Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville
L.B. RITTENBERRY, JR.
STATE OF TENNESSEE
Assigned on Briefs February 15, 2017
from the Criminal Court for Davidson County No. 2009-A-646
Mark J. Fishburn, Judge
L.B. Rittenberry, Jr., was convicted of second degree murder
despite his claim of self-defense. He appeals the denial of
his petition for post-conviction relief, which alleged
ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Petitioner argues
that the post-conviction court erred by finding that he was
not prejudiced by trial counsel's failure to adequately
investigate the victim's prior history of violence. We
affirm the decision of the post-conviction court.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Criminal
Jennifer Hall, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, L.B.
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter;
Alexander C. Vey, Assistant Attorney General; Glenn R. Funk,
District Attorney General; and Brian Ewald, Assistant
District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of
Timothy L. Easter, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., and Robert W. Wedemeyer, J.,
TIMOTHY L. EASTER, JUDGE
History and Factual Summary
eight years ago, Petitioner killed Charles Steele. Petitioner
was arrested after he called 911 and reported that he had
beaten an intruder with a baseball bat for breaking into his
apartment while he was cooking dinner. The alleged intruder
was Charles Steele, a known drug user and occasional drug
dealer, with whom Petitioner was acquainted before the
incident. The police investigation yielded evidence which
suggested that, on the night of the incident, both men were
consuming alcohol. An autopsy revealed that the victim's
system also contained Xanax, Valium, marijuana, and
antidepressants. Although Petitioner argued that he acted in
self-defense, the State presented evidence at trial which
contradicted Petitioner's claim. An expert in forensic
pathology testified that the victim "had five
lacerations on the back of his head caused by blows powerful
enough to split the skin." The victim also had a
contusion on his forehead with a carpet imprint, which
"was consistent with the victim having been hit on the
head while he was lying face-down on the carpet." A
kitchen knife found in the victim's hand was of the same
brand as some of Petitioner's own kitchen knives. A
cellmate of Petitioner testified that Petitioner admitted to
intentionally beating the victim with a bat after the two men
got into an argument. Petitioner also told his cellmate that
he "put a knife in the wrong place." Petitioner did
not indicate that the victim had broken into the apartment.
Petitioner was convicted of second degree murder and received
a twenty-year sentence. This Court affirmed his conviction on
direct appeal. State v. L.B. Rittenberry, Jr., No.
M2011-00857-CCA-R3-CD, 2012 WL 3041344, at *1-9 (Tenn. Crim.
App. July 26, 2012), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Dec.
filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief. After
appointment of counsel, Petitioner filed an amended petition
alleging that Petitioner received ineffective assistance from
trial counsel. The post-conviction court held an evidentiary
hearing during which the following evidence was adduced.
introduced a copy of Mr. Steele's criminal history which
showed several charges of aggravated assault and a charge of
harassment in 2008. However, the only conviction arguably
related to violent conduct was a conviction for simple
assault in 1999.
was represented by two attorneys at trial. Lead counsel had
been with the public defender's office for fourteen years
at the time of trial and had previously handled between
fifteen and twenty murder cases. Lead counsel testified that
she "spent hours and hours" investigating Mr.
Steele for this case. During her investigation, she
discovered an arrest warrant for the 2008 harassment charge.
The affidavit of complaint was sworn out by Mr. Steele's
brother-in-law. The brother-in-law alleged that he kicked Mr.
Steele out of his apartment for using drugs in front of
children. Mr. Steele became irate and threatened his
brother-in-law. On a later date, Mr. Steele called his
brother-in-law and left a message threatening to "bash
his brains on the concrete and whip him." Lead counsel
testified that although she discovered the warrant, the
reason that she did not introduce the warrant at trial was
because she "may have just forgotten." Moreover,
Mr. Steele's brother-in-law had shown himself to be
hostile to Petitioner's case during the pre-trial
proceedings, and lead counsel figured that Mr. Steele's
brother-in-law would not be cooperative with the defense in
counsel considered her failure to use the harassment warrant
"a huge mistake" and immediately directed
post-conviction counsel to the existence of the warrant when
contacted about the post-conviction petition. Lead counsel
insisted that this evidence "absolutely" could have
changed the outcome of this case and that her performance in
this regard constituted ineffective assistance. Similarly,
lead counsel admitted that she had ignored several of Mr.
Steele's other previous criminal charges, thinking that
they "were just too old to be relevant." Lead