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State v. Harris

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 17, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
WHITNEY KRISTINA HARRIS

          Session February 22, 2017

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Carter County No. 21543B Stacy Street, Judge

         The Defendant, Whitney Kristina Harris, was convicted upon her guilty pleas of tampering with evidence, a Class C felony, and accessory after the fact to first degree murder, a Class E felony. See T.C.A. §§ 39-16-503 (2014) (tampering with evidence), 39-11-411 (2014) (accessory after the fact). The Defendant pleaded guilty as a Range II offender as a term of the plea agreement and agreed to an effective ten-year sentence. The manner of service of her sentence was reserved for the trial court's determination. On appeal, the Defendant contends that the trial court erred in imposing incarceration rather than an alternative sentence. We affirm the judgments of the trial court, and we remand the case for correction of a clerical error on the accessory after the fact judgment.

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

          Gene G. Scott, Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the appellant, Whitney Kristina Harris.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Senior Counsel, and Zachary Harris, Assistant Attorney General; Anthony Wade Clark, District Attorney General; Janet V. Hardin and Dennis Brooks, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr., and Norma McGee Ogle, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ROBERT H. MONTGOMERY, JR., JUDGE

         The Defendant's convictions relate to her actions following the homicide of Lonnie Townsend. The Defendant's boyfriend and the father of her children, Timothy Pate, was convicted of first degree murder, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse relative to Mr. Townsend's death. The Defendant had been charged with first degree murder along with Mr. Pate, but she testified as a State's witness at Mr. Pate's trial. The State amended the first degree murder charge to accessory after the fact as part of the plea agreement.

         Relevant Evidence from Timothy Pate's Trial

         According to the facts shown at Mr. Pate's trial, the transcript of which was made an exhibit at the Defendant's sentencing hearing, Mr. Pate had recently lost his job, and the Defendant had recently given birth. Mr. Pate told the Defendant, with whom he shared a residence, that he had called the victim to come over and that he was going to kill the victim in order to obtain the victim's money. Mr. Pate asked the Defendant to use one of their children to distract the victim in order for Mr. Pate to attack the victim by surprise. The Defendant claimed that she did not think Mr. Pate had been serious about killing the victim. She said that she thought they could get money from their families, that she had called charitable organizations to try to obtain assistance, and that she had talked to her mother, who received a disability check, about living with them in order to provide childcare so the Defendant could work.

         According to the evidence at Mr. Pate's trial, the victim came to Mr. Pate's and the Defendant's home, and the Defendant sat on a sofa with the newborn child and the victim until Mr. Pate began striking the victim with a hammer, at which point the Defendant took the child to another room, where she remained with Mr. Pate's and her other child and her mother. Mr. Pate removed the victim's wallet, took the victim's body into a bedroom, and rolled the body into carpeting, which Mr. Pate had cut from the floor. According to the Defendant, after Mr. Pate killed the victim, he told the Defendant that he would kill her if she went to the authorities. She said he also threatened to kill her mother. The Defendant said Mr. Pate obtained $500 from the victim's wallet. The Defendant claimed she felt she had no choice but to assist Mr. Pate in removing the victim's body and evidence, including a couch and carpeting, from their home and cleaning their home with bleach. She said she had been with Mr. Pate when they drove around and he threw out two hammers. The Defendant claimed that she felt she had to protect her children and her mother from Mr. Pate and said that she and Mr. Pate shared a cell phone, which he had in his possession on the day of the homicide. She said that although the victim's truck was at their house, she did not know where the keys were.

         The Defendant testified that the day after the homicide, Mr. Pate gave her money and told her to go pay their electric bill and then to meet him on Spivey Mountain, where he was going to leave the victim's body. The Defendant testified that she went in her car to pay the electric bill and that she had a cell phone with her. She said that she later met Mr. Pate on the mountain, that she saw the body was no longer in the back of the victim's truck, that she followed Mr. Pate to his mother's house, where he left the victim's truck, and that she drove Mr. Pate and herself home. She said Mr. Pate gave her money to go to a store to buy trash bags and bleach. She said that at this point, the scene of the initial attack was clean but that the bedroom where the carpet had been removed had not been cleaned. She said blood had seeped through and dried onto the flooring where the carpet had been. She said she cleaned the floor with bleach. She said Mr. Pate's only participation in cleaning the house consisted of disposing of the hammers used to attack the victim. She said that her mother had been in another room while the Defendant cleaned the house and that her mother was often intoxicated from drug use. The Defendant said that after the attack, she had put the hammers in the kitchen sink with bleach and water but did not remove them from the sink. She said that the couch was stained with blood from the homicide.

         The Defendant testified that Mr. Pate had not wanted to stay at home the night after he killed the victim and that they spent the night at his ex-wife's apartment. The Defendant said that they also stayed in a Johnson City motel in the days after the homicide. She said she and Mr. Pate returned to Spivey Mountain a couple of days after she met him on the day after the homicide because he wanted to check whether the victim's body had been discovered.

         The Defendant testified that Mr. Pate wanted to get away from the area "until things cooled down" on the homicide and that he concocted a story about having a job offer in Florida in order to obtain money from his relatives. She said that she, Mr. Pate, their children, and the Defendant's mother went to a beach in Florida. She said Mr. Pate told her not to contact her family. She said that she tried to be a good mother while they were in Florida but that she was concerned for the safety of her mother, her children, and herself. She said the Defendant communicated with people in Tennessee, that he learned the authorities wanted to question him and the Defendant, and that the victim's truck had been discovered. She said she relied on the Defendant to purchase items in Florida and that she had no cash or credit cards. The Defendant and Mr. Pate eventually returned to Tennessee with their children and a homeless man they met in Florida, although the Defendant's mother remained in Florida. The Defendant said that Mr. Pate planned to meet his ex-wife at her place of employment to obtain $20. The Defendant said Mr. Pate stated that he was going to Erwin to kill someone to obtain money and guns and that he wanted to become a serial killer. The Defendant and Mr. Pate were, by this time, suspects in the victim's homicide and were apprehended by the police when they arrived at Mr. Pate's ex-wife's place of employment.

         The Defendant testified that she felt safe to talk to the police because they separated her from Mr. Pate. She said she wanted to do the right thing and tried to cooperate. She said she was left alone in a room at the police station for a long time, that she became agitated, and that she spoke profanely to herself regarding the police. She did not know that recording equipment was activated in the room. She said that she tried to summon someone and that after an officer outside the room told her to sit and be calm, she cursed at him. She said that once she began talking to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Agent Scott Lott, she was concerned Mr. Pate might hear what she said and about what might happen if they were not kept at the police station. She said that she told Agent Lott everything and that she did not want to hold back anything. She said she rode with police officers to ...


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