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State v. Langston

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 12, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
WILLIAM LANGSTON

          Session January 5, 2017

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 14-04014 J. Robert Carter, Jr., Judge

          Howard B. Manis, Memphis, Tennessee, for the Defendant-Appellant, William Langston.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrew C. Coulam, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Marianne L. Bell and Danielle McCollum, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Camille R. McMullen, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams and Alan E. Glenn, JJ., joined.

         The Defendant-Appellant, William Langston, was convicted by a Shelby County jury of the second degree murder of his wife and received a twenty-year sentence. On appeal, Langston argues: (1) the trial court erred by denying his request to enter a guilty plea to a pending indictment charging him with voluntary manslaughter; (2) the trial court abused its discretion when it accepted a police officer as an expert in the field of blood spatter analysis at trial; (3) the instructions in his case precluded the jury from considering the offense of voluntary manslaughter; (4) the evidence is insufficient to sustain his conviction; and (5) his sentence is excessive. We affirm the judgment of the trial court but remand the case for entry of a corrected judgment reflecting the date that the second degree murder conviction was entered following sentencing.

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

          OPINION

          CAMILLE R. McMULLEN, JUDGE

         On December 5, 2013, the Shelby County Grand Jury indicted Langston in case number 13-05917 for the voluntary manslaughter of his wife, Kimberly Langston. On August 19, 2014, the grand jury issued a superseding indictment in case number 14-04014 charging Langston with the first degree premeditated murder of his wife.

         On September 16, 2014, after submitting an order regarding the substitution of counsel in case number 13-05917 and prior to the prosecutor's arrival in court, defense counsel informed the trial court that Langston intended to enter an "open" guilty plea to the voluntary manslaughter charge, whereby he agreed to plead guilty and to be sentenced at the discretion of the trial court. He conceded that he had not yet spoken to the prosecutor about this guilty plea. The trial court, recognizing that Langston had been charged in a superseding indictment with first degree premeditated murder, stated that it would not take any action until the prosecutor appeared in court.

         When the prosecutor arrived a few minutes later, she announced the State's intention to proceed on the superseding indictment charging Langston with first degree premeditated murder and requested that the court sign a judgment entering a nolle prosequi to the indictment charging Langston with voluntary manslaughter. Defense counsel urged the trial court not to sign this judgment on the ground that Langston had already announced his intent to enter a plea to voluntary manslaughter. He also asserted that the indictment charging Langston with first degree premeditated murder was not a superseding indictment but a new indictment and that the State had been given several opportunities to dismiss the old indictment once it obtained the new indictment. When the trial court asked if the defense was under the impression that the State could not dismiss the indictment in case number 13-05917, defense counsel replied that the old indictment was pending when Langston appeared in court that morning and that the State had not yet dismissed it. Defense counsel also claimed that Langston had a right to change his plea from not guilty to guilty pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11. At that point, the trial court asserted that it had the discretion to determine whether to accept the plea, and defense counsel replied that the court's discretion was limited to determining whether there was a factual basis for the plea and whether the plea was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. The court responded that it probably would have accepted Langston's plea to voluntary manslaughter if it had occurred prior to the issuance of the new indictment, but that in light of the indictment charging him with first degree premeditated murder, Langston no longer had the option of entering a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter. The court then granted the State's motion, entered the judgment dismissing the indictment for voluntary manslaughter, and rejected Langston's attempt to enter a guilty plea.

         Next, Langston filed an unsuccessful motion seeking permission to file an interlocutory appeal under Rule 9 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure regarding the trial court's rejection of his plea to voluntary manslaughter before seeking an extraordinary appeal in this court pursuant to Rule 10 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. This court denied the Rule 10 appeal on January 30, 2015. See State v. William Langston, No. W2014-02202-CCA-R10-CD, slip op. at 1-4 (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 30, 2015) (Rule 10 Order). In its order, this court noted that Langston did not have an absolute right to enter a guilty plea and that the trial court was not bound to accept a plea even if the offered plea met the constitutional test. Id. at 2. This court also recognized that the prosecutor's discretion to terminate a pending prosecution "'should not be judicially disturbed unless clearly contrary to manifest public interest.'" Id. at 3 (quoting State v. Harris, 33 S.W.3d 767, 770 (Tenn. 2000)). In denying the application for extraordinary review, this court concluded that the State's decision to dismiss the indictment charging voluntary manslaughter was not "clearly contrary to manifest public interest" and that the trial court had not abused its discretion in rejecting the guilty plea. Id.

         Trial.

         The victim, Kimberly Langston, operated a daycare facility in the home she shared with her husband, William Langston, the Defendant-Appellant in this case. At the time of her death, the victim had obtained a master's degree, was planning to open a daycare outside her home, and was about to obtain her daycare center license. She also worked as a substitute teacher.

         The victim and Langston argued with increasing frequency and intensity in the months prior to the victim's death. Approximately one month before the victim died, Jennifer Flack, the victim's relative and employee, heard Langston yelling at the victim as she and the daycare children entered the home. A few days before the victim's death, Langston called the victim's sister, Bernadette Sutton, during an argument and told Sutton to come get the victim.[1] Sutton said Langston was "hysterical" during this conversation and informed her that the victim had started coming home whenever she wanted, which caused her to worry. When Sutton went over to check on the victim the next day, Langston told her the victim had called the police on him the previous night and that he was tired of having a daycare in his home. Both Flack and Sutton admitted they had never witnessed Langston threatening or physically abusing the victim.

         The day before the victim's death, Marshaye Smith, the victim's best friend, saw the victim and Langston at their home. Smith could tell they had been arguing, and she told the victim not to say anything to Langston because he looked like he was going to "blow." Smith said she had overheard several arguments in which Langston called the victim derogatory names and threatened to throw her out of the house and the victim claimed she was going to divorce Langston and demand alimony and child support. During one of these arguments, Smith told the victim to call 9-1-1 because she could tell that Langston was "upset, angry."

         On May 24, 2013, at approximately 7:00 a.m., K.L., [2] the victim and Langston's twelve-year-old daughter, was awake but resting in her bed with her eyes closed. As she was lying there, K.L. heard her parents arguing. She heard Langston say, "Where my keys at, Kim?" Then she heard the victim respond that she did not know where his keys were, and their argument intensified. Langston informed the victim that he would keep her cell phone until she returned his keys, and the victim threatened to call the police. K.L. then heard Langston say, "[G]o on and stab me, Kim."

         A moment later, K.L. heard the home's alarm system sound, which meant that someone had opened the back door near the kitchen. Approximately a minute later, the alarm system sounded again, and K.L. knew that this person had reentered the home. An instant later, she heard a gunshot. K.L. said she did not hear her parents talking to one another from the time she heard the person reenter the home to the time she heard the gunshot.

         K.L. got up when she heard the gunshot, and Langston, who looked shocked, ran into her bedroom and said, "I ain't try to do it, I ain't try to do it." K.L. and her father went into the living room, where K.L. saw her mother lying dead on the floor. K.L. did not notice a knife near her mother's body but saw her one-year-old cousin sitting in a baby chair near the body. Langston went outside, and K.L. called the police. Shortly thereafter, Rudy Mosby, a neighbor, and one of K.L.'s teachers stopped to help until the police arrived. K.L. heard her father tell Mosby that he did not mean to do it. K.L. said that although her parents often argued prior to her mother's death, she never witnessed any physical violence.

         At around 7:45 a.m. on May 24, 2013, Officer Brett Giannini approached Langston in the driveway of his home. Langston appeared "nervous" and "kind of hysterical" and had blood stains on his shirt. Langston told Officer Giannini that he "didn't mean to do it" and that he had taken his gun, which was wrapped in a shirt, and had thrown it into the vacant lot next door. After placing Langston in the back of his patrol car, Officer Giannini went inside the home and observed the victim, who was clearly deceased, but did not observe a knife near the victim. Langston later told Officer Giannini that the argument with the victim had started over some keys, and then the victim pulled a knife on him, and he had a gun wrapped in a shirt. Langston said he did not believe his gun would fire, that he did not mean to pull the trigger, and that the shooting was accidental. Langston also said his gun was still wrapped in the shirt when it fired. Officer Giannini later walked to the edge of the property and saw a shirt lying on the ground on the other side of the fence, which was consistent with what Langston had told him.

         That same morning, Investigator Charles Cathey walked to the vacant lot next door and found a black nine millimeter semiautomatic handgun wrapped in a blue and white shirt. After photographs were taken, Investigator Cathey unwrapped the gun and unloaded it before placing it into evidence. As he was unloading the handgun, he noticed that one casing was lodged in the chamber and had not been properly ejected from the gun and that a live round had attempted to feed into the chamber. He also noted that the gun's magazine plate, which keeps rounds in the magazine, had come loose from the weapon before he unloaded it. Investigator Cathey said the handgun, which was an older model, was in poor condition and that because the casing had not been properly ejected from the gun to allow the next live round to be fired, the gun had malfunctioned. However, he asserted that once the trigger was pulled on the gun, the bullet would fire regardless of whether the casing became lodged in the chamber.

         Later, Investigator Sheila Wright took photographs and measurements and sketched the crime scene based on instructions from the lead officer at the scene She noted that the victim's right hand was slightly clenched and that the end of a knife was under the victim's right shoulder. However, she acknowledged that the paramedics had handled the victim's body before she arrived on the scene. Investigator Wright later collected the knife and a bullet found on floor near the victim as evidence. She also took one measurement of blood spatter on the wall behind the victim but admitted she did not measure the height of each of the blood spatters on this wall. She also acknowledged that she had not been instructed to measure the height of the bullet hole in the wall and had not been told to take any measurements regarding the trajectory of the bullet that killed the victim.

         Sergeant Michael Brown, a homicide investigator, later talked to Langston at the police station after he was advised of his rights. Sergeant Brown did not make any notes of this discussion, and their meeting was not recorded pursuant to police department policy. During this discussion, Langston informed Sergeant Brown that the victim had been out all night and had something belonging to him, and when he asked her for it, an argument ensued. The victim ran into the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and told him that if he did not leave her alone she was going to "stick him, " and Langston told her to get away from him. Once he got around the victim in the kitchen, Langston went outside to his shed and retrieved his gun. He reentered the home and told the victim to put the knife down, but she refused. He then raised the gun at the victim, told her that he would defend himself, and again instructed her to put the knife down. He said that as he had the gun raised in the direction of the victim, it went off a single time. Langston knew the victim had likely been hit by the bullet because he saw her fall. After the gun fired, he carried it back outside to the shed, reentered the home, and tried to "wake up" the victim. Langston then took his daughter, K.L., and her cousin to a neighbor's home. When Sergeant Brown asked Langston why he got his gun instead of calling the police after he was able to escape the victim with the knife, Langston got agitated, claimed he acted in self-defense, and began calling Sergeant Brown a "mother f[ ----- ]" and a "b[----]" for asking him that question before informing him that he no longer wanted to talk to him. Sergeant Brown acknowledged that from 11:36 a.m. when he began talking to Langston to just after 2:00 p.m. when he signed his written statement, Langston never wavered from his version of what happened.

         Langston subsequently gave a formal written statement that was consistent with what he had told Sergeant Brown. In this statement, Langston said that the victim had been armed with a ten-inch knife and that he had been eight feet away from the victim when his gun fired and the bullet struck her. He said that the victim, who had the knife in her left hand, pointed it at him and said that if he got near her she would stab him. In response, Langston went outside to his shed to get his gun, reentered the house, and went into the living room. When the victim came at him with the knife, he raised his gun, which was wrapped in a shirt, and "it went off." Langston saw the victim fall, and he went to her, held her head, and wiped the blood off of her. He also threw his gun, still wrapped in the shirt, into the lot next door. Then he went into his daughter's room, got her up, and told her to call 9-1-1. Because his daughter was screaming, he went across the street and told his neighbor that he had accidentally shot his wife. Langston said the police arrived a short time later, and he told an officer what happened.

         In his statement, Langston said he went outside to get his gun because he was "scared" and "wanted to protect [him]self." He also said he reentered his home because he wanted to get the keys to his car so he could leave. Langston said his gun had been loaded for "the last seven or eight years" and "was cocked and [he] couldn't get it uncocked, " which was "how the gun went off." He maintained that his wife would have stabbed him if he had not acted and that he never intended to shoot her.

         Langston also asserted in his statement that the victim had, in the past, hit him over the head with a vase, pulled knives on him several times, and cut him and his clothes. He said that the victim was "crazy, " that she had stabbed two people and had stolen her father's truck, and that she had threatened to hurt him. He said the victim claimed she would not be punished for attacking him because she would "play crazy." Langston insisted that although his wife had been sleeping with another man for months, he was not jealous and just wanted her to live her life so he could live his, but she refused to leave. He denied ever hitting the victim.

         Special Agent Cervinia Braswell of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, who was accepted as an expert in the field of firearms identification, analyzed the gun involved in this case. She confirmed that the cartridge case and the bullet found at the scene had been fired by this gun. After conducting several test fires of the gun, Agent Braswell concluded that it was not malfunctioning. She noted that the handgun's floor plate, which held the magazine in place, was cracked so that it would not remain on the gun and that because the floor plate was plastic, it could be broken if the gun was thrown. She further observed that the gun's two safety mechanisms, a manual safety on the side of the gun and a quarter-cock function that kept the hammer from resting on the firing pin, were both functioning and would have prevented the weapon from being fired unintentionally. Agent Braswell stated that the gun would not fire if it was dropped or if something hit the back of the hammer and would only fire if someone pulled the trigger. She also observed that the handgun did not have a hair-trigger because the trigger pull was in the medium range at 6.5 pounds of pressure. She said that if the gun had been wrapped in a shirt when it was fired, then the shirt could have impeded the rearward travel of the gun's slide, which could have resulted in a cartridge casing not ejecting properly. Finally, Agent Braswell said that the gun's trigger guard prevented an individual from accidentally pulling the trigger.

         Dr. Erica Curry, a medical examiner, was accepted as an expert in the field of forensic pathology. She stated that she had reviewed the victim's autopsy report generated in her office and noted that the victim sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the head, with the bullet entering at the victim's left eyebrow and transecting the brain stem and cerebellum before exiting the back of the skull. Dr. Curry said the areas of the brain damaged by the bullet controlled respiration, heartbeat, motor function, and consciousness, which made the victim's injuries fatal. She also noted that the bullet's trajectory was slightly downward from the front to the back because the entrance wound was approximately one inch higher than the exit wound. Dr. Curry stated that the gunpowder stippling near the entrance wound indicated that the gun was fired at the victim from an intermediate range of between six inches and three feet.

         Lieutenant Anthony Mullins, who was accepted as an expert in the area of blood spatter analysis, stated that he reviewed the crime scene photographs, the crime scene sketches, Langston's statement, the photographs of Langston's person, the victim's autopsy report, and the officers' reports and supplements before writing a detailed report regarding his opinion in this case. He opined that it was "more likely that [the victim] was sitting down than she was standing at her full height" at the time she was shot. While acknowledging that the victim "could be kneeling" or "could be standing and stooped over, " Lieutenant Mullins said he did not believe either of these options were likely given the final position of the victim's body. Instead, he thought "it was more likely . . . that she's lower to the ground and probably seated on the floor." Lieutenant Mullins said that if the victim had been standing up, he would have expected the blood spatter from the exit wound to have hit the wall around the victim's height of five feet and four inches and below. Instead, the blood spatter on the wall was at the height of four feet and below. Moreover, if the victim had been standing upright, he would have expected to see blood spatter from the entrance wound on the top of her feet, but there was no blood present there. He also concluded that the blood on Langston's shirt indicated that he was fairly close to the victim when he fired the shot. He added that if the victim had been standing when shot, he would have expected the blood to be higher on Langston's shirt.

         Although Lieutenant Mullins opined that the victim was most likely seated when she was shot, he could not rule out the possibility that she was standing or standing while stooped over at the time of the shooting, which was consistent with her lunging to stab someone. He acknowledged it was difficult for him to form an opinion about the victim's position at the time of the shooting because he was given limited photographs and sketches of the scene. He acknowledged that he was not present at the crime scene and did not have control over what photographs were taken at the scene, which meant that inconsistent blood stains could have existed that were not depicted in the available photographs. When asked about whether the trajectory rod used at the scene affected his opinion, Lieutenant Mullins stated that he could not "say with any scientific certainty that [the victim] wasn't standing or kneeling or, you know, stooped" but asserted that he did not "think that the trajectory [rod] would completely exclude [the victim being] seated in some position there." Lieutenant Mullins observed that emergency medical personnel likely moved the victim's body at least slightly and that this movement could have affected the accuracy of his opinion. When asked by the defense if it would be fair to say that his opinions, at best, were highly speculative, Lieutenant Mullins answered:

What I would say is this. Not being on the scene, not having the photographs that I would like to have, not having the measurements that I would like to have, not having seen it with my own eyes, I have to speculate about some things for example the knife and the cell phone based on where they are in the photographs. Some things I can tell you definitively and some things I can't say and exclude all other possibilities. I wouldn't say it's speculation but it's the best that I can do with the information that I'm given.

         Ross Gardner, who was accepted an expert in the field of crime scene reconstruction and blood stain pattern analysis, testified for the defense. Gardner opined that the victim had been in a generally upright position at the time she was shot. He explained that he owned a forensic education and consulting group, had a military and law enforcement background, had written many articles on crime scene investigation, had completed over 3000 hours in formal training in criminal investigation, including 1000 hours in crime scene investigation, and was a member of several international professional associations for blood pattern analysis, identification, and crime scene reconstruction. He said that he had been accepted as an expert for the prosecution and the defense in the fields of crime scene investigation and blood pattern analysis throughout the United States. He also said his report in this case had been peer reviewed.

         Gardner said he reviewed the crime scene photographs, the autopsy report and photographs, the crime scene sketch, the report from Lieutenant Mullins, and the police reports before forming an opinion as to the victim's position at the time of the shooting. He asserted that the ballistics evidence, when he combined with his reconstruction software, established that the victim was generally in an upright position at the time she was shot. Given the location of the bullet hole in the wall, the estimated distance between the victim and the wall, and the trajectory for the bullet, Gardner opined to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the victim was not seated at the moment she was shot. While he believed that the victim's "wound correlate[d] to the trajectory if she's in an upright position, " Gardner acknowledged that the victim could have been slightly crouched at the time she was shot. He also opined that the knife was "dynamically involved in the incident" and had not been staged after the fact.

         Gardner recognized some difficulties regarding the nature of the evidence. He acknowledged that because there were not many crime scene measurements, he was required to estimate a substantial amount of data, including the measurements of a nearby crib mattress from which he deduced other measurements. He also acknowledged that he used the word "approximation" thirteen times in his report and that he did not have all the photographs and measurements he would have liked when making his three-dimensional reconstruction of the crime scene.

         Reginald Langston, the Defendant-Appellant's brother, stated that he spent a substantial amount of time with his brother and the victim prior to the shooting. He said that on the night prior to the victim's death, he and his brother watched a basketball game together, and his brother appeared to be in a good mood. He admitted that he had not been present when his brother fatally shot the victim.

         Michael Reddoch, the Defendant-Appellant's friend, said that he had known Langston for thirteen years. He said he first met Langston when Langston was a waiter for his family at the Memphis Country Club. He said that in 2013, following the shooting incident, Langston worked for him at his company and was a reliable employee. While Reddock believed that Langston was an honest and truthful person, he admitted he had not met the victim and did not have any knowledge about Langston's relationship with his wife.

         Following the conclusion of the proof, the jury convicted Langston of second degree murder, and the trial court imposed a mid-range twenty-year sentence. A judgment of conviction was entered, and Langston filed a motion for new trial on November 24, 2015, which was denied. Langston then filed a timely notice of appeal.

         We note that the entry date on Langston's judgment appears to be incorrect. Although this judgment, which reflects Langston's twenty-year sentence for the second degree murder conviction, had an entry date and a filing date of October 9, 2015, which was the date the jury returned the verdict in this case, the cover page of the transcript of Langston's sentencing hearing shows a date of November 9, 2015, and the first page of the sentencing transcript shows that Langston's sentencing hearing took place on November 6, 2015. In any case, it appears that Langston's motion for new trial, which was filed on November 24, 2015, was timely. However, in light of the aforementioned clerical error, we remand the case for entry of a corrected judgment showing the date that the second degree murder conviction was entered following sentencing.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Plea to Voluntary Manslaughter.

         Langston contends that he had a constitutional right to enter a guilty plea to the pending indictment charging him with voluntary manslaughter. He also asserts that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the State's request to enter a nolle prosequi to this indictment without first determining whether there was a factual basis for the plea and whether his plea was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.

         Langston notes that at the time the indictment charging voluntary manslaughter was dismissed, both indictments had been pending before the trial court for almost a month, the State had appeared in court on two prior occasions without announcing its intent to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter indictment, there were no deadlines regarding the entry of a guilty plea, and the court had allowed him to enter an order substituting counsel in that matter. Langston claims that it was only when he sought to enter his guilty plea to the original indictment charging him with voluntary manslaughter that the State asked the trial court to enter an order dismissing this indictment. He further claims that the State's decision to leave both indictments pending for an extended period of time left the door open for him to enter a guilty plea to the indictment charging him with voluntary manslaughter.

         In denying Langston's application for extraordinary review on this ...


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