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State v. Knight

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

September 28, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs June 6, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hardin County No. 9776 C. Creed McGinley, Judge

         A Hardin County jury convicted the Defendant, Christopher Knight, of second degree murder, and the trial court sentenced him to twenty-two years in confinement. In this appeal, the Defendant contends that: (1) the trial court failed to excuse a juror for cause when the juror had extrajudicial information about the Defendant; (2) the trial court failed to perform its role as the thirteenth juror; and (3) the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction. After review, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

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

          Benjamin S. Harmon, Savannah, Tennessee, for the appellant, Christopher King Knight.

          Herbert H. Slattery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Senior Counsel; Matthew F. Stowe, District Attorney General; John Turnbow and Carthel L. Smith, Jr., Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., and Norma McGee Ogle, J., joined.



         I. Procedural Background

         This case arises from the murder of the victim, the Defendant's mother, inside her home. For this offense, a Hardin County grand jury indicted the Defendant for first degree premeditated murder.

         A. Voir Dire

          During voir dire, the State questioned prospective jurors, and one juror identified himself as being personally acquainted with the Defendant. The juror stated that his son knew the Defendant and that his son and the Defendant had had "trouble in the past." The juror stated that any past experiences with the Defendant would not influence his ability to serve as a juror and would not affect his ability to act as an impartial juror in the trial.

         Outside the presence of the jury, the juror stated that his son and the Defendant had been employed by the same person in the past and that the Defendant had spent the night at the juror's house in the past. He clarified that the "trouble" from the past was that the Defendant and the juror's son were "on drugs." The juror stated that the Defendant was "the reason" the juror's son was on drugs. The juror explained that he "partially" blamed the Defendant for his son's drug use. Trial counsel for the Defendant argued that, while the juror expressed that he could be fair, the fact that the Defendant had helped the juror's son become addicted to drugs or was partially to blame for the addiction was "the type of thing that should not be in a juror's mind." When questioned by the trial court, the juror stated that this would not affect his ability to serve on the jury in any way. The Defendant lodged no further objection but requested that the juror be excused for cause. The trial court refused, noting the juror's response that he would not be "affected."

         B. Trial

         The case proceeded to trial, and the parties presented the following evidence: Sergeant Victor Cherry testified that he had been employed by the Savannah Police Department for thirty-one years and that he responded to a "prowler" call late in the evening of March 9, 2013, or in the early morning of March 10. The call was made to the police by the Defendant, and Sergeant Cherry responded to the address provided. As he pulled up to the residence, the Defendant approached him from the residence and said someone had been trying to steal gas from his mother's vehicle. Sergeant Cherry left the scene to patrol the surrounding blocks for the suspect. The Defendant then called the police dispatch a second time and requested Sergeant Cherry come back to the residence, so Sergeant Cherry returned.

         Officer Mark Mitchell testified that he was employed by the Savannah Police Department and that he responded to a call in March 2013 at around 11:45 a.m. When he arrived at the scene, the Defendant was exiting the residence, while on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, and told Officer Mitchell that something "bad" had happened to his mother, the victim. The Defendant led Officer Mitchell inside the residence into the dining room where he detected the strong odor of gasoline. The Defendant led him over to where two bottles of what appeared to be gasoline were lying on the floor; one bottle had a paper towel sticking out of it as "possibly a wick." The Defendant then led him to the victim's bedroom door. A "blue housecoat or robe" was pushed up against the bottom of the door covered in "some kind of liquid." Officer Mitchell moved the door and observed the victim lying on the floor. He detected the smell of gasoline in the bedroom. Officer Mitchell felt for the victim's pulse and, finding none, called an investigator.

         The Defendant told Officer Mitchell that he had just returned from breakfast a few minutes prior to Officer Mitchell's arrival. Officer Mitchell recalled that inside the house, near the gasoline containers, was a lit gas heater, which he promptly turned off to avoid an explosion. Officer Mitchell stated that there appeared to be trauma to the victim's head and that her head and hair were covered in blood. A large amount of blood was present on her bed. Officer Mitchell observed that the blood had begun to dry. Officer Mitchell asked the Defendant to wait outside with another officer for the investigator to arrive. He recalled that the Defendant was not crying and did not seem upset.

         The investigator, T.J. Barker, testified that he worked for the Savannah Police Department as a Sergeant Investigator and was on call on March 10, 2013, when he responded to the residence. Sergeant Barker entered the victim's residence and smelled the very strong odor of gasoline. He also observed a wall-mounted gas heater on which the pilot was lit. He observed two containers filled with gasoline and paper towels coming out of the top. At the bottom of victim's partially open bedroom door, he observed a robe and dried blood. He also observed the victim's body wedged, to some degree, under the bedroom door, rendering the door immovable. Sergeant Barker then called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") and left the residence.

         Sergeant Barker recalled that the Defendant was told not to wash his hands. The Defendant then walked across the street to a neighbor's house to get a drink. At some point, the Defendant's wife, Tonya Knight, arrived at the scene and spoke with the Defendant. The TBI arrived to process the crime scene. As this was occurring, police officers waited outside the residence and spoke to the Defendant, who said he had woken up that morning and left the residence to go to the bank and get breakfast from Hardee's for himself and the victim. He returned to the residence, took a nap lasting a couple of hours and, when he awoke, he found the victim ...

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