicted by a Montgomery County jury of first degree burglary, aggravated rape, and two counts of felony murder for their involvement in a 1987 home invasion that occurred in Clarksville. State v. Cauthern, 778 S.W.2d 39, 40 (Tenn. 1989). Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury sentenced co-defendant Patterson to life imprisonment, and the Petitioner received the death penalty for both murders. Id. The Tennessee Supreme Court provided the following facts on the Petitioner's initial direct appeal:

The Smiths were both captains in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Campbell Kentucky. They lived in a split-level home in Clarksville, Tennessee, that they had purchased shortly after assignment to the nearby base. Both were nurses. When neither of them reported to their duty stations on the morning of 9 January 1987 and telephone calls to their home received no answer, two persons from the base went to their home, observed broken glass in the rear door, and both cars in the garage. A 911 call was made and the police arrived promptly and discovered the body of Patrick Smith lying face down on the bed in the master bedroom, facing 90 degrees counter clockwise from his sleeping position, and wrapped in the top sheet. He had been strangled to death, apparently with a length of 880 military cord. The bed was broken and tilted indicating a violent struggle had taken place. His wife's nude body was found on the floor. A scarf was tied around her neck and a small vase had been inserted into the scarf. She died of strangulation, the vase was obviously used to twist the scarf and reduce the circumference. Both had massive hematoma of the neck area. Mrs. Smith's nightgown and buttons torn from it were found in the room. Semen was apparent on the gown and a comforter from the bed. Sperm was found in the vaginal vault. Tests revealed the presence of PGM Type 1 secretions. The forensic serologist testified that the PGM Type 1 from the swab "was consistent with [the Petitioner], as well as Rosemary Smith."
The police found the telephone line had been cut near its entry into the outside wall of the house. A shoe print was found on the back door that matched [co-defendant] Patterson's shoe. In a statement that [co-defendant Patterson] gave police he admitted kicking the back door once or twice, but said it would not open so [the Petitioner and co-defendant Patterson] obtained a hammer and broke the pane of glass nearest the door knob to gain entry. The house was ransacked, chest of drawers open, luggage and clothing scattered about. In the master bedroom, the police found a piece of paper upon which was written [the Petitioner's] name, address and telephone number. Rosemary Smith's sister testified she was familiar with both her sister's and her brother-in-law's handwriting and the information about [the Petitioner] was not written by either of them. The cumulative evidence in this record establishes that [the Petitioner] and the Smiths had been acquainted for approximately a year at the time of the murders, that he had performed some work on Patrick's Mercedes and perhaps some additional work at their home, although [the Petitioner] said in one of his statements that he had never been inside their home until the evening of 8 January 1987.
As far as this record shows[, ] the investigation of these murders did not focus on [the Petitioner] and [co-defendant] Patterson until James Phillip Andrew telephoned the Clarksville Police and asked to speak to an officer he had seen on T.V. news in a segment reporting on the double murder. That call was made at about 11:00 a.m. Monday morning 12 January 1987. A meeting with Andrew was arranged and as a result of the information he gave police, [the Petitioner] and [co-defendant] Patterson were arrested that afternoon.
Andrew was in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Campbell. He was living in a trailer located in a mobile home park in Oak Grove, Kentucky, which he shared with Joe Denning and another man. Joe Denning was acquainted with [the Petitioner] and [co-defendant] Patterson and Andrew became acquainted with them through Denning. Andrew testified that [the
Petitioner] and [co-defendant] Patterson came to the trailer to see Denning about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning, 9 January, that after being awakened by their arrival he went back to sleep and neither heard nor saw anything relevant to the Smith murders. Andrew went to work at the base as usual that day and saw [the Petitioner] again that night at the trailer and later at Rockvegas. It was not until Saturday afternoon at the trailer when they started to get "high" smoking marijuana that [the Petitioner] began telling Andrew about his role in the Smith murders. Andrew did not believe him until [the Petitioner] went to his car trunk and brought a box into the trailer containing credit cards, identification cards in the names of Patrick and Rosemary Smith, clothing and other items of personal property taken from their home.
[The Petitioner] gave several statements to the police, one of which was recorded on tape, transcribed and introduced at trial. Although he admitted participating in a robbery of the Smith premises, he denied that he "planned" anything or raped or murdered anyone. He claimed that he had had sexual relations with Mrs. Smith twice before and that she invited him to come to the Smith house and knock on the back door that Thursday evening. His statement to the police contained numerous contradictions and discrepancies. The "statement" he gave Andrew on Saturday afternoon while high on marijuana more closely coincided with proven events than any version that appears in this record. We quote from that part of Andrew's testimony, as follows:
A[:] He said that him and [co-defendant] Patterson went to the Smith's house-see, I didn't know the names then.
Q[:] Was the name at that time not in the murder report in the paper?
A[:] They weren't in the newspaper, there were no names and he said how they broke into the house, they kicked the door and they broke the window in the door, they opened the door, went in and they said they were sleeping and they woke up and Mr. Smith-you know, kept saying-what do you want and he said-[the Petitioner] said that [co-defendant] Patterson had jumped Mr. Smith and [the Petitioner] had told Mrs. Smith to get in the closet. While he was doing that, they were trying to strangle-said they was trying to strangle Mr. Smith and [the Petitioner] took Mrs. Smith in another room and said he had raped her then and went back in to help [co-defendant] Patterson with Mr. Smith, and they said they couldn't get him down and they had to use a strap or belt, I don't know, to strangle him, and when they got him down, they both went in and then they raped her and then [the Petitioner] killed Mrs. Smith-
Q[:] [The Petitioner] killed who?
A[:] Mrs. Smith.
Q[:] Did he tell you how he killed Mrs. Smith?
A[:] Yes.
Q[:] Tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury what he told you as to how he did that?
A[:] Okay, he first tried to strangle her, he couldn't do it, and then he grabbed the scarf, wrapped it around her neck and put a vase in it like a tourniquet and turned it until she strangled.
Q[:] Did he talk to you about the sexual-
A[:] Yes.
Q[:] What did he tell you about that?
A[:] He says-that she wasn't putting up a fight, she enjoyed it.
Q[:] He told you that she was enjoying it?
A[:] She enjoyed it, yes.
Q[:] Anything else he said about the rape?
A[:] Not about the rape, no-after that, do you want me to ...

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